To many women, including myself, an aggressive and humiliating sexual encounter seems all too familiar.
Aziz Ansari. Photo via Netflix
A few years ago I started doing this thing where, if I invited a guy back to my place to hang out (usually after partying), I would give him this disclaimer: “I’m not going to have sex with you.”
It may seem like a strange or presumptuous thing to do, but I had gotten into so many uncomfortable situations where I ended up feeling pressured to hook up with a guy or have sex with him because it was easier than resisting, and inevitably I felt like shit after. I thought that by laying out the ground rules before we even got to my place, I could avoid another awkward encounter. A few months ago, I invited a dude over and I didn’t bother with my disclaimer because I didn’t think there were any vibes between us. He seemed like a nice guy—a fellow journalist with whom I had mutual friends. After we had chilled for a while, he tried to kiss me. I told him “no” and he tried again several more times while holding my head in place. He accused me of being a tease. Then he left, telling me on his way out the door that he would be down to “do this again sometime” but I had to give him advance notice because he has a girlfriend. Later I found out he’s married with kids.
I was reminded of this story and many others like it when I heard about Aziz Ansari’s bad date. When I first read the story, I thought “this doesn’t seem that bad.” Ansari’s behaviour was gross, sure, but he also just sounded like a horny guy who has no game.
Although I’m sure you’ve come across the details by now, a 23-year-old photographer who went out with Ansari in September published her account on Babe in an article titled “I went on a date with Aziz Ansari. It turned into the worst night of my life.” The woman, referred to as Grace (a pseudonym) in the story, said she had dinner and wine with Ansari after they met at an Emmy after-party a week earlier. She said Ansari rushed them through dinner and they went back to his Tribeca apartment. In a statement, Ansari did not contest her version of events but said their sexual activities were “completely consensual.”
Grace said within moments of getting back to his apartment he was all over her and wanted to have sex. He was aggressive, she said, doing things like putting his fingers in her throat and performing oral sex on her, which she also did to him.
Grace said Ansari repeatedly asked her “Where do you want me to fuck you?” She didn’t want to, so she said “next time.”
After she excused herself for a bathroom break and came back out, she told him “I don’t want to feel forced because then I’ll hate you, and I’d rather not hate you.”
Even after this, she said Ansari asked her to give him head and then took her over to a mirror, bent her over, and again asked her where she wanted him to fuck her while ramming his penis against her ass.
Grace said she told him “no, I don’t think I’m ready to do this, I really don’t think I’m going to do this.” But he again did a fingers-down-throat move she named "the claw.”
She left his place after telling him “You guys are all the same, you guys are all the fucking same.”
The next day she said he texted her and she told him “I just want to take this moment to make you aware of [your] behavior and how uneasy it made me.” He replied, “Clearly, I misread things in the moment and I’m truly sorry.”
Even reading about the ordeal, the way he consistently badgered her, is exhausting. And yet my first instinct was a little defensive of Ansari. I found some issues with the reporting (the detail about how she didn’t get to choose what type of wine they drank that night seemed unnecessary and dramatic). I wondered if I would have reported on this had the woman come to me, and I don’t think I would have because, in my view, it’s just not severe enough. Also, it has to be said, I’ve been rooting for Ansari. He’s the kind of goofy, endearing, woke dude a lot of us could see ourselves being friends with. I mean, who doesn't love/strongly relate to Master of None? And he’s brown, one of the few who has made it big in Hollywood. As a fellow brown person, one who grew up with internalized racism, I felt a kinship with him. It’s hard to admit that maybe he’s not the standup guy we all thought.
Only after processing it for a few hours, and reading countless experiences of women who’ve been in similar situations, did I realize that my own reflexive dismissal is part of the problem. Women are used to being treated like Ansari treated his date. We’re used to guys taking “no” or non-verbal clues such as freezing or putting physical distance between them and ourselves as a reason to chase us harder.
While lots of women have been sexually assaulted, even more of us have been pressured into having sex when we didn’t really want to. That’s why this story struck a nerve and that’s why, despite the fact that Ansari didn’t commit a crime per se, this story is an important one to talk about.
There’s been a lot of backlash towards Grace—people think the story is hurting the #MeToo movement because it wouldn’t legally be considered sexual assault, she could have left his apartment, Ansari didn’t have any power over her career. I can see why those points are compelling. But I’d argue that the #MeToo movement needs to be about more than just offences in the criminal code or workplace misconduct where there are clear power dynamics involved. The point of #MeToo should be to change our culture around sex and to hold people to a standard of decency beyond just what the law or a human resources department requires.
Grace’s experience is one so many women have gone through, probably many times over. It’s so common that even someone like myself read it and at first thought “how is this newsworthy?” And I’m sure there are a lot of men who also don’t see what’s wrong with Ansari’s behaviour.
While some people may feel Grace could have been more direct, I don’t agree. In her version of events, which, again, Ansari has not contested, she repeatedly gave him clear signs that she was not interested in having sex. Yes, she tried to be polite about it, because that is what girls are conditioned to do, but she was clear nonetheless.
The two moments that stuck out to me in particular were when, according to Grace, Ansari asked her for a blowjob despite her saying, “I don’t want to feel forced because then I’ll hate you, and I’d rather not hate you” and when he continued to pressure her after she said, “I don’t think I’m ready to do this, I really don’t think I’m going to do this.” It suggests that he didn’t really give a shit whether she was having a good time or not. He was laser focused on getting laid. In terms of getting affirmative (enthusiastic) consent, he completely failed.
I don’t necessarily think this makes Ansari a terrible person because I think it’s behaviour a lot of men probably don’t realize is awful. But his non-apology public statement, in which he said that he believed everything that happened between Grace and himself was consensual, rang hollow.
“When I heard that it was not the case for her, I was surprised and concerned. I took her words to heart and responded privately after taking the time to process what she had said,” the statement said. “I continue to support the movement that is happening in our culture. It is necessary and long overdue.”
Ansari is not at risk for being charged with a crime here, so there’s frankly no excuse for him to not have issued a more fulsome apology. One that suggested he had spent some time reflecting on how his actions made his date feel—in short, on how he fucked up. (Here’s a shining example from Community writer Dan Harmon.) But Ansari didn’t do that. Maybe there are enough people rushing to his defence that he thinks after issuing this statement people will forget about this and move on. But in order for #MeToo to be a success, we need to re-examine all of our behaviours around sex, especially the ones that at first glance seem shitty, but completely ordinary.