Over the weekend, actor-writer-comedian and self-described feminist, Aziz Ansari was accused of sexual assault. This accusation came after the Modern Romance author wore a Time’s Up pin at the Golden Globes. His anonymous accuser, “Grace” told Babe, that seeing him win an award for his series Master of None, was the moment that started a new fire and made her come forward. She described the night she went out on a date with Ansari as the “worst night” of her life. Of the experience, she said, “I believe that I was taken advantage of by Aziz. I was not listened to and ignored. It was by far the worst experience with a man I’ve ever had.”
She went on to describe how Ansari was eager to leave the restaurant and asked for the check. The two went back to his apartment for the second time and that’s where the date went awry. After complimenting his countertops, Ansari went forward with sexual advances. In the moment, Grace says she was uncomfortable by how quickly things were escalating. After he mentioned getting a condom, Grace explicitly told him, “Let’s relax for a sec. Let’s chill.” Instead, Ansari continued kissing and “briefly performed oral sex on her.” Grace said Ansari pulled her hand on his genitals even though she gave non-verbal cues that she wasn’t comfortable by taking her hand away. According to Grace, who was 22-year-old at the time, he tried this five to seven times.
Grace said she spent 30 minutes moving away from Ansari as he followed her throughout his apartment while trying to advance with her physically. “Most of my discomfort was expressed in me pulling away and mumbling. I know that my hand stopped moving at some points,” she said. “I stopped moving my lips and turned cold.”
The backlash that’s ensued against this particular case, suggests that some people still think of this kind of interaction as a horribly awkward sexual encounter gone wrong and nothing more. Although it seems like 2018 is a new dawn when it comes to confronting sexual assault, this isn’t a new conversation for organizations like The New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault, as we’ve been leading the charge in changing the way people think and talk about sexual assault by interacting with the public at large. That in mind, prior to the reckoning of Harvey Weinstein, society’s response to sexual assault, was at best, murky. As it turns out, this is still a work in progress when it comes to accepting that toxic behavior has been normalized and desperately needs a closer look when discussing this topic. Even with the hyper-awareness around sexual assault, it’s hard to distinguish how the #MeToo and now the #TimesUp movement, will provide longterm lessons beyond these harrowing stories.
It’s important to realize that all areas of sexually inappropriate behavior—whether the perpetrator is aware they’re committing such microaggressions—exists in the same harmful space no matter the severity. To deny this is to allow society to look the other way when rape happens and gives people permission to frame anything under the “boys will be boys” mentality, which can cause harm in many ways. We’re seeing this happen in a court of law as well, where perpetrators are not being held accountable, and if they are, it’s the equivalent to spending three months out of a six-month sentence in jail.
In this particular case, public outcry has mostly been in favor of Aziz Ansari because “Grace” didn’t point out a moment in her story where she said the word “No.” But when we look at the power dynamics between Aziz and “Grace”, it’s easy to see why a young, impressionable woman, wouldn’t know how to use her sexual agency to explicitly verbalize the word “no” to a man like Aziz Ansari, who not only has clout in the entertainment industry but is known as a favorite “woke bae.” Imagine trying to find a way to say “no” to the man who wrote a dating book all of your friends are raving about during brunch? Or saying, “no” to the man who gave younger millennials a new vernacular? This is a man who was adored by Grace’s generation and she knew it, as she herself stated, she was excited. Aziz was in the driver’s seat from the start, he picked the location of the date, the wine, and even the dress code.
This Aziz Ansari story seems to be a very grey area if we are to be completely honest with ourselves. Is this just an awkward date or is this sexual assault? This is a honest question that I am asking.
— Uche, J.D. (@AfroRhapsody) January 14, 2018
In an interview for 60 Minutes, Oprah sat down with entertainment attorney Nina Shaw; and actresses America Ferrera, Natalie Portman, Tracee Ellis Ross and Reese Witherspoon to discuss the complexities of this conversation. At one point, she stated, “People are afraid to say there’s a difference between inappropriate behavior, inappropriate comments, and sexual assault, and sexual predators, and rape. There is a difference.”
Black-ish star Tracee Ellis Ross explained a talking point that The New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault knows well:
“There is a difference, but one part of it supports the other. There is an understanding of consent and respect that I think has gotten very confused in our culture that has set up a space that can make all of that, happen.”
Salon writer Mary Elizabeth Williams wrote:
“Plenty of women — women who have had experiences ranging from catcalls to coercion to violent abuse — can differentiate catcalls and coercion and violent abuse in their minds. We know that a grope isn’t a rape. We’re just sick and tired of acting like we’re supposed to be grateful when a grope isn’t a rape.”
While some people find the case against Aziz Ansari hard to swallow, be it his popularity in our culture, the role his work takes in discussing gender politics or something else entirely, it’s easy to agree “Time’s Up” on silence but what do we do with this awakening? As for the media’s polarizing reactions to the Aziz Ansari’s case, there’s still room to learn if we freeze the clock on Grace’s particular experience. If anything, this instance has shed a light that society has conflating ideas on consent.
Here are some things to keep in mind when thinking about consent.
Liquor is not a bargaining tool for sex:
If you think pouring one more drink to turn a no into a yes is consent, then you’re mistaken. Any type of coercion is considered rape.
Consent is not always verbal:
It is true that not everybody is vocal or likely to explicitly say ‘yes’ throughout a sexual interaction. This is why it is important to check in with your partner/s about their communication style, what they feel comfortable with, and even how best to check in with them during sex.
If you don’t feel physical intimacy reciprocated you need to stop:
One of the articles in defense of Aziz is titled “Aziz Ansari is guilty. Of Not Being a Mind Reader” and sure, he’s not a mind reader, so with that in mind, if the other person isn’t physically or vocally enthusiastic, you can’t assume that they’re just shy. You need to stop all activity if the other person doesn’t seem enthusiastic. It’s the perfect opportunity to stop and ask, “Are you not enjoying this? Are you uncomfortable?”
Consent does not ruin a moment:
The idea that asking for or expecting consent will ruin the moment is a product of the harmful and often sexist media and culture that we are exposed to.
Consent should be talked about beforehand:
Some examples of phrases to use:
- What do you want to do?
- What feels good to you?
- How does x make you feel?
- I’d love to try x with you
- Could you do x to me, I really like that
Consent isn’t just practiced by people in the hookup culture:
Consent is needed with a long-term partner. Consent can be withdrawn at any time and has to be given to each sexual act. This means that with a new partner communication about boundaries and intentions is critical as you may not be able to pick up on their signs well. A long-term partner can still deny consent or choose not to have sex at any time, so it is important to give and get consent always!