By now, you’ve surely read or heard about the Aziz Ansari takedown piece published on Babe, a lifestyle site targeting millennial women.
And if you spend any time at all on the internet, you’ve surely heard about or read the countless think pieces that popped up in the days following the published account.
(But just to make sure we’re all on the same page: A woman identified as “Grace” goes into detail about an upsetting date she had with the comedian, explaining that she has now come to understand his behavior as sexual assault. Babe published the story on Jan. 13, and has left it atop its homepage, now paired with related stories about the incident’s aftermath.)
The Atlantic said that Grace and the writers at Babe wrongly destroyed Ansari’s career and humiliated him, when Grace could have fought back at any point during her encounter with Ansari. A New York Times opinion piece said Grace didn’t experience sexual violence, she just had bad sex — which is what happens when you expect someone to read your mind. The Guardian argued that the Ansari exposé irresponsibly latched itself to the #MeToo movement, derailing a force for good. Vox said the Babe piece is justifiable because it encourages discussions about how men are encouraged to pursue sex.
The reason the story of Grace and Ansari’s unsettling sexual encounter resonated with so many people isn’t because of details more salacious or violent than those outlined in stories about Harvey Weinstein, Louis CK, or other notable men in Hollywood who are alleged to have repeatedly harassed and manipulated women within professional contexts.
Rather, it’s because of the murkiness between the two extremes on the “continuum” of sexual interaction — with healthy, enjoyable consensual sex at one end and rape at the other — and because people aren’t communicating well enough about what it is they want and what it is they’re agreeing to, according to Zoe Peterson, director of the Sexual Assault Research and Education Program at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
“We often talk about ‘wanting’ and ‘consenting’ as the same thing, and they’re not,” Peterson tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “Wanting is an internal state, one that [the other person] can guess about only. But ideally, consent is something someone outwardly communicates.” Peterson explains in dating and sex, instances of implied consent (an oxymoron, to be sure), such as agreeing to go to someone’s apartment after a date, lead to particularly messy instances of disappointing sexual encounters.
“There’s some research to indicate that people make assumptions about things like agreeing to go to someone’s house or accepting a drink as being indicators of sexual consent, but that’s problematic, because it’s not direct consent,” she explains. “One person might take that to be that the other person is interested in sex, but that doesn’t mean the other person holds the same meaning of that signal. Taking those contextual cues as evidence of consent is a dangerous path.”
Aside from the issue of explicitly consenting to sexual behavior, there’s a larger conversation surrounding the systematic, gendered way that men and women pursue heterosexual experiences.
“There’s the stereotype that men should always want sex,” says Peterson, and so they are expected to prove it by “initiating sex, and doing so enthusiastically and, sometimes, mildly aggressively.” Women, meanwhile, are “stereotypically” not interested in sex — at least not to the level that men are. “That leads to the stereotype that women say ‘no’ but really want to be talked into it, as if it’s an invitation to push harder,” she explains. “Those gendered stereotypes set the stage for coercion in sexual interaction.”
It’s just another reason Grace’s interaction with Ansari resonated. Just like the recently viral New Yorker short story “Cat Person,” a woman acquiesced to a man’s desire not because she wanted to have sex herself, but because she didn’t want to disappoint the other person or confront the situation at hand. What Grace’s story highlights is the teaching that girls are to grow to be helpers and nurturers. They are taught to be accommodating. Unless a threat is imminent, women are subversively programmed to fulfill another person’s desire. Nice girls do what guys want.
To that point, the Ansari story coincides with a Saturday Night Live “Weekend Update” skit in which Aidy Bryant, addressing the gender pay gap between Mark Wahlberg and Michelle Williams, plays the part of the accommodating nice girl — the one who apologizes for anything and everything, afraid to upset anyone or put herself first. The skit may have been about women’s right to equal pay, but the theme resonated with conversations about sexual equality too.
“I just do that; it’s kind of my natural state,” Bryant said in the skit about being overly apologetic. “Because I, like most girls, have been taught to be accommodating and polite. Once, I felt bad about telling an Uber driver he made a wrong turn, so I just went with him to New Jersey!”
It’s as if the bit could have substituted the word “money” for “orgasms” in a conversation surrounding modern heterosexual encounters: “Everyone’s talking about how women should negotiate harder and ask for more money, and that’s true, and I really think women are ready to do that,” Bryant said. “But I feel like maybe, just maybe, men could be just this much more ‘dece.'”
Whether or not you think Grace’s story constitutes publicly shaming Ansari (many say it absolutely doesn’t), you might acknowledge that within any given sexual experience, power imbalances are at play. A woman’s sexual agency is her own, meaning she must assert it without hesitation when something makes her uncomfortable (and, just so it’s clear: It’s OK to be comfortable with something or someone at first, only later to change your mind.)
But it’s also important that we put the impetus not only on women, who have been taught that in traditional feminine ideology, sexual agency is diminished. The responsibility, too, is on men, who have been taught that sex — even consensual sex — is a conquest, one that is congratulated by peers if successful.
The people engaging in #MeToo conversations aren’t arguing that Ansari’s aggressive behavior and Grace’s acceptance of it means Ansari committed sexual assault. What they are promulgating is a larger conversation about the lines between consensual and nonconsensual sex, meaning balanced sexual encounters that prioritize both people involved, transforming sex from a conquest to more of a metaphorical handshake.
So, yes, Grace is a victim, but we must be clear about what she is a victim of: It is not of sexual assault or sexual harassment. What Grace is — like so many women— is a victim of unbalanced sexual experiences, in which sex and power belong to men, and in which women are now finding their footing.
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