The Fault in Our Silence: Aziz Ansari and the Need for Affirmative Consent

The internet is up in arms over Aziz Ansari and a bad date, or so that’s what many response pieces would have you think. An “exposé” published by Babe.net last Saturday has cropped up in all the musty corners of the internet, the narrative creating a divide between supports of the #MeToo movement, and adding fuel to a fire of meninists who see the movement as a part of a larger war against men.

The exposé tells the story of ‘Grace’ (the pseudonym used to maintain anonymity), who met Ansari at the 2017 Emmy Awards after party. The pair went on a date around a week later, and the date “didn’t go as planned.” The responses cropping up around the net include a lot of: “This isn’t assault, it’s a bad date;” “She didn’t say anything, and he’s not a mindreader;” “She performed oral sex, so it must have been consensual;” “Why didn’t she just leave if she was so unhappy?” “If this is assault, every woman I know has been assaulted.” Let’s unpack.

The story is disjointed, the details regarding what communication was had, when it happened, and what was said is, largely missing from the article. This is why so many readers are resistant to believing that this story tells of anything but an uncomfortable date. The journalistic practices at work here were more than questionable, leaving Grace open for attack (check Jezebel for a better analysis of the piece itself). This is not fiction, though, it’s reality, and this is often how these awful nights unfold. They’re disjointed, they’re messy, they’re confusing, the communication isn’t happening, they’re uncomfortable, everyone has been drinking.

What we need to realize is that these two things are not mutually exclusive: a night in which you were assaulted may also be an uncomfortable date.

The reason this discussion is so divisive, is that that we’re having two entirely different conversations: one about the law, and one about our culture.

The concept of sexual assault is a legal one, in which one touches another person in a sexual nature without their consent, or uses coercion or manipulation to force someone to participate in a sexual act. When people think of this, they think of cut and dry examples of strangers molesting a woman while she’s held down, being attacked on her walk home, or being raped while unconscious and intoxicated. These are hard legal and moral lines.

Recently, the #MeToo movement has opened the public conversation to sexual assault as pervasive in the working lives of women. This has been a shock to the men of America, who have known no such vulgarity in their workplaces.

Hollywood is despicable, and no woman should have to tolerate sexual violence to get, or keep, a job, but it can’t be as common as it seems, can it? The men of America are wondering.

We’ve had conversations about what constitutes sexual violence in the workplace. Obviously groping or rape in promise of a promotion, or threat of termination – that is sexual assault and harassment. The reality is murkier.

If your male boss compliments the way your dress fits, is it harassment? If the men you supervise spread a rumor about you sleeping with a male colleague to undermine your authority, what about that? And if your male colleagues keep a secret list on the shared drive, ranking the female employees based on who they’d most like to sleep with – how does that measure up? These things have all happened to me in my professional life, and every woman I know has a similar story.

The threat of sexual violence permeates the female experience, from walking home at night with keys between knuckles, to crossing the street to avoid groups of loitering men, to sharing our GPS location with female friends while out on dates – just in case we don’t come back.

Men are aware of this theoretically, but never see themselves as perpetrators – they imagine masked evildoers, waiting in darkened alleys to attack helpless young women as they meander by. But this is rarely the case – 7 in 10 sexual assaults are committed by someone familiar to the victim.

The reality is, that assault happens more often on “bad dates,” on drunken nights with male friends, in comfortable relationships, than in a dark alley. And more often than they think, it’s performed by “good guys,” like Aziz.

The Babe story is an important lesson in the banality of rape culture. We have normalized, internalized, and even legally institutionalized sexual assault to such an extent that the Ansari story seems unidentifiable as anything but awkward and unpleasant. So let’s deal with some of the pushback that’s been coming up in response to this article.

1) “This isn’t assault, it’s a bad date”

As already mentioned, it can, in fact, be both. Let’s take a look at what happened: both parties were drinking, and he repeatedly tried to perform sexual acts on her. She verbally told him to slow down, she repeatedly pushed him away when he tried to put his fingers in her genitals or mouth, she was physically withdrawing from him, both her hands and her body, as she moved across the room to stop his advance.

Let’s be clear, excessive persistence is also coercion/manipulation – it’s not taking ‘no’ for an answer. When someone is in your house, not enthusiastically willing to participate in sexual acts when asked (but maybe ambivalent or not vocal about their level of interest), yet you keep asking repeatedly to see if they’ll change their mind and pouring them alcohol, when you are physically pursuing them across a room, when you repeatedly attempt to place their hand on your genitals after being rejected and told “no” several times, it is sexual assault.

Here is where the opinions and reactions divide. Law is subject to interpretation, and this occupies a grey area to some, in which consent was neither given nor obviously withheld, in which the victim’s actions (performing oral sex) don’t seem to match her narrative of discomfort.

When we are considering this from a legal standpoint, in a world where Brock Turner was released after three months in jail, of course we don’t expect legal repercussions for Ansari – not because they aren’t deserved, but because if we started looking at interactions like this as grounds for sexual assault prosecution, every Cis-Het man in America would be behind bars, feminist or not. Except that they wouldn’t, realistically, because no other heterosexual man would vote to put them there, as happened with Brock Turner – 3 months for good behavior and no prior convictions, as he left a woman bruised and naked behind a dumpster.

So let’s move away from the legal question of whether this counts as assault, and instead focus on how we interpret this culturally and contextually. Repeatedly asking the same question and expecting a different answer while supplying someone with a mind altering substance is coercion, and it’s a pretty clear sign that you don’t take the person’s initial response seriously. But the reaction of many people who attack Grace as being attention-seeking has been to look at that as a minor issue – totally commonplace in dating.

That. Is. A. Problem.

When we look at the data from interviews and surveys regarding consent and sexual participation, men are overwhelmingly (3x) more likely to use coercive tactics to elicit sex from a partner who did not provide overt and enthusiastic consent. Our culture sees this as so normal, that we produce entire successful teenage television franchises based around it (ahem….Gossip Girl).

From a young age, coercion and aggression are at the center of our understanding of what heteronormative masculinity looks like, and what heterosexual dating practices are. Men are taught (by popular culture, parents, other boys, social reward systems, etc.) to refuse to take “no” for an answer, to not listen to their partners, to put their own desires and needs first, to see sex as a game in which to “score” against your opponent – the owner of the body you’re sexing.

Women are socialized according to this norm, as well. We’re taught that saying either “yes” or “no” will result in social consequences: in one case, we’re promiscuous sluts, and in the other, teasing prudes.

These consequences follow us, winding through our social experience of young womanhood, reminding us that every time we are propositioned by a man, whatever the outcome, it’s our fault.

To say that sexual misconduct is a part of our culture is obvious, and not an insult to any one person. This is what we’ve learned. It becomes a individual’s fault when it’s brought to their attention by a partner, a friend, or an op ed (nudge, nudge) and they refuse to unlearn it, refuse to respond to the needs of the people around them, refuse to stop being an awful perpetuator of the culture of rape. We’ll talk about the ways in which you can do this, later.

2) “She didn’t say anything,” “He’s not a mindreader,” and “Why didn’t she leave?”

A few years ago, I was on the subway on the way to work. A man got on behind me, pushed me into a hand rail, and started rubbing his naked and erect penis onto my backside.

To an observer, it would look like I said nothing, and did nothing, to get away, merely got out at the next stop and continued on my way to work. That seems to tell people that I was somehow okay with or even enjoyed being assaulted by a stranger on the subway – after all, I let it happen.

What actually happened was this: I felt a man rubbing his naked self on me. I tried to pivot and realized I was pinned to the pole by his groin. I saw space to my left and tried to move, at which point, he blocked me with his arm. I assessed every possible scenario. What if he has a knife? Or a gun? What if I scream, and he hurts me? What if I try to get away, and I end up dying instead of just having someone ejaculate onto my pants? Which is worse?

My self defense instructor once told me that it is always safer to run than fight, and I knew my stop at Grand Central was less than three minutes away, so I waited, humiliated, terrified, instead of maybe getting killed. As it turns out, there was an under cover officer who saw what happened. They arrested him – the man had just gotten out of an extended prison sentence for the rape of three women at gunpoint and murder of one who resisted – so I wasn’t that far off.  But, if the police hadn’t witnessed it, I would never have made a report.

Many people don’t understand this, but this is our lives. If I report every man that groped me on the subway, that followed me home at night, I would spend half my life making police reports. I testified against that man nearly two years later, in front of a grand jury.

His lawyer made me stand up, turn my back to the jury, and, using my hand, show them exactly what he had done to me. He made me describe, in detail, how I know what a penis feels like, claiming that maybe it could have been a keychain in his pocket.

You want to know why women hesitate to first make a scene, then to report crime, then to press charges? We are assaulted, then disbelieved, then humiliated, and often times, our perpetrator receives no consequences, anyway.

Men, particularly liberal men, may not picture themselves as assailants. He knows that he would never hurt a woman. He knows that if she said no, or screamed, or left, that he would let her go.

But we don’t know that. The reality of our lives as women is such that when a potentially romantic situation goes wrong, we are not just feeling awkward, we are checking exits.

We are forced to weigh the options of turning someone down against the harm he might do us for a wounded ego or libido. Think this is drastic? When you search “woman rejects man, gets killed” on Google, you get 13 million results. If you believe this is dramatic, look at Elliot Roger’s manifesto, written prior to his shooting spree in Isla Vista. It’s not dramatic – it’s our lives.

Beyond the fear that women feel, there is also a driving need, socially constructed, to please, to not cause a fuss. Megan Garber got it right in her Atlantic story:

“’No’ is, in theory, available to anyone, at any time; in practice, however, it is a word of last resort—a word of legality. A word of transaction. A word in which progress collides with reticence: Everyone should be able to say it, but no one really wants to.”

Just because a woman doesn’t want to have sex, doesn’t mean that she wants a date to end, or that she’s not interested her partner. So the responses which beg the question, “why didn’t she leave/yell at him?” are missing the mark.

The men that do what Aziz did are not villains in a story, they are the people we live our lives with. Grace verbally stated, “I don’t want to hate you,” and likely, she didn’t want him to hate her, either. There is a need for approval, particularly from those we perceive as more powerful (read: celebrity), and this need is constantly in conversation with our own agency.

There are consequences to “no,” both physical and social, that can often freeze us in place, hesitant to mark ourselves as ‘slut,’ as ‘tease,’ or, worst of all, as ‘victim.’

3) “She performed oral sex, so it must have been consensual;”

No, oral sex is not definitively consensual because of the nature of the act. Moreover, to say that her engaging in oral sex is post-confirmation of consent (as many have claimed), that’s not how consent, or law, works.

These concepts do not operate retrospectively. Consent must be established prior to the act, not by the act itself. This type of reasoning leads to the standard victim-blaming trope of, “she must have really wanted it,” rather than thinking maybe she felt an obligation to return, or she was drunk.

We will never know what the motivation was, only that it was not enough to establish consent for oral sex or intercourse.

4) “If this is assault, every woman I know has been assaulted”

Yes. Yes, exactly. Here is the situation:

A man and woman are on a date. There is no discussion of where this date might lead, but he seems eager to leave dinner, and move on with the evening. They return to his place. He immediately moves toward sex, and she verbally indicates that she’s not interested.

He, instead, begins kissing and fondling her, and moves to perform oral sex on her. She performs oral sex on him. He repeatedly asks if she wants to have sex, and she repeatedly says no, pulls away from him, moves her body away, retreats to the other side of the room. He is relentless in his pursuit of intercourse. She leaves, cries, feels violated. He thinks they had a nice time.

The overwhelming response from straight men, and many women, has been that this is just a normal, albeit awkward, romantic encounter. Because they find it commonplace, perhaps so common in their own lives and experiences, they conclude that it cannot be considered a violation or assault. They cannot identify the problem.

The problem is that she felt violated, that she cried, that she was disregarded and ignored. The problem is that no one sees that as a problem.

The problem is our understanding of masculinity itself – the notion that going on a date with a “horny male” means that you should expect to be pressured and coerced into sex, that you should be incredibly uncomfortable, that your signals (verbal and nonverbal) will be ignored.

Masculinity is the force that has shaped our culture, our institutions, and our relationships, and it’s our acceptance of mascunility as inherently violent and oppressive that allows us to blame Grace instead of Aziz. This does not mean that masculinity is violent and oppressive by default, but that we expect it to be.

We all know certain things about ourselves as good people, as respectful and compassionate, as responsible partners – that lead to a great deal of resistance when we talk about how our actions might negatively impact someone else, especially if these actions are considered so normal.

Let’s look at the data: Rapists are 98% male, 70% known to the victim, 75% over the age of 21, and 57% white. (Rainn.org)

What does this tell us? These liberal, #MeToo supporting men, who vilify Grace for her story, these men that find no similarities between their own persistence, coercion, and lack of care for affirmative consent, actually look a lot more like our nightmares than they believe.

So what can men do to make women more comfortable and safe? How can you take an active role in changing the narrative? How can you make steps to challenge rape culture in your own habits and life? Well, reader-friend, I’m so glad you asked.

1)          Make intentions clear.

Are you only interested in sex? One night stand? Dating? A long term relationship? Skiball partner? Honesty in regards to intention makes sure everyone is starting on sure footing.

Leaving dinner because you want to have sex? Say it (quietly) while you’re still in public. Give her an out before she is alone with you, rather than trying to entrap her or convince her once she’s already inside your home.

2)          Make sure she knows that she can reject your proposition without any consequences.

Do not stand between her and the exits when you approach her. Do not physically separate her from her friends. Do not proposition her in an enclosed space, like an elevator. Tell her that it’s okay if she doesn’t want to sleep with you/date you/talk to you. If you get rejected, don’t call her names, just move on.

3)          Always receive affirmative consent before engaging in sex acts with a partner.

Read their reaction – if she seems anything but enthusiastic, slow down. If you get no response at all, pull back. Make sure you’re not misinterpreting the signals. If you’re unclear, ask. If she wants to have sex, you’ll know it. She is an autonomous being. Whatever she says, yes or no, believe her.

Let’s get one thing out of the way. I hear this a lot from liberal-dude-friends: “It’s too much for men to learn/worry about, and how are we ever supposed to get a date if we can’t use coercion, and if approaching a woman in a bar can be intimidating, how do we even live with our penises anymore?!?! <silent scream>”

This has been a common response to the discussion of consent and dating practices in our culture. Let’s be honest: this is a complete cop-out, and moreover, an insult to men.

I know heterosexual men are capable of listening, learning, understanding, and implementing change, when they want to. If they weren’t able to do this, none of them would be employed. So why do partners expect less of men than their bosses do?

The claim that considerations of consent and avoidance of coercion tactics will make it to hard to get laid, frankly, is lazy, and people who don’t want to change their habits to be respectful to another person probably don’t deserve to.

A valuable sexual education for young people should include the notion of consent. We cannot define consent in the negative, by what it is not. We cannot say “anything but ‘no’ is consent.” Consent must be defined in the affirmative, by a clear, indisputable, and enthusiastic “yes”.

The problem we have with that type of consent is that it’s not sexy. A verbal contract doesn’t fit in with Hollywood or romance novel scenes of passionate, bodice-ripping sex. It’s a conversation that can kill the vibe – but that’s a social problem.

We need to start redefining, as a culture, what our expectations are of sexual partnerships. Resounding, positive, verbal consent needs to preface any sexual relationship.

If we start integrating consent into sex-scenes in television and film, we would start to find it sexy. If pornography directors began including affirmative consent in the beginnings of scenes, it would no longer be difficult for us to imagine a place for it in our own sex lives.

This claim that stopping a passionate moment to request consent is somehow infringing on romance means simply that we’re practicing romance incorrectly.

The most disappointing reaction to the ‘Babe’ story is the claim that it is detrimental to the “Me Too” movement – it’s not.

This story illustrates the variety of ways in which heteronormative masculinity is socialized to disregard the experience and desires of female sexual partners. The more important point to this story is Aziz. He is a ‘good guy, woke feminist’, but he’s still a man who’s been socialized in a world where affirmative consent is not a thing we expect.

Being a man dealing with issues of sexual assault is similar to being a white person dealing with issues of race. This same resistance to change is very familiar to People of Color. Discussions of microaggressions cause well-meaning, white allies to claim that racial equitability, or ‘Political Correctness,’ is being taken too far when it causes good, “non-racist,” white folks to have to think about the words that come out of their mouths.

I work avidly to deconstruct white supremacy and educate myself as much as possible to advance racial equality. But the fact is, I’m white (or white passing), I was raised in a culture of white supremacy, I will and do make mistakes and do awful things. I live in a world where white people are generally awful about issues of race, and up until now, that’s what we’ve been expected to be.

That doesn’t mean I’m an evil person, it means I did something wrong – that wrong is still my responsibility, because I made the choice, not society. It means I need to listen to what POC are telling me they need, and not get defensive when I get called out, but listen, apologize, and never, ever repeat the mistake. I need to profess, loudly, that I was wrong. Over and over again, I need to tell People of Color that it is I, and not them, who has the problem.

As time goes on, I learn more, and do fewer awful things. I spend time reading and educating myself, so that People of Color don’t have to spend their time and energy educating me on not being an awful, white person.

Just as I can make effort to stop being an awful white person who operates comfortably in a world where white supremacy is status quo, you, too, can stop being an awful man who comfortably perpetuates rape culture.

No group is a monolith – the response to a given situation isn’t going to be the same for every person of a group, including women. The third wave is making progress in empowering women to loudly proclaim “no,” and also to loudly proclaim “yes” through the moniker of sex-positive feminism.

Not every woman would have responded in the same to Aziz’s advances, but we all have the right to make the choice for ourselves. That’s why you need to listen to, and believe, the people sharing these stories.

This narrative is our culture – it’s based on coercive and nonconsensual sex, in which women (and men) are often victimized by men who will never see themselves as a villain or perpetrator. “The world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters, Harry.” Men aren’t either misogynists/sexual predators or perfect male feminists.

There are nuances here that we need to realize, to feel and to learn from, if we want to be better. That includes, and perhaps specifies, ‘good men’ who get defensive of their dating strategies when the topics of consent and coercion are addressed.

The sheer number of these men who are outraged by the accusations leveled against Aziz are an indication of the scale of the problem. It’s why being called racist is seen by white liberals as worse than actually doing something racist. That’s the way men see conversations about consent and sexual assault: a threat to a man’s reputation is worse than actually violating a woman’s body, than not listening to “no.”

Want to change the narrative? Accountability is the first step. If you are a male feminist, or a man in support of the Me Too movement, I urge you to take the time to think about your sexual history:

Have you tried to convince a woman to have sex with you after she made it clear that she wasn’t interested? Have you used coercive tactics, like excessive persistence (not accepting “no”), getting someone drunk, or making it seem like it would be difficult for her to leave? Have you ever had sex with someone who didn’t give affirmative consent, but maybe didn’t say no, either?

It is likely, if you are a straight man in America, you have done one of these things at some point in time. I would like you to take the time to think about how you may have made that person feel, about what you could have done differently, and how you might be able to change your own actions going forward.

The Women’s March and Me Too didn’t originate out of our own desire to be oppressed or abused, they came rushing forth as a cry for change from women who have lived their lives having ‘bad dates’ with ‘good guys.’

 

Comments

comments