Sex, harassment, and Aziz Ansari

Aziz Ansari is a writer, stand-up comedian and actor well-known for playing Tom Haverford in NBC's Parks and Recreation.

The current question of Aziz Ansari is an extremely polarizing topic; everyone seems to have an opinion. For those who are not familiar: Aziz Ansari went on a date with an anonymous girl, henceforth referred to as Grace. After dinner, they went back to his house where, according to her, he pressured her into sexual behavior that she did not feel comfortable with, which she fought back against with both verbal and non-verbal cues. Several months later she talked to a reporter from where the story was released, which resulted in a controversial debate across the internet.

To start, let’s speak about the journalistic integrity of the piece. While these types of articles afford women sexual liberty in being able to include this in discourse, when dealing with matters of sexual abuse or violence, this is not the best place for this kind of piece – on the same page as this call-out for feminist action, you can find a list of how to give the best blowjobs. Further, the author was extremely inexperienced, and only provided Ansari with less than six hours to respond with a comment, on a Saturday during awards season and the holidays, when the industry standard is 24 hours to respond. The article purposefully depicts Ansari in a very negative light, without a sense of neutrality on the subject, offering her own input every so often.

The journalistic standards and the platform in particular are an issue, especially the way the author chose to sensationalize the issue and cash in on this larger cultural #MeToo moment. But the fact remains that there exists a whole ethos where guys both “don’t have to pick up on non-verbal cues”, but can also be incapable of picking up on them – as they have no cognizance of such a vocabulary due their own social programming. The present imbalances in gender power dynamics cut both ways – in a best-case scenario, males are not equipped with the skills because they are not expected to develop them. That’s the status quo, but it doesn’t mean that it’s the way things should be. If anything, it’s about changing the conversation around expectations and behaviors during intercourse. Consent isn’t just about a hard yes or no (although Grace explicitly said no to Ansari), especially considering the power dynamics in these situations. This idea isn’t even remotely new to feminist and sexual health literature, and popular culture, as was pointed out by one of the many NYT articles on the subject.

The content of the article has deeply divided feminists and the current #MeToo and TimesUp movements focusing on sexual harassment, sexual abuse, and consent in general. The question was posed: what constitutes sexual abuse? What is sexual harassment? At what point are our uncomfortable experiences just “bad sex?”

I personally believe that the situation can be classified as sexual harassment, although I also see how it can be considered otherwise as just “bad sex”. Sexual assault is defined by the Department of Justice as “any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient,”. However the term ‘abuse’ is more typically used when more physical violence is constituted. We need to use this term carefully and critically, if we start using it for less extreme situations, we will desensitize the term and dilute its importance. This also crosses into legal implications, because sexual harassment and physical abuse have different consequences. While some may argue that this situation does not constitute sexual harassment due to it crossing from implications to actions, harassment does not necessarily need to be verbal – physical coercion can be included under this definition as well. If nothing else, Ansari’s actions were gross, offensive, and left someone feeling violated. We should all be able to agree on that.

One debate that has sprung up in the aftermath of the article is one regarding what constitutes “bad sex,” as it means different things to everyone, especially between men and women. Most typically, men consider “bad sex” to be sex that is unsatisfactory, short, non-adventurous, etc. Studies show that with women the same complaints still exist, but the more common response is description of painful, forceful, or manipulative sex; they have become so used to this kind of behavior that they simply categorize it as an unfortunate, yet normal part of life.

They also aren’t mutually exclusive experiences – sexual assault is always ‘bad sex’ whereas ‘bad sex’ is not necessarily always sexual assault

There are many shades of grey regarding consent and sexual misconduct, which is partially why this topic is so controversial and difficult to talk about. Sexual assault and “bad sex” are not the only binary options, there are many intricate aspects to this and everyone may categorize such situations in different ways according to their own experiences (they also aren’t mutually exclusive experiences – sexual assault is always ‘bad sex’ whereas ‘bad sex’ is not necessarily always sexual assault). The concept of this account “trivializing” other women’s experiences makes me uncomfortable; while this interaction between Ansari and Grace was not as extreme as other forms of sexual harassment or abuse, it should not be simply written off. If we just say, “it could have been worse,” then substantive progress will not be made in this field, and we will continue to permit men to take advantage of women in sexual situations.

However, the lack of a traditional mold of what is considered sexual misconduct doesn’t matter in this situation; what is more important is the perception and safety and overarching themes of men believing themselves inherently deserving of sex and women being conditioned to not only accept this, but suffer at the hands of it.

There are power dynamics inherently present in this situation, not only because Aziz Ansari is a man of some influence in society, but also because he is a man in general. Social programming condition both men and women such that there are certain expectations going into any social or sexual situation. These expectations usually mean there is some discomfort or awkwardness when women are put in positions to refuse men. Couple this with inherent and real fear that women experience and one can see how the power dynamics lend themselves to constrain women’s behaviour, unbeknownst to men involved in these very situations. Although Ansari may have never directly articulated that she had to comply with his sexual desires, women are socialized to believe that they cannot refuse sex without some sort of retaliation. The prioritization of male pleasure over female comfort is something many women have experienced, and most have this in mind when they engage with men. This is, in some ways, a nonverbal cue that women have been forced by these situations to understand and to worry about. Maybe men should take a page out of their book on the subject of nonverbal cues. Cognizance of the cultural power dynamic is important for men so that they reduce this sense of entitlement going into any sexual or romantic relationship. However, to expect these invisible constraints on women’s behaviour as being the impetus of solely the men is exactly the mind-reader concept that these articles refer to. Men should be made aware but it is negative reinforcement to take it far by saying that it is the onus of men to only recognize these nonverbal cues. It takes both men and women to communicate this explicitly using both a cognizance of non-verbal cues but also direct verbal ones.

I do not mean to infantilize the woman in question or say that she did not have agency over her own actions. We cannot blame her or any woman for feeling that she did not have the opportunity to say no or to just leave. While she made various other decisions that day that led her to Ansari’s bed, she did not deserve what happened. No matter what you think about nonverbal versus verbal consent, entering an apartment is not consent. We can discuss and contemplate what happened inside that apartment, but entering it was by no means consent to what happened inside.

While people have criticized responses to the article which attack Ansari’s sexual desires, such as him putting his fingers forcefully in the woman’s mouth, this leaves out the crucial aspect of consent. Of course we should not kink-shame, whatever people choose to do in their own beds is their own business. However, we cannot simply attribute the complaints of Ansari’s actions to it being “strange” to the general public. If the woman did not consent to Ansari’s behavior, aggressive, kinky, or otherwise, she has every right to be uncomfortable.

This debate is a good challenge to the current movement bringing attention to sexual assault and harassment. While some have argued that the article divides the movement and takes attention away from the larger picture, I believe that we ought to be conscious of all forms of sexual misconduct, from small gestures and unintended coercive tactics to rape and other forms of extreme sexual assault.

We cannot write off these small moments because there are “bigger things to handle.” That being said, the quality of the article does not adequately address the issue at hand. As I have said before, men are often unaware that their actions are hurtful, especially in a context where consent seems to be implied, such as on a date. Ansari has been lauded as a feminist and as someone who stands up against sexual harassment and such issues, which is exactly why this story is so controversial – if a male feminist can also commit sexual assault, who can’t?

Was it Ansari’s responsibility to recognize Grace’s actions and stop pursuing his sexual acts, even though she was not actively saying no? Should men be checking in every so often to ensure that the woman wants to continue? This seems difficult if not impossible to do consistently, and could certainly “ruin the mood.”

According to the original article, Grace had sent a message to Ansari the day after the incident saying, “I just want to take this moment to make you aware of [your] behavior and how uneasy it made me.” Ansari responded apologetically saying that he misread the situation. While I do not condone his behavior and believe that he acted poorly, I still respect Ansari for apologizing to Grace once he was confronted with his actions and do not believe that his career should be ended because of this incident. Men need to be held accountable for their conduct, but in the situations where they obviously were not aware of how harmful their actions were, it is much more useful to start a conversation and explain why it was inappropriate instead of merely attacking them, and we can start by creating a recognizable vocabulary to arm ourselves as both men and women for what may be perceived as an uncomfortable discourse.

Nonverbal cues are as important as they are confusing: was it Ansari’s responsibility to recognize Grace’s actions and stop pursuing his sexual acts, even though she was not actively saying no? Should men be checking in every so often to ensure that the woman wants to continue? This seems difficult if not impossible to do consistently, and could certainly “ruin the mood.” As many critics of the article have suggested, men should not be expected to be able to read their partners’ minds in order to achieve consent.

Sex should be enthusiastic, as consent is not simply agreeing to actions being forced on them; if someone is begrudgingly agreeing to participate in sexual acts, they are not truly agreeing. If they only consent after being begged or pressured repeatedly, then perhaps one should stop pushing and realize their partner does not want it.

Ansari should have stopped once he realized Grace was not enthusiastic, and sex and sexual acts should always be conducted by choice without intense encouragement from the other party. If you have to tell the other person to go down on them or forcefully move their hand such as Ansari moved Grace’s hand towards his penis, and if the other person resists with comments such as “Whoa, let’s relax for a sec, let’s chill,” as Grace said to Ansari, then perhaps it is not consensual. There needs to be mutual understanding of the situation with equal participation, or else it is not just “bad sex,” it is harassment.

While the journalistic integrity of the article is questionable to say the least, that doesn’t change what the woman’s testimony said. I don’t know about ruining his career – but I definitely will never look at him the same way or consume his material after reading what was written, especially since I personally have had similar experiences. The #MeToo movement isn’t about a witch hunt against men; it’s not about the punitive measure but rather accountability. There’s a subtle difference between the two. Punishing men who have aggrieved women in clear ways surely deserve it. But, it is in this conversation that we realize so many men do not fall in this clear category. Rather they are simply products of their social programming, of cultural expectations of masculine behaviour and sexual behaviour.

Ansari’s humiliation is the humiliation of all men who have in some way perpetuated this culture. To call Ansari’s actions reprehensible is to critique the social programming and the institutions that enable these vacuous spaces to be filled with disgusting behaviour. That’s what we should fight for and in my opinion, what the moderate interpretation of the #MeToo movement is. That is why, with its sensationalism undercuts the momentum of social reform and progress for feminism. Ansari has just become the scapegoat for a larger paradigm shift – that this social programming is wrong. It is not a personal indictment of Ansari but an indictment of all men (and women) who will continue to act according to this social programming where consent and cues are not considered, evaluated and then acted upon through clear and open communication.

Read the original article here.

Safia Southey

It’s probably easier to list the countries Safia hasn’t been to than the ones she has - frequently found in her natural habitat of Garavan station, she’s always ready to strike another sovereign state off her list. When she’s not off on an impromptu adventure, Safia is known to her friends as the Kitchen Gremlin, serving up hotcakes and hot takes on media, politics, and global issues. As a Dual BA with Columbia student, Safia looks forward to getting nearly run over while rushing to class in her native New York. Look her up if you ever want professional headshots (not that way), life-changing conversation, or just a couch to crash on in any major city in the Western Hemisphere.
Safia Southey

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