In September of last year, I met a woman at a party. We exchanged numbers. We texted back and forth and eventually we went on a date. We went out to dinner, and afterwards we ended up engaging in sexual activity, which by all indications was completely consensual. — Aziz Ansari
I cried the whole ride home. At that point I felt violated. That last hour was so out of hand. — “Grace”
It doesn’t take a lot of experience to know the difference between what “Grace” experienced, and what Ansari claimed happened in his apartment. But experience is what I have, and it is the best teacher.
When I was 17, I went on a date with a guy from school. I was in college, starting to experiment sexually in ways that were new and exciting. I was also a rape survivor, unsure whether I was a “virgin,” or what that meant, or if it would matter to my partners that my sexual history was so skewed. This young man was older than me, old enough to buy alcohol, experienced in life and sex in ways I most definitely was not, and clearly interested in having sex with me. I went to his home and we drank a few beers, watched “Fern Gully,” and things started to get sexual.
In truth, I had no idea what I wanted. I did not know if I wanted to have sex — I’d never been in a situation where I had that choice. I did not know how the structure of a sexual encounter might go — were there protocols to follow? Would I know what to do? Would he laugh at me for my inexperience, or take advance of it?
What happened was this- we made out, a lot. He took both of our clothes off. And he asked if I wanted him to proceed. I told him I didn’t know, and we kissed for a while more, naked, in his bed, and he asked if I wanted more.
I still didn’t know.
He stopped. We lounged in bed for a while, and then I dressed and went home. It was a perfectly pleasant evening, with a friendly end to our encounter. He and I saw each other at class every week until the semester ended. We shared cigarette breaks. From then until the last time I saw him, he didn’t ask me out again. I didn’t ask him out again, and that was it. No harassment, no admonition. He never made me feel as though I owed him anything, he never made me feel as though I was some kind of “tease.” He never said an unkind word to me about our one date, our one sexual encounter, and he never pressured me for more.
They walked the two blocks back to his apartment building, an exclusive address on TriBeCa’s Franklin Street, where Taylor Swift has a place too. When they walked back in, she complimented his marble countertops. According to Grace, Ansari turned the compliment into an invitation.
“He said something along the lines of, ‘How about you hop up and take a seat?’” Within moments, he was kissing her. “In a second, his hand was on my breast.” Then he was undressing her, then he undressed himself. She remembers feeling uncomfortable at how quickly things escalated. — “Grace”
The next year, I decided to have sex with a male friend. He was also several years older, and sexually experienced. When we began fooling around, I told him I wasn’t ready yet. I told him I needed to get more comfortable with him. I set an arbitrary timline of how long I needed to be involved with him, romantically and sexually, before I could consider intercourse. He never argued. He never pushed. Did he want to get his dick wet? Oh, definitely yes. But he never pushed beyond my boundaries, even if they were set in vague, confused terms. He never questioned the arbitrariness of them. He never questioned what it took for me to feel comfortable and enthusiastic. Again, I hadn’t disclosed my rape, I hadn’t disclosed my lack of experience. We took things as they were, at face value. And when I did have sex with him, it was on my terms. He was an eager participant, as thrilled to be with me as I was with him, and there was never a hint of coercion. Of begging and pleading and making excuses for more and faster and now.
Ansari also physically pulled her hand towards his penis multiple times throughout the night, from the time he first kissed her on the countertop onward. “He probably moved my hand to his dick five to seven times,” she said. “He really kept doing it after I moved it away.”
But the main thing was that he wouldn’t let her move away from him. She compared the path they cut across his apartment to a football play. “It was 30 minutes of me getting up and moving and him following and sticking his fingers down my throat again. It was really repetitive. It felt like a fucking game.” — “Grace”
At 21 years old, I met a guy on a BDSM website. We flirted outrageously, egging each other on with explicit and violent suggestions, but the moment he came to my apartment I knew I didn’t want what we had discussed. I didn’t have to say this explicitly, my lack of communication, my clear unease, these were the cues he needed. He asked if I was interested, or if I’d changed my mind, and I apologized for my own confusion. “It’s okay,” he said. “It happens.” And he left.
“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.” — “Grace”
I compare this to other encounters I’ve had, with men who did not respect my boundaries. A guy I made out with, who spent the encounter attempting to push my face into his genitals. A man who began performing acts I never consented to in the middle of an otherwise consensual tryst. Men who called me names after I didn’t cave to their desires. Men who demeaned me after I failed to respond to their friendship with sexual attraction.
Most women have experienced both sides of this spectrum of male entitlement or respect. Most women have experienced men who treated their consent as a priori the moment a date was made, who believed that with the right combination of alcohol and nagging and begging and force, sex was their inevitable right. Most women have also experienced a partner, even a stranger, who understood an unspoken “no” as well as a verbal “yes.”
What Aziz Ansari is described as doing doesn’t fit into our comfortable description of sexual assault, because Ansari’s actions are passive-aggressive. “Passive-aggressive” means avoiding direct confrontation. That doesn’t make it non-aggressive, it means the subject of this behavior is constantly second-guessing themselves, asking themselves if the person treating them this way has any idea what they’re doing, if it’s malicious, or if they are somehow misreading the situation. The pouting, the whining, the begging, the excuses and manipulations, these are behaviors women have long expected to experience at the hand of men, and they contain a seed of actual violence. They contain the critical message, “I know you don’t want me to do this, and I don’t care.”
So is this story a #metoo story? Yes. The threat of sexual violence doesn’t only matter when it’s met with action. Threatening murder is a crime. Threatening rape is a crime. And whether or not it’s something that will stand up in court, it’s wrong.
We categorize the suffering of others into a spectrum, from “bad enough” to “horror beyond comprehension.” But one person’s suffering doesn’t negate another’s. You don’t need to go through the same events as another person to feel empathy for them.
There is a kind of heartbreak to seeing your pain diminished, but this goes two ways. It is heartbreaking to describe a trauma, and have people to tell you to stop complaining because so many people have it worse. And there is the heartbreak of struggling to have your pain finally acknowledged, and then having somebody’s “less-than” experience put into the same category of suffering as yours. We want to be acknowledged. We want to be seen. I don’t want the pain of losing my limbs conflated with the pain of being punched in the throat. I don’t want my brutal assault conflated with an attempted date rape.
Only this isn’t about any one person. Nobody is saying that it is the same to tie a child to a bed and rape her, as it is to disregard another adult’s boundaries. These are not the same, but they are both part of a larger problem. Women constantly battle against harassment and abuse, and our lives shouldn’t have to be a never-ending struggle for basic respect.
“After he bent me over is when I stood up and said no, I don’t think I’m ready to do this, I really don’t think I’m going to do this. And he said, ‘How about we just chill, but this time with our clothes on?’”
…while the TV played in the background, he kissed her again, stuck his fingers down her throat again, and moved to undo her pants. — “Grace”
We have entered a strange, tumultuous time where we cannot judge the extent of a sexual wrong by what we have accepted in the past. What we accepted in the past is horrific and brutal and wrong, it spanned the gamut from spousal rape to burning down the houses of girls who seek justice. We have reached a point in our public reckoning where we must dig into the mundane, into dismissals of consent that hide behind smiles and nudges. Assault is assault, even when committed with a cute line and smile.
I don’t know which type of men has been more common in my life; men who accepted the end of an encounter regardless of orgasm, or men who took what they wanted or fumed that I would not give it.
Aziz Ansari literally wrote the book on modern romance. That he could be so clueless about consent is improbable, it is far more likely he knows how the power dynamics of celebrity and gender benefit him, and that wearing somebody down will eventually get him what he wants. And coercion, that practice of badgering and harassing and pleading and threatening, particularly in unspoken threats, does not yield consent.
When I hear people complain that we are living through a “witch hunt,” that flirting is forbidden or that you can’t know what is right and what is wrong, I think of that classmate of mine, with whom I had no clue what I was doing or how to voice my desires. I remember him standing nude in the bathroom doorway, not angry or resentful, a bit disappointed but still enjoying our evening. He showed me what affirmative consent is, what enthusiastic consent is, and how easy it should be to understand.
There is no “witch hunt,” there is only, finally, enough air in the room to let out the breath we’ve been holding our whole lives and to say, “This isn’t okay.” And, finally, to listen; to hear the grievances of our fellow human beings, and to accept that the rules of socially acceptable sexual aggression, even sexual passive aggression, have to change.
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