What we can learn from the Aziz Ansari story

File: Actor and comedian Aziz Ansari has been accused of ignoring a date's verbal and non-verbal cues that she did not want to have sex. Photo: REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

I have spent this whole week thinking about Aziz Ansari. There have been so many adamant headlines on both sides of the debate about what the award-winning actor did to “Grace”, and since I have found myself a little short of an adamant opinion, I initially thought to leave the topic alone.

But then, I thought that it’s worth interrogating the complexities of the narrative, especially by people – like me – who aren’t absolutely determined that what he did was so bad, while acknowledging that what he did wasn’t that great either.

For background, a woman who chose to use the moniker “Grace” published a story about a sexual encounter that she had with Ansari. She met him at the 2017 Emmy Awards after-party. He initially brushed her off but was then interested in her camera, which was the same as his. When he left, he asked for her number.

Soon after, they went on a date, the dinner portion of which Ansari hurried, and then returned to his apartment where he repeatedly made some aggressive and even downright unpleasant sexual advances on Grace, which she rebuffed both verbally and by showing that she just wasn’t that into it. Finally, after realising he wasn’t going to let up, she asked to leave and he called her an Uber.

If you read the whole torrid thing, it certainly sounds like an unpleasant evening for Grace. Ansari did not act like Dev (his character in the award-winning Netflix series Master of None), which is disappointing to me as someone who’s enjoyed the series and admired the public persona that Ansari projects. So it must have been a whole lot more disappointing to Grace who’d pegged some kind of hope on her night out with the actor.

I feel it’s important to point out that expecting men to act like Dev is not an unreasonable standard to hold them to. There’s acting like Dev, and then there’s being a dick. So while Grace might have got her fantasy and reality a little muddled, she still had a right for her date not to behave like a dick. 

I’ve also spent a lot of time thinking about my second date with my now-husband. We’d had a good first date with some fooling around, and a week later, we went to see his housemate and my good friend (who introduced us) in a show.

After the show, at the bar, we were kissing enthusiastically, and he suggested that we head home. It was early (by 23-year-old standards – positively outrageously late to my nearly-40-year-old self) and I remember thinking fleetingly whether it was time to head home, before realising we were both super-keen for what heading home implied, so off we went.

My now-husband cut our date short and hurried to the “and chill” part of the evening. What I’ve been thinking about a lot is that when he suggested we should head home, it was clear to me what he wanted, and I, wanting it too, agreed. (This was before the mainstreaming of enthusiastic verbal consent. Back then, we went on signals and body language and innuendo.)

I’ve been thinking about that night a lot – it’s a good memory – and then thinking about Ansari. I’m not delighted that these are conflated, but I guess I’ll have to live with that for a bit. I believe that there’s tacit consent in going home with someone. It’s clear what’s being suggested and taking up the offer implies you are up for it too.

HOWEVER, and this is critically important, consent, once given, can be taken away. It’s not a birthday present or chewing gum. It’s a continuous process, and the moment it is withdrawn, it ceases to exist. There’s no question in my mind that if I had asked my husband to stop at any point, he would have. The problem with Ansari is that he didn’t.

If we are to take Grace at her word (which by all accounts, it seems we can), when Ansari asked if she was OK, she responded, “I said I don’t want to feel forced because then I’ll hate you, and I’d rather not hate you.” To which he responded, “Oh, of course, it’s only fun if we’re both having fun. Let’s just chill over here on the couch.” And he then continued to push for oral and penetrative sex – both by showing her his penis and trying to remove her clothes. She had put them back on after they had both performed oral sex on each other earlier – after which she expressed her desire to slow down.

The first time I read Grace’s story, I was defensive of Ansari. She went home with him. She performed oral sex on him. And he called her an Uber when she wanted to go. What’s the big deal? The problem was that I was expecting the revelations to be bigger. I expected date rape (the “worst night of my life” of the title alluded to something horrific), and I got a guy being a dick.

However, on rereading it without expectation, the extent of how much of a dick he really was began to sink in. Things like saying “If I poured you another glass of wine now, would it count as our second date?” in response to her attempt to postpone sex until “later”, are icky in the extreme. The girl wasn’t into it, and instead of standing down, Ansari used every trick in the book to pressure her into sex she clearly didn’t want.

Ansari didn’t rape her, but he was a dick. This #metoo story wasn’t about holding someone legally accountable for his actions. Rather, it was about showing someone up for shitty behaviour. And the fact that “we’ve all had bad dates like that” doesn’t make it OK – it shows that generally speaking, men need to be a little more sensitive to what women say and how they respond to sexual advances.

And yes, women can be sexually aggressive too, and of course, we should also hear what men say, BUT, generations of societal conditioning and physical intimidation mean that women are more sexually vulnerable than men, and this being the case, men have to take extra care with us. It’s kind of like how you can call a white child a monkey, but you could never address that term of “endearment” to a black child.

So, while I don’t believe Ansari should be thrown in jail or lose his job or anything as extreme as that, I hope that this has given him pause to realise that even if he was approached by a fangirl who kind of agreed to take it to the next level, when she expressed her reservations, he should have listened, instead of pushing on like a clueless hormonal teenager (although it’s not OK for them either).

Since the story has now been told, it’s not worth debating whether it should have been. Now that we know it, we can all learn from it. The message is clear: don’t be a dick. And it’s not “don’t be a dick because maybe you’ll be publicly humiliated”; it’s “don’t be a dick because you’ll make another human being feel really bad which is the opposite of the point of sex.”

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