I want to clarify from the offset that I do not consider myself to be a survivor of sexual assault, although I have had experience with what could be considered sexual harassment/misconduct. I am speaking strictly from a perspective of an ally and a supporter of the survivors in my life.
The #MeToo movement has opened the floodgates for women, men, and people of all genders to come forward and tell their stories of sexual assault, harassment, and misconduct. From the get-go, I stood firmly on the side of those coming forward with their stories. Not for a second did I question the legitimacy of any story, or of any survivor, and that’s how I expected others to respond too if they considered themselves decent human beings, and especially if they considered themselves feminists. The vast majority of people I’m close to—friends and family alike-felt the same way. The first time I began to see people defecting from such firm stances was when the Aziz Ansari accusations broke. In an article titled “I went on a date with Aziz Ansari. It turned into the worst night of my life” by Katie Way on babe.net, a woman (who calls herself “Grace” for anonymity reasons), recounts to readers in detail so precise that they could only be true, the story of a date-turned-sexual-assault with Ansari. If you haven’t read the article yet, I encourage you to in order to understand the full scope of Grace’s experience, but I’ll also provide a brief summary:
Grace and Ansari began the night with wine at Ansari’s apartment, then headed out for a fancy dinner, and finally returned to his apartment later that night. One thing led to another and they began to kiss, but within minutes Ansari was headed to get a condom. Grace, alarmed at how fast things were escalating, said they should just relax and chill for a bit. However, Ansari continued to come onto her, as well as repeatedly guiding her hands to his crotch, even after she explicitly moved them away several times. She recalled Ansari following her around the room: “‘It was 30 minutes of me getting up and moving and him following... It was really repetitive. It felt like a [expletive] game’” (Way). Over the course of the night, Grace expressed her discomfort through verbal and nonverbal cues, including speaking up, “‘pulling away and mumbling,’” freezing her body and lips, and “‘turning cold’” (Way). “‘I know I was physically giving off cues that I wasn’t interested. I don’t think that was noticed at all, or if it was, it was ignored,’” Grace told Babe. Even after all of this, Ansari still explicitly pushed for sex, asking her over and over, “‘Where do you want me to [expletive] you?’” (Way). This continued to happen for the rest of the night, including after Grace said to Ansari that she didn’t want to feel forced to do anything. Even after she’d explicitly said “‘no, I don’t think I’m ready to do this, I really don’t think I’m going to do this’” (Way), followed by the two of them putting their clothes back on, he attempted one more time to take off her pants. The night ended with Grace crying the whole ride home in an Uber while texting close friends about feeling “violated” and “weird” (Way). The next day, Ansari texted Grace, saying that it was “fun meeting her” the night before. In response, she called him out in a lengthy message (full text available in Babe’s article), that included her very different feelings on the night prior, and Ansari’s disregard of her “clear nonverbal cues.” Ansari responded with an apology, stating that he didn’t intend to hurt her, and that he misread things in the moment. Ansari’s public comment was similar—he maintained that everything that night had seemed fine to him, and “by all indications was completely consensual.” When it became clear to him that Grace did not share these feelings, he was “surprised and concerned.” He ended his statement by adding that he “continue[s] to support the movement that is happening in our culture. It is necessary and long overdue.”
After the story broke, there were many mixed opinions that began circling in the form of opinion pieces in several newspapers, as well as posts on social media. Many stood with Grace and condemned Ansari over the accusations, but a large swathe of others held quite different opinions. Sonny Bunch wrote an opinion piece for The Washington Post titled “Babe’s Aziz Ansari piece was a gift to anyone who wants to derail #MeToo.” In it, Bunch diminishes Grace’s experience to nothing more than a bad date. Not only does it invalidate Grace’s experience by comparing her accusations of Ansari to those of Weinstein and Spacey in order to highlight how Ansari’s actions weren’t “criminal in nature” (Bunch), but it also cites Ansari’s own “acceptance of Grace’s explanation” and his subsequent apology as reasons why he did nothing wrong and is therefore undeserving of the consequences that have been close on the heels of such accusations. In her piece “The Humiliation of Aziz Ansari,” Caitlin Flanagan goes as far as calling the Babe article “3000 words of revenge porn” (Flanagan), saying the ultimate goal of the piece wasn’t to validate Grace, but to “hurt and humiliate” Ansari. On social media, I recall reading countless tweets about how Grace should have been more assertive about her discomfort; how since there was no sex there was no rape, and so be default Ansari did nothing wrong; how women whining about bad dates do damage to survivors with “real” stories of sexual assault, and in the process, the larger #MeToo movement as well.
I understand these responses and reactions, but I vehemently disagree with them. It’s only human nature to react with shock and denial to news like this. Aziz Ansari was, up until this point, one of “the good guys”—he was termed “a certified woke bae” by Refinery29. We like him. We want to continue enjoying his work without feeling morally conflicted. We want to give him the benefit of the doubt. We want to find a way to discredit his accuser. But we can’t. Not if we truly want to see change in our society around issues of sexual harassment, assault, and rape.
What Ansari did may not fall under the category of rape, but it certainly falls under the category of rape culture. This past semester, I went through extensive training in order to be a facilitator for a program, during which upperclassmen teach first-years about Title XI, consent, rape culture, and the like. In part of the presentation, we drew two horizontal lines on the board, to represent two spectrums. On the left end of the first line are behaviors that society has less awareness of tends to view as more “minor” acts of sexual misconduct—things like catcalling and rape jokes. On the right end are behaviors that society as a whole tends to recognize as especially heinous, such as rape and pedophilia. Spanning the rest of the spectrum in between fall a whole host of other behaviors that are seen by society as worse than catcalling, but not as serious as rape—including those of the nature of Ansari’s during his date with Grace, like harassment, unwanted sexual advances, etc. The second line represents the frequency of occurrence of the acts on the first line. An inverse relationship between the spectrums exists; the lower something falls on the first line—the less it’s recognized and called out by society—the more frequently it occurs, while the higher something falls on the first line—the more it’s recognized as wrong—the less frequently it tends to happen. It is this phenomenon that helps to produce and reproduce rape culture. When people commit the acts on the lower end of the spectrum at a high frequency but are never called out for them, they don’t believe they’re done anything wrong even if they’re harassing women on a daily basis, and so it becomes that much easier over time to commit acts higher up on the spectrum. This pattern continues until someone ends up sexually assaulting or raping someone else, sometimes without even knowing that what they’re doing is wrong, because no one bothered to check them or call them out when they were catcalling women on the streets, making rape jokes with their fraternity brothers, or taking a woman on “a bad date.” This is why it’s so important to say something whenever anyone commits any kind of sexual misconduct, harassment, or assault—we have to dismantle rape culture from the bottom up, not the top down, and we need all hands on deck if we want to see serious change. We need women like Grace to let men know that what they might understand as acceptable sexual behavior actually makes them feel uncomfortable, and won’t be tolerated any longer. But if we invalidate their stories and diminish them to whiny girls complaining about bad dates, we reinforce the flawed stereotype that somehow the victim is at fault, and we make it harder for victims at any point on the spectrum to speak out. This does a disservice to the #MeToo movement, and to society as a whole.
The hardest aspect of the Ansari accusation is, arguably, the fact that he allegedly believes he did nothing wrong. On this front, I believe him. However, this is precisely the problem. Up until now, there have been barely any conversations about rape culture, and when they didnoccur, they were hardly the right conversations. Because of this, situations that should be black and white—clearly consensual or clearly not—end up having so much gray area. People wind up hurting other people even when they have the best intentions, coercing or guilting them into sex or sexual activity without even realizing they’re doing something that could leave lifelong scars on someone else. Some of the blame for this clearly falls on society as a whole, but that doesn’t mean Ansari or men like him are off the hook. I think the comparisons of Ansari’s actions to those of men like Weinstein and Spacey are relevant, but only to the point that they distinguish malicious intent from harmful ignorance. I don’t believe we need to hate Ansari, or other men who find themselves in similar hot water—but we do need to educate them. The people in the best possible position to help with this vital education, in my opinion, are women who find themselves in the position of being friends with men like Ansari. Survivors can definitely be part of this process too, but it’s certainly not on them to educate those who directly hurt and violated them. They may feel they need to remove these men from their lives permanently, which is completely valid and justified. However, as their sisters in activism, women like me who don’t identify as survivors, but who do identify as feminists who want to support survivors, can do extremely important work by helping to educate these men. In doing so, we help make it possible for these men to take time to reflect, learn, and grow, and someday be better people. It’s on all of us to take horrible situations and extract the good from them to inject back into society.
This can be a challenging, daunting, and quite frankly an emotional task. It can be excruciatingly painful to look at someone who you consider to be a friend and recognize that they’ve committed something horrible, especially when you’ve known them to be a good person, and when they weren’t motivated by malice. It might feel easier to ignore what they’ve done, but I think Amy Schumer put it best when she said this of Ansari: “He’s been my friend and I really feel for [Grace]. I identify with all the women in these situations. Even if it’s my friend, I don’t go, ‘Oh, but he’s a good guy.’ I think, ‘What would it feel like to have been her?’” When stories like these break—whether in the news headlines or in your personal life—it’s never about the perpetrator, it’s about the victim and the trauma that they were made to endure at the hands of another, even if those hands were backed by nothing but good intentions.
I think the most important things we can tell men who find themselves in positions similar to Ansari’s is that it cannot and does not end with an apology and an admittance that they didn’t see anything wrong in their actions. That’s too easy, and it doesn’t facilitate any of the dialogue that movements like #MeToo are trying to create. We must demand that they take the time to reflect and really try to understand where the people are coming from that have accused them—why the things they said or did might have sent a different message than they intended. They must interrogate their assumptions of what constitutes acceptable versus unacceptable sexual behavior, not just be content in their differing interpretation of the incident in question. Put simply, they have to own up to what they did and how they made someone else feel, regardless of their intentions, because at the end of the day, someone was still hurt. And then they need to put in the work. If these men have questions about what is acceptable or not, they need to be encouraged to reach out and ask; and once they have their answers, they must reach out to others—especially other men—in order to continue the education process and to start having the conversations that so desperately need to be had. Through such a process of education and dialogue, we create a space for healing, redemption, learning, and the dismantling of rape culture, toxic masculinity, and the patriarchy as we know it. It’s a solution that forges a path into a safer world for everyone, instead of sweeping accusations under the rug and letting rape culture fester in silence.