ansari is gross af

Dear NYT and Atlantic: Do We Really Need A Primer On Enthusiastic Consent in 2018?

After a woman pseudonymously named “Grace” accused comedian Aziz Ansari of sexual assault last week, it took less than 24 hours for the victim blaming to begin: spearheaded, of course, by none other than reactionary, conservative and uncritical voices at the New York Times and the Atlantic

In a exposé, Grace detailed a painful, relatable and cringe-inducing account of a date night with Ansari: a night that culminated in unwanted sexual contact that made her cry all throughout her cab ride home. Grace describes in her piece how exactly the night had unfolded and points out which particular moments made her feel, in her own words, violated: Ansari’s ignorance of her verbal and nonverbal cues; his repeated attempts to perform sexual acts when she had indicated lack of interest; and a dogged, uncomfortable, forceful pushiness that put her in a corner unable and unwilling to articulate with any more clarity her lack of desire to have sex with him that night.

The exposé was problematic in its own way: as other commentators have pointed out, the reporting was clumsy, and done with more heed towards the website’s clicks than to genuine support for Grace and care towards reporting her experience with the delicacy it deserved. However, it wasn’t running the risk of retraumatizing a survivor of sexual misconduct or mishandling a journalistic exercise that many mainstream publications took issue with. Instead, in response to the exposé, two of the country’s prized and powerful liberal institutions instantly published pieces in defense of Ansari. The two pieces—written by Bari Weiss for the Times and Caitlin Flanagan for the Atlantic—have the same thesis: Ansari is an innocent victim in this whole affair; the #MeToo movement has gone too far; and millennial women are becoming overly sensitive, hapless and irrational about sex, and are weaponizing the movement to inflict revenge on men for harmless sexual encounters.

Weiss and Flanagan’s pieces are laden with extremely garden-variety examples of rape culture rhetoric. Flanagan says, with seeming approval, that magazines from the 1970s would have been aghast that Grace made herself seem sexually available to Ansari, by pursuing him at the party where she had met him; by agreeing to go to his house; by “getting drunk with an older man she hardly knew, after revealing her eagerness to get close to him.” In Flanagan’s day, according to her, women were “strong in a way that so many modern girls are weak,” because they fought back in a way that Grace didn’t—they said no, “flat out,” they got away from men threatening them, they had cash on them for cab fare to assist their escape, and they slapped, wailed, and did whatever it took to stop themselves from being sexually assaulted. Grace’s experience, in other words, is not really assault: just an example of a weak woman not fighting back when pressured into sex. And so her piece, too, is not an account of sexual assault: instead, it is “revenge porn,” directed at humiliating a man who, Flanagan believes, she wanted affection and a relationship from (neither of which Grace says she wanted in her piece).

Weiss, similarly, admonishes Ansari’s victim for not simply leaving when she began to feel uncomfortable. “If you are hanging out naked with a man, it’s safe to assume he is going to try to have sex with you,” Weiss asserts. Because Ansari asserted that the encounter was “completely consensual,” Weiss chooses to believe him over Grace. Weiss acknowledges Grace’s statements that “he wouldn’t let her move away from him” and “used verbal and nonverbal cues to indicate how uncomfortable and distressed she was”—and yet bewilderingly chooses ultimately to ignore them, asking Grace and the reader: how was Ansari expected to read her mind?

It is somewhat surreal and stunning to be responding to these two pieces—by two self-declared “feminists”—in 2018, after just three months after the inception of the #MeToo movement. In just three months, the public discourse around one of the largest online campaigns to expose sexual assaulters and harassers, uplift survivors, expose the extent of sexual misconduct and revolutionalize sexual dynamics between men and women has somehow come to having to explain to two women that coming up to a man’s house at night isn’t giving him a free pass to do with her whatever he pleases sexually.

The reason Weiss and Flanagan’s pieces are so dangerous, and set back public conversation around rape culture and sexual assault several decades prior to the #MeToo insurrection, is that they are stuck in retrograde, sexist ideas of what consent means. The #MeToo movement cannot afford to stay entangled in those ideas. If the goal of #MeToo is to unify women’s experiences with men across the board, we must understand the full extent of how power and consent plays out across gender lines in all sexual relationships. We must understand why some women don’t fight back even during nonconsensual sexual encounters. We must understand that (legally in some instances) silence, or a “yes” uttered under pressure, or nonverbal cues, do not constitute meaningful consent, and that power dynamics present in the bedroom can prevent women from saying no when they want to. Even the law in most states has changed, and no longer requires women to fight back in order to prove what happened to them was assault. Most crucially, we must understand the inherent imbalance between the structural power men and women hold in a patriarchal society—and how that conditions the ability of every women to consent to and enjoy sexual relationships with men.

Weiss and Flanagan also take issue with Babe’s piece because Grace choses to label what happened to her that night as “sexual assault”—words they view as loaded and career destroying, charging Ansari with criminal intent. Here again, however, is their retrograde view of sex and consent we must put behind us: the idea that sexual experiences can be divided neatly into the criminal, nonconsensual, and bad, and the non-criminal, consensual, and good. The fact that there probably isn’t a specific criminal charge Grace could bring against Ansari makes Flanagan and Weiss dismiss her experience as personal: a personal experience of “gross, awkward or entitled sex” unworthy of public sharing, at Ansari’s expense. Yet in doing so, they forget the most important feminist mantra of all: the personal is the political.

Grace’s story is not an aberration, a distraction, or a wrench in the #MeToo movement. Instead, it exposes the unifying thread in the stories all women have shared under its umbrella, from street harassment to violent rape: unequal, gendered power dynamics that impede the ability of women to give meaningful consent in sexual encounters and interactions. Her story smashes the dichotomy between the criminal and the non-criminal, reminding us that our goals for consent should aim higher than seeing anything better than rape as wholly acceptable. And it pushes us toward a conversation about how all men, owing to their position in a patriarchal society, are conditioned to see and treat women.

Weiss and Flanagan are dangerous and destructive by discouraging young women from speaking out about flawed sexual experiences during a popular movement that’s bringing the conversation about sex, gender and power to the forefront. The New York Times and Atlantic had an opportunity to use the Ansari exposé to have a meaningful public conversation about consent and bad sex; instead, they used it to give a platform to retrograde, tired ideas of the 20th century that today’s young feminists have already moved past as we envision a culture of healthy sexual relationships, egalitarian power dynamics, and true sexual freedom.

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Meg is a law student in California. She's interested in law and politics, intersectional feminism, criminal justice, human rights, freedom of the press, the law and feminism, and the politics of South Asia.

Meg is a law student in California. She's interested in law and gender, race and criminal justice, human rights, cats, and sports.

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