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Sex & Relationships Why it doesn't matter whether Aziz Ansari committed sexual assault

Jan. 19, 2018
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We all knew it was coming. From the moment The New York Times and The New Yorker pulled back the curtain on Harvey Weinstein’s misdeeds, women everywhere began holding their breaths, waiting for the backlash. When the #metoo hashtag proliferated; when the tide rose, catching men like Kevin Spacey and Louis C.K. in the undertow; when Donald Trump’s accusers reemerged from the shadows—we waited for someone to decide that, at last, this whole listening-to-women thing had gone too far. 

At first blush, it would seem that the recent allegations against Aziz Ansari published on Babe fit the bill for a “#metoo gone too far” sort of watershed moment. It’s plain to see that Ansari’s accuser “Grace” had a horrendous time with Ansari, that she felt uncomfortable and exploited, but did his actions fit the description of sexual misconduct? There was nothing in Grace’s story that could be called rape—indeed, nothing that could definitively be considered illegal. For all her story’s pomp, Grace didn’t experience sexual assault—she merely suffered through a bad date.

Which is exactly why this story is so important. Whether or not Ansari’s actions were illegal, he traumatized and exploited a young woman who is still dealing with the psychological consequences of his actions. Whether or not Ansari realized what he was doing at the time, whether or not he now recognizes what he did wrong, whether or not he regrets his actions, we should all be able to agree that nobody wants or deserves to have an experience like Grace’s. The fact that these consequences arguably resulted from a “technically consensual” encounter shouldn’t mean that the consequences are not important—it should inspire us to have a conversation about what consent means and how we as a society approach sex.

Critics of the Babe piece have largely painted Grace as a drama queen, a snowflake who believes that she deserves special treatment when what she really needs is to wise up and tough it out. “I’m apparently the victim of sexual assault. And if you’re a sexually active woman in the 21st century, chances are that you are, too,” begins Bari Weiss’s exceedingly lukewarm take for The New York Times. But that’s the point of Grace’s story: that what many of us perceive as “just a bad date” is exceptionally taxing—mentally, emotionally, and often physically—for women. Nearly every woman alive has had an experience like Grace’s: that doesn’t make Ansari’s actions “okay”; it means that we need to reevaluate what we accept as “normal”.

I have a hard time understanding why women like Weiss (no relation, thank god) and Atlantic contributor Caitlin Flanagan are willing to accept Grace’s experience as a perfectly suitable cost of womanhood. In the words of cultural commentator Alexandra Erin, “The people who are insistent that the sexual assaults being described by survivors are actually ‘just bad sex’ seem pretty blasé about the fact that (from their point of view) there's an epidemic of men giving sex so bad it leaves women traumatized and confused.” TED Talks social media editor Ella Dawson has a compelling theory as to why older women like Weiss and Flanagan are so disparaging of the outrage stoked by Grace’s account. Earlier this week, Dawson tweeted, “It makes me profoundly sad that some women of an older generation judge younger women for expecting better treatment by men. That they dismiss us as weak or stupid for demanding more than what they had.” Indeed: why shouldn’t we demand improvement? Why are we expected to accept the question of legality as the final word on the subject of morality? American husbands couldn’t legally rape their wives until 1993; does that mean that marital rape was benign until the Clinton administration?

Critics of the article have expressed reservations about the consequences this controversy may have for Ansari’s career. (Never mind the fact that Ansari’s career does not appear to have sustained any damage as of yet, and never mind the fact that Grace is still weathering the consequences of his actions.) And perhaps actions of this caliber do not warrant the ruin of a man’s career. But consider that creative types, especially writers, get into our careers because we think our perspective is of outsize importance. We don't necessarily get to control whether or not that's always going to be on our own terms. The conversation currently take place isn’t just a debate about Ansari’s moral righteousness: it’s a referendum on the sexual norms we’ve taken for granted for decades.

And, of course, the conversation is still unfolding. Many people have already written more thoughtful examinations of the sexual mores at stake than I ever could. But when it comes to the question of whether or not Ansari committed sexual assault, here’s my opinion: we’ve got more important things to worry about.