When the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke, it wasn’t hard for us to stomach the idea that a herculean, powerful white male celebrity exploited his power. His ostracization was backed by fervent, unanimous public and industry support.
When the reports about Kevin Spacey’s history of assault followed, it was mildly unsettling, as his stardom is more omnipresent, and his work, generally respected. But his place in the societal heirarchy, and his generally elusive ways – made it easier to accept that he had led a secret life, cardinally wronged, and deserved the consequences of his actions.
But, it took an Aziz Ansari, with that toothy toddler-like smile that one cannot imagine closing in on an unsuspecting stranger - to truly put to test how difficult it is for us to push the envelope of what we consider normal in the backdrop of newer power dynamics ushered in by the feminist movement – on a daily basis, no less, since the MeToo revelations.
And frankly, it can take nothing lesser than the global sweetheart an Aziz Ansari – not your to blow the lid off the apologist tendencies the best of us may still harbour. This is the “backfire effect” illustrated in the most lucid manner (unsurprisingly) by The Oatmeal in a comic from last year.
The backfire effect
The theory states that our brains are biologically wired to react to intellectual threats to our worldview as aggressively as they would to physical threats from predators – so we protect it with the full-frontal might of our collective conditioning.
In our current worldview, Aziz Ansari is the good guy. He’s an ally. He is vocal. It’s hard to believe that the same mind that produced an artistic body of work that is kind, nuanced, relatable, free-willed and futuristic even – was also capable of orchestrating this cruel interpersonal sexual exchange behind closed doors. He wore the Time’sUp pin just a day ago – and now, his time was up. The irony is as cruel as it is heart-breaking.
A 23-year-old photographer, who goes by the pseudonym ‘Grace’, gave an exclusive interview to Babe.net detailing a date with the Master Of None writer and actor, wherein he repeatedly disregarded her “verbal and nonverbal cues” outlining her unwillingness to engage in sexual activity, and proceeded to kiss her and even finger her multiple times through the course of the night.
That recent revelation changes everything – but if we allow it, it’ll change things for the better.
This incident is potentially history in the making, and you should be on the right side of it. Consent, and truly symbiotic sex are really not that hard to practise.
Jessica Valenti tweeted, “A lot of men will read that post about Aziz Ansari and see an everyday, reasonable sexual interaction. But part of what women are saying right now is that what the culture considers ‘normal’ sexual encounters are not working for us, and often times harmful.”
Once again, louder, for those in the back - we are not just seeking consensual sex, we need ethical sex, respectful sex, equal sex.
And yet, somehow, many critics, right from reputed journalistic and academic juggernauts to generally respected champions of feminism, are scrambling to wrap their heads around this new phenomenon – articulated through, primarily, the following three main backlashes.
- Were her “nonverbal cues” explicit?
We’ll present the facts – and all of them, unlike that first New York Times article on the matter by Bari Weiss that callously, dangerously downplayed the incident, to the extent of leaving out key details about the story that would instantly ascertain his guilt.
Anybody who has had a healthy sexual encounter – would know that Grace’s responses to Aziz’s advances screamed: “I do not want this.”
A stranger, whose sexual preferences and patterns you have never had the chance to experience, exhibits the following behaviour, namely –
- Repeatedly moving everything from her hand to her entire body away;
- Going to the extent of saying, ‘Whoa, let’s relax for a sec, let’s chill,’
- Expressing her feelings in quick succession in that short encounter – through statements like, “I do not want to be forced,” “I do not want to hate you.”
Unless you’re a sociopath, you would think of doing nothing else but “relax for a sec and chill,” as ordered.
Especially if you are a wildly successful, older celebrity – dealing with a 23-year-old, not a famous patron of an industry you influence. While the other men could still feign ignorance to these nuances and wriggle out of the cracks, Aziz Ansari claims to be a feminist and an ally – and hence, must be held to a higher standard.
He would know that consent isn’t an all-access coupon you scored with an eight-hour validity. Having received consent for one activity does not grant you permission for the next.
Moreover, consent is one thing, comfort is a whole other. But this rule, down to the last detail, is flouted almost as a norm.
- Why didn’t she just walk away?
In hindsight, it seems obvious that she could have done a thousand other things. Said more, done more, left before – but the good news, is that the onus does not lie upon the woman alone to tilt this warped power dynamic in sex – it lies on both the participating adults. While a woman must be empowered to take control of her body and her needs, the man must be equally mindful, receptive to her signals and cues, and respond favourably.
But it is not just a woman’s responsibility to reclaim what is hers – the ones withholding her rights must loosen control – or their illusion of control, anyway.
Walking away from that apartment is about just as easy as just plucking yourself out of the social structure that has allowed men to act terribly in private.
- Was it assault, or just a bad date? Was Aziz’s behaviour intentional?
The events described in the original Babe.net expose – progressively go from disrespectful, exploitative to downright abusive.
Say we grant Aziz the benefit of the doubt and believe that he indeed felt it was a “normal consensual sexual encounter.” Even then - why didn’t he grant her the benefit of the doubt, when she exhibited various signs that she was not in the mood, and go on to respect her space and pace rather than hurl himself at her hoping she would change her mind along the way?
Our existing, deeply patriarchal and scientifically flawed notions of men’s and women’s sexualities are to be blamed. A man must try to “score” sex from the supposed gatekeeper of it, the woman – implying that women are always at least slightly unwilling, and need to be coaxed. And there’s no saying how far and persistently a man feels he must carry on this coaxing - wherein lies the problem.
Women can want sex, just as much, just as often, in the same circumstances and with the same motives as men. Especially in a scenario like that, where two adults are heading back to one of their apartments to conclude a date, there was absolutely no reason for her to play hard to get and “withhold” sex. She is not wired to be unsure. She is only unsure, when, well, she is unsure. And that needs to be honoured.
Whether you are smashed or sober, lustful or indifferent; the way you know to pull away from a fire no matter how inebriated you are, you pull away from an unwilling woman no matter what you believe her reasons might be. This new instinct, new attunement to your sexual partner’s body language needs to be the norm.
In the interview to Babe, Grace says that it took her serious introspection to peg Aziz’s behaviour as assault. “I was debating if this was an awkward sexual experience or sexual assault. And that’s why I confronted so many of my friends and listened to what they had to say, because I wanted validation that it was actually bad. I believe that I was taken advantage of by Aziz. I was not listened to and ignored. It was by far the worst experience with a man I’ve ever had.”
“Seriously, God help us if the best we can say about the sex we have is that it was consensual.”
These words by Maya Dusenbery, editorial director at Feministing, are crucial to analysing what happened at Aziz’s Tribeca apartment. The exchange goes beyond the usual rhetoric of consent; it tends to, but may not amount to assault – not yet, at least.
It doesn’t pander to the current rigid purview of assault, but it’s worth it to consider expanding that definition. In any case, labels aside – rather than trying to fit this incident into the limited binary of right or wrong, try plotting it on the spectrum of good and bad, symbiotic and exploitative, fair and unfair, considerate and thoughtless – sexist, and feminist.
These are not new concepts. Rebecca Treiss’ “Why consensual sex can still be bad,” is an essay from two years ago that talks about everything in between the usual two types of sex – consensual and assaultive – in our current perceivable idea of it.
People will intellectualise this, try to tell you that what happened was normal and circumstantial; but, you know your truth. You know that, no matter how momentarily, you were still made to revoke the ownership of your body.
As a feminist born in our time, she dares to ask for even more. At a time where we are still debating what amounts to rape in the custodial, marital and societal space – Rebecca and feminists like her march upon your bedrooms, and urge you not to settle for anything less than being equally celebrated, honoured, and showered with earth-shattering orgasms.
But now, it’s time to listen. Victims have not been believed long enough; so let's spend the next 400 years taking them seriously and see if the world really implodes.
- New York Times
- Kevin Spacey
- Sexual assault
- Aziz Ansari
- Harvey Weinstein
- Maya Dusenbery
- Bari Weiss