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Some More Thoughts On Aziz Ansari, Women’s Pain, and Shitty Hetero Sex

Note: This post is very heteronormative because the situation that inspired this post was, by all accounts, fairly heteronormative. I believe commentary and analysis should be specific to the individuals and conditions in a given set of circumstances. I in no way intend for my thoughts here to minimize or erase the experiences of LGBTQ+ survivors or male survivors of sexual violence, which require separate and nuanced analyses that go beyond the scope of this post (and let’s be honest, the expertise of this cishet writer).

Hi there. Just your everyday heteronormative millennial feminist chiming into this whole Aziz Ansari mess, because shitty sexual encounters with cishet men is something I happen to be somewhat knowledgeable about.

I just want to put it out there, first and foremost, that I believe and have empathy for “Grace,” the photographer who recounted her reportedly awful interaction with Aziz to Babe, a media website “for girls who don’t give a fuck” (okay, I have to admit I kinda love that tagline). I believe Grace’s assertion that she was harmed by what occurred and I don’t fault her for handling the situation the way that she did according to the report. Aziz has acknowledged the existence of the encounter in a public statement, calling the encounter “by all indications…completely consensual,” which honestly pissed me off, but more on that later.

Secondly, I want to say that I’ve been a huge fan of Aziz. I watched all his comedy specials on Netflix (I appreciated the chronological trajectory of how less douchey his jokes became with each special that came out); read his book on millennial dating culture, Modern Romance (interesting confirmation of what I’ve experienced but frankly, my dating blog posts are way more entertaining); and I’ve watched both seasons of Master Of None (aside from the fixation on falling in love with white women, I enjoyed the show). So reading the original report from Babe made me feel disturbed and disappointed in someone whose work I had enjoyed, which cannot be consumed in the same way again, especially considering how Aziz’s work has centered on cultivating an image of him as a sensitive, self-aware male feminist with the social and emotional intelligence to understand gendered social and dating norms. In fact, because he has made a career out of this kind of comedy is what makes this recent controversy such a betrayal to me as a fan.

Thirdly, there are people who argue that the reporting was too shitty for us to get a clear sense of what happened, thereby 1) forcing everyone outside of the encounter to speak from their own personal traumas and baggage and 2) ruining the opportunity for us to have a real conversation about misogyny and sexual misconduct. I agree that the reporting could have been better but 1) we can’t pretend that Grace’s pain and discomfort isn’t apparent in this story, 2) regardless of the quality of the reporting, everyone will always be speaking from their own life experiences and worldview on the things they read–it’s difficult to speak from a place of objectivity (whatever the hell that is, tbh) when it comes time to address something as murky and controversial as sexual assault, and 3) although not in the best circumstances, the opportunity to have the conversation is already here and the conversation is definitely rapid-fire happening, so let’s not pretend like the opportunity has been “missed” and instead let’s keep talking and unpacking this.

Based on a couple of inflammatory think pieces and a number of comments I’ve read online, the thing that most people seem worked up about is Grace reportedly describing her experience with Aziz as assault. People have dismissed it as simply bad consensual sex. Many have criticized Grace for her seeming inability to explicitly say no and leave right away once she knew she felt uncomfortable, pointing out that Aziz cannot read minds. Some have also argued that categorizing the experience as assault undermines what the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements are about: survivors of “actual” assault and rape. And some have gone on further to defend Aziz and bemoan the current state of feminism that is alienating “good” men and “destroying” their careers. (LOL)

I vehemently disagree with the above opinions, and regardless of their original intent, I think they sound an awful lot like victim-blaming rhetoric.

Would I personally qualify Grace’s encounter as sexual assault? Trick question. It’s not up to me, it’s up to the person who was harmed to define their own experience. And if Grace defines that encounter as assault, then I respect her right to do so. Which brings me to why I was pissed at reading Aziz’s public statement: you can’t call an experience consensual if the other person involved disagrees with you.

He should have stated, “I assumed it was consensual” or “I inferred it was consensual” or even “I thought it was consensual,” but by stating point-blank that the encounter was “completely consensual,” he invalidates his partner’s experience. Like, can we be on the same page with this? Consent requires the consensus of all parties involved. And if two people are coming away from a sexual encounter with very different perceptions of what happened, then something is very wrong and needs to be addressed.

What I feel needs to be addressed at large is not so much the clueless and damaging actions of Aziz specifically, but rather the clueless and damaging actions of Aziz as a Stand-In For Any Cisgender Heterosexual Male Down To Fuck. Because Grace’s encounter with Aziz is unfortunately not a rare occurrence, which some of the above critics have acknowledged. Why is that bad? Because whether or not we believe Grace’s experience can legally or officially qualify as sexual assault is besides the point. The point is that Grace came away from her encounter feeling harmed, and if that is what a lot of women are identifying with when they read her account of how things went down, then shit is really fucked.

I am one of those women who read her story and cringed at the ways in which it reminded me of my own bad sexual experiences (not too many, but enough and hopefully not many more). Experiences in which the guy jackhammered his dick in me and called it a night without a single thought to my wellbeing or pleasure. Experiences in which I felt less like a human being and more like a vaguely sentient vagina. Experiences that were dehumanizing, objectifying, degrading, or just downright disrespectful.

But hey! That’s all okay, right? Because I consented to them.

But why would I consent to dehumanizing, objectifying, degrading, and just downright disrespectful sex?

Good question! I didn’t. And that’s what makes things complicated.

To clarify, I view my shitty sexual experiences with cishet men as technically consensual and I would not call any of them assault, rape, or coercion. At the same time, there’s been a huge disconnect between expectations and reality in these cases. I don’t go into a sexual encounter with the expectation that both my dignity and my cervix are going to take a severe hit. I go into a sexual encounter with the expectation that the person I am attracted to will treat me like another human being instead of a lifeless semen dumpster. And when it turns out that I’m going to roleplay the lifeless semen dumpster, it doesn’t matter how consensual I later tell myself it was, it doesn’t erase the discomfort, pain, and trauma I felt during and after these experiences. Actually, I would even go so far as to say that a couple of these incidents were a little bit rapey.

Rapey, but not rape. A fine distinction, right?

You might be confused at this point. You might be thinking, Okay, so you’re saying Grace’s story reminded you of bad consensual sex you’ve had, so aren’t you making the case for also classifying Grace’s experience as bad consensual sex?

Nope, as I’ve stated above, I am a firm believer that the person directly impacted should define their own experiences on their terms. What I’m trying to get at is, having sexual relations with a cisgender heterosexual dude can be traumatic as fuck regardless of whether you define your experience as consensual or not, and the fact that I can share this pain with another woman who identifies her sexual experience differently goes to show that the root causes of our shared pain are the same.

The root causes here would be toxic masculinity, misogyny, and heteronormativity, by the way. Or you know, patriarchy, for shorthand.

I’m sure you’ve heard this stuff before. Men have been socially conditioned to be confident and assertive, to treat women like objects, and to pursue them as conquests. Women, on the other hand, have been socially conditioned to be passive and polite, to coddle the egos of men, and to put everyone else’s needs before our own. Is it any wonder then that a byproduct of this social conditioning is shitty hetero sex at best, and outright sexual assault at worst?

Men take what they want and women get what they receive. It’s a shitty gendered power dynamic but it exists and it’s ridiculous for anyone to say that this dynamic is not pervasive in our culture–not just in the workplace, but also in the streets and in the bedroom. Which means that Aziz still had power over Grace as a man (a wealthy and famous one at that) in this reported encounter, even if he wasn’t her boss. His male privilege, wealth, and cultural capital don’t miraculously disappear just because he didn’t happen to be sexually coercing her on a film set while namedropping celebrity friends and throwing Benjamins around.

And yes, I agree individuals have agency and should be held accountable for their decisions and actions–but within the context of pervasive and toxic gender norms that also exist. What I hate so much about the backlash I’ve been reading about Grace’s perceived inaction is how the social conditioning of women has been downplayed or completely overlooked. It’s not that people defending Grace are making the argument that women are inherently too helpless or weak to speak up for themselves, as some have alleged. What we’re saying is that patriarchy has created conditions that have made women speaking up for themselves difficult, whether that’s in a factory, on a film set, or at a horny guy’s fancy apartment. And it’s not that easy to override social conditioning when it’s so deeply ingrained.

Take it from me. I’ve been told I’m strong, confident, opinionated, and independent. Yet I have struggled to assert my agency during some of my sexual experiences with cishet men. Why? Because of that damn social conditioning (which goes doubly for me as an Asian woman, ugh). I get anxious about giving feedback to my sexual partner because I worry about hurting his feelings, especially when sex already makes people feel vulnerable enough. A part of me fears that any objections or resistance on my part will escalate a situation into outright violence, and that would mean I definitely couldn’t dismiss the encounter as “just bad sex” anymore–I’d have to deal with it as assault. And even when I do muster the courage to voice my desires or concerns, I’ve had cishet men disregard them (yes, even the more respectful ones), which erodes my confidence in being listened to, makes me think I was the one who said or did something wrong, and causes me to wonder if anything I say really matters anyway.

Just think of all the emotional energy I’ve been expending, trying to create space for communication so I can articulate my needs without offending my cishet male sexual partners. I wonder how much energy was spent by them on trying to do the same. I am willing to bet money that the answer is little to none. Because wordlessly shoving their dick in me and calling it a night has sufficed.

Women are taught to be careful around men. We are also paradoxically told that it’s misandrist of us to assume that ALL men could be predators or abusers. These are confusing messages to drill into our heads. So when women take the chance to meet a strange man for a date because he’s attractive and seems cool, we do so hopeful that the man in question will respect us while also wary that things could go awry. And when he’s being disrespectful, we have to do the mental gymnastics to figure out whether the possible physical or social repercussions are worth calling him out: whether or not rejecting him right then and there will be “too rude” or “too melodramatic,” which can maybe lead to “too dangerous.” Some of us second-guess our intuition. Some of us want to play it safe and avoid confrontation. Some of us get stuck between “yes” and “no” and are punished for our uncertainty.

The onus has largely been on women to speak up, do more, and be more in regards to our entanglements and relationships with cishet men. We are told what we need to do or what we should have done. We are told that we are weak and at fault if we fail to do these things. Yes, in a perfect world free from the tyranny of patriarchy, women should be able to advocate for themselves, and ideally we would be able to do so perfectly, unapologetically, and without having to weigh the risks and possible consequences. But that perfect world doesn’t exist yet. What exists is a world in which men are at an advantage and non-men are not. So at a minimum, we need to be met halfway by our male counterparts. I would even go so far as to argue that men should meet us three-quarters of the way until we have made substantial strides in achieving social parity between men and women. For instance, it should be easier for someone who has been socially conditioned to be confident and assertive to start a conversation about sexual desires, than for someone who has been socially conditioned to be passive and polite.

What does it say about us as a society when we are focused more on grooming women to resist the advances of men, instead of demanding that men just respect women in both public and private spheres?

Which leads me to what bothers me most about holding women more accountable than men when it comes to shitty hetero sex: the implication that women must be taught to better ask for our humanity to be recognized, more so than for men to simply recognize the humanity of the women they are sexually engaging with. That’s really the heart of the matter: if you respect someone as a human being, you would care about what they thought and felt, and you would notice if they were uncomfortable. The issue is that many cishet men can’t be bothered to view women through that lens, especially when initiating sex. They can’t be bothered because society has allowed them, encouraged them, and even enabled them to be selfish and unfeeling in their behavior towards women. And apparently, teaching men to be kinder, more respectful, and more empathetic towards women is just asking too much.

(Seriously though: Why can’t we expect cishet men to just fucking ask questions or read body language? Is it that difficult to ask “Can I kiss you?” Is it too hard to observe that when someone is pulling away from you, that is a sign of disinterest? That has nothing to do with mind reading, that is just picking up on goddamn social cues.)

In short (well kind of), I believe that sexual violence is a long, discordant spectrum, with catcalling a stranger on the street on one end, sex trafficking on the other end, and bad sex somewhere close to the middle. I believe and understand how bad sex can become a slippery slope to sexual assault or rape because of how the dynamics of sex can change from moment to moment. I believe in and support ongoing, affirmative, and enthusiastic consent. I believe women have the agency to define our own experiences and the right to be trusted when we say we have been harmed. I believe we have much more work to do when a woman’s response to Grace’s story is “Ha! You’re stupid, I’ve suffered worse than that and I’m fine!” I believe we will not progress as a society if we are only willing to exercise empathy for the stories of people who meet our legal definitions and socially accepted expectations for what trauma looks like. I believe patriarchy has created conditions that have made it risky and at times downright dangerous for women to vocalize dissent, and the onus is on individual men to leverage their privilege to help change these conditions so that women aren’t afraid of advocating for themselves, whether in a professional or personal setting. I believe that rather than diluting movements against sexual harassment and assault, stories like Grace’s give them greater complexity and nuance, because we are asking people to look beyond the minute details and at the bigger picture of gender-based violence perpetrated by cishet men, in which the safety and wellbeing of all women and femmes have been systematically compromised in so many different ways, all of which are worthy of our time and attention and empathy. And lastly, I believe that the pain of women, in all its heartbreaking shades, need not reach society’s threshold in order to be validated.

tl;dr SMASH THE PATRIARCHY WITHOUT VICTIM-BLAMING/AZIZ ANSARI HOW COULD YOU GRRR

Thank you to my friends Jakki and Allison for unintentionally helping me write this post.

LINKS TO GOOD NON-VICTIM-BLAMING THINKPIECES/POSTS ON THE AZIZ ANSARI DEBACLE THAT HAVE INFORMED/INSPIRED ME:

“What happens to Aziz Ansari isn’t the point” by Molly Brown (Washington Post)

“On Aziz Ansari And ‘Bad Sex'” by Katie Anthony (Bust)

“On Aziz Ansari And Sex That Feels Violating Even When It’s Not Criminal” by Emma Gray (HuffPost)

Kat Blaque’s Facebook page (she wrote a very thoughtful post on the matter on 1/17/18, just scroll til you find it)

Guerrilla Feminism’s Instagram (check posts made during the week of 1/14/18 – 1/18/18)

“The Aziz Ansari story is ordinary. That’s why we have to talk about it.” by Anna North (Vox)

“The Patriarchy Strikes Back” by Sarah Jones (New Republic)

BONUS THINKPIECE WRITTEN IN 2015 THAT IS RELEVANT AND VERY VERY VERY GOOD:

“Why Sex That’s Consensual Can Still Be Bad. And Why We’re Not Talking About It.” by Rebecca Traister (The Cut)

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Things I Find Awkward

  1. Working on the 12th floor of a building and having to ride the elevator allllllllllllll the way up in miserable silence with strangers
  2. Running into people I’ve just said goodbye to
  3. Passing by the same people over and over again because okay I was going to leave but then I realized I forgot something and now I have to go back and then leave again but then I realized I was going the wrong way to begin with so I have to pass by them again and it’s like ughhhhh why is my incompetency so glaringly obvious even to random passersby
  4. Recognizing an acquaintance from a distance who is walking from the opposite direction of me but pretending not to recognize them and waiting the appropriate amount of time until I can attempt to nonawkwardly and noncreepily acknowledge them at the precise moment we pass each other (give or take a few seconds)
  5. Recognizing an acquaintance from a distance who is walking from the opposite direction of me and one of us giving a sign of recognition WAY too early so there’s this agonizing stretch of silence as we both are forced to wait until we are within hearing distance of each other to make forced small talk which wouldn’t have been necessary if we had both followed our social cues to begin with
  6. Saying hi to someone who doesn’t see me
  7. Saying hi to someone I thought was saying hi to me but in fact they were saying it to the person(s) behind me, like why did I even think I deserved a friendly gesture of recognition, I’m such an idiot
  8. Meeting a sort-of friend and wondering whether I should hug them or not
  9. Meeting a date for the first time and wondering whether I should hug them or not
  10. Having to partake in saying affirmative things on a co-worker’s birthday even though I don’t really know them so I start worrying about what to say and also worrying about not knowing what to say when it comes time for so-and-so’s birthday year after year after year of still not knowing them and then confronting the very real possibility of having to make myself get to know people just so I can say informative friendly things on their birthdays oh god
  11.  Eye contact
  12. Wondering if I have a period stain and trying to figure out a way to discreetly check out my ass
  13. People I don’t particularly like appearing to like me for some reason
  14. Not being sure of whether someone likes me (platonically OR romantically)
  15. Small talk
  16. Not hearing what someone says the 3rd or 4th time they repeat it so just nodding and smiling like I heard
  17. Coming out of the bathroom and seeing that my date has been waiting right outside the door for me and it’s like ackk I just peed and now I’m seeing you
  18. Going on a date and establishing the payment procedure (it’s like ahhh is he going to insist on paying and am I going to have to insist on saying no and of course I don’t think he should be obligated to pay for me because I’m a girl screw chivalry/benevolent sexism but well he was the one who asked me out technically and I know this mothafucker has more money than me but if I asked you out well I wouldn’t want to pay for you tbh so let’s just pay separately but how do I bring that up without sounding like an asshole just that whole conversation is erghhughhhaghh)
  19. People on BART who get out of their seats way too fucking early and try to bump me aside when it’s like bitch I’m getting off at the same stop as you calm your ass down
  20. Crying in front of people/in public places and knowing it’s awkward but crying anyway cuz the feels
  21. Sexile
  22. When I’m trying to make a joke and end up sounding more aggressive or serious than I intended because I’m just that intense sometimes and everyone just looks at me weird
  23. Realizing that I no longer have someone as a Facebook friend and not being sure of whether I deleted them or they deleted me
  24. Mentioning to the barista of the coffee shop I go to regularly that I’m interested in watching this one movie, later finding out the barista watched it before I got a chance to, then realizing when I finally get around to watching it that the movie is ripe with freaky sexual stuff that will be absolutely uncomfortable small talk the next time he casually asks whether I’ve watched the “weird” movie I unintentionally recommended
  25. Being around strangers who are singing/rapping along to music only they can hear
  26. Getting caught singing/rapping along to music only I can hear
  27. Having to introduce myself to someone by shaking their hand when my hands are wet because I just got done washing them so they probably think I’m gross
  28. Farting around people who aren’t my immediate family
  29. Taking a shit in public restrooms (I just can’t)
  30. Knowing that the person in the stall next to me is taking a shit
  31. Friends talking about doing something I’m not invited to
  32. Finding myself talking about doing something around friends who weren’t invited (and I don’t think I have the jurisdiction to invite them)
  33. Finding myself talking about doing something around friends who weren’t invited (and I don’t think it makes sense to invite them because they’re not really a part of the social circle involved)
  34. Finding myself talking about doing something around friends who weren’t invited (and I didn’t invite them because I knew they’d be too busy/wouldn’t be interested, but couldn’t be bothered to invite them as an empty gesture of courtesy)
  35. Finding myself talking about doing something around friends who weren’t invited (and I just plain don’t think they should be invited, period)
  36. Leaving voicemails through which I end up rambling on and on like a dumbass
  37. Talking to hot people I don’t really know
  38. Talking to hot people I don’t really know AND they’re being nice to me
  39. When people start complimenting me out of nowhere
  40. Talking aloud to myself and making weird gestures as I articulate my thought process as per usual and realizing other people can probably hear/see me
  41. Saying something that wasn’t really funny or clever but the other person didn’t hear me the first time so I have to repeat it and this time it’s definitely not funny or clever at all
  42. Saying something that was pretty funny or clever but someone in the group didn’t hear me the first time so I have to repeat it but this time it’s not funny or clever and wow, did I really just butcher the delivery of my own witty remark
  43. Being the only person of color in a room
  44. Being the only Asian in a room
  45. A stranger with a really thick accent asking me for help and I really want to understand them and help them out and I definitely don’t want to come off as some racist/xenophobic asshole but for god’s sake what are they saying someone please help
  46. When a dude hits on me and I’m not interested but I can’t outright reject him because my friend is snuggling up to his friend and now I’m like obligated to hang out with this douche
  47. When a dude hits on me and I’m not interested but I can’t outright reject him because he’s a regular at the bar I kind of want to be a regular at, too
  48. When a random dude on the street says something demeaning and I don’t say anything back because I feel scared and powerless and ashamed
  49. When a random dude on the street exercises what he feels is his right to have a one-sided conversation involving me (“Hi cutie what’s your name cutie can I have your number okay then bye cutie”)
  50. When a friend who is nearly flawless complains about the one pimple on her chin and I’m like, bitch, that’s me on a good day
  51. When I accidentally find myself following someone out in public because I just so happen to be going in their direction and now I feel like a creepy stalker, so much so that I take some random roundabout way just to avoid seeming/feeling like one
  52. When I spot someone I kind of know and take some random roundabout way just to avoid having to interact with them
  53. Seeing someone I know strictly in a professional setting (like a teacher) in a public setting (like a nightclub or a grocery store) oh god
  54. The time I told a gay friend I had “2 gay things” to tell her and then I was like well shit that came out wrong and felt like the dumbest straight person ever
  55. When I’m talking about oppression against a particular marginalized identity that I don’t have, to someone who does have that identity, and I feel really self-conscious because I’m trying to be a supportive ally and not some kind of appropriating/colonizing expert and I’m just hoping that my well-meaning intentions come across
  56. When someone with more privileges than me in society demands that I explain to him why he has privilege because he certainly doesn’t feel like he has any
  57. When a white dude points to dictionary.com’s definition of racism as proof that he has experienced racism
  58. When a white dude says he doesn’t have any privilege because he doesn’t own any slaves
  59. When a white dude has to racially code my attractiveness
  60. When a dude asks if I have any hot Asian friends who are single because I am evidently not attractive enough to merit existence in any of those categories, thanks a lot
  61. Misaligned high-fives
  62. Trying to high-five someone who just leaves me hanging like a doucheface
  63. Misaligned hugs
  64. Trying to hug someone who just leaves me hanging like a doucheface
  65. Trying to hug someone who very reluctantly reciprocates and I’m just like fuck why did I initiate that shit for
  66. Hugs in general tbh
  67. Making out
  68. PDA
  69. People who don’t know they’re being awkward
  70. Me
  71. People sneezing and me having to resist the urge to say “Bless you” in case people interpret it religiously or when people don’t say “thank you” in response which is not to say I want gratitude but more like wth they’re leaving me hanging better just avoid it altogether
  72. Having people say “Bless you” when I sneeze and then maybe 2 more times before giving up because when I sneeze I fucking sneeze a lot
  73. Jokes that are so unfunny and stupid that I end up laughing at how unfunny and stupid they are but the person who made them thinks I’m laughing because I think he’s being clever and funny
  74. People who think they can say homophobic shit around me because I’m straight
  75. People who think they can say anti-black/racist shit around me because I’m not black
  76. Sit-down dinners with people who would be somewhere further down my completely speculative list of people I would save from a hypothetically burning building