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)