Aziz Ansari is guilty, but so are we

Earlier this month, published a story about a woman named “Grace” whose date with actor Aziz Ansari was “the worst night” of her life. She had recounted the first time they’d met and then her night with him, describing their dinner and later, the sexual encounter at his apartment building that left her feeling violated.

The responses to Grace’s story have been a mixed chorus of support and dissent, but there is a common theme among the voices: our society has difficulty deciding who was wrong and why.

We only have ourselves to blame for that.

Much of the outcry has been directed at Grace and her inability to refuse Ansari’s advances. She should’ve “just said no” or simply left, some say, but it’s never been that easy.

Allegedly, Grace used both verbal and non-verbal cues to express her discomfort and Ansari either didn’t notice or didn’t care. At one point, she said she didn’t want to feel forced and he responded with, “Oh, of course, it’s only fun if we’re both having fun.”

In 1999, Celia Kitzinger and Hannah Frith published an article in Discourse and Society, an international social science journal, about analyzing conversations and communication in sexual refusal. After drawing from other studies and collecting their own data from focus groups of 58 female school and university students in the U.K., they concluded that women find it hard to “just say no” and this can actually be true in any context. People can experience difficulty rejecting offers or invitations and doing so nicely seems to be part of etiquette.

Kitzinger and Frith also wrote that, “[both] men and women have a sophisticated ability to convey and to comprehend refusals, including refusals which do not include the word ‘no’, and we suggest that male claims not to have ‘understood’ refusals which conform to culturally normative patterns can only be heard as self-interested justifications for coercive behavior.”

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This, coupled with gendered social norms and expectations has misconstrued people’s definition of sexual misconduct and enthusiastic consent.

We use verbal and non-verbal cues in our everyday lives in a variety of circumstances. Ansari should not be given a free pass for supposedly missing Grace’s repeated cues, and people should not blame her for feeling pressured and unable to give explicit refusal.

For a long time, we’ve expected women to overlook their uneasiness, just as we’ve allowed men to be part of it.

A woman’s lack of explicit refusal is often interpreted as consent and then later, after she speaks up about it, it’s seen as an indication that she was just weak and couldn’t stand up for herself. But at what price should a woman give a man sexual pleasure?

Commenters across the internet have said that Grace’s story discredits the #MeToo movement and those who have survived serious cases of sexual assault. Perhaps we need to ask ourselves why we are discrediting her experience. Is it only rape or sexual assault if the victim is screaming and fighting back or unconscious?

Let’s stop paying attention to what Grace did or did not do. Instead, evaluate the widespread discussion that this story has sparked and find out what can be fixed.

Don’t define a person’s experience and dismiss it as just a “bad date”; listen to them. Our society has just witnessed the Weinstein effect and the sentencing of former sports doctor Larry Nassar. Is it really appropriate for us to be invalidating young women’s experiences?

Don’t talk; listen and address it properly. Ansari did.

Don’t call out only the really bad, obvious predators; take every encounter into consideration and wonder why a man’s desire takes precedence over her feelings.

#MeToo is not about how we define sexual assault or misconduct. It’s about how we look at the experiences of those who spoke out against Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey and Ansari, and ask ourselves what we’re going to do about it and why it matters. Why do these events happen? How do we support our fellow men and women to create a culture of respect and understanding?

Many women have publicly empathized with Grace’s experience. This shows that what some might dismiss as a “bad date” is representative of rape culture, where men aren’t aware or asking if their partner is okay and women find themselves unable to be more assertive.

We all would like to think we’d handle a situation like this properly but reality does not always work that way. For those of us asking why Grace didn’t do this or that, why she stayed, why she went on a date and didn’t expect it “to go somewhere”… we need to be asking questions of Ansari.

Ansari may not have aggressively forced her to stay and he may not have had nonconsensual sex with her, but he still ignored her discomfort. He still didn’t stop to make sure what they were doing was okay. He still did not show an ounce of respect for her sexual boundaries. Though his intentions might not have been malicious, that does not mean his actions weren’t wrong.

This has to change.

We need to educate ourselves and each other. In order to prevent unwanted sexual encounters and combat rape culture, we have to invest in proper sex education and revisit the notion of respect.

Until then, we have no one to point fingers at but ourselves.