Aziz Ansari, a self-proclaimed feminist, supporter of the Time’s Up movement, a feminist media-certified “woke bae,” was accused of sexual misconduct by an anonymous woman. Following this, opinion has been divided on whether the woman, referred to as “Grace,” was justified in telling this story, whether it constituted news, if it detracted from the stories of women who were actually raped and if the #MeToo movement has gone too far.
What’s problematic about these questions is that they attempt to determine what level of coercion and violation is acceptable. Just because rape and bad dates don’t entail the same level of trauma, there’s no reason why a woman shouldn’t feel free to speak out about an experience she felt was unacceptable.
There’s certainly no need to demand an end to Ansari’s career, doubt whether he is apologetic or question his support for movements to end sexual assault and harassment. Ansari is no Harvey Weinstein, and he shouldn’t be lambasted as such. But as a man who has been vocal about feminist issues in the past, he should own up to his part in sustaining a culture of non-consent and a prioritization of men’s pleasure over women’s comfort and safety. His behavior was perfectly illustrative of the kind of dehumanization and aggression the movements he supports protest.
With the current narrative around sexual harassment and assault gaining more attention and credence, it’s more important than ever that we discuss sexual experiences, in all their murkiness and grey areas, to determine what our expectations of ourselves and others are. It’s important that we talk about what affirmative consent means, and what it means to communicate one's desires to ensure mutual comfort between partners. Stories like Grace’s are much more common and understandable to most of us than those born of Hollywood power dynamics (not to say there aren’t elements of those stories many women are all too familiar with).
We need to change the way we think about sex in general — we live in a culture in which many women don’t prioritize their own sexual pleasure and autonomy, who don’t express their desires explicitly. Consent is not something to be taken lightly, on either side; both men and women need to understand their responsibility to communicate, and understand everyone is responsible for ensuring the comfort of their partner. Not paying attention to or outright disregarding a sexual partner’s cues and reactions likely means boundaries will be violated, and is generally just a recipe for bad sex.
Bringing trauma out from the shadows will only lessen the shame and burden felt by those who have had similar experiences. In order to change our culture around sex, we have to talk to each other — there’s no way around it. Equivocating on what kinds of negative sexual experiences are worthy of discussion will only continue the secrecy that shrouds our cultural dialogue around sex, as well as support larger, more insidious structures of patriarchal power and sexual violence. The Ansari story is important because we need to stop normalizing non-consent and the devaluation of women, even if something isn’t an instance of outright assault. If we don’t, we’ll just end up back where we started.