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Talking about the grey area … will you listen?

| Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Earlier this month, Babe.net published a pseudonymous account of a 23-year-old photographer’s (“Grace”) messy date with actor/comedian Aziz Ansari. The reaction to the piece has been divisive; many suggest her complaints are representative of the #MeToo, #TimesUp and modern feminist movements having gone too far. Due in part to clickbait-y journalistic flaws and sensationalized storytelling, the conversation has since shifted away from the story’s intent: to encourage a reconsideration of heterosexual dating culture, affirmative consent and toxic gender dynamics.  

Let it be clear: No one is trying to equate the form of misconduct detailed in the Ansari accusation to more violent crimes like rape. There is a great deal of outrage directed toward an imagined group of angry millennial feminists believed to be conflating the issues. Because Grace’s story falls in a difficult grey area, critics find difficulty pinpointing where exactly Aziz went wrong. Indeed, the particular details of their encounter could be argued ad nauseam. But that something is technically legal does not make it ethical. That something is the norm does not make it right. That it was done by a man who is far from a monster does not mean the act was harmless. As Samantha Bee said, “it doesn’t have to be rape to ruin your life, and it doesn’t have to ruin your life to be worth speaking about.”

Many suggest that Grace should have left the situation earlier, said “no” more firmly, used physical force to stop the action and so on. But consent often isn’t as black and white as a verbal yes or no. For women in particular — who are so frequently taught that men’s approval is paramount, who are made to think that their self worth stems from sex appeal, who are so often silenced by the voices of men around them, who are conditioned to appease and acquiesce despite their own discomfort — it’s nearly impossible to escape such a situation with a simple “no.” In its stead, Grace opted for softer “noes,” both nonverbal and verbal (“not yet,” “let’s take it slow,” etc.).  

This phraseology isn’t foreign to men’s vocabularies. In other situations, both men and women employ similar tactics for polite rejection. An invitation to a party you don’t want to attend? “I’m not sure what my plans are.” “I would like to, but …” “Maybe another time.” When an outright “no” is uncomfortable to deliver, this way of speaking successfully communicates declining an offer. To pretend otherwise is counterproductive.  

Grace’s eagerness for their date is not consent. Grace’s choice to return to Ansari’s apartment is not consent. That this is “how things work” or “how men behave” or “how dates operate” is not consent. Passivity is not consent. She resisted —verbally and nonverbally — while he persisted.  I, along with so many of my peers, recognized in Grace’s story an all-too-familiar, stomach-churning feeling: the realization that your sexual partner doesn’t care whether or not you’re present in your body — that you are there only to please. It’s a violation difficult to put into words. It leaves you frozen and silent and scared.  

That’s not to say that Ansari was necessarily ill-intentioned. He seems to have been genuinely unaware that his persistence was not well received. Ansari has little precedent for considering a woman’s experience in romantic pursuit (although his book on modern dating and self-proclaimed feminism might have suggested he was more in touch). The aggressive male pursuit of women “playing coy” is inextricable from almost any widespread heterosexual romance narrative. It, too, is conditioned. And that merits reconsideration. For men like Ansari, it may require an active unlearning of social norms. It takes effort and empathy to recognize positions of power and privilege when they operate largely to benefit oneself and at the expense of others. To think Ansari’s behavior is natural or unavoidable is a backwards attitude. He is no Weinstein, but normalizing his behavior (or becoming preoccupied with the fate of his career) because it falls in the gray area is a dangerous game.   

Perhaps the most telling response lies in the hundreds of tweets, comments and posts that echo the same sentiment: “If what Aziz did is assault, then every girl I know has been assaulted.” And that’s so close to getting the point. These statements — intended to mitigate Ansari’s guilt — underscore just how necessary a new normal is. So many women can recall an instance in which a sexual encounter that began as positive pivoted to violating. So many women have gritted their teeth through an uncomfortable, painful and unsafe sexual encounter. The gray area is massive and daunting.

Defining it may begin with women advocating for themselves. So here we are. We are speaking up. We are telling our stories. We our raising our voices so that the next girl might be better equipped, and the next boy may be more conscious. I hope you listen.  

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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