1/27/2018 0 Comments
I have been doing anti-sexual violence work for well over 10 years. I have had countless clients on my therapy couch, asking me if what happened to them was really rape. I've spoken to people who were ashamed because they were forcibly turned over and anally penetrated by their attacker but were confused about whether agreeing to perform oral sex earlier negated the violent act that came later. It does not. Anyone can consent to one act and not to the next. Rape is any coercive or forcible penetration of a bodily opening--vaginal, anal, or oral.
I do this work to lift silence around the issues of sexual assault, or rape, and to bring awareness to the pervasiveness. I am making a conscientious effort to say rape is rape. It does not have to result in post-traumatic stress disorder, time off work, or a lost career to be rape. There are enough lay people promoting the narrative that "coercion" amounts to a "bad date" in papers like The Atlantic and New York Magazine that I decided I had to provide clarity. This time the backlash involves Aziz Ansari.
A fantastic rundown of why Aziz Ansari's behavior particularly devastates feminists like myself is captured in this Vox article. Aziz Ansari is #WokeBae, an attractive, successful man who owns his male privilege. The second seasons of Ansari's show Master's of None included a full subplot dedicated to sexual harassment in Hollywood, and it aired before the crap hit the fan in real life Hollywood. Ansari's character Dev is an actor who comes under fire because he refuses to divorce himself from a co-star known to be perpetrating sexual harassment around town. The consequences of Dev's inaction was crucifixion by public opinion and the loss his show. I loved this season. Ansari's dramedy depicted how neutrality ALWAYS sides with abusers and how "good men" work in unintentional ways to silence victims. I thought he was the #Ally who got it.
Then I heard about "Grace" a woman being interviewed by Babe under a pseudonym. A girl friend of mine read me some tweets on the subject. I think I groaned to the heavens, "Nooooooooo, not Aziz!" I always believe victims first then ask questions later. Yet, even Grace didn't seem to be sure it was rape, albeit "the worst night of my life." Yet again, I was prepared, to make a case for how rape culture wrongfully convinces survivors that rape includes only stranger rape at gunpoint.
Consent on a Continuum
These things are not rape, and I truly believe that most women are not crying rape over these experiences. #MeToo is not on a "witch hunt" to end Ansari's career. However, what happened to Grace does belong in the discussion because her story provide nuance. By definition, what happened to her is sexual assault because the sexual activities happened under pressure and included both digital and oral penetration.
Instead, this led to a really good conversation between my friend and me about sex that falls in the grey areas along a continuum of a firm "no," a grudging "sure," and an enthusiastic "yes." Even I, a sex educator, who specializes in sexual assault issues have experienced consensual sex in the grey area-- sex I regretted or that left me tremendously disappointed. (Two pumps and swirl, really?) My friend talked about sex out of obligation, sex she wasn't up to, but felt resigned to participate in because it was her man's birthday, or because she'd been treated to a five-star meal, or because men's egos are so fragile, or because as women we're socialized to protect everyone else's emotions but our own. We called this The Pity Fuck. I recalled sex that I regretted because it crossed some boundaries, including sex without condoms or sex in the window of time where my birth control may have been too new to be effective. Even so, not all crossed sexual boundaries are assault. For instance, you might choose never to have sex under the influence of alcohol, but if you accept a drink from your partner, then you both may agree to have sex anyway. You may feel guilty for going back on a promise to yourself.
Going back to the example of alcohol and being lax on your own boundaries, if your partner purposely pressures you to drink despite your stated boundary, this is coercive. Moreover, purposely getting you so drunk that you cannot participate coherently in sex is coercive rape. Finally, penetrating someone when they are passed out or blackout drunk is most definitely forcible rape. See, how all of these sexual acts exist on a continuum and not in neat boxes?
Thankfully, I have yet to read a think piece that suggests Ansari used alcohol as a date rape drug, and make no mistake alcohol is the number one date rape drug, not roofies. Ansari and Grace seemed to both have been participating equally in drinking socially. And that is fine. Two people can still have drunken, consensual sex.
"I didn’t get to choose and I prefer red, but it was white wine"- Grace
Alcohol played a part with "Grace" and Aziz Ansari. Yes, Ansari maybe failed to ask her what she wanted to drink, but she also didn't correct him. She did not protest having white wine. And the above line sums up the entire problem for me--
If you cannot assert what you want to drink on a date then you most certainly will not be able to assert what you want in bed.
Is Ansari That Bad?
Ansari and "Grace" dated despite some other power imbalances. However, no power imbalances were so skewed in Ansari's favor that Grace could neither consent to a date or sex with him if she so chose. The age difference that has been mentioned by podcasts like Bitch Media, is unremarkable to me. He has about 10 years on Grace, but she is as much as 5 years over the age of consent in all 50 states, and presumably has had some sexual relations before their encounter. Never in the encounter does he prey on her naivete or age difference. For instance, she can rent a car to leave a dangerous situation, and drive herself to their date, but a 15-year-old cannot. Contrarily, serial predators like Roy Moore tend to wear their victims down over time through grooming, one tactic being bestowing their victims with gifts and privileges that the victims themselves cannot access on their own due to their age. Comparatively, "Grace," can participate fully in the date despite Ansari's celebrity and clout in the industry. Keep in mind, she has enough access and clout on her own to have met him at an Emmy's afterparty. So, Aziz didn't exploit any status of his to lure her back to his place.
The Three Big Bad E's and Violence
"If it takes a village to raise a child, then it takes a village to abuse one"- Spotlight
Exploitation is key when understanding sexual assault. In many of the recent scandals, the perpetrators actually manipulated whole systems to help recruit new victims and silence formers one. The recent conviction of Larry Nassar, a physician who abused over 160 girls during the course of his medical career including Olympic champions Aly Raisman, Simone Biles, and Gabby Douglas, is a key example of systematic exploitation at work. Aly Raisman talked about her experience on The View this morning. She explains why she was too new to Olympic life at the time to know any better. She trusted the University of Michigan and the Olympics to take care of her. She didn't know it was odd, if not outright wrong, to have Nassar conduct assessments of her on her hotel bed. I would wager that he banked on that very naivete as well as on the proven patterns of the organizations employing him. He knew the Olympics would look the other way even if she did report, and they did turn a blind eye for over 20 years, one of the earliest reports against him dating back to 1997. Raisman rightly points out that the organizations were too cheap to provide athletes with a facility in which her whole team could be present during their examinations. So, it created a window to abuse her in secret. This cheapness was routinely exploited by Nassar.
Aziz Ansari, however, did not exploit Grace within a system, even though they both work for the entertainment industry in some capacity. He didn't use the Emmy's to shield himself from reproach or hide his actions.
Lack of Empathy
"The next day, I got a text from her saying that although 'it may have seemed okay,' upon further reflection, she felt uncomfortable. It was true that everything did seem okay to me, so when I heard that it was not the case for her, I was surprised and concerned, I took her words to heart and responded privately after taking the time to process what she had said."
If I were Ansari's therapist I would want to know that he could put himself in her shoes. What does he make of the moment where she says that she cried on the way home? What does he think she emotionally felt when she was running zig zags through his kitchen? Perhaps he will talk to professionals about how to check in throughout his next sexual encounter in order to better negotiate consent.
People like Larry Nassar who routinely perpetrate sexual violence feel entitled to the bodies of their victims. They think of these girls as lacking any real decision-making in sex and view them as sexual objects. He may think that his status and success as a doctor qualifies him for sex with anyone he finds attractive. A common date rape example is a rapist citing the victim's choice to come back to his apartment as evidence of her compliance. Another is pressuring her on the grounds that he paid for dinner and she owes him. Ansari did not take tally this way nor did he suggest that he deserved to have sex with Grace under any circumstances.
"Grace compares Ansari’s sexual mannerisms to those of a horny, rough, entitled 18-year-old. She said so to her friends via text after the date and said the same thing to me when we spoke." - Katie Way, Babeland
Being persistent and ignorant is not the definition of entitlement. Sorry, Katie. Ansari was tone-deaf and pushy, but he does not demonstrate a belief that he is entitled to sex with Grace.
How Grace Thought She Was Clear
For all of her assertions that she was giving clear non-verbal signals, I was left wanting to better understand what those signals were during some parts of the ordeal. My guess is that there were none at the point that he began stripping himself. Understandably, she may have remained open to sex with Ansari, the guy admired for his taste in cameras and presumably decent conversation earlier over dinner.
The first time she describes her clear verbal cues is well after being partially undressed, when he told her that he'd be back with a condom.
She says something like, "Whoa why don't we relax for a sec. let's chill." However, "chill" could mean a lot of different things to different people.
Case in point, I have worked with teen survivors of abuse and adult offenders of domestic violence alike who read statements like that of Grace and cannot come up with a consensus amongst their group mates. Some people think "why don't we relax for a sec," is a yellow light, while others think it is a red light. For those who think this is a yellow light, it is not a directive to stop ALL sexual activity but rather a request to slow down enough to catch one's breath. Some, even still, think it's a request to check-in and clarify boundaries. For others, it means the CURRENT activity of sex is off the table, but not the previous activities of making out, outercourse, and stripping. For those who view it as a red light, it is a firm no to ALL types of continued interactions while to others it is a firm no to only sex and a request to switch to a more leisurely activity like watching TV. This is why communication would have been important here because directions framed as questions are open for negotiation, and directive without specifically named activities are open to misinterpretation.
At some point, it seems like she gave a soft "no" or a grudging "yes" that exists in the grey area. Because she implies there will be a "next time." He then follows with a clarifying question like "Oh you mean on a second date?"
And she says "Oh, yeah, sure." which to her means "never" and to him means "keep trying."
How Grace Can Do Better
I know traditional anti-violence work acknowledges that it is not for survivors of sexual violence to have to say "Stop!" or "No" in order to legitimate their sexual assault. The onus is on the assailant to know when and if he gained an "enthusiastic yes." This affirmative yes campaign was an attempt to protect survivors who could not say "no" due to age, mental disability, dissociation, incapacitation, and a host of other issues related to power dynamics. I do not think that this absolves a perfectly functional adult like Grace from making her discomfort explicitly known, especially to a date who is running past her supposed "non-verbal" cues, cues like her lips going "cold," whatever that means. Grace needs to woman-up and learn to ask for what she need.
This brings me back to my earlier point about exploitation and coercive rape. Coersive rape happens when there is explicit or implicit threat. What Grace experienced was neither coercive or exploitive. It was a lesser level on the continuum- pressure. At no point during the piece does Grace admit to being anxious about the consequences or saying no, nor does she suggest that Ansari might have escalated to forcibly raping her. Contrarily, Harvey Weinstein victims were explicitly told that he would ruin their careers if they told, and in the cases of some like Rose McGowan, he did a pretty good job of it. He terrorized Selma Hayek all through the making of Frida. NOTHING is stopping Grace from saying "I don't want to fuck you at all," accept her own internal workings.
The writer of The Gift of Fear, Gavin DeBeker says, "do not negotiate!" If you are trying to get away from Mr. Wrong, statements like "Next time," and "I had a nice time, too," as offered up by Grace are completely unhelpful. Any contact seen after an initial rejection will be seen as negotiation. Every time she returns to sit next to Ansari (presumably still half-naked) and every time she returned a text, she weakens her own resolve. And this misunderstanding is demonstrated in Ansari's reply as he resumes making out with her, "Doesn’t look like you hate me.’”
How Aziz Ansari Thought He Had Consent
Gavin Debeker talks about this as the rom-com movie formula "Boy Wants Girl, Girl Doesn't Want Boy, Boy Harasses Girl, Boy Gets Girls." When Grace says "oh sure" Ansari decides to kiss her some more and maybe she'll say "yes."
For instance, "Hi. Aziz, it was nice meeting you too. I hope you have some nice shots on the roll," is taken as "Oh she did have a good time. She just needs space for right now otherwise why would she compliment my work."
To Ansari's credit, I think he has the best example of a clarifying statement in this whole debacle. "Where do you want me to fuck you?” She says she found the question tough to answer because she says she didn’t want to fuck him at all... That's not tough to answer, Grace. Say just that-- "I don't want to fuck you, at all."
I actually think Ansari's question "Where do you want me to fuck you?" It is the best example of consent language in this whole debacle. Regardless of whether or not you find the phrasing crass, it's open-ended and it provides Grace an opportunity to describe what she wants to happen.
How Aziz Ansari Can Do Better
Men who cannot let go choose women who cannot say no.- Gavin DeBecker
If you want to do better of negotiating consent...
Ultimately, Ansari may have had a shot if he had been more gentlemanly. This case bothers so many men who can relate to Ansari because they know that they are also practiced in smoothing over a woman's soft "no" into the "grudging yes," not because they don't know a non-verbal "no" when they hear it, but because they willfully ignore it. This story bothers so many women because it forces us to square with many instances of coercion in our own sex lives- the "grudging yes" under pressure that may yet better resemble a no. Our younger selves who could not say "no" does not gel with the image of our current selves- kick-ass, independent, assertive people who articulate our needs. Hopefully, the Ansari-Grace debacle inspires all of us to listen a little better and express our needs a lot more.
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Sexpert & psychotherapist, Quandra Chaffers, presents Sass-y comments on love, health, and relationships--Comments too tangential or racy for the therapy room.