Last week many of us read or heard the story of Aziz Ansari being accused of sexual assault by an anonymous woman, named “Grace”, in an article published by the online publication Babe.net.
Grace’s story describes something that so many people, especially women, have experienced: someone consistently pushing sex without noticing or caring about what the other person wants or needs. Grace’s experience is very typical, which makes it important to talk about. To some extent, Ansari’s behavior is perceived as normal…and that’s the real problem.
Would this case go to trial? Probably not. But we are not here to argue the legality of this, rather the problematic toxic behaviors that disrupt the ethics of dating. Behaviors that contribute to rape culture and ultimately contribute to sexual harassment and assault.
After the story was published, we saw the internet take sides and debate whether this beloved, pro-consent, comedian had done anything wrong. Strongly held opinions were posted in every comment section. How is it possible for audiences to be so divided on the same issue? How can there be so much victim blaming aimed to Grace and so little concern about the aggressive behaviors acted out by Ansari?
Isn’t this disheartening? Isn’t it disappointing and frustrating to realize how low we’ve set the bar for basic respect that we refuse to recognize something as pressure, abuse, or coercion and prefer to label it as a “bad hook-up”? Grace’s story gets to the core of our society’s problems with sex and how gender roles and dating misconceptions are still deeply ingrained in our society, creating a harmful environment for everybody, not only within the dating scene but in everyday interactions.
Let’s start with what society dictates about how a stereotypical man and woman should be. Stereotypically a man needs to be strong, like sports, and be unemotional. They are taught and expected to want sex all the time and to push boundaries to get it. They are taught that women often “play hard to get” and may need “convincing” into sex. Society has historically taught women to be gentle and polite and are taught that if they “give in to sex” easy the will be called “sluts”. Women are taught to desire sex is problematic but also to deny our partners sex is not allowed and makes us a tease or worse. This is wherein lies the crux of our problem, if manhood is measured by sex and aggression, how can we stop violent sexual behavior if these traits are still what several men unconsciously strive for based on societal expectations? Also, where does this leave men who are victims of sexual aggression and violence?
These stereotypes, besides being heteronormative, also reinforce the idea that a “real man” cannot be a victim of abuse. When in reality we know that anybody and everybody can be a victim of this crime. Sadly, as we are learning over and over again, only some victims experiences will be heard, believed or validated.
Grace’s story hits home for many people, revealing how common it is for a man to persist and how common it is for a woman’s objections to be dismissed. Consent is not complex. There are countless verbal and non-verbal cues that express either enthusiasm or discomfort. In Grace’s case, she kept pushing away from Ansari’s body, she kept moving her hand away from where he wanted it, she said she didn’t want to feel forced and overall stopped participating. This is not a case of miscommunication, this is a case of a person putting their own needs first disregarding anyone else's.
This narrative brings to light that sadly we, as a society, still don’t fully understand that consent should be enthusiastic, ongoing, verbal and that it can be revoked anytime. Jameela Jamil sums it up beautifully: CONSENT SHOULDN’T BE THE GOLD STANDARD. That should be the basic foundation. Built upon that foundation should be fun, mutual passion, equal arousal, interest, and enthusiasm. And it is any man or woman’s right at ANY time to stop, for whatever reason.
When we talk about sexual misconduct, people are confused about the wrongness of it because we are still focusing on the physical harm. Serial sexual predators like Harvey Weinstein’s are easier to recognize and condemn because men do not identify with the actions he committed. However, countless men have likely behaved as Grace says Ansari did: focusing on their own desires without recognizing what their partner wants. Let’s take a moment and imagine a situation when someone ignores your needs.
Let’s say you go to a restaurant for dinner and order a salad, but the waiter says to you that you should instead try the house special. You respond: “No thanks, I really prefer the salad”. A few minutes later the waiter comes back with the house special instead of the salad you wanted and he says: “I know this is not what you ordered, but trust me, this is what you want”. Would that be cool with you? Of course not. So, let’s not treat our sex partners like this horrible waiter.
Let’s be clear we’re not comparing abuses of power perpetrated by other men in the workplace; that’s the world’s worst competition where no one wins. What we are saying, however, is that all of these toxic behaviors exist on a spectrum of abuse that negatively contributes to rape culture and ultimately to sexual violence and assault.
If we truly want to create a cultural change, we need to understand how abuses of power can manifest in small ways as well as large ones. We need to understand and recognize everyday toxic behaviors, language, and beliefs that we believe to be part of the “normal” experience of sexual relations and raise the bar in terms of basic respect. Let’s stop dismissing bad behavior by saying “men are like that.” And ignoring male victims by making jokes like “you can't rape the willing” Let’s stop disguising coercion with seduction. Let’s stop using sex-shaming phrases like “you are such a tease” or “you are a prude”. And finally, let’s believe survivors and hold folks that harm others accountable for their actions.
This is not a women vs. men war, but a fight against negative stereotypes, myths and other misinformation that make sexual violence appear acceptable. We can fight against societal expectations and gender stereotypes by calling out not just the worst behaviors, but also the little things that need improvement. This is the time of reckoning and it is not easy as we all play the protagonist role in this situation. The power to change is on us.