With the dawn of the #MeToo movement and the outing of an ever growing number of sexual misconducts carried out by those in even the highest positions of power, it would seem that it’s never been safer for victims of sex crimes to come forward and speak out. Ranging from the likes of now infamous Hollywood powerhouses such as Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey to those holding political office like ex-Alabama supreme court justice Roy Moore, the #MeToo movement, to the chagrin of abusers everywhere, is taking no prisoners.
Despite all the undeniable good the movement has done and continues to do its widely cast net has now provided some the capacity to defame those whose only crime is nothing more than being an overly officious date merely through the mention of one’s name in the same breath as those who have indeed committed heinous sexual crimes. Through these cases though, however unpleasant for all parties involved, there is something to be gleaned; a clearer and more specific definition of what is and isn’t acceptable/appropriate sexual behavior. While a manner of conduct might not necessarily be criminal, it can still very much be ethically reprehensible – enter Aziz Ansari.
Just one week after the 34-year-old comedian’s first Golden Globe win for his performance in the Netflix original Master of None, online women’s publication babe broke a story detailing the night out of an anonymous woman under the pseudonym Grace who allegedly met and dined with Ansari before retiring to his apartment and engaging in various sexual acts which she painstakingly describes, including kissing, touching, and mutual oral sex. The piece asserts that over the course of the night Ansari made continued and insistent attempts to engage in penetrative sex to which she responded with non-verbal and eventually verbal cues of discomfort saying:
“Most of my discomfort was expressed in me pulling away and mumbling. I know that my hand stopped moving at some points,’ she said. ‘I stopped moving my lips and turned cold … I know I was physically giving off cues that I wasn’t interested. I don’t think that was noticed at all, or if it was, it was ignored.”
After that moment Grace says she excused herself to the bathroom before returning and engaging in the following exchange:
“[S]he went back to Ansari. He asked her if she was okay. ‘I said I don’t want to feel forced because then I’ll hate you, and I’d rather not hate you,’ she said. She told babe that at first, she was happy with how he reacted. ‘He said, ‘Oh, of course, it’s only fun if we’re both having fun.’ The response was technically very sweet and acknowledging the fact that I was very uncomfortable. Verbally, in that moment, he acknowledged that I needed to take it slow.”
By her own description Ansari seemed to either disregard or be unaware of her discomfort until finally she verbalized it at which point he did temporarily cease his advances. After some more time had passed and another unsuccessful attempt by Ansari to initiate sex, he suggested they put their clothes back on and go watch TV on the couch instead. Once clothed and on the couch however, Ansari once again attempted to initiate foreplay and after more sexual insistence from him, Grace became fed up with his continued advances and left after decreeing, “You guys are all the same, you guys are all the fucking same!”
Upon the release of the article, a divided outcry echoed out from the depths of the internet. Taking to twitter and various other platforms, some called for the firing of Ansari from his award winning show, some defended his arguably inappropriate behavior and called for the anonymous Grace to come forward and reveal herself, but as the outcry grew on both sides it became apparent that this scandal represents an important defining moment for the future of the movement in regard to the comparable severity between Aziz Ansari’s actions and those of others, such as Kevin Spacey and Harvey Weinstein.
Reactionary pieces were published following the story’s breaking across various news sites ranging from the New York Times to the Atlantic which all seemed to hold a common attitude. While Ansari’s behavior was sleazy and even disreputable, it certainly did not constitute an assault.
In her article entitled “Aziz Ansari Is Guilty. Of Not Being A Mind Reader”, New York Times journalist Bari Weiss asserts that while it is certainly unfortunate that Grace experienced an unpleasant sexual encounter, it may not be as serious as she claims. Weiss identifies the situation simply as an unpleasant sexual encounter, asserting that, “There is a useful term for what this woman experienced on her night with Mr. Ansari. It’s called ‘bad sex.’ It sucks.”
She went on to illustrate the potentially dangerous nature of these accusations saying, “The insidious attempt by some women to criminalize awkward, gross and entitled sex takes women back to the days of smelling salts and fainting couches. That’s somewhere I, for one, don’t want to go.”
This “insidious attempt” as described by Weiss is one that presents itself in many of the reactionary pieces written in support of Grace’s decision to come forward, but possibly none more so than an article written by Lindy West, also a contributor to the New York Times, entitled “Aziz, We Tried To Warn You.” She gets right to the point opening her piece by stating:
“In 1975, 42 years before the comedian Aziz Ansari reportedly brought a date home to his apartment and repeatedly tried to initiate sex with her after she told him ‘next time’ and ‘I don’t want to feel forced,’ Susan Brownmiller published ‘Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape.’’
While West never says outright “I think Aziz Ansari is a rapist,” the insinuation is quite clear. Unlike other crimes such as murder,assault, and battery, crimes that are sexual in nature seem to have yet to be afforded a narrow and specific definition and as a result the slew of outed offenders seem to continue to be lumped together under the brand “sexual abuser.” While their actions are certainly indefensible, it is fairly obvious that the sexual fumblings of Ansari do not constitute an assault and are certainly not of the same severity as the numerous sexual crimes of Harvey Weinstein or Kevin Spacey. This of course in no way justifies the decisions of Ansari, but the assertion that his actions are of the same caliber as cases of true abuse is one that is both ill-informed and even dangerous potentially putting at risk the legitimacy of the larger movement.
Weiss certainly wasn’t the only journalist to feel this way and in the form of a televised open letter to Grace, Ashleigh Banfield of HLN spoke out against Ansari’s accuser saying:
“Let’s take a moment to reflect on what you claim was the ‘worst night of your life.’ You had a bad date. Your date got overly amorous. After protesting his moves, you did not get up and leave. You continued to engage in the sexual encounter. By your own clear description, this wasn’t a rape, nor was it a sexual assault. Your sexual encounter was ‘unpleasant’ at best. It did not send you to the police. It did not affect your workplace or your ability to get a job … [W]hat you have done, in my opinion, is appalling. You went to the press with a story of a bad date and you have potentially destroyed this man’s career over it, right after he received an award for which he was worthy … You have chiseled away at a movement that I, along with all my sisters in the workplace, have been dreaming of for decades, a movement that has finally changed an oversexed professional environment that I, too, have struggled through at times over the last 30 years.”
In her address Banfield made her stance on the issue more than clear; whatever these allegations represented, it was certainly not sexual assault or harassment and it should absolutely not be a part of the same conversation. In addition to her view that these allegations are clearly not indicative of anything other than romantic ineptitude, Banfield addressed the unfortunate consequences these allegations could have on Ansari’s future. While it is still too early to tell, allegations of this kind seem to have become a career death sentence well before they can be substantiated. As Americans we claim to value the precept of “innocent until proven guilty,” however, in the current social climate, and especially on the internet, that tenet has often become twisted when dealing with accusations of this nature, and that can lead to dangerous consequences.
In her article entitled “The Humiliation of Aziz Ansari” Caitlin Flanagan, writer for The Atlantic, expressed similar concerns about the apparent character assassination of who she sees as a harmless, if sexually incompetent, young comedian saying:
“She wanted affection, kindness, attention. Perhaps she hoped to maybe even become the famous man’s girlfriend. He wasn’t interested. What she felt afterward—rejected yet another time, by yet another man—was regret. And what she and the writer who told her story created was 3,000 words of revenge porn. The clinical detail in which the story is told is intended not to validate her account as much as it is to hurt and humiliate Ansari. Together, the two women may have destroyed Ansari’s career, which is now the punishment for every kind of male sexual misconduct, from the grotesque to the disappointing.”
She went on to add:
“Apparently there is a whole country full of young women who don’t know how to call a cab, and who have spent a lot of time picking out pretty outfits for dates they hoped would be nights to remember. They’re angry and temporarily powerful, and last night they destroyed a man who didn’t deserve it.”
While it is equally unfortunate that Grace was subjected to a disappointing evening as it is that Ansari’s career is in jeopardy as a result, the allegations and subsequent response represents a defining moment for the future of the #Metoo movement. The general consensus seems to indicate that while Ansari’s actions were more than uncouth they did not constitute sexually criminal behavior; an important distinction. Although unpleasant for everyone involved, this scandal may well represent the seed that grows into the tree whose branch is used to draw a clear line in the sand between what is and isn’t acceptable sexual conduct.