The Aziz Ansari Story Highlights An Important Conversation About Consent

January 16, 2018

It may not have been illegal, but it definitely wasn’t okay. 

In what some are calling the downfall of the important and long overdue #metoo movement, sexual misconduct allegations have now surfaced against comedian and actor, Aziz Ansari.

The reason a lot of people are scoffing at these particular accusations, is that what Ansari is accused of isn’t illegal. It isn’t your typical case of assault. In fact, what the woman involved in the incident is claiming he did is almost so commonplace, many people can’t even understand why it’s made news, putting it down to ‘just a bad date’ experience.

But it’s this very normalization of the situation which is so troubling.

For some background, Babe published an article over the weekend detailing an anonymous woman’s experience on a date with Ansari, during which, the 34 year-old allegedly ignored or didn’t notice her non-verbal cues that she didn’t want to have sexual contact with him.

“He said something along the lines of, ‘How about you hop up and take a seat?’…In a second, his hand was on my breast,” the article recounts.

“I said something like, ‘Whoa, let’s relax for a sec, let’s chill.’”

Then, according to the article, the comedian ignored the unidentified woman’s physical indications she wasn’t interested in taking things further.

“He probably moved my hand to his dick five to seven times…He really kept doing it after I moved it away.”

The woman eventually engaged in some sexual activity with him, but – according to her account in the article – mainly out of feeling pressured to, before she left the apartment in tears, feeling her boundaries had been violated. The next day she messaged him saying he’d made her feel violated because he didn’t realize – or didn’t care – that the person he was touching didn’t want to be touched, to which he apologized.

“I just want to take this moment to make you aware of [your] behavior and how uneasy it made me,” the text read. To which Ansari responded: “Clearly, I misread things in the moment and I’m truly sorry.”

After the story was released, Twitter erupted, with many tweeters touching on the underlying problem with the entire encounter.

Here’s the thing. Ansari didn’t technically do anything criminal, and most level-headed people I’ve seen aren’t calling for him to be charged with anything, or even for his career to be ruined as retribution for his actions. If anything, his behavior after the fact – the message he sent saying he was sorry to hear how he’d made the woman featured in the now infamous story feel, and misread the situation – should be the way any man should react when a woman explains to him his actions made her feel uncomfortable.

I don’t even really want to go into the Ansari story. I could give a very in-depth and thorough hot-take on this specific article and my reaction to it, but I feel like there’s a much more important conversation to be had here.

A conversation about consent.

And about how it’s simultaneously starkly black and white, but can also be all kinds of murky gray at the same time.

I’m not exaggerating when I say every woman I know has at some point mentioned a story to me involving an eerily similar situation to the one now setting Twitter alight; a familiar tale of feeling sexually pressured into ultimately doing something they weren’t comfortable with, often in the face of repeated polite verbal or physical gestures to indicate as much. A situation in which they froze, or tried to slap away unwanted touches. They might have tried to walk away, or redirect their attention to something else, or change the subject, or message a friend for an escape route. A situation where they haven’t exactly come out with a firm and loud “No! Get away from me!” but have more or less continuously expressed this sentiment through their actions or body language.

So, why don’t women just loudly and proudly proclaim their non-consent? I mean, what’s all the fuss about? If you don’t want it, just clearly say “Get lost, jerk” and leave…right?

Not exactly…

Because we’ve been taught not to make a scene, or create a mountain out of a molehill. We might want to protect the feelings of the man we’re with, or because we feel like maybe there’s just been a misunderstanding and we can escape this situation with no-one having their ego or pride ruined, and a friendship still intact. And, in a lot of cases, we don’t come out with an obvious ‘no’ to prevent anger and potential violence from being directed at us. We do it for our own safety.

To highlight just how ingrained this ‘don’t make a scene’ culture is, I think back to what mothers actually tell their daughters where I’m from (and likely, what many women have heard in their lifetime).

“If someone is threatening to rape you, just go along with it and do what they say. Because at least then you have a chance to get away with your life. If there’s a choice between rape or death, always choose rape.”

Just go along with it.

And as wrong and problematic as this advice is, it isn’t just for cases of rape. Women are expected to just go along with things, and be nice and polite in situations which may feel dangerous and unsafe to us because it will minimize the potential threat we could face if we fight it. This extends from clear cases of men in dark alleys pinning screaming women against walls to my own case of rape at the hands of my ex-partner in our bedroom. It extends to women on dates with people who might be wanting more sexually than they’re comfortable reciprocating, and to women walking down the street getting cat-called, or dancing at the club, or working in their office

For every single situation where a clear sexual assault or an obvious case of rape has taken place, women have experienced dozens more which are exactly like the Aziz Ansari story. Moments where nothing illegal has occurred, but someone has still breached our personal boundaries, violated us in some way, made us feel physically uncomfortable or unsafe. Moments where, once it’s over, we feel sick, or gross inside, or just wrong.

And most of these experiences have a few things in common; they usually start out perfectly okay. A guy approaches a woman at a bar and asks to buy her a drink, to which she politely declines for whatever reason. But he doesn’t let up, ignoring her “No, thank you’ or “I’m just here with my friends” or “I actually have a boyfriend”, and that’s where things take a turn for the worse.

It’s the guy who keeps forcing a woman to dance with him in a dark, loud nightclub, where she’d have to practically put her mouth on his ear to tell him “No!”. So she dances away from him, only for him to follow her and keep pulling her back.

It’s the date who keeps touching your leg or moving his hand under your shirt, even when you keep politely moving his hand back to his lap, or saying “Oh, not right now.” But he just keeps trying until you call the night off and feel annoyed and disappointed, maybe even a little creeped out that a guy you had really liked and enjoyed the company of didn’t respect you enough to stop touching you when you’d asked him to.

It’s almost as if, even when we shut down and stop responding to sexual advances, it only further intensifies a certain type of man’s advances, communicating the message that we don’t have a right to our own bodies and they are, in fact, at the mercy of the closest man’s whims.

Consent is simple, really. No-one should touch you or do anything to your body without your open, verbal “yes” before they do so.

But our society tells men that sometimes ‘no’ means ‘convince me’. They don’t have to pay attention to the body language or non-verbal clues a woman might be putting out that she doesn’t want to have sex because they believe this is just a women putting in the obligatory roadblocks so she doesn’t look like a tease or that she’s ‘easy’. They think if you keep asking or trying to touch her, eventually she’ll say yes.

But wearing someone down until they agree to do sexual things with you isn’t the same as someone actually agreeing to do sexual things with you.

It’s coercion.

In my experience, when someone wants to have sex, they make it known. They don’t stop kissing you back, or push hands away from body parts, or keep saying “let’s just slow it down.” They say things like “touch me here” and “let’s have sex”.

Because consent should be enthusiastic. And if someone doesn’t like they want to have sex with you, even if they haven’t verbally said “no”, they’re likely telling you “I don’t consent to any sexual activity taking place here” through their body language.

So I’m not going to give my opinion on the Aziz Ansari story and add to the already swirling cesspit of controversy surrounding it, largely thanks to the Twittersphere. But I am going to say I’m glad it made the news. Not because of the impact it may or may not have on the comedian’s career, but because of the important, largely ignored discussion it’s sparked.

A discussion about that gray area that lives somewhere between the winks and the “Sure! I’ll have a drink with you” and the “Netflix and Chill”. An area where the boundaries are so unclear even the person having them violated isn’t sure if it’s appropriate to speak up. Where certain men think a few polite slaps away of a wandering hand is nothing more than cheeky foreplay. And when tears are often silently shed on the cab ride home or the walk back to the subway.

This is the conversation we need to start having. No matter how uncomfortable it makes us. Because it’s this very gray area in our interactions that keeps the fires of sexual misconduct quietly smouldering away in the background while we’re busy telling women to “Stop being dramatic” and “Focus on cases or real abuse”. But here’s the thing; if we continue to devalue stories like the one recounted from the Ansari debacle, we’re going to continue to miss the very crux of stamping out rape culture.

Until you’ve been in a situation where you’ve felt pressured to have sex or felt uncomfortable with the way someone is acting towards you, you won’t get it. I understand why so many people are uncomfortable with the idea that these kinds of situations aren’t okay, because so many of us have crossed these lines before.

Which is why these conversations about informed consent need to be more prominent than they are. We need education around these issues, so everyone understands the difference between a coerced yes and an actual yes.

Because rape culture isn’t born in the screams hurled from dark alleys or the police reports of horrific crimes of sexual violence. It’s much more subtle and insidious than that. It’s the “Come on, just one more drink” and the repeated attempts to replace a hand somewhere after it’s already been playfully yanked away more than once. It’s the stories involving dates that started out well with likeable comedians and otherwise ‘nice’ guys. The stories that make women collectively cringe at just how familiar they are. I’m still cringing.

Comment: What’s you take on the Aziz Ansari scandal? Have you ever felt in a similar situation to the woman in it?

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