Content warning: language, sex and sexual encounters, sexual coercion, rape and rape culture

I really didn’t want to use a picture of Aziz Ansari for this post. Here is how babe.net sees itself.

In thinking about how I would compose this post, which is largely about Aziz Ansari and his exposure in the recent, universally-read Babe.net article, it occurred to me that I was sitting down to write a post that no one would wholly agree with. While I’m a tiny bit facetious about this claim, defending an utterly unique set of principles or conclusions is neither new nor deterring for me. But it does seem to mandate a cautionary preamble here, which is to ask you to persist throughout the post and give it some nuanced thought if you’re going to engage with it at all. There has not always been maximal nuance applied to the slate of recent revelations of awful behavior by men (in most cases, there has been good reason to avoid nuance, frankly), but I think this situation, however weirdly delivered, may mark the dawn of nuance’s return to the setting.

Perhaps more importantly, it occurs to me that while no one will probably agree with all of this post, everyone might agree with some of this post. Cue Abraham Lincoln/Bob Dylan (Talking World War III Blues) jokes.

In the hopes that this latter conclusion is true, I will preview my main contentions about the Aziz Ansari situation and its larger implications here:

(1) Aziz Ansari illustrates that affirmative consent must be the new norm for sexual encounters in our society.
(2) Celebrity played a huge unspoken role in the encounter, and many others, which neither excuses Ansari nor absolves Grace.
(3) Alcohol played an even larger role in the encounter and this prompts really serious questions about alcohol’s role in our romantic lives.
(4) Aziz Ansari probably used to be a nice guy and the entitlement of celebrity has corrupted him. This is still his fault, but also says things about celebrity in our society.
(5) The predator/prey narrative that underlies most sexual expectations in heterosexual America also have to be examined and excised.
(6) Babe.net’s author made some unforced reporting errors that have complicated and compromised this whole question. But they prompted a great discussion, mostly.

Let’s go:

(1) Aziz Ansari illustrates that affirmative consent must be the new norm for sexual encounters in our society.

This is the most important conclusion to draw from any sort of sincere reading of the article and its ancillary fallout and thus, hopefully, the one with which the most people will agree. Near as I can tell, most people who object to affirmative consent (ongoing, enthusiastic affirmation of continuing or escalating sexual behavior from both parties as a requirement for doing so) as a standard believe that it’s all fun and games till someone gets hurt, then it’s super-fun. These are the same people who believe that everything offensive is funny and vice versa, or that it’s your fault for having feelings, not someone else’s for hurting them. Other than this notion that America is going to become humorless, I haven’t even really heard someone attempt to make an argument against affirmative consent, except to rely on the empirics that a whole bunch of sex wouldn’t be happening if that were the standard. You know what I could say to that? Good…

Like, seriously. Who reads the Aziz Ansari article and says “Go Aziz! That’s the kind of person I aspire to be!”?? Yes, yes, there are legalistic and technical justifications and even I am unsure whether “assault” is really the word for what happened, but can you really get through those descriptions without feeling really uncomfortable and slimy and just awful? I had that familiar male feeling in reading this that maybe I’d be better off as a monk or perhaps a eunuch if it made a fitting apology for my ilk. Whatever you possibly think about his actions, you have to feel that he did things that were wrong and we should try very much to implement and instill sexual norms that deviate from those actions.

Affirmative consent solves for all this and more. It prevents someone from bullying or buffaloing or cajoling someone into unwilling or sorta-willing behavior against their better judgment. It gives both partners every chance that neither of them will regret this later, which both rapey and somewhat self-conscious men have cited as something they claim to really worry about. It makes both people feel optimal about the encounter. And it’s just more fun! You hear that, people accusing affirmative consent of being a killjoy?! It’s actually more fun when both people are into it. This is a super intuitive concept.

Now the other thing a lot of people have said about the encounter, sometimes to justify it, is that it feels familiar. Honestly, this was as shocking/horrifying to me as the breadth of #MeToo in the first place, perhaps more. But the more familiar or even near-universal this description of encounters feels to you, doesn’t that only underscore how important changing norms and standards toward affirmative consent is? No one who says this is familiar is lauding the behavior or saying they enjoyed being in Grace’s place. So why do we use it being normalized as a defense of the status quo? As a defense mechanism, sure, as brilliantly outlined in this response article, but that’s just a knee-jerk reaction that the author knows is wrong. I mean, really. I hear this as a defense of US foreign policy all the time (“sure it’s bad, but we’ve been doing it this way for so long, we’re committed to it now!”), but it doesn’t work any better here than there. Stop exploiting people to get sex! How? Affirmative consent as a governing principle. Use it and expect it.

(2) Celebrity played a huge unspoken role in the encounter, and many others, which neither excuses Ansari nor absolves Grace.

There are some behaviors described by Grace in the article that, no matter how on her side you are, are very very hard to explain. The biggest such moment for me was this:

“He sat back and pointed to his penis and motioned for me to go down on him. And I did. I think I just felt really pressured. It was literally the most unexpected thing I thought would happen at that moment because I told him I was uncomfortable.”

Now, look. I am really against victim-blaming. But while we can all agree that Aziz Ansari behaved badly by making this motion at this time, I think Grace behaved almost inexplicably here. And I want to analyze that inexplicability rather than just throw up my hands or some other cop-out. Because I think it leads us to the path of the role of celebrity in this encounter and its soft coercion or even inducement of self-coercion. If you were to ask Aziz what he was thinking during this encounter or how he saw it, I’m sure this is the moment that he might argue he did have full consent, or at the very least that he (what a slippery phrase we have inculcated into our sexual culture!) “was receiving mixed signals”. Indeed, her discomfort here seems to be such a strong deterrent to her complying with Aziz’s motion that Aziz and others could reasonably conclude that she was no longer uncomfortable when she chose to comply. Now, of course, the word “comply” here is key, and gets us back to affirmative consent and the whole reason all of this is problematic. But let’s examine what Grace might have been thinking.

First, let’s contrast this with what this was not. Aziz was not Grace’s employer. He was not even an influential figure in Grace’s social circles. He was not, indeed, someone Grace would ever have to encounter again if she didn’t want to, other than with reminders of his existence through media and society, as is the case with all celebrities. He did not exert any on-balance de facto coercive force on the relationship or her behavior, except that celebrity. And my contention is that his celebrity and that celebrity alone (or arguably mixed with a tiny bit of his “nice guy” reputation) is what convinced Grace to go down on him in that moment.

Now, surely Aziz is not unaware of his celebrity and the power it gives him over others, so he’s still blameworthy for leveraging it this way in this instance. He cannot be excused for continuing to pressure Grace despite it being obvious that she was not affirmatively consenting. At the same time, letting Grace off the hook entirely here seems unfair as well. Because that celebrity is an active part of what is attractive about Aziz. So part of what is causing her to make this decision is not coercion, but attraction. And that’s what makes this so murky and controversial for people, in part. It’s not that one can’t be raped by someone one is attracted to. But deciding to undertake an action because of attraction and not coercion is a form of consent. There’s an argument here that what she’s most worried about in future is having to deal with reminders of this guy and she doesn’t want it to be unpleasant. That would be pretty damn coercive. But it seems at least equally likely that what she’s mostly thinking is that she still wants a shot with this guy because he’s a celebrity and so she can’t offend him too much. And that’s a lot more voluntary.

Worth noting, briefly, also, that it’s probably celebrity that is to blame for Grace going along with Aziz’s desire to quit the dinner portion of the date early when food and wine are still available. It’s hard to imagine most first daters being that willingly eager, unless there was some sort of profound physical chemistry they both wanted to immediately explore. Grace was less likely to stand up for herself because of the presumed rank of herself relative to a celebrity. And honestly, had she insisted they stay to enjoy the rest of dinner, it’s hard to imagine the rest of the night going as it did (not blaming her for this, but it was still a cue of sorts). Is that celebrity power hard coercion? Soft coercion? A form of attraction? We need to interrogate.

The thing that needs to change here, as much as it can, is our relationship with celebrity and understanding of celebrity culture. It’s kind of odd that we have a cultural meme around people striving to sleep with celebrities and celebrities striving to sleep with damn near everyone. Unsurprising in light of some primal element of our baser natures, perhaps, but still really weird that this persists in 2018. It would be a missed opportunity if we don’t use any of this moment to examine the nature of celebrity culture and maybe debunk the notion that we’re okay with celebrities being equivalent to stud horses put out to the pasture of anyone they choose. There’s a lot embedded here: think of how culturally accepted, if arguably tongue-in-cheek, the meme of “a list of five celebrities that one can cheat on one’s spouse/significant other with” is in America. That says a lot about our reverence for fame, our fantasies about the famous, and our willingness to throw over most anything in order to access it. There’s no easy or obvious fix here, but it was really glaringly absent from the original article and a lot of the follow-up that this all happened entirely because Aziz was a celebrity. The closest most follow-ups got was noting that the article wouldn’t be written unless Aziz were a big figure, which is both possibly untrue and pretty trivial. The real issue is that celebrity played a big role here and that indicts our culture as much as anyone.

(3) Alcohol played an even larger role in the encounter and this prompts really serious questions about alcohol’s role in our romantic lives.

The other possible, and perhaps more convincing, argument for Grace’s otherwise inexplicable reasoning, was that her judgment was impaired by alcohol. A lot of attention has been drawn to her focus on the wine choice, which sounds either whiny or emblematic depending on your perspective on the whole issue. But the more damning wine reference is here:

“I wasn’t really even thinking of that, I didn’t want to be engaged in that with him. But he kept asking, so I said, ‘Next time.’ And he goes, ‘Oh, you mean second date?’ and I go, ‘Oh, yeah, sure,’ and he goes, ‘Well, if I poured you another glass of wine now, would it count as our second date?’” He then poured her a glass and handed it to her.

Obviously, Aziz is mostly trying to make a joke about how trivial he sees the ritual of dating as a facade for what he perceives they both want, which is to have sex. All of his actions are in easy alignment with this perspective. But the more insidious implication here is about alcohol as a way of making women more pliable to sex. Somehow in so many of these discussions, this element has become a taboo third rail in examining our sexual norms and culture, even though almost nothing could be more relevant. Our laws say that the inebriated are incapable of consenting to sex and that sexual activity among the inebriated is (at least) statutory rape. That’s really significant and super unambiguous. But almost no one seems to internalize that reality or behave that way in their daily life, unless the inebriation is to the point of someone being blackout drunk. As a non-drinker, this one hits me like affirmative consent – how can it even be fun to have sex with a drunk person? I don’t get it. But enough people think it is that we have to deal with the implications of that reality.

Now, our culture is finally coming around to the notion that trying to get someone drunk to sleep with them is a form of rape. Finally. (This has been discussed in most every locker room I’ve been in, so yes, Trump was engaged in locker-room talk, and yes, locker-room talk is frequently about rape.) And yet, despite this, there is a strong contingent within feminism that argues that women have every right to have as much alcohol as they want without repercussions. Now this is a delicate, tricky, nuanced line, so I want to be clear. I understand why this is a widely-held feminist view, largely because it’s a reaction to a long line of victim-blaming statements saying that someone “deserved what they got” or, more subtly, “put themselves in a vulnerable position” by drinking too much and that this somehow undermines the notion they were raped. Not only are these statements crap on face, but they are wholly undermined by our very clear laws about consent. But I don’t think this is the whole story, full stop.

Yes, it is Aziz’s role and duty (or anyone’s) to make sure they have affirmative consent and are not raping people. But at the same time, a good synonym for alcohol might be “bad judgment juice”. And it’s a little weird to openly endorse endless consumption of bad judgment juice in the context of an environment where someone is trying to make important and sometimes nuanced judgments. If we could step out of our own cultural context and examine America as cultural anthropologists, it would be very very hard to explain the role of alcohol in romantic encounters as something distinct from, or even other than, roofies. And I know a lot of people talk about their anxiety and inhibitions holding them back and that they need alcohol to overcome these and “have a good time”. But, honestly, if you need alcohol to have a good time, how good a time are you actually having? Chances are, you might not know. Bad judgment juice produces bad judgment. Judgment is still volitional, often, but it can be bad with the help of bad judgment juice. And this generates a whole lot of seeming grayish areas like Grace’s experience that are frequently traumatic and remembered traumatically, but involved too many things that looked like consent because the alcohol had at least one hand on the wheel.

Put another way, and perhaps more accessibly: alcohol does lower inhibitions. But inhibitions are often the centerpiece of judgment, consent, and even identity. Inhibitions exist to protect us from ourselves, or our animal selves, they exist to protect who we want to be from who we can be. Why are inhibitions the enemy here? Why do so many of us see knocking out our inhibitions as a prerequisite for something that’s supposed to embody fulfillment, consent, and joy? If we’re burning down the patriarchy and misogyny and male expectation, as well we should, can we save some matches for alcohol’s prominent role in the sexual milieu? Matches are very effective on alcohol, believe me.

(4) Aziz Ansari probably used to be a nice guy and the entitlement of celebrity has corrupted him. This is still his fault, but also says things about celebrity in our society.

This is a really minor point and probably barely is worth including in this argument list, but so much of the article and people’s disappointment with Aziz relates to his reputation as a nice guy and his jokes about respecting women too much. For what it’s worth, I buy it. When Aziz Ansari was just kind of a funny looking guy trying to tell jokes for a living, he probably was a nice guy. He probably had very few opportunities with women and probably missed some of them in an effort to be too nice (more on this insidious nugget later). But now he wins Golden Globes and everyone loves him and he’s a star. So he’s become an asshole. This is disappointing, sure, but super-unsurprising. Which returns us to (2) above, and celebrity culture. I have no doubt that Aziz feels he can make sexual encounters all about him because most people are only too happy to do so and because as a celebrity, he expects it. Celebrities get everything else they want in society: a platform for their views, free food and drinks, adulation, sycophantic surroundings. Why would they not also expect it in the bedroom? They shouldn’t expect it, there especially, but we have to do a lot of unpacking and work on celebrity culture vis a vis sex in order to get to a place where they realistically won’t. In the meantime, those about to entangle themselves with celebrities have to do some self-examination about the lines or expecting affirmative consent as a guiding standard before they are in a situation where the celebrity itself is coercing them.

Again, very clearly, celebrities ought and must be better than this. But just as we expect criminals to still need laws to realistically deter them, we need new standards and norms around celebrity culture to realistically deter celebrities from being rapey.

(5) The predator/prey narrative that underlies most sexual expectations in heterosexual America also have to be examined and excised.

This one’s a doozy, and almost as rare to the discussion as alcohol. The fact is that most men are raised to be predators and see women as sexual prey. Male desire is replaced with conquest and female desire with acquiescence. This is utterly toxic and (partially!) to blame for an immense portion of the terrible behavior by men in our society.

This does not absolve men from behaving in accordance with these awful rapey expectations! But it does help explain and contextualize where a lot of this comes from and where the monstrosity of a lot of our heterosexual dynamic begins. We need to stop raising men to be monsters. This doesn’t just mean, as I’ve seen a lot of people discuss, teaching young men about affirmative consent and how to be sensitive, though that’s a great start. It means being serious about limiting or eliminating the role of pornography in our society that essentially teaches too many young men and women that rape is sex is rape. It means limiting or replacing jokes about how men want sex all the time and women never do. It means taking female desire seriously and having it hold an equal place in our discussion with male desire. It means that women have to stop expecting to be chased and that men must allow themselves to be pursued or have women initiate.

Some of this may be sorting itself naturally already. “Swipe-right” culture certainly doesn’t favor one side or the other taking the lead, though arguably a lot of the subsequent communication still devolves into predator/prey dynamics. But as a young man who took affirmative consent seriously for all activity and also wanted to wait till marriage to have sex, I was in all kinds of situations that young women found confusing and often disheartening, mostly for my refusal to play the classic predator. It was too easy for some to confuse my unwillingness to predate as rejection. (Of course, me actually rejecting requests for sex really was rejection, I guess, but not to the degree they saw it.) These things are not just embedded in the straight male psyche, but also in the straight female one, to often devastating consequences (here I don’t mean my situations so much as people who confuse their desire to be prey with a desire to be raped or controlled or coerced). This all has to be burned down. It’s broken and backwards and animalistic and awful. People have an equal right to express interest and have interest expressed in them and any confusion of that with predation needs to end.

This is deeply deeply embedded and possibly the hardest thing to really change wholesale in this whole list. But it explains Aziz, it explains people who have done much worse, and it explains what’s often uncomfortable about even mostly-okay situations that are tangibly much better than the Aziz/Grace encounter. And the naysayers say that it’s either our innate nature or that the “thrill of the chase” is what makes all of this fun. Stop, guys. You’re doing it wrong. The thrill of an enthusiastic yes trumps the chase every time.

(6) Babe.net’s author made some unforced reporting errors that have complicated and compromised this whole question. But they prompted a great discussion, mostly.

In some ways, I don’t even believe this, because, like all of Trump’s actions, there’s actually a reasonably good argument that these unforced errors were actually deliberate slips to make the article maximally controversial to maximize both hits and subsequent discussion and the piece (possibly written by “Grace” herself) is actually the most genius piece of journalism of the young millennium. I’m open to that. But assuming that this was accidental and not brilliant, it’s worth noting (as some other articles have) that the message here got clouded by some iffy writing decisions. This is not Grace’s fault (unless she’s the author), but it does explain why no one can seem to get along on this issue in a way that’s not about the real issues.

Perhaps the most obvious and excoriated example is here:

Before meeting Ansari, Grace told friends and coworkers about the date and consulted her go-to group chat about what she should wear to fit the “cocktail chic” dress-code he gave her. She settled on “a tank-top dress and jeans.” She showed me a picture, it was a good outfit.

It’s a very important part of the chorus for changing the narrative about sexual consent that what someone is wearing doesn’t matter. And really, it doesn’t. It is so weird that an ostensibly feminist call-out basically opens with judgments on the woman’s outfit! I mean, what could possibly be the goal of this statement, other than asserting the author’s sartorial chops for presumably future gigs as a fashion blogger? Are you anticipating backlash from the late 1980s and you want to pre-empt it? I can’t fathom what contributed to this statement, other than possibly the eight-dimensional chess outlined at the top of this section. Maybe this is the best argument for that wild idea. I dunno.

I also find this statement’s inclusion just… odd. And maybe this is on Grace more than the reporter? It speaks to the confused, gray, and self-coercing elements of the whole situation, at least a little:

When she sat down on the floor next to Ansari, who sat on the couch, she thought he might rub her back, or play with her hair — something to calm her down.

Everyone is entitled to feel what they feel and have true reactions to stuff that they don’t have to justify. But it’s very hard for me to understand or imagine wanting this kind of playful physical contact right after basically asking someone not to rape you. Obviously what happened next was equally foreign to my perspective. But I think almost everyone I know would take rubbing her back as ignoring what she’d just asked and trying to start something up again when she’d just said no. It might be a little different in the context of a long-term relationship where certain physical gestures are code for something platonic vs. something sexual. But on a first date, no way. Certainly her sitting in a different place than him makes a lot of sense as a signal for him to stay away. Which is why including this thought, which comes across as almost speculative on the author’s part since it’s not a quote of Grace, is so strange. Why not just leave it at “she sat on the floor instead of the couch”? That’s a pretty clear statement that makes the case for Grace much more clearly.

As alluded to above, I don’t think that the discussion of wine choice or dinner timing is an error at all. I think it very clearly stands as both a harbinger and a metaphor for everything that followed and I think it’s well-placed in the article. People everywhere, take note! How you handle these things is a good indication of your character more broadly. And pay attention to those behaviors by the person you’re with or encountering on a first date. These things are signs.

Finally, I think that the use of the word “assault”, even though it was quoting Grace, caused more problems for the piece’s mission than necessary. This is a hard one, because I can see ways in which it is an assault, though that word doesn’t quite sit right as the most apt descriptor. But as the linked article above points out, this single word unnecessarily focused the ensuing debate on legal terms and assault rather than the core issue of the encounter, which was that it felt violative. Now assaults feel violative and most things that feel violative are assaults. But that subtle distinction in phrasing has the power to bring this article, encounter, and moment into a new sharp relief about the ways we build on MeToo for a better future. Not just in throwing the absolute bastards out, but in shaping a set of sexual norms that everyone can feel good about and embrace openly.

That said, mission probably accomplished anyway. Because look at the discussion we’re having after all.


Note: The above is in its original and unedited form. However, I have recanted much of my #2 point in the subsequent post, which I strongly encourage you to read here.