Why didn’t “Grace” respect Aziz Ansari’s verbal and physical cues?

Let me begin by saying that I understand why some women might be inclined to immediately mistrust, even fear, some men.

I’m not unfamiliar with what it’s like to have uncomfortable sex- or gender-related encounters with people considered more powerful, whether due to their age or their superior physical strength relative to mine. From a creepy 7th grade teacher to several flashed penises to two unforgettable encounters with an ex-husband, I’ve been there. I understand weird power dynamics, and I understand women can sometimes fear men. And I know one individual’s personal experience cannot be compared to another’s, that what makes one person uncomfortable won’t necessarily affect another person. I get all that, I promise.

But nor does one’s personal discomfort or displeasure necessarily — or even often — qualify as proof of another person’s misconduct.

If a man is standing ten feet away from me and I don’t like it because I feel threatened, that doesn’t mean he’s doing something wrong.

You may have read about a woman named “Grace” and her unarguably awkward date with actor Aziz Ansari, which became a widely read story by Katie Way.

Defenders of Ansari are being told we’re wrong to defend him, that we don’t understand the complexity of sexual coercion, that “no” is more complicated than “no.”

I agree that “no” as a sentiment can be more complicated, but not that it-is-no-matter-what. And it doesn’t seem complicated enough, as written in Way’s article, in the case of Grace and Ansari to warrant the public shaming of a public person.

Way writes of Grace’s experience with Ansari:

“Throughout the course of her short time in [his]apartment, she says she used verbal and non-verbal cues to indicate how uncomfortable and distressed she was. […] Whether Ansari didn’t notice Grace’s reticence or knowingly ignored it is impossible for her to say. “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.”

Yet, Way’s article documents Ansari’s use of his own, very clear, verbal and non-verbal cues to communicate why he invited Grace to his apartment. Having read the article, I don’t think his cues were noticed at all, or if they were, they were ignored.

Here are the events as laid out in the article by Way, who somehow became aware of Grace’s date with Ansari:

  • Grace gives Ansari her phone number after they bond over a camera, and the two flirt via text.
  • Grace agrees to a date.
  • On the night of the date, Grace goes to Ansari’s apartment and is displeased with the wine options (“It was white,” she said. “I didn’t get to choose and I prefer red, but it was white wine.” We don’t know whether Ansari said, “No white for you!” or whether he simply doesn’t like red and therefore had none available.)
  • They walk to an oyster bar for dinner. When they finish eating, Ansari is in a hurry to leave, and this surprises Grace, but she accompanies him back to his apartment after he says, “Let’s get off this boat.”

“Let’s get off this boat” is still safely ambiguous to the reader who has nothing to go on but black and white text, but it doesn’t take long for Ansari to deliver his first cue.

Cue #1: Almost immediately upon returning to the apartment, Ansari makes a sexually suggestive remark after Grace compliments his counter tops: “How about you hop up and take a seat?”

Cue #2:

Within moments, he was kissing her. “In a second, his hand was on my breast.” Then he was undressing her, then he undressed himself.

Grace is uncomfortable with the direction the date is heading, which suggests she had hoped for something else. A love connection, possibly. Or sex later in the evening rather than sooner. We don’t know.

We do know that Ansari has now given both physical and verbal cues that he’s interested in a sex connection. Rather than leave — and Ansari has given no indication he intends to stop her if she tries, nor does she say for the article that she was afraid to take that step — Grace stays.

Cue #3: Ansari says he’s going to grab a condom.

Grace asks him to slow things down, but doesn’t say “Stop.”

Cue #4: Ansari kisses her and

Cue #5: “briefly” performs oral sex on her and

Cue #6: asks her to perform oral sex on him.

She does.

This bird represents my discomfort with using a photograph of Ansari, whose image has probably been posted many times in connection with the “Grace” story.

We can assume both oral sex performances happened with Grace’s consent, as there’s nothing in the article to suggest otherwise. Had Grace felt threatened, had she thought she had no real choice, there’s no reason to believe, considering everything else she revealed to Way, that she wouldn’t have hesitated to admit to having been afraid or otherwise felt pressured by Ansari (vs. pressured by her own feelings about what she believed was expected of her, which is not Ansari’s responsibility to manage).

Cue #7: Ansari practices a unique sexual maneuver on Grace (one that is for some reason explained with excruciating clarity for the article, but which seems to be little more than a gratuitous detail for salacious value since Grace doesn’t, in the article, characterize it as abusive. It’s just…a thing he likes to do, apparently, and it’s important that we all know this about Aziz Ansari (?)).

Cue #8–13 (to 15):

Ansari also physically pulled her hand towards his penis multiple times throughout the night, from the time he first kissed her on the countertop onward. “He probably moved my hand to his dick five to seven times,” she said. “He really kept doing it after I moved it away.”

This is brutish behavior, and it’s annoying, and it’s childish. What we don’t know is how Grace is responding. Is she laughing? Is she stating firmly, “Stop”? Is she saying, “I really don’t want to touch your penis”?

They continue through a period of Ansari asking for sex (Cue #16-ish) with Grace not saying “no,” but mumbling and moving away, not saying “I don’t want to fuck you” even though she’s thinking “I don’t want to fuck you” when he asks, “Where do you want me to fuck you?” Instead she says, “next time” when he asks when they can have sex.

We don’t know how she says this to him. With a smile? Does she say it firmly? She doesn’t want to have sex, but she doesn’t say, “I don’t want to have sex.” And, again, she’s not once expressed fear to Way (at least, not in a way that finds itself appearing in the article). Just awkwardness, really. And yes, it’s a horribly, horrifyingly awkward situation.

More so when Grace tries to move away and Ansari follows her…

But the main thing was that he wouldn’t let her move away from him. She compared the path they cut across his apartment to a football play. “It was 30 minutes of me getting up and moving and him following and sticking his fingers down my throat again. It was really repetitive. It felt like a fucking game.”

But Grace doesn’t say for the article that she felt threatened in this “dance.” Only, “It was really repetitive,” and “It felt like a fucking game.”

So she stays (an easily misread cue?), and the date continues. She collects herself in the bathroom, and when she comes out, she tells Ansari — after he asks if she’s OK — that she doesn’t “want to feel forced” to have sex with him. (“Force” here is a loaded word; in this situation, as described, what I hear is, “I don’t want to feel like I’m giving in to having sex with you; I want us to be equally into it.”)

Ansari doesn’t argue, doesn’t yell, doesn’t even seem mean or in any way threatening, according to Grace. They sit in the living room together.

And here’s the strong evidence that Grace is not tuned in to Ansari’s cues:

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.

Why? Why would she think, after almost twenty “I want to have sex, and that’s pretty much really all I was hoping for” cues, that Ansari would behave…well, like a boyfriend who knows her, who cares about her, who would want to rub her back or play with her hair?

I can empathize with Grace. I truly, truly can. In my mid-twenties, I went on a sort-of date with the new guy at work. While in his apartment, he kept trying to have sex with me, and I kept mumbling my way out of committing, not really saying no, but lying with him on his bed and not saying yes. I didn’t want him to want to just “fuck” me, like I was one of many nameless chicks he’d brought into his bedroom. I wanted him to like me. I wanted to be special. Unique. I wanted to believe I had some “thing” that attracted him to me specifically.

“We don’t even know each other,” I told him after he tried again to lead us into sex. He sighed and flopped onto his back and said, “Fine. What do you want to know? You want to know how many brothers I have? Where I went to school? What?”

Realizing at this point that he wanted sex and only sex — not me at all — I left. I was insulted because my expectations or desires weren’t met, and I felt worthless because I most definitely was just “some chick” to him, but those feelings were all my problem. He and I wanted different things, and we were probably frustrated in different ways for different reasons after I left.

I think Grace could have avoided a lot of self-inflicted discomfort had she simply accepted that Ansari wanted sex, and not necessarily her. If she had either left or, at the very least, said clearly and with conviction, “No.”

Assuming everything in Way’s article happened as described, Ansari did nothing to justify having an article written about him as if he were a sex criminal.

Ansari wanted sex. He could not have been more clear about that.

Grace didn’t want sex, but didn’t seem to communicate it firmly, and didn’t seem able or willing to read Ansari’s cues.

Way implies that because Ansari presents himself to the public as “cute and nice and parsing the signals women send to men,” he should have been more attuned to Grace’s signals. Exactly what he should have done is unknown. Yeah, the first time she said she wanted to slow it down, he ideally would have said, “Oh. All right. What would you like to do?”

But we’re dealing with flawed, real people, here. Ansari’s fame doesn’t make him perfect, or especially astute at cue reading.

The suggestion in this article is that Ansari, who was the one who wanted the sex, was also somehow the one solely responsible for whether he and Grace proceeded sexually.

In other words, Ansari was expected to usurp Grace’s agency. Implied in Way’s article is that Ansari should have protected Grace from whatever it was inside of her that had made her stay in his apartment even after every overtly sexual advance he made toward her, or that he should have recognized that she didn’t have the wherewithal to leave on her own and should then have daddied her by guiding her to the door.

But in the realm of feminism and equality, isn’t the point that we don’t want or need men to make our decisions for us? Aren’t we responsible for our own actions, our own choices? If Grace didn’t want to have sex with a man who was clearly interested in having sex, but who was also clearly not forcing or even coercing her to stay, should she not have left?

What happened instead (based on what’s in the article) is that rather than being her own advocate, as we all, at any age, must be — yes, even if we’re in a famous person’s apartment (they’re just people with a different job) — , Grace tasked Ansari with taking full control of the situation. She didn’t get the baseball bat-force hint from his cues, didn’t decide on her own that this wasn’t the date she wanted, and didn’t say, “Thanks, but I had something else in mind. Bye-eee!”

Grace does finally leave when she decides she’s had enough. “You guys are all the same, you guys are all the fucking same,” she says before leaving — and after having had sex with Ansari, after having decided she was “violated,” but with evidence to the contrary in the article.

Again, there’s no reason to believe she couldn’t have left before the sex rather than after. Grace herself describes Ansari in the article as having the “sexual mannerisms to those of a horny, rough, entitled 18-year-old.”

Not as a rapist. Not as an assaulter. Not as particularly frightening. Just as some horny kid.

However, because he either didn’t correctly read Grace’s cues — the only valid ones in this situation, we’re to believe — or failed to respond in a way that either pleased her or absolved her of having to be accountable, he became the subject of a widely circulated internet article that paints a powerful, one-sided illustration of him that includes intimate, potentially humiliating details of his bedroom etiquette.

This does not seem to be the most responsible use, by Grace or by Way, of the gains the #metoo movement hopes to achieve.