What the Aziz Ansari allegation teaches us about consent
PERSPECTIVE | It’s more than a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’
Over the weekend, actor, writer and director Aziz Ansari was accused of sexual assault by an anonymous woman in an article published by the online publication Babe. The headline read: “I went on a date with Aziz Ansari. It turned into the worst night of my life.”
The story of Ansari’s date with the woman has been a controversial one because of its many nuances. But this encounter can teach all of us a lot about consent and the ways in which we are socialized in today’s gender binary to give into men’s desires, even when we don’t want to. Images in the media and on the Internet that depict us as objects. Social norms about dating dictate that things like “body count” matter. As women, we’re taught that we’re property. Men are taught to view us as pursuits. Once that is understood, consent becomes much more than a simple “yes” or “no.”
The 23-year-old’s detailed account about a date she went on with Ansari is likely a familiar story to many women, and it forces us to think about what consent means for both parties. Their date ended with the woman crying in the backseat of a car as she left his apartment. Like so many dates, it started at a restaurant, she said. They went back to his apartment, where they engaged in sexual activity. The woman said she kept giving him cues that she didn’t want to continue.
“I said I don’t want to feel forced because then I’ll hate you, and I’d rather not hate you,” she told Babe.
But not long after, she said, he motioned for her to give him oral sex and led her to another part of the apartment. She again indicated that she wasn’t ready to have sex. When they sat on the couch to “just chill,” he tried to kiss her again, among other things.
More than 24 hours after the piece was published, Ansari responded in a statement to Variety, saying: “We went out to dinner, and afterwards we ended up engaging in sexual activity, which by all indications was completely consensual.”
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He acknowledged the text she sent him the next day, expressing how uncomfortable she felt: “I took her words to heart and responded privately after taking the time to process what she had said,” Ansari said in his statement.
When I read the account, I didn’t see anything wrong with it at first. Yet, I was incredibly triggered by the account and felt disgusted. I’ve had similar encounters, and this story validated my own experiences. It’s a feeling that so many women know, when something just didn’t feel right, and yet we’re reluctant to call it assault because what happened wasn’t that we said “no” but rather that we gave into pressure.
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I remember going home with a guy I had met at a party. We had such good chemistry on the dance floor, and I was feeling excited. I expected it to be a one-night stand, meaning, I wasn’t seeking anything more than a good time. We went to his place, and it became immediately evident that he didn’t want to have sex with me, but rather use me for his own pleasure. He didn’t care how I felt, if anything hurt, if any position was uncomfortable. In the end, I remember completely separating from my body, dissociating, thinking I’d be better off just staying put so he could finish.
I could’ve gotten up and walked away. But, I had already given in, gone to his apartment, let him initiate sex, let him get halfway there. How dare I stop now?
It’s a very subtle moment, and the problem with letting this become an experience that constitutes a violation is that it would require seeing me, a young woman (of color), as a human being who’s allowed to back out. The defense for Ansari is precisely that she had already engaged in an intimate act. “She clearly wanted it,” you’ll hear. She even let him go down on her. To many, that was a sufficient cue, even though she tried to back out of the situation by expressing her discomfort.
Many are operating under the assumption that the movement for consent has found us in a place with equal power when it comes to intimacy. It has not. Men are taught to be assertive in almost every situation, from the boardroom to the bedroom. Women are taught to be apologetic, and we find ourselves internalizing misogyny.
I left that night after calling a cab. I didn’t cry on the way home. I didn’t feel anything. All I felt was regret and disgust with myself. Why would I let that happen to me? How dare I let myself be used in that way? Did I deserve it?
It was, after all, a one night stand. I didn’t know him. But it’s not asking a lot to consider that there’s someone else in the room with you whose body cues you should take into account. If men began respecting sexual boundaries, they’d probably have to stop operating under the assumption that we owe them sex.
In an article for the Atlantic, Caitlin Flanagan writes about how women in past generations might’ve been in training to become wives and mothers, but they were strong in the ability to say “no” to men. Flanagan calls the women of today “dangerous,” and says that modern women give into pressure too easily. Flanagan also makes the dangerous case that the woman pursued Ansari, effectively shaming her.
We find ourselves in a very interesting period where we’re enjoying some sexual liberties women didn’t have in the past, but with a lot of the same shame still attached to it. For women of color, the slut-shaming is even worse. We have a culture that tells us to let men buy us drinks and take us out to dinner. But we also have a culture that says, “If you do, it means you have to have sex with him.”
Even if you split the check, how often do we hear about men who assume that just being nice — or treating us like human beings — means they have somehow earned sex?
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This is the case with Ansari, too. He is considered one of the nice guys. In “Master of None,” he explores topics of race, gender and sexuality when others fail to. He wrote a book about dating called “Modern Romance.” He supports the #MeToo movement. It is easy to see him as being beyond this behavior.
So many are reluctant with this specific story because it constitutes an assault where a woman is assumed to have said “yes.” It is a story that pushes us beyond the parameters of what we’ve been saying about consent: That “no means no,” or to seek an active “yes.” This form of teaching consent focuses on feelings of power during intimacy. It’s a response to a request — “will they let me have sex with them?” — rather than seeing sex as something mutual. The question should be, “Do they want to have sex with me?”
That is essentially where this conversation lies. Is consenting about “wanting” or about “letting”? Unfortunately we are very often coerced into sex. And almost all women have had an experience where they have “let” someone be intimate with them without actually wanting it. To acknowledge that wouldn’t be to wage a war against men, but to unlearn the misogyny that we’ve been taught and uplift women.