This past summer, I went to this guy’s house thinking we were just going to hang out, and get to know each other. Nope. Naive. I sat next to him on his twin bed (red flag No. 1) and he turned on this awful house music (No. 2). Next thing I knew, he was on top of me. I was stunned as he ground his lips against mine. I didn’t know if I could ask him to stop because, after all, I should’ve known better. I'd come to his house. So I let it continue. Finally, after he moved my hand to the bulge in his pants, I decided I'd had enough. Socialized politeness and fear of rudeness be damned. I stood up.
He pawed at my arm, "Come on," he whined. I shook my head and started putting my shoes on.
He got mean. “What the fuck,” he spat at me. I high-tailed it out of there.
“Bitch,” I heard him yell after me. I was shaking as I shut his front door behind me.
That was not a standalone incident in my life.
Now, let's talk about Aziz Ansari.
Ansari is well-known as an advocate for underrepresented communities. His Netflix show, Master of None, was a breakout hit that showcased underrepresented people. It tackled tough issues like racism in Hollywood and fought back against taboos about the Muslim religion. He’s also an outspoken feminist, which is reflected in his work and his stand up specials:
He’s come under fire recently after a detailed account came out about the, frankly, gross way he treated a woman while on a date. Allegedly, Ansari consistently pressured the woman into sexual situations she clearly did not want to take part in. She made this evident both verbally and through resistant body language. Yet, according to the article, Ansari didn't stop. The woman begrudgingly went along with it for awhile until she’d had enough—“You guys are all the fucking same,” she said, and she left. The Babe.net piece has sparked debate. People have leapt to Ansari’s defense, saying it criminalizes him for something that's not assault. From Grace's perspective, she was taken advantage of and not really heard. To her, this is a form of sexual assault. The line is blurry. But, the whole point is that Ansari didn't step back and take a second to try to see the situation clearly. His alleged actions are nowhere near a Weinstein level of corruptness, and I hesitate to even associate the two by mentioning them in the same sentence.
The crux of the whole thing is that shit like this is happening at all. Women are made to feel uncomfortable in situations, often sexual in nature, where they should be on even footing with their male counterparts. The myriad of think pieces examining the allegation miss that point. This could partly be due to irresponsible reporting on Babe.net’s part, points out Jezebel. But, it’s also because its critics are examples of the grander societal problem at play here.
Let’s start with Caitlin Flanagan’s hot take from The Atlantic. Flanagan has an impressive resumé as a writer but her work is often a conflagration of anti-feminist garbage. The way she writes about other women is telling. Flanagan starts the piece off by discrediting the pseudonymous Grace from the Babe.net article because, namely, she’s young. This is her opening sentence:
Sexual mores in the West have changed so rapidly over the past 100 years that by the time you reach 50 intimate accounts of commonplace sexual events of the young seem like science fiction: You understand the vocabulary and the sentence structure, but all of the events take place in outer space. You’re just too old.
It continues in that vein. Each topic sentence refers to back in Caitlin's day (simpler times) and juxtaposes it to what girls experience “these days.” Somehow, this is meant to strip away any legitimacy Grace’s story has. Apparently, 'back in the day' women didn’t get raped because “we were strong in a way that so many modern girls are weak.” Flanagan continues, “They told us over and over again that if a man tried to push you into anything you didn’t want, even just a kiss, you told him flat out you weren’t doing it.”
Oh, is that what everyone has being doing wrong? That’s all we were missing? To Flanagan, it simply comes down to millennial women having a soft backbone. Generational divide is her main argument, but she fails to acknowledge the historical inaccuracies between then and now. As pointed out by Jezebel’s Julianne Escobedo Shepherd, back then “this struggle was tied up inextricably in female purity and the stakes a woman faced in her eventual, and all but obligatory married life.” That socialization is from a bygone era, and it's something I’m sure no woman (save Caitlin Flanagan, maybe) misses.
If that condescension wasn’t enough, Flanagan editorializes Grace’s hypothetical thought processes. “Perhaps she hoped to maybe even become the famous man’s girlfriend,” Flanagan writes. “He wasn’t interested. What she felt afterward—rejected yet another time, by yet another man—was regret.” It’s fun to psychoanalyze fiction—trust me, I know, I dwelled in the sewers of “fandom tumblr” during my high school years. But Flanagan uses the thought processes she made up—“Perhaps” does not mean something occurred—as proof for a completely unfounded argument. See, that’s something I learned from fan culture that I guess Flanagan missed the boat on; you can’t make fiction fact. Flanagan wants to paint a picture of a millennial girl with her head thrust in the clouds. A girl—it’s telling how many times Flanagan uses “girl” as a descriptor in her piece—who wanted love and found only “hook-up culture,” something I’m sure rustles Flanagan’s jimmies. Jilted, Grace supposedly went after Ansari with this exposé.
She ends it in a way that really rustled my fucking jimmies. After she tosses a cavalier comment about intersectionality over her shoulder, Flanagan writes: “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.”
Aside from how infuriating that sentence is, it’s wrong for another reason. This is not some experience that’s unique to women aged 18 to 30-whatever. Flanagan doesn’t get that. She lords herself over the anonymous woman and any woman who is younger than she. She asserts that their experience is something other than, less than, anything Flanagan went through.
Similar to that is this toxic bullshit:
Tonight on @CrimeJusticeHLN, HLN's @TVAshleigh delivers an open letter to @azizansari's accuser: You have chiseled away at a movement that I, along with all my sisters in the workplace, have been dreaming of for decades... https://t.co/JZcWSArBps
— HLN Public Relations (@HLNPR) January 16, 2018
In that clip, Ashleigh Banfield belittles Grace as well. She whittles Grace’s experiences down to a “bad date.” She continues—the emotion palpable in her voice—“Your date got overly amorous. After protesting his moves you did not get up and leave right away, you continued to engage in the sexual encounter.” Banfield tells Grace she was wrong to take her story to the press, that she has set back a movement. Banfield references her own struggles against toxic over-sexed professional environments and the progress that is being made, that Grace, at 23, might not have to endure.
See, this is the thing she and Flanagan miss. Every woman has experienced an Ansari at some level. Even if, by some miracle, sexism in the workplace disappears, other women will go through this. She doesn’t realize that Ansari’s alleged behavior is the same as the behavior of the men in her toxic work environment. No, they didn’t assault Banfield, but their behavior upset her and was allowed to continue, unchallenged.
In this entire “open letter,” aka a victim blaming soapbox, Banfield calls Grace's experience merely “a bad date.” We’ve all had bad dates, Banfield says, and implies a pretty clear “get over it.” If you’ve had a bad date like this, Ashleigh, I’m sorry. If Caitlin Flanagan had a bad date like this, I’m sorry. If any woman in their generation felt that way, I’m so sorry. I’m sorry because this shit has gotten to a point where we normalized it. When did “bad date" go from “Oh, we had nothing to talk about” to “Yeah, I didn’t want to have sex with him but I did anyway”? That’s the glaring problem.
This doesn’t “undermine a movement.” The fact of the matter is that most women will not be victims of Harvey Weinstein. Most women, however, will experience uncomfortable pressure like what the author of the Aziz Ansari account detailed.
There is a toxicity that runs deep within society that tells women they have to endure even after they say no. Banfield, when she gritted her teeth through her professional career, was at the whim of the powerful men in her life. Flanagan has probably gone through something exactly like this. In the apparent Golden Age she grew up in, she was taught—as so many of us are still taught—to simply endure. Grace is tired of enduring. We are tired of enduring. I am tired of enduring.
The alleged coercion Grace experienced is not assault but, if we’re really serious about ending this culture that is harmful for women, especially young women, we have to talk about Aziz Ansari. It doesn’t undermine a movement, it casts a wider net on an issue that is far greater than black-and-white sexual assault. It's my opinion that all allegations have weight and deserve scrutiny.
The whole point is, it’s never as easy as saying “no.” Consent is more nuanced than many men, and women, are taught. A verbal “yes” is consent the same way a rigid, uncomfortable body is a clear “no.” In all of these situations there’s pressure, there are expectations, there’s confusion, and, universally, there’s a woman who feels uncomfortable and unsure of how to act. The difference between Grace and a lot of other women is that she found her voice. Before things got too far, Grace spoke up; she said no. Ansari may have stopped for the moment, may have not engaged completely in penetrative sex, but Grace still went along with something she knew she didn’t want. This deserves a spot in the #MeToo movement because the sheer number of women who can say “me too” to something like this is staggering.