When I read the by-now viral article about a date with Aziz Ansari being the "worst night" of a young woman's life, my first thought was, “Really?"
The young woman, called “Grace,” is an anonymous 23-year-old photographer who went out with Ansari in September of 2017, and then told her story to Katie Way, a staff writer at the website Babe. The date, according to Way's re-telling, does sound genuinely uncomfortable, at least for Grace. She met Ansari, a 34-year-old actor, writer, and comic, at an Emmy after-party some weeks before. They bonded over having the same vintage camera, exchanged numbers, and engaged in flirty text banter for a while before making plans. Grace was excited.
The night began with a glass of wine. “After arriving at his apartment in Manhattan on Monday evening, they exchanged small talk and drank wine,” Way writes. “‘It was white,’ [Grace] said. ‘I didn’t get to choose and I prefer red, but it was white wine.’ Then Ansari walked her to Grand Banks, an Oyster bar onboard a historic wooden schooner on the Hudson River just a few blocks away.”
Aside from offering her the wrong color wine—that fucking creep—the date is pretty okay. He’s famous, he’s funny, what’s not to like? But it starts to turn after they finish eating and he rushes her out the door and back to his place while she would prefer to linger. They go back to his apartment, where they proceed to hook up. It’s weird, and awkward, and he keeps sticking his fingers in her mouth (or her throat?) for some reason. (Do people do that on porn? I don't know.) Grace calls this misguided move “the claw” and she definitely doesn’t like it. Later, after some halting, awkward sex stuff, she leaves in a car and cries on the way home. And this, she says, was the worst night of her life. It’s probably the worst night of his life now, too.
“If that is the worst night of your life,” I thought when I finished the piece. “You need to get out more.” The night didn’t end with her in a neck brace or passed out in the back of a police car or extinguishing a mattress with 40 ounces of Schlitz after her girlfriend fell asleep smoking a cigarette. It didn’t even end with vomit! If this was as low as it got for Grace, I thought, she is doing just fine. I know trauma is relative, but I would gladly take Grace’s worst night over my own (many) worst nights, several of which ended with broken teeth and/or bones. (Surprise—I used to drink a lot.) And yet, for whatever reason, I’m not as traumatized by those nights—years later, they are actually pretty funny—as Grace seems to be from her one ugly date. I doubt this is because I’m more resilient than Grace; rather, I’m just older. If Grace survives as a single woman for another decade, this date will scarcely register on her list of bad dates. Or it wouldn’t have if Ansari weren’t famous and she weren’t now famous too, albeit under a moniker that refers to prayer before dinner.
As other laptop observers have pointed out, Grace’s experience is hardly unusual. There’s even a name for it, as Bari Weiss noted in the Times: bad sex. And bad sex can happen to any people who have sex, not just when there’s a dick involved (either literally or metaphorically). Grace’s encounter—and the terrible sex in the New Yorker’s recent blockbuster short story "Cat Person"—strongly reminded me of most of my 20s. I wasn’t sleeping with men (unless there were no women in my zip code and there was a large amount of tequila), but—at the risk of betraying the sapphic sisterhood—lesbians can and do have bad sex, too.... although I suspect we’re more likely to have a pair or two of cat eyes watching us bone from the litter box. Perhaps there is an unfortunate power deferential between men and and women that makes these icky encounters more traumatic when it's a man and a woman, but we're acting like this is something men exclusively do to women. But, in my experience, women act just like Ansari did with Grace pretty damn often as well.
I had a lot of bad sexual encounters in my own roaring 20s: sex that was just sloppy, regrettable, and gross, and, sometimes, sex that I really did not want to be having. When these things happened, just like Grace, instead of pulling up my pants and leaving, I closed my eyes and soldiered on. People have pointed out that when women reject men, they get killed, but in those situations, I was never afraid for my safety. And yet I hooked up with people when it felt wrong all the time. The thing I was afraid of—the reason I didn't stop—was hurting the other person’s feelings.
This happened all the time: I’d be in some sexual encounter, her kisses would feel like a slug had taken up residency in my mouth, and because I felt too awkward and uncomfortable to say anything, I’d just go along with it. Sometimes I’d even spend the night, maybe cuddle a little, and continue to pretend I was interested the next morning just because it was less awkward. And, then, when enough time had passed, I would text her and say I was moving to Atlanta. Lying, making excuses, or just disappearing was easier than potentially hurting someone’s feelings in-person. This isn’t because I’m an uncommonly empathetic person (I am not), but because I avoid discomfort at all costs. I think a lot of women (and men) are like me in this respect.
Maybe this wasn’t part of Grace’s experience, but it is hard to be direct, especially about sex. And that, I think, is what people like Grace and me and Cat Person need to start doing: We need to get over our discomfort with discomfort and hurt some goddamn feelings up front, when it's happening.
Again, as Bari Weiss pointed out in her piece, Ansari isn’t a mind-reader. According to his own account, he didn't realize anything was amiss until the next day, when Grace texted him: “Last night might’ve been fun for you, but it wasn’t for me. You ignored clear non-verbal cues; you kept going with advances.” She was obviously upset, and clearly felt victimized, and she assumed he knew she was unhappy because of her “non-verbal cues.” But body language isn’t an actual language, and humans are notoriously bad at reading other people: A 2008 study found that participants were unable to distinguish when other people were experiencing either physical pain—even agony—or sexual pleasure from facial expressions in nearly 25 percent of cases. Subtler moods and emotions are even harder to detect, and research suggests that this is especially true when you are dealing with the opposite sex. Whether it’s fair and just or not, we—women, men, and other—have to use our words to get what we want. You can’t will other people into changing.
There is, of course, an easy solution: Ask for consent, each and every time you make a move. That puts the onus on the aggressor. But, still, it's not as simple as that. For one thing, sometimes people still nod along as though everything is fine even when someone is asking. I know this because I've done it. Besides that little problem, the idea of asking for “consent” is a very new concept in the very long course of human history, and one older generations aren't even aware exists. Take kissing, for instance, which many people—probably including Ansari—learned to do from movies and TV. No one on television asked for consent in the '90s; they just leaned in. Today, you could be fired, kicked out of school, and, especially, excoriated on Twitter for that. Maybe at some point asking for consent before each and every semi-sexual act will take hold in American society, but this is a newly emerged rule and some patience with eons-old human behavior will make this transition easier.
We have suddenly entered era where actions that not long ago would have been normal can and now do upend lives. Today it may be Ansari getting called a predator on Twitter, but if time's up for everyone—both men and women—who is guilty of misreading "non-verbal cues," it's going to be a very long trial.