By now, many of us have read Babe.net’s published account of a date between “Grace,” an anonymous 23-year-old photographer, and actor Aziz Ansari. You’ve also likely read counter-articles further pitting two individuals against one another ranging in accusations and claims ― she was assaulted; she wasn’t assaulted; he was inconsiderate and pushy; he isn’t a mind reader. Rather than this being an opportunity to listen, learn, and shift culture, we are yet again contributing to stereotypes and furthering the divide.
Should you have missed the story, Babe describes a 2017 date between Grace and Ansari in which he ignored her verbal and nonverbal attempts to stop. After the date, Grace texted Ansari telling him that she was uncomfortable with the experience, and he apologized. Babe published screenshots of the text exchange and the updated piece now includes Ansari’s statement confirming their exchange and reiterating his support for the #MeToo movement.
Cue the backlash.
Instead of having honest conversations about consent, language, and how deeply personal and situational sexual encounters are, we find ourselves in a position of picking sides, victim shaming, and misunderstanding.
As Jezebel Culture Editor, Julianne Escobedo Shepherd, points out, “Because Babe did not have the range or depth to present Grace’s story for what it is—a starting point to discuss the ways consent can feel blurring, no matter how clear we might wish it were, and our lack of language to describe this—we all ended up opening up a conversation that did us no good at all.”
The focus on whether or not to label Ansari as a sexual assailant feels like a step backwards, giving fuel those who look to discredit women and force them to defend their experiences, as well as ignoring what we should be talking about: sex, miseducation, and misogyny in the bedroom.
As a young woman, I have had my share of uncomfortable encounters and downright terrifying situations. I have been guilted into sex, been drugged, felt pressure or expectations of what it meant to be dating, and am continuously learning how and when to be bolder, louder, and more confident in what I want. And I am learning how to do that by listening to storytellers, having uncomfortable or “taboo” conversations, and exploring my personal sexual boundaries.
I have no interest in forcing Grace, or any other person who has felt violated or mistreated, to defend their actions or thought process. I am not concerned with what Grace was wearing or what wine she chose. Because that’s missing the point. What we must talk about is sex, where we learn about it, and how we learn to communicate our boundaries. And frankly, that can shift in every single situation.
There is a scene in the Devil Wears Prada where Simon Baker’s character, Christian, goes on a date with Anne Hathaway’s character, Andy, while they are both in Paris for Fashion Week. There is flirtation and chemistry between the two characters. They are walking on a charming, safe street where the trees are covered in tiny white lights. The music is playful and curious. He kisses her. She kisses back, but stops to say, “I can’t, I’m sorry but I can’t.” She explains that she just broke up with her boyfriend. Christian kisses her again. Andy stops again and says she has had too much wine, that her judgement is impaired. He gently puts his hand on her chin and tips her face to kiss him again. She stops him, this time saying, “I barely know you, I’m in a strange city.” He kisses her... again. She finally tell him she is out of excuses, and Christian replies, “Thank God.”
I bring up this scene because it exemplifies the mixed messages heterosexual men and women have received about how they should act in a potential sexual encounter. Rather than stopping at the first verbal “no,” men are encouraged to chase and convince women to just give in. In fact, it’s this domination and characterization of men as strong and powerful that has been engrained in our brains and continues to fuel the very patriarchy that movements like #MeToo are trying to dismantle.
For too long, girls and women have learned to put others first, to please and smile, and not talk back. Rather than learning how to feel confident and strong in sexual encounters, many of us have learned our boundaries through a lifelong series of trial and error. If someone shoves their fingers in my mouth while we are semi-naked, I can’t tell you with 100% certainty if I will like it or dislike it. I can assume, but I won’t know how I will feel until it happens with that specific individual.
That’s the thing about sex. It isn’t binary. It isn’t black and white. It is full of shades and nuances that may feel completely different with each sexual partner. What feels safe with one person may feel uncomfortable or unsatisfying with another. What feels fun or expected when you are 17 is likely to change by the time you’re 35. Much like a resume that lists jobs you would will likely never work at again but hopefully gained something positive from, one’s sexual history is a never-ending lesson of what feels good, bad, safe, unsafe, wanted, or unwanted.
From ordinary to extreme, our sexual encounters provide opportunity to learn and grow. We have the chance, and a responsibility, to create a culture where boys and men are taught that sex in real life is not the same as porn and should not be pursued like one. A culture where girls and women are not viewed as a reward to be won or dominated. Now is the time to make clear that sexual assault is NOT a “women’s” issue.
To the young man who kept hushing me while physically tried to spread open my legs in college ― stop assuming you can change a woman’s mind when she says no. To the man who yelled at me when I said, “thanks but my girlfriend and I are leaving now” ― women don’t owe you sexual favors in exchange for conversation. (Also, not all women identify as heterosexual.) To the men who feel uncomfortable right now ― rather than sink away or ignore it, please join the conversation with curiosity, compassion, and sincerity.
Ending rape culture means putting an end to victim shaming and embracing a person’s feelings with openness and empathy. It means listening and learning about sex, boundaries, and consent. Ending rape culture means increased education around sexuality, gratification, and how to communicate our feelings and expectations. It means exploring sex through a different lens - one that can shift media, politics, and pop culture - where honest communication before, during, and after sexual encounters isn’t an anomaly.
It’s time to step back and look at where our messages and beliefs around sex come from. It’s time to lift up those who are boldly saying enough is enough, embrace those who are finally listening, and work together to create a world where women no longer feel dehumanized or looked at like a carnival prize.