In the midst of the stories of sexual harassment, abuse, and violence that have come to light in the past few months, one of the most controversial has been the allegations against comedian Aziz Ansari. On 13th January, the website Babe.net published an exclusive anonymous account from a 23-year-old woman referred to as ‘Grace’ about a date with Ansari that she calls “by far the worst experience with a man I’ve ever had”. Grace told Babe that Ansari repeatedly ignored her growing discomfort and the concern she voiced and tried to pressure her into sex, and she eventually left his apartment in tears. Ansari released a statement on 14th January in which he said the sexual activity they engaged in was “by all indications completely consensual” and he was “surprised and concerned” to hear this was not the case.
As a fan of Aziz Ansari, this story was particularly distressing. It does not fit perfectly with the examples that have arisen since October, when the story of Harvey Weinstein’s decades of alleged abuse broke: ones that focus on abuse of power in the workplace and repeated sexual harassment, establishing a pattern of abusive behaviour. Instead, it deals with a coercive, dehumanising instance of sexual intimidation that exists in a contentious grey area between enthusiastic consent and passive submission. This kind of experience – a man repeatedly pushing sex without knowing or caring what his partner feels – is painfully relatable to most women, and behaviour which countless men display.
This is hardly surprising when we consider the socialisation of men from a young age to accept that sexual aggression is normal. Heterosexual sex and relationships are all too often portrayed as a cat-and-mouse game in which the man is expected to wear down a coy and flirtatiously resistant woman until she gives in. For men, sex becomes a prize to be won; for women it is to be withstood rather than enjoyed, in a grey area between pleasure and pain.
In trying to tackle these painful stories and personal experiences, Babe’s journalistic practices are well worth questioning. Framing this as a ‘Famous Man Sexual Assault’ problem instead of a widespread culture problem allows men to disassociate themselves from this kind of behaviour rather than reflect on their own attitudes. As the subject matter of these discussions continues to broaden, oversimplification of Grace’s story as either a sexual assault from a powerful man or just ‘an awkward experience’ are equally reductive and unhelpful. The most productive debates come from acknowledging the grey area.
The aspect of this story that makes Ansari’s behaviour particularly relevant and unsympathetic is his frequent discussion of feminist issues. Not only did he recently sport a Time’s Up pin while accepting his Golden Globe for Netflix’s Master of None, but his comedy has explicitly tackled sexism and power dynamics in dating. For instance, his 2016 Madison Square Garden special includes a lengthy segment in which he declares that “creepy dudes are everywhere”, asking women to raise their hands if they’ve ever experienced something like catcalling or being followed. Faced with a sea of hands, Ansari says “that’s way too many people; that should not be happening!”
This is what makes Grace’s experience so specifically relatable. Particularly at Cambridge, most of our male friends and sexual partners are intelligent, educated, even overtly self-declared feminists. Statements of support such as these lead to implicit trust, that ‘nice guys’ like the ones we are surrounded by are not the ones who commit sexual misconduct. Often, performative feminism acts as a smokescreen to insulate oneself from criticism. Not only do women trust men who profess themselves to be feminist allies, but these men are given an excuse not to examine their own actions.
The disappointment I felt hearing that an actor and comedian whose work I enjoyed for years is guilty of upholding this toxic status quo is comparable to the disappointment on a much larger scale that I feel hearing similar stories of men I know and trust. It is a mistake to dismiss this kind of experience as too common to count as unacceptable, and we must acknowledge misogyny in sex even if this means acknowledging painful truths about people closer to home.