Opinion staff column

Why the Aziz Ansari story and discussions of grey areas are central to the #MeToo movement

To develop more nuanced understandings of consent and prevent sexual assault, we need to discuss grey areas

Stories like that of Grace and Aziz Ansari are central to the fight against sexual assault and for gender equality.

Their story is one that is all too common. It begins with some flirting and a date, through which Ansari develops an expectation for sex, while Grace does not. It ends with Grace feeling disrespected and violated for having all of her signals and statements of discomfort towards sex ignored.

The piece has created a relatively large rift in the #MeToo movement. While many people have expressed support for Grace, many others have called the story detrimental to the movement’s momentum or stated that it demonstrates the “excesses” of the movement in punishing innocent men. They have expressed sympathy for Aziz Ansari for failing to fully comprehend Grace’s “mixed signals” and claimed that the account doesn’t even approach sexual assault.

People’s negative responses to the piece demonstrate that our society faces a deep issue, where people understand sexual assault in solely the most extreme terms and fail to recognize more quotidian forms of gendered violence.

It is easy for us to condemn the most egregious individuals for the most obviously non-consensual acts of sexual violence, such as Harvey Weinstein for raping multiple of his female co-workers or Kevin Spacey for making pedophilic advances towards multiple young men. Grace’s story, however, demonstrates that a grey area exists in sexual assault and that violence within this grey area has become highly normalized. The fact that many people found that they could relate to Ansari and consequently jumped to call his actions ordinary, while many others found that they could relate to Grace and shared similar stories demonstrates this normalization.

A lot of this normalization stems from our limited understandings of coercion. It’s important to realize that coercion can operate subtly, and doesn’t necessarily require direct physical actions or spoken threats. Rather, sexual violence stems most naturally from power imbalances produced by social norms and structures. Those power imbalances are deeply intertwined with gender stereotypes that teach men to be aggressively masculine rather than empathetic and teach women to be docile rather than outspoken. They result from the administrative control that established workplace bosses like Weinstein may hold over their new employees and the social status that famous celebrities like Ansari or Spacey may hold over their fans.

It is easy to say “no” and walk away from uncomfortable situations in theory, but it is not nearly as easy to do so in practice, particularly in situations in which one individual wields large amounts of power over the other. The people who call on Grace to speak out more about her own desires clearly fail to recognize that, all throughout their lives, women have been imbued with messages from the media and their bosses and their peers that they cannot do so. As Anna North describes in her article, this stigma is particularly true for women regarding romantic relationships and sex. Women are slut shamed for pursuing too much sex and labelled as prudes for pursuing too little. During sex itself, male pleasure always takes precedence and female pleasure is almost seen as an afterthought. Men are taught that women saying “no” are really playing hard to get, and women who firmly do say “no” often face horrible consequences.

Consistently, however, Grace and other women with similar stories are told that they have not experienced “real” sexual assault and that the mere act of sharing their stories trivializes more “serious” incidents of sexual violence. These responses seem horribly misguided. The people who are calling out Aziz Ansari aren’t equating his actions with those of Weinstein, Spacey, or any of the other individuals who have been accused (or convicted) of sexual assault. Each of these individual stories adds more nuance to the broader #MeToo movement about the avenues through which sexual assault can occur.

Solely condemning the most extreme instances of sexual assault is insufficient. It means that, at best, we punish some of the worst criminals in society. However, unless we are willing to also condemn the people like Ansari, who may not necessarily cross legal lines into sexual assault but clearly fail to fully consider their partners’ comfort, we will never create a positive culture around sex in which all parties can find pleasure. Feminist efforts to prevent rape and sexual assault are necessary, but insufficient. We need to broaden our goal to actively promoting comfort in sex, as the majority of people most likely will never become rapists or sexual assaulters in the way that we’re defining these terms now, but many people have been in situations similar to that of Grace and Ansari.

A first step towards combating this subtler form of sexual violence is to define consent as affirmative — as a freely given, continuous “yes.” This definition creates a far clearer brightline for sexual violence that can eliminate a lot of issues with the existing grey area. Consequently, as Jaclyn Friedman argues in her article, we should be teaching this definition in sex ed programs at schools. In the context of Grace’s story, affirmative consent would mean that Ansari actively asks Grace whether or not she is comfortable with having sex rather than waiting for her to interject and say “no.” The former action promotes a healthy relationship in which both parties can find satisfaction, while the latter makes miscommunication and discomfort highly likely.

Redefining consent obviously begs the question of how we should punish the multitudes of people who will newly fit the banner of “sexual assaulters.” However, the answer to that question is still rather unclear. My gut tells me that this question isn’t nearly as pressing as people are making it out to be. There are obviously flaws in our criminal justice system that make legal solutions to sexual assault insufficient and problematic, the most obvious ones being that sexual assault survivors rarely report their cases due to a lack of evidence or a fear of dragging out their pain, and that any new laws will likely be disproportionately applied to black populations.

For now, our focus should be on socially transforming the way we understand sexual violence. We need to listen to the people coming forward in the #MeToo movement and hold more nuanced discussions of consent and sexual violence within our schools and our workplaces. Gendered violence is not solely a question of legal structures, but rather has been written into the fabric of our society — it is ingrained in the stereotypes that we recall while buying clothes or writing scripts for movies and in the sex ed models that teach abstinence over proper protection. In order to truly create an equal society, we need to more deeply examine the patriarchal power relations and social norms at play which make gendered violence possible.