A viral story published in Babe earlier this month about a date a young woman went on with actor and comedian Aziz Ansari has been met with controversy. Some think Ansari sexually assaulted the woman, who told her story under the pseudonym of “Grace,” while others believe she had full agency in the encounter. In order to further explore some of the complex issues and questions that have come up in response to the story, I asked five feminists to join me in conversation:
Charlene Sayo is a transnational feminist, podcaster, and sometime freelance writer. She is the co-author Canada: The Last Frontier of Filipino Mail Order Brides and was featured in the award-winning film, Status Quo: The Unfinished Business of Feminism in Canada.
Jess Martin is a Vancouver-based writer, feminist activist, and editor at Feminist Current.
Janine Benedet is a law professor at the University of British Columbia and a lawyer who works pro bono for women’s groups. She researches and teaches about legal responses to sexual violence against women, including sexual assault, prostitution, and pornography.
Trisha Baptie is an abolitionist, presenter, writer, mother, and radical feminist. She is the founder of EVE (formerly Exploited Voices now Educating), a volunteer, non-governmental, non-profit organization composed of former sex-industry women advocating towards an end to prostitution.
Sarah Ditum is a British journalist and feminist. She has written about gender, sexual violence, and culture for the New Statesman, The Guardian, Grazia, and numerous other outlets.
Meghan Murphy: In response to the story in Babe, many people have pointed out that “Grace” got naked, kissed, and engaged in oral sex with Aziz Ansari, and asked why she would do these things if she wasn’t interested in sexual activity with him. They seem baffled that she would either expect Ansari not to push for more, considering this behaviour, but also confused as to why she complained she felt violated and disrespected afterwards. Why do women do things they don’t want to do with men?
Jess Martin: For many, decisions around sexuality require the kind of forethought and weighing of pros and cons that can feel impossible under pressure and time constraint (this can be particularly true for people who have PTSD). And let’s talk about the pressure and time constraint we observed in Grace’s story. She mentions that five minutes passed between when she and Ansari first kissed and when he went searching for a condom. That’s a very short period of time to discern whether you’re actually into something, especially if you have to reflect on whether the other person’s desires (and the societal expectation that you’ll be a good little personal porn star) may be eclipsing your own desires. Further, if you have any kind of affinity for foreplay, that kind of encounter is going to leave you dry as Death Valley at best, and completely disturbed at worst.
Asking why Grace would do nudity and oral sex if she wasn’t interested in intercourse is a really weird question. First, it assumes that the natural conclusion of all sexual activity is penis in vagina, which is a terrible assumption both because some women want to be sexual without being penetrated in the moment, and because some women never want to be penetrated at all. Second, it doesn’t factor the issue of time into the question of desire — I say “desire” because I think the term “consent” is meaningless without desire. We assume that the “problem” was that Grace participated in the kind of sexual activity that sometimes precedes intercourse without wanting to engage in intercourse. Really, we don’t know whether or not she would have been interested in intercourse or anything else they were doing if the timing of the sexual activity wasn’t happening exclusively on Ansari’s terms. Regardless, her goal could have been to conclude with manual stimulation, or oral, or conversation, or nothing, and that needs to be okay — especially because if that had been the man’s end goal, it would have been “okay” and no one would be talking about it. Men never get positioned as “the tease.”
Sarah Ditum: I think for a lot of women — the vast majority of us — the idea that sex can be something we want is way out of reach. Culturally, we have the idea of women wanting to be wanted. There’s a script of women being sexually assertive. But female sexuality is almost always presented as what happens in response to men’s desire, and almost always framed by the male gaze: when our culturally accessible ideas of female sexuality are saucy lingerie and thirst selfies, women are put in the position of objectifying ourselves. And that’s a manifestation of a bigger point about power: men have it, we don’t, and the person with the power is the one who gets to frame the encounter. Against the weight of all that, how do women articulate that we have desires — both for what we want and what we don’t want — and then assert that to men who are coasting along very happily in an environment which, through pop culture and the legal system and porn (so much porn), is constantly affirming their right to get what they want and have a woman say “yeah baby” when they do? The answer is, that’s too high a bar for women a lot of the time. And that’s without factoring in the potential for actual violence, which we all know can be the outcome of saying no to a man. Whatever your estimate of a man’s likely reactions, with a man you don’t know and especially when you’re in his home, that potential is at least unconsciously going to be factored into your calculations.
Charlene Sayo: Reading Grace’s story, it’s clear from a feminist perspective that, from the beginning of the date, she had very few choices to begin with. Ansari is a male celebrity with power and influence. His power and influence determined how much leverage Grace had to begin with, and since the Harvey Weinstein scandal, it’s been very clear that even established Hollywood actresses were at the losing end of the Hollywood sexual harassment and sexual assault machine. How much more could an emerging photographer expect to counterweight Ansari’s power, let alone maneuver it unscathed? Ansari continued to display his power over Grace when he ordered the wine without asking her if she wanted wine, and not only assumed, but acted on the assumption that the date would end with sex. The former may not seem like a big deal, however, it is part of a pattern of power and dominance that Ansari couldn’t help but assert because of the power and dominance patriarchy has granted him for no other reason than him being male. That Grace could not even negotiate for the drink she wanted, let alone assert that she didn’t want to have sex, is the expected, normalized, behaviour of women socialized under patriarchy. That Grace was scared and confused throughout the entire encounter is, I believe, a “healthy” response from someone who’s aware that they are being violated and that they’re in a situation that isn’t safe. This fear is precisely why Grace did what she didn’t want to do. In order not to enrage Ansari, she did exactly what patriarchy has taught her, which was to surrender to his power and sexual demands. Many, many women have been killed for refusing the sexual demands of men. In rape culture, being raped or getting killed by men is at the forefront of women’s fight or flight response.
Janine Benedet: It is of course true that the threat of physical violence is real for women, and not something they can measure in the moment. It’s interesting that I have seen lots of online comments about how slight Ansari is, as if the woman is expected to suddenly launch herself at him and take him out, as opposed to managing things in the moment and hoping that she can do something to shift what is happening. But it’s also not the only thing going on. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard lawyers and judges analyze the situation as if it’s some sort of cost-benefit analysis. One male professor said to me that the woman who doesn’t escape is deciding that the negative effect of unwanted sex is less than the embarrassment of running naked into the hall to ask for help. The implication is that it can’t really be sexual assault, because with a real sexual assault the woman would be ready to do anything to avoid it. But women are expected to make these judgments in real time, while someone is touching you and pressuring you. It’s ironic because the classic rape myth has always been that women say no when they really mean yes — they play “hard to get.” I think the opposite is much more common. The law tells us that women can discontinue their consent at any time. We want to believe that this is possible, but it ignores the way in which power operates in these situations.
Trisha Baptie: Grace, it seems, is a modern woman who understands there should be no more “unwritten rules” when it comes to dating — kissing does not mean intercourse, naked does not mean intercourse, oral does not mean intercourse… Nothing equates automatically with another thing. People should be able to explore each other sexually and be able to stop exactly when one party wants to. But that is not the case, unfortunately, for the vast majority of women. Doing any one of these sexual acts and not going to the “next level” is seen as a cock tease, as being frigid, and, in our pornified culture, as an invitation to keep pushing through to the next act at any cost. Grace had every right to explore these things with Ansari if that is what she wanted to do. What Ansari did not have the right to do is make assumptions, and he made many of those — the first one being that intercourse is the only acceptable end result, and the second (and I think this makes him look like a bad lover) being that it is ok to try to go from sex act to sex act very quickly.
Living in a patriarchal society, men must understand they are in a position of power and realize the fear that women can experience when alone with men. When someone is pushing you to have sex, it can feel like you’re on a train careening out of control, and because women are conditioned to be silent and to put up with men’s behavior, it can feel really scary to be with a man who is all worked up and aroused and say “no more.” I’ve talked to a few young women who told me, “I didn’t stop it because I didn’t want to create a scene” or, “I didn’t know when to say no and then I felt trapped.” Even “good” or “woke” men can still be intimidating one on one. Men need to be aware of how it can feel to be on the receiving end of their actions. Access to the pill may have got us some form of sexual quasi-freedom (meaning we fear pregnancy less), but our lack of full bodily autonomy combined with a fear of men shows we are still oppressed. And that oppression makes saying “no” or “stop” to a man feel like a walk on the razor’s edge of safety.
Meghan: Do you think it’s true that men are “confused” about what women want? At The New York Times, for example, Bari Weiss wrote that Ansari is simply “guilty of not being a mind reader.” Others argue that men do know what they’re doing when they are pressuring women for sex, and that Ansari would have been able to tell Grace wasn’t interested. Beyond this story, many feminists argue that when men rape, they know they are doing it. Yet, at the same time, many men do genuinely feel and express shock when accused of sexual misconduct, sexual assault, or of pushing a woman to engage in sex when she doesn’t want to. What is your perspective?
Jess: Whether or not men are confused about what women want or whether they simply don’t care is an opaque mud. I’m confident that some men care what women want sexually. If this were not true, men wouldn’t consider the concept of “being bad in bed” to be so humiliating. So, at least, most men care what women want so as not to have their sexual prowess questioned. I know there are men out there who would struggle to enjoy themselves if their partner wasn’t enjoying herself. I don’t think Ansari fits into this category, or at least not as far as this encounter shows. You’d have to be dumber than a sack of hammers to hear the words, “I don’t want to feel forced because then I’ll hate you, and I’d rather not hate you,” and not make an inference that the woman is feeling forced. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think empathy during sex is something innate that “good” men have, and “regular” or “bad” men don’t. It’s a very normal and human thing that many men have lost by being socialized in patriarchy. I think they can get it back. I also think the fact that most boys receive their sex education from porn has a (huge) role to play in this. If a boy/man is consistently having orgasms to something where women are pleasured by anything and everything that gets the man off, or women in porn act terrified and humiliated and even that gets positioned as desirable and “empowering,” it’s not surprising that men are incredulous when real sex has different outcomes. I did my Communications thesis around sexual literacy, and I can confidently say that young people in North America have unfathomably shitty sex educations. And we’re looking at the fallout.
Janine: We continue to focus on women’s consent, as if women control the sexual encounter, and ignore men’s coercive behaviours. I do think that men know exactly what they are doing, but if no one else except the woman seems to notice, why alter the game plan?
I agree about the effects of pornography. One of the things that I notice is that when I started my academic work on legal remedies for the harms of pornography in the 1990s, I was constantly told that porn was not harmful, that it was fantasy, that no one could prove that porn caused rape and that it likely provided men with an outlet that could make them less violent. I rarely hear those arguments anymore, now that we are flooded with pornography online. Now I mostly hear people acknowledging how awful it is, but assuming that nothing can be done. What hasn’t changed is that the focus is always on the effects on those who consume porn, and rarely on the women and girls used to make it. That is what the relentless push to legitimize prostitution as “sex work” has done. Why would we be surprised that telling men that they have a right to sex on demand spills over from the designated population of “sex workers” and “porn stars,” whose job it is to absorb these demands, to any woman the man wants?
Sarah: We do men a disservice by pretending they just don’t understand tacit refusal from women. We all interpret unspoken “no’s” in a million different ways every day — because a bald “no” is often considered rude, we soften it. If someone in your office says “do you want a coffee?” you might say “I’ve just had one,” or “maybe another time,” or “let’s look at these reports,” and all those things are clearly interpretable as a “no” without including the word “no.” Only sex is held to the standard of the absolute, unambiguous “no means no and yes means yes.” Who does that insistence on total verbal articulation serve? It serves the person who doesn’t want to pick up on the perfectly explicable no-that-isn’t-a-no. It serves men with a case of sexual entitlement, in other words.
I just don’t believe that men who are capable of negotiating the subtleties of day-to-day communication are struck stupid when it comes to sex. What I do believe is that the cultural script of feminine passivity gives them an alibi. And I do feel, reluctantly, a twinge of sympathy for men who find out after the fact that a pornified hook-up isn’t what women actually find consensually pleasurable, because a lot of them are probably thoroughly under the sway of sexual libertarian propaganda. But only a tiny twinge… If men believe that women want fingers down their throat, they haven’t spent a whole bunch of time thinking about how women actually feel.
Charlene: It’s my belief that everything that men think they know about women sexually, they’ve learned through pornography and rape culture, which are the vilest cultural expressions of patriarchy and misogyny. Whether or not men know they’re pressuring women to have sex is almost irrelevant under a patriarchal system, since this system makes no demands for men to take responsibility or even think critically about their dominance and actions. This disregard for responsibility was demonstrated in Ansari’s assumption that Grace and him would be having sex at the end of the date — and his maneuvers to have Grace perform oral sex on him at the very least, if he wasn’t going to be able to have penetrative sex with her.
Patriarchy has granted men to do whatever they want to do with very few consequences; pornography has taught men and women their so-called proper sexual roles. But pornographers have also taught men to view “sex” in pornographic films as sex and not as rape — not as sexual assault which is what pornography truly is. In this context, I can see how men wouldn’t be able tell the difference between sex and rape, since pornography is the total adversary to healthy, consensual sexual relationships. The downside is that men, once they find themselves genuinely attracted to a woman they want to have a deeper, more meaningful relationship with, are unable to practice a true, loving relationship. They’ve never been taught to practice and nurture loving relationships to begin with.
In regards to men “knowing” when they’re raping, or have raped, I believe there is a level of male consciousness of what rape is. Case in point: men are terrified of what happens when men are raped in prison. They are aware that anal rape is a reality for incarcerated men. Moreover, in popular culture particularly films and TV, when men threaten other men it’s with utterances of shoving a baseball bat up their ass, or raping their wives, daughters, sisters, etc. Popular shows like Narcos, Game of Thrones, and The Punisher articulate these statements in their respective parlance in almost every episode. Considering these pop culture references, men are certainly aware of the threatening weight that rape carries.
Trisha: Men know when women do not want to do something. If they have to keep asking or keep trying, clearly she is not interested in it, so STOP. It’s that simple.
I have kids. If I ask them three times to clean their room and they finally do it after the fourth time, it’s not because they suddenly want to clean their rooms, it’s because I got them to submit to my will. How they feel about it is the least of my concerns — they did what I wanted so I feel good and even believe it will be good for them. Some men think the same way about sex: If I just repeat this action or make this move enough times eventually she will cave to my demands. This is not about mutual pleasure or desire — the woman has been reduced to a means to an end, a thing that must just be browbeaten enough to give in to what a man wants. And men do have this belief that somehow they are doing something good for women when they do this. They’re opening up women’s minds to new experiences or helping them explore their sexuality or whatever other bullshit reason they have. Men are not confused.
I also know men are not confused because when I was involved in prostitution it was with alarming regularity that “normal” men would pay me to say “no,” try to fight them off, and appear to miserably give into them. It’s a thing because of porn. Porn has taught men that women have no idea what they want, that women will say no when really they mean yes, and that women have no idea what actually feels good for them so it is up to you to inform them and teach them these things. What really needs to happen is men need to trust that women know what we want and what we don’t want and to listen and be in tune enough with themselves that they can clearly hear and read women’s desires… Or lack thereof.
Meghan: At the risk of sounding glib, why are men so bad at sex? And why do women keep having unsatisfying sex with men?
In other words, we know that most women aren’t orgasming during sex with men. We know that lots of women don’t enjoy penetrative sex (“penis in vagina,” some call it). Why are they still doing it? Why do men claim they want women to enjoy themselves, but continue to pester and press women into having sex that is unsatisfying for them?
Jess: There are a lot of young women out there that have no good experiences with men to compare bad ones with, so everything just ends up feeling like a disappointing “normal.” I think the pressure to be hypersexual to avoid being labeled a prude makes this much worse. I remember being publicly mocked once while out for drinks by a woman (who considered herself super sexually “empowered”) because I said casual sex doesn’t appeal to me and that I don’t do it. I know what it’s like to be the town “prude” and when it comes to young women getting into positions where they don’t feel equipped to say no, this is just heaping coals on the fire.
I am aware that some young women are feeling so alienated these days from sexual experiences where empathy is involved that they have come up with new sexual orientation labels — demisexual, versions of asexual, even sapiosexual — to feel okay in a hyperpornified world about what they actually desire. For some, the thing they actually like is to have sex with someone they know, and the more we tell young women that they’re freakish anomalies for wanting to, say, know a person’s middle name or how many kids they have or whether or not they have a claw-like gagging fetish (see original Babe article) before they jump into bed together, the more women feel like they have no other choice when they get into scenarios with red flags.
Janine: I went through adolescence and young adulthood in the age of AIDS, so the focus of what we learned was a lot about how sex could kill us. There was no internet. In some ways I find the world younger adults like Grace live in is alien to me compared to the 1980s and early 90s. And in other ways it feels like nothing has changed since the 1950s. We haven’t eradicated the underlying inequality between men and women when it comes to sex. Some women’s economic and educational opportunities have improved, but the pornography has gotten much more violent and degrading and infinitely more accessible and mainstream than it ever was. Porn tells men that anything they do to a woman will be experienced as sexual by her if they just keep doing it.
I find the idea that some women have had to label not wanting to be sexually violated as a kind of sexual orientation very sad, but I suppose not really surprising. A couple of years ago I went to training offered by the university on creating a welcoming environment for sexually diverse students. We were given terms that we had to try defining for the group and I had to define “asexual.” I said that I thought it referred to someone who didn’t engage in sexual activity because they didn’t feel the desire to, as opposed to someone who was choosing to be celibate for other reasons. The facilitator corrected me and told the group that some asexual people do have sex because their partners want to. I guess that would make them non-practising asexuals? Anyway, I thought that was very disturbing to hear as the official university line, since having sex you don’t want to please someone else has been the sorry lot of women for hundreds of years. It’s not something to be recognized and affirmed.
Sarah: It takes a really long time to get your head round the idea that sex — the version of sex we see in films, read in books, that we aren’t given any alternative to — has been set up for men. If you’re a heterosexual and averagely horny woman, you’re going to want to have sex at some point, and when you do, you find yourself entering into these scripts of male dominance and female submission. Wrenching yourself out of that and establishing what you like (and who you like it with) is HARD. Add to that, so much of the value placed on women is sexual: you know, are you even worth anything if your fuckability bar isn’t ticking high? A culture where every female performer does the men’s mag skin shoot is pretty insistent that if men don’t want you, you don’t matter.
Why are men so bad at it? Because they’re told in every possible way — but especially through porn — that sex is whatever they want, and that if women’s pleasure matters at all they get it from men doing whatever men want. Because misogyny.
Trisha: Oh man, so many reasons. In my humble opinion, women aren’t taught to love our bodies in any way — from our weight, to how white our teeth are, to how our vaginas smell. We are so busy adjusting and fitting our bodies into a certain image that we don’t know how to feel good in our bodies. If we aren’t comfortable in our bodies, how can we be comfortable figuring out what we want and then asking for it? My best lovers were the ones who always asked seductively, “Do you like this?” or, “Does this feel good?” or, “Are you done?” and LISTENED to my reply. However, given the pornified world we live in, sex has been reduced to the money shot. The beautiful nuances and feelings of it have fallen to the wayside with waxed genitalia and bleached anuses teaching our young men what “sex” is. I think it can be summed up in three words: misogyny, patriarchy, narcissism.
Meghan: In an open letter to Grace, HLN anchor Ashleigh Banfield said, “If you just had an unpleasant sexual experience, you should have gone home.” Many have said we should expect more from women, instead of treating them like passive victims. Does Grace hold any responsibility in this situation? Should she have, as many suggested, simply left or been more forceful in rejecting Ansari’s advances? Is she culpable?
Jess: Women are in between a rock and a hard place on this one, are they not? Is there an “acceptable response” somewhere between, “Flee the scene like it’s on fire the moment something doesn’t go according to plan,” and, “If you had just verbally communicated enough, the whole thing would have been fine. He’s not a mind reader!”? Either we can turn the “unpleasant sexual experience” into a pleasant one using communication, or we can’t and need to GTFO. Critics, choose one.
Here’s the thing we actually don’t want to talk about, but need to: sexuality is complex, and there’s something about expressing your desires like you’re writing a headline for Search Engine Optimization or dictating it to Siri that feels super clumsy, and we don’t talk about this dynamic until something goes wrong. Imagine being in a cab ride back to a new date’s house after dinner, and saying breathily into his ear: “When we get home, I want to have two more glasses of wine, and then I want to spend 20 minutes letting sexual tension build up with no physical contact, followed by some making out, and then I want to stop short of touching, seeing, or gesturing toward your penis.” Was that description hot for you? No. And typically, unless there’s a jackass in the equation, we don’t need to turn into Doctor Spock in the bedroom. Having a guy regularly check in during a sexual encounter with, “Hey, are things good for you?” seems like a way less libido-stomping initiative.
Janine: If someone is into you, you don’t have to chase them around the apartment. Chief Justice Fraser, of the Alberta Court of Appeal, memorably held that women in this country “are not walking around in a constant state of consent to sexual activity” until they indicate otherwise. It’s the reverse: they aren’t consenting until they indicate that they are. There was a case in British Columbia in 1991 where the woman kept saying, “Why are you doing this?” and trying to move her body to stop him, and he kept saying, “See, I’m a nice guy” and, “I’m not going to hurt you.” The judge acquitted him, and said the onus was on her to make her non-consent unequivocal because “no can sometimes mean maybe, or wait a little while.” Women took to the streets in protest after that decision, and it provided a major push for the law reforms that happened in 1992, which defined consent as “voluntary agreement.” How is what happened in that case any different from what Grace says happened to her? He doesn’t have to be a mind reader — he has to hear a yes, or see a yes being clearly demonstrated throughout the sexual activity.
Sarah: I mean… Grace did go home. It’s hard to parse what exactly what this criticism means, other than that once a woman’s walked through the door, she’s forfeited any right to say whether she likes what’s happening or not. We’re back to that question of men’s mysterious selective incomprehension of the non-explicit “no” when it comes from a woman during sex. The only thing that is going to force men to listen to women is a massive shift in social pressure around our ideas of sex and mutuality, and that’s only going to happen from women talking about their shitty sexual experiences — and men learning that what looked great to them in their bedroom mirror felt very, very different to the women they were doing it to.
Trisha: Women are screwed no matter what we do. No matter what, our actions are to blame. The conversation needs to be refocused. We should be asking, “How did his behaviour affect her sense of safety and well-being in this situation?” and, “If it did, do you think that could have affected her ability to leave forthwith?” and, “How can he be so clueless as to how she is feeling?” etc.
The first time she said “no,” or however she phrased her displeasure with the situation, Ansari should have pulled back, and should not have put her in the position of repeatedly asking him to stop.
Charlene: I level Ashleigh Banfield’s criticism to that of society criticizing women for not reporting rape or sexual assault. That women are expected to do more and not be victims is itself the apex of victim blaming. Society already demands so much from women — to demand that women be responsible for the sexual behaviour and violence of men is downright repugnant and hateful towards women. I find it hateful that women are not only discouraged from defining themselves as victims when they’ve been violated, but are savagely berated when they do step forward and state that they are victims of rape or sexual assault. When a person has been violated, when violence has been enacted against them, they are victims of malicious actions by another person. When victims are able to point out and take action against their attacker, they are asserting the power their attacker attempted to take away; by seeking justice they’re acting on their strength. Through this process, they become survivors. There’s absolutely nothing passive in this regard. Our society has a very deranged way of defining victims, in that, instead of supporting victims, they victim blame and shame under the pathetic guise of strength of and resilience.
Meghan: Some have called what happened rape, and others have insisted it is not. What is your perspective? Is it even important that we determine whether or not what happened constitutes sexual assault?
Jess: I’ll admit that at a gut level, “rape” doesn’t feel like the right word. Maybe this is because society positions vaginal or anal penetration as a requisite part of “rape”, and maybe that’s a little too heterocentric, given that we tend to see the word “rape” as more severe than the word “sexual assault.” I’m not sure. But, if you took the sexuality out of an unwanted encounter this invasive, it would just be considered “assault” and I think few people would put up a fuss about that. It seems clear, then, that when you take something that would be assault in a non-sexual context, and then add sexuality to the mix, “sexual assault” is a fitting term. And I think the reason many of us (myself included) feel uncomfortable and torn using even the term sexual assault is because the scenario is too familiar, and the thought that sexual assault is this widespread is exhausting. For many of us, the “It wasn’t as bad as it makes me feel” band aid is covering an ugly wound that we don’t have the resources to actually heal. The Grace story is making that band aid look both conspicuous and inadequate. And we don’t know what to do about that.
Janine: In Canada, rape ceased to exist as a criminal offence in 1983. Rape was very specific — a man penetrating a woman’s vagina with a penis (so long as she was not his wife, of course). “Sexual assault” replaced the offences of rape and indecent assault. Nowadays, it requires, in addition to some sort of sexual contact, proof that the woman did not want the particular sexual act to take place. It’s based on her state of mind, not what she did or failed to do. But the man can claim that he mistakenly thought she was consenting. For that to be a defence, he has to honestly believe that she said or did something to indicate a “yes” to the sexual activity in question and there needs to be evidence that he took reasonable steps to find out whether she was consenting.
If a judge or a jury believed Grace’s account of things, it’s clear that she didn’t want a good deal of the sexual activity (a term that includes everything from kissing to intercourse). She wasn’t consenting because she didn’t want it. People often tell me that consent is a “grey area,” but legally it’s not so grey.
Of course someone in Ansari’s position can still argue that he believed that she did say yes to everything that happened. But of the things she said, where is the “yes” here? Everything she said was either unclear or consistent with not wanting sex on that occasion. “Whoa” and “next time” and “I don’t want to feel forced” are not affirmative statements of consent. So he would have to say that her conduct indicated “yes.” Moving your hand away, moving to a different part of the room, getting dressed, are all the opposite of conduct that says you want to engage in these sexual acts. Of course she did engage in some conduct that could form a basis for believing in consent — including giving him oral sex, but compliance after relentless pressure is not the same as consent. Given all of the things she was saying and doing that pointed the other way, where are his reasonable steps to ascertain her consent? They would at a minimum require some effort to clear up the supposed ambiguity.
Sarah: Something doesn’t have to be criminal to be wrong. On a gut level, I don’t think the scenario Grace described is rape (and of course, she doesn’t call it that), but it’s still a violation of one (female) person by a (male) person who fails to note her cues and who puts his own interest in intercourse way out ahead of her wants. And I want to talk about that: not-rape is a very low bar for men, and a lot of not-rape sex is unpleasant, subtly coercive, and downright unpleasurable for women. Let’s discuss that, rather than play jury on every single case.
Trisha: My first instinct is to say no to rape but a strong hell yeah to sexual assault. Sexual assault covers everything and isn’t so “penis in vagina or anus” specific. I think it is important to name it as sexual assault so men can understand how their actions affect women and so women can have a sense of solidarity.
Charlene: I agree with Sarah that something doesn’t have to be criminal to be wrong. What happened to Grace is part of patriarchal rape culture wherein men assume that sex is a male entitlement and that women must provide that sex. And that assumption is wrong, just as it was wrong — and disgusting — for Ansari to repeatedly shove his fingers down Grace’s throat.
Meghan: The backlash to the story has been massive. Many have claimed the story hurt the #MeToo movement by bringing what some believe is nothing more than a “bad date” into the conversation. Some believe Grace’s story is an example of #MeToo gone too far. Do you think these kinds of scenarios deserve space in #MeToo or are they a distraction?
Jess: If this is nothing but a bad date, let’s just stop dating men. Here’s a description of an actual bad date:
Dude A takes Woman B out for dinner. He nickle-and-dimes her as she looks over the menu, and insists that she have the cheapest thing available. Then he tells her it should probably be a salad, because he wouldn’t want her to let herself go. He then asks her whether she feels like giving him unreturned sexual favours later. She says no, so he leaves and makes her pay for her own meal and his.
That is a really really bad date. When someone says something to the effect of, “Please don’t pressure me,” and the man responds by bending the woman over, thrusting into her, and saying something to the effect of, “Shall I have intercourse with you in this location, or another location?” that is way more than a bad date. When an adult chases you around the room sticking their fingers in your throat, that’s more than a bad date. When we start to get into the “unwilling reenactments of things I saw last night on Pornhub” territory, we’ve progressed into something else.
I do think there is a distinction between the Grace scenario, and the one we all just read in “Cat Person,” though. It’s the fact that Grace physically removed herself and expressed that she felt pressured and wanted to slow down. If “Cat Person” guy had’ve noticed the lack of enthusiasm and said, “Hey, you look unimpressed, do you want to stop?” (which is a legal requirement in many countries, including Canada) it might have prevented lame and ethically ambiguous sex. If Grace’s account is true, Ansari’s cues to put on the breaks could have been seen from outer space. And he chose to put the blinders on.
Janine: One of the things that really bothers me about the reaction to this is that Grace is just describing something that happened to her as she experienced it. She isn’t asking the police to arrest Ansari or suing him civilly (both of which women should feel free to pursue, of course, when they are applicable). But here we’re not even at the point where she can be called a “gold digger” or blamed for his wrongful conviction. She’s just describing some things that happened to her. Women should be able to do that, and to try to make sense of what happens to them, including where it implicates the behaviour of men. This is actually the first step of the fundamental feminist practice of consciousness raising. The problem with doing this by posting something online is that you aren’t surrounded solely by a group of other women who want to engage in this shared process with you. I think we need to get back to that practice of gathering together to figure things out, and then translate that into action, both in our individual lives and collectively as a women’s movement. Kind of exactly like what we are doing in this round table. I do think that the story is just as instructive without needing to name a celebrity as the guy involved. I’m not saying that she has to protect him, but obviously the website has a financial incentive to having a celebrity name attached to the story even though the blowback for the woman whose story it is will be a million times worse. Is the idea that he needs to be named because he says he’s a feminist? There are a million guys out there who fit that profile.
The Harvey Weinstein story broke in October. That’s less than four months ago. And already we are getting letters and op-eds and statements by all kinds of public figures that all of this has gone too far and is ruining men’s lives. It has supposedly ruined men’s lives because men are losing some of their privileges without due process (which usually means a process that is secret, lasts so long that everyone else loses interest, and that gives ample time to grind the woman down). And it has gone too far because now men live in fear of ever being able to have a normal interaction with a woman, especially when they happen to be a “very physical person” (which is apparently the most common and important personality trait for men in positions of power.) Grace’s account maps on to these two strands of the instant backlash to #metoo perfectly. She’s ruining Ansari’s life and she’s trying to turn everything into sexual violence. And now she is the perpetrator and he (and all men) are the victims. I’m not buying the backlash — I’ve barely had time to enjoy the frontlash.
Sarah: This is the kind of story Helen Lewis calls a “dying cat.” It’s open to dispute. People argue over it, dig into their positions. It sucks the air out of the rest of the discussion. With the Weinstein and Louis CK stories, because they clearly cross the bar of criminality, there’s not a debate to be had. (I mean, some people have tried. But they haven’t had much take-up.) It’s non-controversial to say that women working in warehouses or agriculture shouldn’t be molested by the men who set their shifts, so people can just agree and move on. With Ansari, you can fight it out over the details — is it rape/not-rape/not-rape-and-still-bad? — and suddenly it’s consumed the news cycle. Is that bad for #metoo? I think #metoo is robust enough to absorb this and continue addressing sexual violence and coercion in the workplace.
More importantly, I think the conversation about power and sexual ethics has got to be able to critique so-called “bad dates.” “Bad dates” (inverted commas because, as Jess says, this is so much more than a bad date) account for a hell of a lot of women’s negative sexual experiences. They account for a hell of a lot of women’s sexual experiences, full stop. The movement for women’s liberation should definitely include liberating women from crap, depressing, porny sex with selectively hard-of-understanding men.