CW: This article discusses sexual assault and coercion.
Now that the dust has settled and nearly everyone has expressed their opinion on the topic, I’d like to discuss Aziz Ansari. In case you missed it, last month Babe.net published an article titled I went on a date with Aziz Ansari. It turned into the worst night of my life, detailing an encounter between the comedy actor and a woman known as Grace. Though Ansari has said he believed the encounter was consensual, Grace said she felt pressured, ignored and violated. The article sparked controversy all over the internet and was referred to many as a “scandal”, which is ironic considering the commonality of its nature.
Unlike the accusations against Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and in Australia, Don Burke, which were generally widely supported, opinions on the Aziz matter were split. Some believe it’s #MeToo gone too far, while others think the movement is entering a deeper, much needed discussion. I believe that this is potentially the most crucial story to come out of the #MeToo movement as it forces a dialogue that we’ve ignored for far too long. Perhaps the reason this case is so divisive is because Aziz was not the ‘monster’ that previous #MeToo accusations had dealt with; he was one of the ‘good guys’. He was the “feminist woke bae” we all wished we were friends with so we could live life like The Master of None. Or maybe the reason this case was so explosive is because Grace’s experience is so familiar that it becomes confronting. Which is exactly what makes it so important.
In cases of sexual assault the main focus is on “consent”, or rather lack thereof. We know the basic concept; no means no and yes means yes. But what we hear less of are stories like Grace’s where the case was “no, no, no…yes”. Let me be very, very clear: this is not consent. This is coercion. And it happens all the time.
The first thought that popped into my head when I read Grace’s story was #MeToo. I have experienced very similar situations, ones that I had always looked back on with an uncomfortable and sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. But I’ve never really been able to put that feeling into words before, until I read Grace’s story. I’m betting that almost every woman has experienced something similar to Grace in their lifetime. I commend Grace for standing up to something that has been so commonplace that we’ve become blind to its harm.
We need to challenge this status quo. When we try to make sense of assault and coercive experiences, we need to go further than just saying “boys will be boys”. We need to ask, why is it that so many boys and men share these dominant, entitled, persistent behaviors? And why do we think that’s okay?
To understand the power and gender dynamics at play in cases like the Aziz and Grace one, we need to flip the questions that are currently being asked. Instead of asking why she didn’t speak up for a second or third time, we should be asking why didn’t he listen the first time? Instead of asking why she didn’t leave, we should be asking why didn’t he just back off? And instead of asking why she was so upset by an experience that is so common, we need to ask why has this become so normalised?
Think about the media we consume. According to every rom-com ever women apparently enjoy being pursued, worn down, even stalked. Think Edward and Bella in Twilight, Chuck Bass in Gossip Girl, and that guy from Love Actually with the sign. Even my all-time fave 90s rom-com 10 Things I Hate About You is guilty of this trope – it is literally all about Nice Guy “don’t let anyone, ever, make you feel like you don’t deserve what you want” Patrick wearing down bad-arse feminist babe Kat until she eventually goes out with him, while her younger sister Bianca is being pursued by Nice Guy “I learnt French for you” Cameron.
Cameron from 10 Things I Hate About You. Image from yts.am/movie/10-things-i-hate-about-you-1999
These parallel plot lines both follow the idea that if a ‘Nice Guy’ desires a woman he is entitled to her time, attention, and her body. So many of these movies and TV shows imply that romance is solely about men’s desires. They also suggest that women have no agency when it comes to their own happiness or pleasure and need to be ‘guided’ (i.e: coerced) by men. Sorry Hollywood I hate to burst your bubble but women are smart, independent and strong as hell – and they don’t owe men anything, even the so-called nice ones. To borrow a brilliant quote; “Women are not vending machines you put kindness coins in until sex falls out”.
These cliched notions depicted on screen are then adopted into our everyday lives and conversations, confusing predatory behaviour for romance. From a very early age women are taught to be passive and men are taught to be persistent in relationships. We tell young girls “if he pulls your hair it means he likes you”, unknowingly teaching them to submit to violence, be grateful even. Men are told “she’s just playing hard to get” and are encouraged to pursue the ‘thrill of the chase’. We need to stop spreading these common phrases. They’re not harmless. They’re sinister.
The emphasis on male pleasure and female pain is also very present in our education system. While boys learn about masturbation and ejaculation, girls are taught about menstruation, pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. This is enforcing a serious gender imbalance when it comes to sex where males often feel entitled to pleasure and females are simply hoping it doesn’t hurt too much. Professor Debby Herbenick confirmed this in the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior, highlighting the different interpretation from each gender of the term ‘good sex’. She says that “when it comes to ‘good sex’, women often mean without pain, men often mean they had orgasms. While women imagined ‘bad sex’ to include the potential for extremely negative feelings and the potential for pain, men imagined the low end to represent the potential for less satisfying sexual outcomes, but they never imagined harmful or damaging outcomes for themselves.”
It’s no wonder that Grace, and countless women before her, didn’t immediately register or try to fix her discomfort – we are taught from our teachers, movies, television, music and society as a whole that pain, discomfort and uncertainty are normal for women. It’s time that we all, like Grace, challenge this culture and feel empowered to call it out. The #MeToo movement is imperative to changing these dangerous cultural attitudes embedded in our society.
It’s a very tricky thing to reverse an attitude that has become so deeply internalised. That’s why it is so important that we start teaching respect, pleasure, consent and equality at an early age. We need to teach girls to value their own pleasure and sexuality. We need to teach boys to check in with their partner and look for cues, even non-verbal ones. And though learning about the health risks connected with sexual activity is vital, we must also teach sex positivity, enthusiastic consent and not just the biological facts of sex, but the social complexities and wonders of intimacy.
By starting this education early we can prevent the painful process of unlearning the internalised sexism that made the case of Aziz Ansari unfortunately relatable for so many of us. Though the #MeToo movement has been painful and emotional for many, I’m optimistic that a new sexual revolution is on the horizon; one of empowerment, equality and mutual respect.
Maddy regularly writes for Rosie, and is passionate about music, history, art and gender equality.