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Five Lessons From the Aziz Ansari Controversy

If you’ve read the story recounting a terrible sexual encounter between 23-year-old photographer “Grace” and comedian Aziz Ansari that went down in September of last year, and especially if you’ve read any of the billion takes in response to it, your head is probably spinning trying to parse what it all means. Does this story qualify as sexual assault? If not, should it have even been told? Has the #metoo movement gone too far? Can a woke feminist bae like Aziz Ansari be that bad at sex? And what will happen to Aziz Ansari’s career?

In the account, published at a website for young feminists called Babe, we’re told of an evening that begins as a fairly standard-issue date with dinner and wine, and then moves to Ansari’s apartment, where he proceeds to pester Grace repeatedly for sex acts in spite of her continued efforts to slow things down and interact on more equal terms. In the end, the account manages to be both sickeningly tone-deaf while still somewhat resembling a consensual date. And yet based on the response to the piece, the general public doesn’t seem able to even agree on whether this was a story that should’ve been published at all.

This story absolutely should have been told, and here’s why: It marks watershed moment in the conversation around sexual misconduct, and exposes some of our worst attitudes and unexamined beliefs about sex and consent.

But if you’re finding it difficult to hook into those conversations because they are lodged deep in the volcanic lava of a thousand hot takes, here are a few simple lessons you can take away from all this — outside of never, ever doing a move called “the claw” (Grace’s term for Ansari’s extremely awkward, apparently signature sex move of putting two fingers in her mouth in a V-shape to wet them, followed by quickly trying to finger her.)

Aziz Ansari doesn’t have to be a rapist to be worth talking about.

Ansari is a famous comedian whose image revolves around an ultra-woke, feminist willingness to explore and confront the minutiae of heterosexual dating. His reputation as an ally to women and his portrayal of himself in the media as one of the good guys is precisely what makes his treatment of Grace so troubling and noteworthy.

Many folks argue that this story is proof that the #MeToo movement has gone too far because it confuses “real” sexual assault with other various shitty things women have to put up with from horny men. But the #MeToo movement never under any circumstances purported to be some kind of rape ticker. Yes, it kicked off with the exposure of an exceptionally vile rapist whose crimes were easy to understand: Harvey Weinstein literally used his Hollywood power to coerce less powerful women into sex under the threat of making or breaking their artistic careers. But the stories that poured out from non-famous women as a result are not, in any way, required to match that level of force to be worth hearing.

In other words, if every time you hear a new account of sexual misconduct, your first thought is, Hey, wait, this isn’t rape! then you’ve missed the point. Instead, remind yourself that here is simply another individual woman’s account of an experience (which may or may not warrant criminal investigation) in which she felt profoundly violated by a sexual encounter with a man — a reflection on the larger environment in which women operate every single day.

We can let the authorities decide if a specific situation is rape, but in the meantime, how can men be sure to not be this guy, enable this guy, or perpetuate this feeling in the women they know and interact with?

All coercive sex is bad, but not all bad sex is coercive.

A response from many people, including top platforms like The New York Times and The Atlantic, is that while this account is a cringe-inducing, unfortunate sexual encounter between two consenting adults, no one was violated—if anything, Ansari is the victim, because now he might lose his job. This was, in fact, simply bad sex, and women should get over it.

But bad sex is not an apt descriptor for the exchange described here. Bad sex is awkward and unfulfilling, the result of two incompatible people trying to get it on, to depressing or hilarious results. Bad sex is about bad chemistry and bad sex moves, but it’s not about willfully pressuring a woman throughout an evening to give it up.

Coercive sex, on the other hand, is. And it renders its victims inhuman, distressed, violated, pressured to go farther than desired, and often legitimately afraid. It treats them as a means to an end, not a person to give pleasure to, read, and adjust to for a mutual sexual experience. Coercive sex also totally ignores the extent to which women are conditioned and pressured to cater to demands to smile, be pleasant, accommodating, and to please, please, fuck men who want them. Bad coercive sex actually exploits this.

Consent is negotiated throughout a sexual experience by both people, not just at the beginning and by the woman.

The account about Ansari includes so many little details about Grace trying to convey that she isn’t comfortable with what’s happening and to slow it down. But because she does some sex stuff with him but not others, the pieces in The New York Times, The Atlantic, and countless others are arguing there’s literally no way he could know she didn’t want to do more sex things or whatever sex things he wanted to. The idea is very victim-blame-y — that if you’re getting naked with a dude you better be ready to fuck him, as if there isn’t an entire menu of sexual activity up for the negotiating in any encounter that may or may not end with penetration.

They also dump all the responsibility on Grace to negotiate boundaries in sex, as if all men want it, and all women must thwart it or control it. If women don’t like what men are doing, or how they’re doing it, it’s entirely on them to stop it or leave — slap him, kick him, or high-tail it out of there the moment it’s not going well. Because, what, is he supposed to be checking in and making sure she still wants to fuck him? Why, it’s like women want men to be mind-readers!

But hey:

· Just because a woman wants to go on a date doesn’t mean she wants to fuck.

· Just because she wants to kiss doesn’t mean she wants to go down on you.

· Just because she wants to go down on you doesn’t mean she wants to do anal.

Why are we giving men a pass on having to pay attention to body language, actual words, or the demonstration of enthusiasm? If you’re not paying enough to attention to a woman’s demeanor or responsiveness throughout a sexual encounter, you may be intentionally or otherwise pushing past her boundaries in a way that she is afraid to confront out of fear of physical or sexual violence.

Coercive sex accounts miss one crucial thing: female pleasure.

Sex is certainly a dance of romantic interplay and exploration and flirtation and friction. But that’s not what these gross accounts like the one with Aziz Ansari reveal. Instead, they show us a one-sided encounter focused on only his pleasure.

“When we haven’t yet agreed that female pleasure and clear enthusiasm are prerequisites for a sexual encounter, we lack the ability to peel back the layers of sexual experience, and we end up with two bad options,” Jill Filopovic notes at The Guardian. “Accept sexual inequity as just how sex is (or just how men are) or wedge truly bad sexual experiences into the category of sexual assault.”

Don’t set the bar at rape.

We should remind ourselves that there is, in fact, a third category here. It’s not sexual assault, and it’s not bad sex; it’s in the middle, and it’s coercive, shitty, manipulative sex. Sex should not be like high-pressure sales, fucking with you psychologically and wearing you down like you’re being aggressively forced to sign up for a timeshare.

For more details, read chilling, non-rape accounts of how women feel about being pestered for sex. Then go read about how even when women know they’ve been violated with coercive methods to get sex, they still talk themselves out of that feeling, saying, “It wasn’t that bad! I wasn’t raped!” because when they try to tell the story of what happened to them, everyone screams, “But you weren’t raped!”

Don’t set the bar at rape for women to have been mistreated in gross, hideous, toxic, damaging ways that are worth discussing. Rather than CSI their accounts for loopholes to dismiss the woman’s complaints or actions, focus instead on how you might learn to better read the verbal and nonverbal cues any potential sexual partner gives off about boundaries.

“A conversation I’ve had with a lot of friends,” MEL’s managing editor Serena Golden told me while discussing this story, “is the one that goes: ‘How old were you when you realized you DIDN’T have to have sex with a man just because he really, really wanted to?’”

For many women, that often takes a very long time, and it’s not surprising that Grace was just 23, and that many of her most vocal critics are not just men, but older women who admit to a generational confusion over how kids today hook up.

But you don’t have to be any particular age to realize this: Just because women have been pressured forever by men to have sex, and often relent even when they don’t want to — and just because it’s not rape! — doesn’t mean it’s not a horribly shitty reality that needs to stop.

Help it stop.