Over the weekend, a woman using a pseudonym accused Aziz Ansari of sexual assault, as described in a lengthy, graphically detailed article on Babe.net. The piece sparked a bonfire of online speculation concerning whether the described behavior should be considered assault. That argument sidesteps an uncomfortable truth, though–that if what happened between Ansari and his accuser can’t be considered assault because it’s all too common, perhaps what we consider common when it comes to sex needs to end.
First of all, the article itself needs to be addressed, since critics are conflating their issues about it with their issues about the story it tells. The presentation is far from ideal. Rather than a well-reported, multi-source exposé, it reads like a cross between a second-hand blog post and a sexual Yelp review. Not to add to the chorus condemning the article’s existence altogether, but the story would have been better served if it had been published by an outlet with more experience in matters this delicate and potentially consequential. With that out of the way, let’s get to the substance.
The article, “I went on a date with Aziz Ansari. It turned into the worst night of my life,” describes how photographer “Grace” met Ansari at the 2017 Emmys, struck up a text courtship, and arranged a dinner date with him. On the night in question, Ansari was apparently overeager to rush through the dinner part before whisking Grace back to his nearby apartment; then he was equally overeager to rush through many of the steps that often precede sex.
“When Ansari told her he was going to grab a condom within minutes of their first kiss,” the reporter Katie Way writes, “Grace voiced her hesitation explicitly. ‘I said something like, “Whoa, let’s relax for a sec, let’s chill.”‘”
Although the timeline is hard to track, one of the reasons the article would have benefitted from more editing, here is a summary of what follows, according to “Grace”:
- Ansari moves Grace’s hand to his penis multiple times, moving it right back every time she moves it away.
- Grace repeatedly gets up and moves away to create some space, with Ansari following and jamming two fingers down her throat.
- Ansari repeatedly asks, “Where do you want me to fuck you?” Grace demurs in a way that appears to be nonverbal at first, although eventually she says, “Next time,” to which Aziz responds by suggesting that if next time means a next date, perhaps another glass of wine presently would count.
- Grace excuses herself to the bathroom to collect herself and then mentions that she doesn’t want to “feel forced.” Ansari acknowledges her feelings, and suggests they “chill on the couch.”
- Once on the couch, Ansari points toward his penis and mimes oral sex. Grace obliges.
- After Ansari leads Grace to a mirror and bends her over, she says, “No, I don’t think I’m ready to do this.” Ansari again suggests they “just chill, but this time with our clothes on.”
- While watching an episode of Seinfeld, clothed, Ansari again begins to kiss Grace, puts his fingers down her throat and undoes her pants. Grace turns away.
- The encounter ends with Grace telling Ansari, “You guys are all the same,” Ansari going in for a last, ill-advised kiss, and Grace getting up to leave, at which point Ansari orders her an Uber.
This story does not read like the actions of a serial predator. It belongs in an entirely different category than the Harvey Weinsteins and Kevin Spaceys of the world. However, just because it’s not criminal behavior doesn’t mean it’s behavior that should be tolerated, encouraged, or expected.
Part of what makes Ansari’s Master of None such an incredible show is the same thing that makes this account so difficult to read: relatability. A lot of people see themselves represented in the complex sexual and racial dynamics of Master of None, and all their attendant ennui. Many of the show’s female fans, though, also saw themselves in Grace’s story: mostly ignored while withholding enthusiastic consent. Even the author of a New York Times op-ed condemning the article admits she recognized herself in the story. (“I’m apparently the victim of sexual assault,” goes the glib opening line.)
Just about all men should see some past encounter represented in the story as well. Decent men. Men who, like Aziz Ansari, present as allies and support #MeToo and Time’s Up. (The author of this piece obviously included.) Even those men should see themselves in a story where hearing “No” is processed as ‘encountering resistance,’ something to get past as quickly as possible. This isn’t predatory behavior, necessarily, but rather everyday assholery–perhaps even more insidious for how common it is.
Most men clearly know that what Harvey Weinstein did is Bad, but they see gently bulldozing over non-screamed objections as just typical persistence. Reading this story should force at least some of these men to confront their sexual past and explore how their behavior may have made women feel. At no point in the #MeToo discussion so far have we had such a bold opportunity to talk about how the attitude of constant perseverance turns women into obstacles, and dehumanizes them. The more men actually do an honest inventory about this kind of thinking, the sooner it will become part of the past.
To some degree, I feel sorry for Aziz Ansari–although nowhere near to the same degree as that NYT op-ed and the one in The Atlantic, which present him as a victim of #MeToo gone mad. Ansari is not a criminal, that we know of, and after this story went viral, he released an apologetic statement. He doesn’t deserve to lose his career over this episode, and as long as the other shoe doesn’t drop in the form of one of those now-common lengthy exposés from a more established, reputable source, he likely will emerge from it barely diminished.
However, it is important that a story came out about “one of the good guys,” whether you consider the behavior in question assault or not. The conversation may have started with big-time dirtbags like Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey, but this is what the conversation has evolved into at this moment. Continuing to follow wherever it takes us is the only way to get to a point where experiences like Grace’s aren’t so relatable.