Earlier this week, the website Babe published the story of a 23-year-old woman, “Grace,” who went on a date with comedian Aziz Ansari last year. She was 22; he was 34. According to her account, they had a rushed dinner and went back to his house, where Ansari pressured her to have sex with him and ignored numerous verbal and nonverbal cues that she wanted him to stop. (At one point, she asked him not to force her to have sex because she didn’t want to “hate” him.)
Ansari didn’t deny the account. Instead, he responded with a statement saying that he didn’t know she wasn’t into it. In the three days since the story was published, numerous anti-feminists—from Katie Roiphe to Caitlin Flanagan to Bari Weiss—have published hot takes blaming the woman, “Grace,” for not slapping Ansari and storming out, minimizing his behavior as the kind of “bad sex” that women usually put up with without a fuss, and accusing her of being a groupie who just wants her 15 (anonymous) minutes in the spotlight.
But the worst hot take I’ve read comes from an outlet that has postured itself as a feminist ally—my alma mater, The Stranger. Katie Herzog, the author of a post titled “Before We Burn Aziz Ansari, Perhaps Some Self-Reflection Is in Order,” says she doesn’t have sex with men, but she seems pretty confident that straight and bi women aren’t “really” traumatized by nonconsensual encounters with dudes like the one Grace describes having with Ansari.
Full disclosure: I worked at the Stranger from 2003 to 2009, and I totally get why no one said no to this dumb piece. “Shitty hot takes” is practically a category on Slog, because everyone knows that “Rape isn’t real” gets more clicks than “nonconsensual sexual activities exist on a spectrum, at one end of which is violent rape, but the existence of violent rape should not automatically invalidate every sexual violation that is less severe.” (By the same token, “Santorum is a frothy mix of lube and anal matter” gets more clicks than “city council candidate violates ethics rules.” Sad but true.)
Before We Burn Aziz Ansari, Perhaps Some Self-Reflection Is in Order
Like most of the men accused of sexual misconduct in the last few months, Ansari has suffered zero consequences for his (alleged) actions, aside from the brief embarrassment of some Twitter scrutiny that will be gone as soon as the next shitty man is outed. My bet is someone else will be trending by the end of the week. Casey Affleck who? Anyway, no one is being “burned,” at the stake or anywhere else.
When I read the by-now viral article about a date with Aziz Ansari being the “worst night” of a young woman’s life, my first thought was, “Really?”
In her very first line, a writer for a publication that pointedly and repeatedly says that it “believes women/survivors” is stating unequivocally that she does not.
Also, as Herzog is no doubt aware, that quote comes from the headline of the piece— Grace didn’t claim it was the worst night of her life, the headline writer did. The actual quote is, “It was by far the worst experience with a man I’ve ever had.” I guess “it was the worst night of my life” is easier to make fun of and dismiss?
It is a creepy move to order anything for a woman that she didn’t request, as if she’s a child confused by the menu. “I’ll have the steak, and the lady will have a small green salad, dressing on the side.” If a guy did this to me, red flags would be flying up all over the place. Dear guys who do this: Stop. Life isn’t 50 Shades of Gray.
The young woman, called “Grace,” is an anonymous 23-year-old photographer who went out with Ansari in September of 2017, and then told her story to Katie Way, a staff writer at the website Babe. The date, according to Way’s re-telling, does sound genuinely uncomfortable, at least for Grace. She met Ansari, a 34-year-old actor, writer, and comic, at an Emmy after-party some weeks before. They bonded over having the same vintage camera, exchanged numbers, and engaged in flirty text banter for a while before making plans. Grace was excited.
The night began with a glass of wine. “After arriving at his apartment in Manhattan on Monday evening, they exchanged small talk and drank wine,” Way writes. “‘It was white,’ [Grace] said. ‘I didn’t get to choose and I prefer red, but it was white wine.’ Then Ansari walked her to Grand Banks, an Oyster bar onboard a historic wooden schooner on the Hudson River just a few blocks away.”
Aside from offering her the wrong color wine—that fucking creep—
Yeah, you know what? It is a creepy move to order anything for a woman that she didn’t request, as if she’s a child who can’t quite read the menu. “I’ll have the steak, and the lady will have a small green salad, dressing on the side.” See how that sounds? If a guy did this to me, red flags would be flying up all over the place. Dear guys who do this: Stop. Life isn’t 50 Shades of Gray.
the date is pretty okay. He’s famous, he’s funny, what’s not to like?
Kind of like the “worst night of my life” quote, Grace didn’t actually say or imply any of those things. In fact, she describes the whole date as pretty weird and uncomfortable, even before they get to Ansari’s house. (Besides ordering for her and giving her what she described as a “dress code,” Ansari didn’t let her finish her drink). Could it be that Katie, the writer of this hit piece, is setting Grace up to be a liar and a hypocrite?
But it starts to turn after they finish eating and he rushes her out the door and back to his place while she would prefer to linger. They go back to his apartment, where they proceed to hook up. It’s weird, and awkward, and he keeps sticking his fingers in her mouth (or her throat?) for some reason. (Do people do that on porn? I don’t know.) Grace calls this misguided move “the claw” and she definitely doesn’t like it. Later, after some halting, awkward sex stuff
This characterization—”halting, awkward sex stuff”—is not the situation Grace described. I’m going to quote from the original piece at length, to give a flavor of what actually happened, according to Grace, that night. Bolds are mine.
When Ansari told her he was going to grab a condom within minutes of their first kiss, Grace voiced her hesitation explicitly. “I said something like, ‘Whoa, let’s relax for a sec, let’s chill.’” She says he then resumed kissing her, briefly performed oral sex on her, and asked her to do the same thing to him. She did, but not for long. “It was really quick. Everything was pretty much touched and done within ten minutes of hooking up, except for actual sex.”
She says Ansari began making a move on her that he repeated during their encounter. “The move he kept doing was taking his two fingers in a V-shape and putting them in my mouth, in my throat to wet his fingers, because the moment he’d stick his fingers in my throat he’d go straight for my vagina and try to finger me.” Grace called the move “the claw.”
Ansari also physically pulled her hand towards his penis multiple times throughout the night, from the time he first kissed her on the countertop onward. “He probably moved my hand to his dick five to seven times,” she said. “He really kept doing it after I moved it away.”
But the main thing was that he wouldn’t let her move away from him. She compared the path they cut across his apartment to a football play. “It was 30 minutes of me getting up and moving and him following and sticking his fingers down my throat again. It was really repetitive. It felt like a fucking game.”
Throughout the course of her short time in the apartment, she says she used verbal and non-verbal cues to indicate how uncomfortable and distressed she was. “Most of my discomfort was expressed in me pulling away and mumbling. I know that my hand stopped moving at some points,” she said. “I stopped moving my lips and turned cold.”
Whether Ansari didn’t notice Grace’s reticence or knowingly ignored it is impossible for her to say. “I know I was physically giving off cues that I wasn’t interested. I don’t think that was noticed at all, or if it was, it was ignored.”
Ansari wanted to have sex. She said she remembers him asking again and again, “Where do you want me to fuck you?” while she was still seated on the countertop. She says she found the question tough to answer because she says she didn’t want to fuck him at all.
“I wasn’t really even thinking of that, I didn’t want to be engaged in that with him. But he kept asking, so I said, ‘Next time.’ And he goes, ‘Oh, you mean second date?’ and I go, ‘Oh, yeah, sure,’ and he goes, ‘Well, if I poured you another glass of wine now, would it count as our second date?’” He then poured her a glass and handed it to her. She excused herself to the bathroom soon after.
Grace says she spent around five minutes in the bathroom, collecting herself in the mirror and splashing herself with water. Then she went back to Ansari. He asked her if she was okay. “I said I don’t want to feel forced because then I’ll hate you, and I’d rather not hate you,” she said.
A lot of women have been in similar situations. I know I have. Guys who won’t listen to a clear, unambiguous “I want to stop.” Guys who keep grabbing your hand and putting it on their crotch even when you’ve asked them to chill and cut it out. Guys who pull moves they’ve seen in porn, like choking you or shoving their fingers down your throat without bothering to find out if you’re into that. Guys who block your way when you try to leave the room. Guys who pull your hand back to their crotch after you’ve pulled it away. Guys who say, “Let’s just get into bed with our clothes on” and then immediately try to take your clothes off. Guys who say “just let me put it in once.” Guys who will literally say “Pleeeeeeeeeeeeaaaaaaase” like they’re children and they want you to give them just one more cookie.
Everyone’s trauma is real to them. No one is under any obligation to react a certain way, or on a certain timeline. No one has to find the shitty things that happen to them “funny.”
All these things really happen, all the time. But the fact that they happen all the time doesn’t mean they’re mere “awkward sex stuff” that women should just accept. It means that men have been taught that sex is a negotiation between a man who wants it and a woman who can eventually be broken down, or that consent to one sexual act (kissing, receiving oral sex) is a consent to all future sexual acts, regardless of the woman’s boundaries or desire to stop.
, she leaves in a car and cries on the way home. And this, she says, was the worst night of her life. It’s probably the worst night of his life now, too.
So, to be clear: Grace (would be) crazy (if she had) said that this was the worst night of her life (which she didn’t) but it probably was the worst night of Ansari’s? We’re really doing this—comparing a humiliating, nonconsensual sexual encounter to a couple of days of mild criticism, tempered heavily by a chorus (including Herzog) who immediately rushed in to defend his nice-guy bona fides? To quote Herzog: Really?
But it wouldn’t be a shitty think piece without a trip to the Trauma Olympics.
“If that is the worst night of your life,” I thought when I finished the piece. “You need to get out more.” The night didn’t end with her in a neck brace or passed out in the back of a police car or extinguishing a mattress with 40 ounces of Schlitz after her girlfriend fell asleep smoking a cigarette. It didn’t even end with vomit! If this was as low as it got for Grace, I thought, she is doing just fine.
I know trauma is relative,
Clearly, you don’t.
but I would gladly take Grace’s worst night over my own (many) worst nights, several of which ended with broken teeth and/or bones. (Surprise—I used to drink a lot.) And yet, for whatever reason, I’m not as traumatized by those nights—years later, they are actually pretty funny—as Grace seems to be from her one ugly date.
Now as it happens, this is another thing I know a bit about, as someone who used to drink myself into the emergency room on a fairly regular basis. It sucks, and I’m sorry for anyone who has had that experience. But the fact that one person goes through that experience and finds it “funny” doesn’t mean that someone else can’t be traumatized by a different experience. Trauma isn’t a contest. If it was, no one’s story would ever be enough to elicit sympathy, because there’s always someone who had it worse.
And since it apparently needs to be said: Everyone’s trauma is real to them. No one is under any obligation to react a certain way, or on a certain timeline. No one has to find the shitty things that happen to them “funny.”
I doubt this is because I’m more resilient than Grace; rather, I’m just older. If Grace survives as a single woman for another decade, this date will scarcely register on her list of bad dates.
Of all the shitty reasons to dismiss a woman’s trauma, “it’ll get a lot worse as you get older, sweetie, because men will violate you in ways you haven’t dreamed of yet” is about the worst. It’s condescending as hell, and it just asks so little of men. It assumes the absolute worst about their capacity to be decent. “Men can’t be trusted to listen to you, care about your pleasure, pick up on cues like the fact that you’ve gone as limp as a fish, or ask you what you want. Just get used to it. It’s impossible for them to be better.”
Performative wokeness now requires that men act as if they care about women’s pleasure, but not that they learn how to provide it.
Or it wouldn’t have if Ansari weren’t famous and she weren’t now famous too, albeit under a moniker that refers to prayer before dinner.
I’m confused: Is she a starfucker who was just hoping for her 15 minutes in a famous man’s spotlight, or is she hiding behind “a moniker” that isn’t her own? Or are these just two different (and conflicting) ways to, once again, discount her credibility?
As other laptop observers have pointed out, Grace’s experience is hardly unusual. There’s even a name for it, as Bari Weiss noted in the Times: bad sex.
You know your argument’s in trouble when you’re citing a noted neocon who thinks campus “witch hunts” against conservatives are real, wrote a piece denouncing Me Too for “criminalizing” men who harass and assault their female subordinates, and doesn’t know what cultural appropriation is.
We’d rather blame women for “crying wolf” or making a fuss over “bad sex” than confront the massive imbalance of power between men and women that still persists, largely unaltered, to this day.
And bad sex can happen to any people who have sex, not just when there’s a dick involved (either literally or metaphorically). Grace’s encounter—and the terrible sex in the New Yorker’s recent blockbuster short story “Cat Person”—strongly reminded me of most of my 20s. I wasn’t sleeping with men (unless there were no women in my zip code and there was a large amount of tequila), but—at the risk of betraying the sapphic sisterhood—lesbians can and do have bad sex, too…. although I suspect we’re more likely to have a pair or two of cat eyes watching us bone from the litter box.
Perhaps there is an unfortunate power deferential between men and and women that makes these icky encounters more traumatic when it’s a man and a woman, but we’re acting like this is something men exclusively do to women.
But, in my experience, women act just like Ansari did with Grace pretty damn often as well.
No one said “exclusively,” but yes, THE POWER DIFFERENTIAL IS THE WHOLE POINT. (P.s. it’s “differential,” not “deferential.”) Are we really still debating whether there’s a power imbalance between men and women, particularly older, powerful men and young, anonymous women? I’m not even referring to the fact that men tend to be physically stronger than women, although they usually are, which adds an element of menace to every unpleasant encounter. Men exercise power over women every time a woman says “no” nine times and gives in on the tenth, or lets a guy do something she isn’t into, or goes limp and dissociates just to get through it, or fakes an orgasm because that’s what he wants her to do. (Performative wokeness now requires that men act as if they care about women’s pleasure, but not that they learn how to provide it).
A lot of the backlash pieces against Ansari’s accuser, including this one, suggest that women who don’t like what a man is doing should just kick him in the balls, or tell him “fuck off,” or run out the door. Here’s why that usually doesn’t happen. As women, we are taught practically from birth to be polite, to avoid upsetting others, to avoid letting things “get awkward,” to never give offense. Even at my advanced age (older than Herzog, younger than Katie Roiphe), I find myself trying to smooth over awkward encounters with men, or apologizing when they interrupt me, or making up for their lack of preparedness by filling in the gaps in their knowledge for them. When they talk over me, I try not to point it out. When they say things like, “Well, it’s really he said-she said, so who do we believe?” I try to walk away. Melissa McEwan, in her sadly evergreen piece “The Terrible Bargain We Have Regretfully Struck,” described this choice as, “swallow shit or ruin the entire afternoon?” Usually, it’s just easier to swallow the shit.
I had a lot of bad sexual encounters in my own roaring 20s: sex that was just sloppy, regrettable, and gross, and, sometimes, sex that I really did not want to be having. I once dated a woman who tried to fuck me every night after I’d fallen asleep, and I’d just roll onto my stomach and start snoring. When these things happened, just like Grace, instead of pulling up my pants and leaving, I closed my eyes and soldiered on.
Social mores aren’t genetic. They can change very quickly. Look at same-sex marriage. Look at marijuana laws. Why should we make a special exception for the “eons-old” notion that sex is something men take from women without their consent?
Except that Grace did pull up her pants, go to the next room, ask him to stop, and tell him she didn’t want to feel forced. To pretend she did none of those things is to rob her of her own story in service to a shopworn “why didn’t she just—” anti-feminist narrative.
People have pointed out that when women reject men, they get killed, but in those situations, I was never afraid for my safety. And yet I hooked up with people when it felt wrong all the time. The thing I was afraid of—the reason I didn’t stop—was hurting the other person’s feelings.
This happened all the time: I’d be in some sexual encounter, her kisses would feel like a slug had taken up residency in my mouth, and because I felt too awkward and uncomfortable to say anything, I’d just go along with it. Sometimes I’d even spend the night, maybe cuddle a little, and continue to pretend I was interested the next morning just because it was less awkward. And, then, when enough time had passed, I would text her and say I was moving to Atlanta. Lying, making excuses, or just disappearing was easier than potentially hurting someone’s feelings in-person. This isn’t because I’m an uncommonly empathetic person (I am not), but because I avoid discomfort at all costs. I think a lot of women (and men) are like me in this respect.
Sure. Lots of people avoid confrontation. I’ve invented whole new relationships to get some guys to leave me alone when they wouldn’t accept “I don’t want to go out again” for an answer. But the thing is, we women are trained to be nonconfrontational, specifically, toward men. And men are taught that they have to push—that women who don’t want sex, or aren’t into the type of sex a man wants to have at that moment, are just playing “hard to get.” Sex becomes a game: He pushes, she rejects, he pushes harder, and eventually, she gives in. Because it’s just “less awkward.” Why not just give him what he wants? The woman’s pleasure is immaterial—the point is to get it over with and get out the door.
And the sad thing is, we’re taught that that’s just how sex is. We say “maybe next time” because we don’t want to make him feel bad. We let him talk us into giving the blow job because we know he’ll just keep asking if we don’t. We let him shove the fingers in our throats because we’re shocked and don’t know how to get away. We freeze. We go limp. We dissociate. We have out-of-body experiences. And still many men plow forward, even as we turn into cold, limp rags, because after all, we didn’t punch them in the face. We didn’t blow our rape whistles. We didn’t run out the door. That must mean we wanted it. Right?
Maybe this wasn’t part of Grace’s experience, but it is hard to be direct, especially about sex. And that, I think, is what people like Grace and me and Cat Person need to start doing: We need to get over our discomfort with discomfort and hurt some goddamn feelings up front, when it’s happening.
“I don’t want to hate you because I feel forced.” I agree that it can be hard to be direct. I also applaud Grace for making her boundaries clear, again and again and again.
He could have started by listening to what Grace was saying and paying attention to whether she was enjoying herself, instead of treating her like an animated, talking Fleshlight.
Again, as Bari Weiss pointed out in her piece, Ansari isn’t a mind-reader.
Nor did he need to be.
According to his own account, he didn’t realize anything was amiss until the next day,
He could have started by listening to what Grace was saying and paying attention to whether she was enjoying herself, instead of treating her like an animated, talking Fleshlight.
when Grace texted him: “Last night might’ve been fun for you, but it wasn’t for me. You ignored clear non-verbal cues; you kept going with advances.” She was obviously upset, and clearly felt victimized, and she assumed he knew she was unhappy because of her “non-verbal cues.” But body language isn’t an actual language, and humans are notoriously bad at reading other people: A 2008 study found that participants were unable to distinguish when other people were experiencing either physical pain—even agony—or sexual pleasure from facial expressions in nearly 25 percent of cases.
Subtler moods and emotions are even harder to detect, and research suggests that this is especially true when you are dealing with the opposite sex. Whether it’s fair and just or not, we—women, men, and other—have to use our words to get what we want. You can’t will other people into changing.
Do I really have to point out that a study of how people interpret still photos of faces says nothing about an in-person sexual encounter, when the cues are more vivid and multidimensional, and it’s possible to, you know, ask them if they’re into whatever you’re doing to them?
Consent is not “a very new concept” that “older generations aren’t even aware exists.” I should know—I was born in the ’70s. I went to a big state college in Texas the ’90s. And yet, somehow, on the very first day of freshman orientation, we learned all about consent—what it is, how to ask for it, how to give it.
There is, of course, an easy solution: Ask for consent, each and every time you make a move. That puts the onus on the aggressor.
What a sad conception of sex, to think of one person as the “aggressor” and the other as the passive receptacle for their aggression.
But, still, it’s not as simple as that. For one thing, sometimes people still nod along as though everything is fine even when someone is asking. I know this because I’ve done it. Besides that little problem, the idea of asking for “consent” is a very new concept in the very long course of human history, and one older generations aren’t even aware exists.
Stop it. Just STOP IT. Consent is not “a very new concept” that “older generations aren’t even aware exists.” I should know—I was born in the ’70s. I went to a big state college in Texas the ’90s. And yet, somehow, on the very first day of freshman orientation, we learned all about consent—what it is, how to ask for it, how to give it. Even before that, I understood the concept, from reading books written in the seventies, like “Our Bodies, Ourselves.” And I took it to heart (as did the guys I hooked up with). The notion that both partners in a sexual encounter should be willing participants is not some wild modern idea dreamed up by millennials in the past decade. It’s been around a long, long time—and I bet even “older generations” who have somehow never heard of this concept are capable of learning it.
Take kissing, for instance, which many people—probably including Ansari—learned to do from movies and TV. No one on television asked for consent in the ’90s; they just leaned in.
I’m pretty sure requests for consent are no more commonplace on TV now than they were in the ’90s. I’m also pretty sure that most kids know the difference between how things work on TV and in movies and the way they work in real life. When I first started kissing boys, “Can I kiss you?” was a standard question; if a guy had just, out of nowhere, locked lips with me, I would have run away screaming or died of shock. And at any rate, if Grace had just said Ansari had kissed her once without asking, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. An unwanted kiss is not what any of this is about.
Today, you could be fired, kicked out of school, and, especially, excoriated on Twitter for that.
Citation needed, please. No, I really insist. WHO has been fired for kissing someone on a date? WHO has been kicked out of school? WHO has been excoriated on Twitter for kissing without asking permission first?
Maybe at some point asking for consent before each and every semi-sexual act will take hold in American society, but this is a newly emerged rule and some patience with eons-old human behavior will make this transition easier.
I’m no prehistorian, but I will, again, need a citation for the claim that nonconsensual sex and kissing is “eons old” and that asking for consent is “a newly emerged rule.” Even if this was true (it isn’t), social mores aren’t genetic. They can change very quickly. Look at same-sex marriage. Look at marijuana laws. Why should we make a special exception for the “eons-old” notion that sex is something men take from women without their consent?
We have suddenly entered era where actions that not long ago would have been normal can and now do upend lives. Today it may be Ansari getting called a predator on Twitter, but if time’s up for everyone—both men and women—who is guilty of misreading “non-verbal cues,” it’s going to be a very long trial.
We haven’t been able to lock up Woody Allen or Harvey Weinstein or Julian Assange or Roman Polanski. Tavis Smiley—who was just forced from PBS last month after multiple allegations of coercive sexual conduct—is putting on panels about workplace conduct around the country as part of his warp-speed rehabilitation tour. New York Times reporter Glenn Thrush kept his job and book deal after groping and harassing multiple younger female colleagues. Matt Lauer, accused not just of harassing and groping his female colleagues but of violently raping at least one woman in his office, was protected for years. He was finally replaced late last year—by a woman making a fraction of his $25 million salary. Tell me again who’s on “trial,” or whose life has been unfairly “upended”? Explain to me why we need to stop having this conversation?
We are, I fear, at the beginning of a backlash that will end not in appreciable gains for women but with the “rehabilitation” (reinstatement to power, in the absence of actual exoneration) of nearly every man accused of doing heinous things to women, from execrable rapists like Weinstein all the way down to guys who refuse to take no for an answer, like Ansari. I wish and hope that I’m wrong. But the reason I think I’m right is that it’s what we’re already doing. (Exhibit A: One million shitty who-will-think-of-the-ruined-men think pieces like this one). We’d rather blame women for “crying wolf” or making a fuss over “bad sex” than confront the massive imbalance of power between men and women that still persists, largely unaltered, to this day. We’d rather change the subject than force men to answer for what they do to women. We’d rather swallow shit than ruin a single powerful man’s afternoon.
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