Filmmaker and comedian, Aziz Ansari, is the latest high profile celebrity caught in a wave of sexual misconduct allegations. A piece written for the feminist clicksite “Babe” details a date between Ansari and a woman using the pseudonym “Grace” in which Ansari made aggressive sexual advances towards her. The account reveals how “Grace” became increasingly uncomfortable throughout the night and how Ansari did not heed her verbal and nonverbal cues of distress. Ansari has since released a statement responding to the allegations of misconduct, writing, “we ended up engaging in sexual activity, which by all indications was completely consensual.”
The allegations have since launched a slew of think pieces critiquing everything from Ansari’s lack of interpersonal awareness to the #MeToo movement’s broad definition of sexual misconduct. An opinion article written by Bari Weiss and titled, “Aziz Ansari is guilty. Of not being a mind reader.” dismisses the allegations as “bad sex,” calling the encounter, “arguably the worst thing that has happened to the #MeToo movement since October.” Another, written by Linda West, titled, “Aziz, we tried to warn you” discusses issues surrounding the culture of sex and sexual pursuit. West writes, “It may feel like the rules shifted overnight, and what your dad called the thrill of the chase is now what some people are calling assault.” And West is largely right.
Elizabeth Bruenig gives a powerful explanation of this cultural shift in the Washington Post – effectively arguing that sex is the schrodinger’s cat of socializing. In short – thanks to the sexual revolution, sex in itself is no big deal , but paradoxically sexual assault definitely is. She writes,“Yet, while becoming just another social interaction stripped sex of much taboo, it’s still subject to the everyday pressures of etiquette, which can be just as binding… The trouble is that sex is clearly different, as the lasting unhappiness of so many women attests.” In other words – because women are bound by social constraints of politeness – there are frequent small communication signals that men may simply ignore.
The allegations against Ansari – a self-declared feminist and ostensibly progressive media producer – are important to discuss, especially in a moment of cultural reckoning. It is worth noting that the alleged actions of Ansari are by no means comparable to those of Harvey Weinstein or Kevin Spacey, and they do not fit the legal definition of assault. Nonetheless, this is exactly what “Grace” chooses to call her encounter, which is paramount to discourse.
A new generation is attempting to redefine assault in terms of consent when within our cultural history it was instead defined by agency. For example, “If the victim could get up and walk out but they didn’t, how could they possibly have been assaulted?” As a result, our culture is frequently conflating consent and agency as the same thing. Instead, consent could be simplified down to two components: equal agency and participation in communication.
This develops into a kind of rolling consent, where it is assumed that everyone has agency and the right to say “no” at any point. The problem is that our cultural and legal tendency is to defines assault in explicit terms of agency. The cultural rift appears as a new generation articulates mere agency is not enough for consent – hence “Grace” calling Ansari an assaulter when he doesn’t fit the legal definition. She is grasping for words to discuss wrongdoing, and in doing so falsely called a man an assaulter. Both the experience of Grace and Ansari should highlight the danger of neglecting this cultural conversation.
The problem with Aziz Ansari’s actions is that – because “Grace” had agency – he assumed that there was consent and felt empowered to ignore her verbal and nonverbal cues signalling her discomfort. In turn “Grace” had limited ability to participate in the process of communication because she was operating by a set of social constraints to which Ansari refused to adhere. In other words, “Grace” was operating on a level in which sex is Schrodinger’s cat – bound by social constraints in saying no but facing much greater consequence if they were violated. And Ansari was operating on a level in which he felt empowered to ignore polite attempts at withdrawing consent because she could always scream “No!” and run out.
Withdrawing consent should not demand an absolute action. It should allow for polite withdrawal, which requires attention to and respect of social cues as any interaction would. As Bruenig points out, “If a guest were lingering too late after a party, or a lunch partner boring you, or an acquaintance pestering you to borrow your umbrella, you wouldn’t scream or shout or slap them, and you likely wouldn’t abruptly leave. You would likely try to be subtle and transmit certain signals without a confrontation.” From Grace’s perspective, a man ignored her polite signals and demonstrated disregard for her person hood. From Ansari’s, a consensual encounter turned into a media nightmare in which a woman accused him of a crime he did not commit.