Oh, how I hate this one because I know this will further divide us and further take us away from the progress we need to make, but I also know to ignore it, deny it or not respond to it is cowardly. I am dedicating this to the mindful, bewildered, genuine and generous young students I know who might benefit from a different perspective. I am not dictating anything, I am proposing ideas to consider.
Do I need to offer my 49-year-old, single woman, date rape, sexual harassment, put through the Title XIV ringer, come out the other end, sexually empowered, sex loving, demander of my sexual pleasure credentials to have an opinion? I don’t know, but there they are.
I first saw the story of Aziz Ansari in my Facebook feed under the sponsored content of Thorn, which is an NGO dedicated to ending child sexual abuse and sex trafficking. They post stories every single day about sex trafficking and child pornography – and no one has ever lost their minds over any of the stories they publish. So can every single one of us who is tied up in knots about the Aziz Ansari story, no matter which side of the argument we fall on, take a moment to contemplate why a story like this gets more of a response than the FACT that in your city, mere blocks from where you live, there are CHILDREN being sold for sex in one of the fastest growing sex industries in the world. I implore you – I implore you – if you have re-posted the Aziz Ansari story, if you have commented on it in any way, if you have re-posted The Atlantic article or The New York Times article or written about the backlash or been part of the backlash, please take the same amount of time to read/post this with the same vigour or salacious intrigue with which you posted about the Ansari story: https://www.wearethorn.org/child-trafficking-statistics/.
It is not for me to pass judgement on ‘Grace,’ or about what happened to her. This incident exposes to a T the objective/subjective divide about sexual misconduct that I wrote about in my last post. I do, however, have responses to the article.
My first response was that I have been on this date – obviously not with the ultra-famous guy, but I’ve been on this date. And in my experience, when I asked myself why I stayed or did what I did, I always come back to the same answer – no matter which guy was on the other end (because I’ve been on this date more times than I care to count) - I stayed and I did things because I was waiting for that moment when he realised I was the girl he wanted, and he would tell me how much he was into me and how cool I was. I needed to hear that so badly that I put up with a lot of bad sexual encounters – and I guaran-damn-tee you that if I had heard what I wanted to hear from him, I probably would not have considered the encounters as bad as I do now. My need for emotional validation was so huge that I prostituted myself to even get a whiff of affection. (For those of you who are fathers with daughters, give your daughter(s) the emotional validation they need, or they will end up like me.) There was a time when I blamed those men for knowingly manipulating me, but I know now that they didn't have the capacity to be that Machiavellian. They just wanted to get off anyway they could and my buttons were perfectly suited to their needs.
My second response is that coercion = responsibility for the outcome no matter what that outcome is. If I coerce someone into having a drink, and they drive home and kill someone, I am responsible for that death. I’m not making a legal argument, I’m making an ethical one. If I coerce someone into eating at a certain restaurant and they get food poisoning, it is my responsibility that they got sick.
Asking someone and getting their consent is not coercion. If said person agreed to go to the restaurant with me and then they got sick, that is not my responsibility. But if I asked, and they were on the fence or flat out said no, and I had to convince them that my judgement is more sound or that my wants are more important than theirs, then I am taking responsibility for my judgement, my choices, my wants and my desires being superior to theirs. And this is where the patriarchy fucks men as well as women.
When men make choices for women, and all men – ALL MEN - are socialised in our patriarchal societies to have and act with an agency that women do not have - those men are ethically responsible for those choices. No woman has the agency that men have. None. Zip. Zero. I have more agency than almost any women I know, and I don't have a tenth of the agency of men. And too many men do not realise the responsibility of that power, and for far too long men have not been called out for the lack of responsibility they take that goes along with the power they wield. And the problem with the patriarchy is that men can’t give back that power or abdicate that power even if they want to. This is one of the most insidious points about patriarchy that men are only starting to realise. It’s the reason why good men are terrified of what’s happening right now because a lot more men are finally at the unjust mercy of absolute patriarchy. And giving women access to the power of Patriarchy does not help. We need to blow up the Patriarchy and start from scratch giving women absolute power over themselves. And while 'Grace,' should have had agency over herself in Ansari's apartment, the argument can be made that because she absolutely does not have agency as woman anywhere in her life, she couldn't know with any certainty that she had full agency in that situation so she fully abdicated her agency to him. And if we all don't see the danger of that in this story, we are all going to continue to be very lost. (I also don't think that Ansari should pay the full price of this, but he has and he will.)
My third response was that there is a difference between bad sex and sexual assault. The one salient detail that Grace includes in her story, is that Ansari texted her the next day. I can only speak from my experiences but after the encounters in my life that crossed that very tenuous line into assault, or with my date rape, there was no contact whatsoever after the event. It’s a tell-tale sign that the guys knew that what they were doing was wrong, that I was used and thrown away like garbage, and that they were assholes. While Ansari clearly needs some serious help with regard to sex and he is clearly absolutely clueless about nuance, he also didn’t seem to know what he was doing was bad. That does not mean she was unharmed, but it does point to his intent, and since in previous posts I’ve made the correlation between hate crimes and rape/sexual assault based on intent, texting her the next day mitigates the question of intent.
My take on his cluelessness is also coloured by the fact that I teach acting. 99.99999% of the time, when I ask a student what is happening in a scene, they cannot tell me. No matter how famous the scene, no matter if the script is from a movie or a famous play, they cannot tell me. It takes a good 15 minutes of very direct, demanding, and sometimes even combative questions, and pointing to ques in the text that are so obvious they couldn’t be clearer if they were in neon to get to what is actually happening in the scene. And these are scenes written by the most talented, intelligent male playwrights - so even when the text is male, they can't figure it out.
It took me about 15 years of bafflement and frustration to realise that students don’t know what’s going on in a scene because they are completely focused and absorbed in a specific aspect of the story that has nothing to do with what is really going on. It’s astounding how many huge forests are completely invisible because the actor is so intently focused on an acorn. Ansari never considered that she wasn’t into it. It never crossed his mind. Even when she said she didn’t want to have actual intercourse. He didn’t see the clues and the nuance because he wasn’t looking for the clues and nuance. For lots of women this might be impossible to comprehend and if I didn’t teach acting, I wouldn’t buy it all, but I do teach acting and I see this every single time actors start working on scenes.
If anything good can come from this, it could be empowering young women to have agency over their experiences when and where they can. In the case of Eliza Dushku, it was imperative for her personal safety to lie still and not resist Joel Kramer. Playing dead is not out of the question when being mauled by man or beast – while this may seem humourous, it actually isn’t – and playing dead alleviates the question of whether we're being complicit in our own head (and the only person that matters at that point is us and our safety). It also mitigates the shame and guilt we might feel afterwards, which can be significant.
If/when playing dead stops progression of the events, run! Don’t be polite. Don’t avoid awkwardness. Don’t engage in anything further – action, conversation or anything – just go. This is not easy so don’t expect it to be. We’ve been socialised to be polite and accommodating – our responsibility to social norms ends the moment things go beyond our comfort levels. And if this story teaches anything, it’s that a woman being polite and accommodating when the situation has gone bad for her is actually bad for both people. I’m sure Ansari would have been happier with being called an asshole or being slapped or kicked than having to deal with his life being ruined.
While having and critiquing all my responses to this particular story very carefully, I have to share a bit with the men I know. Now this is a bit difficult because 99.99% of the men I know are genuinely good guys. I tend to weed out the assholes, but I am linked to at least 3 on Facebook so this is for them. I have been dating for the last few months, and I am appalled, amazed, flabbergasted, bewildered and on some occasions seriously frightened by what I have encountered.
I have been approached by guys as young as 20 and as old as 70. The most recent was a 40-year-old, orthopaedic doctor who had asked me for coffee this coming Friday (it’s Tuesday). We texted to set the date on Saturday. Chatted a bit to break the ice, and then he just kept going. He started texting me again first thing Sunday morning. The amount of attention he needed from me was overwhelming – and he’s not the least bit unusual. Since when did single men get so needy? At one point, I just stopped responding - which I thought made it clear I didn't want to text anymore and he didn't even notice. Mid-afternoon, I asked him to stop and the man lost his mind. He called twice and then berated me via text about how he was driving and having a bad day over something with his son. It was surreal. The phone calls were even more strange. He called me then waited for me to engage and drive the conversation, and when I wouldn’t, he got belligerent.
His expectation that I was there for his entertainment value was laughable. His lack of self-control and irresponsibility was unbelievable. I have cancelled meeting him for coffee, but I’m finding this to be the norm across a wide and varied cross section of ages, cultures and socio-economic backgrounds. The need these men have for constant stimulation is extraordinary, but what makes them assholes is that they blame me for not taking perfect care of their needs as they see them.
In this Ansari is also culpable. He saw ‘Grace,’ as needing to take care of his sexual needs as he wanted and didn’t stop for a moment to engage fully in her experience – which would have saved him all of this. He chose to act, quite impulsively, without consideration – and while that is not a crime, it is the crux of a very big problem.
Men if you are worried that this might happen to you, I strongly suggest you craft an open ended question that can be asked at any time to ensure you understand her state-of-being and point of view. Do not ask, 'baby, are you having a good time?' because that assumes she is. Find something along the lines of 'tell me how you're doing?' And be prepared to stop if you hear anything less than a full throated, 'Fantastic!'