When the news broke that Aziz Ansari had been accused of sexual assault, I experienced that same sense of dread and disappointment that people everywhere continue to feel as more of our cultural icons are revealed to be power-abusing predators. The #MeToo Movement has done wonders to empower women in the entertainment industry and otherwise to speak out and take back control of our own rights and sense of agency. Its reach has been wide and its message clear: sexual predators should and will be condemned for their actions. The accusations levied against Aziz Ansari, however, have raised a new question: what really constitutes sexual assault and misconduct?
There has been a great deal of controversy surrounding the account of the letter’s author, “Grace.” I will not elaborate on those criticisms at length out of respect for “Grace” and her account of her own experiences. The gist of it is this: “Grace” never explicitly said the word “no” and Ansari never did anything explicitly manipulative or coercive. These details have led the public to separate themselves into two extremely polarized camps – those who stand with “Grace” and condemn Ansari as a power-hungry villain and those who think the encounter was nothing more than “bad sex” and that “Grace’s” claims are irresponsible and damaging both to Ansari’s career and the integrity of the #MeToo movement. The polarity and extremity of these reactions have distorted and muddled what should be an important cultural conversation about problematic dating behaviors and male arrogance.
This is a case of selfishly brutish male behavior and missed nonverbal cues. It is a case in which a star struck 22 year old struggled to verbalize her discomfort with someone whose professional persona she had long watched and admired. It is not, by my estimation, sexual assault. Neither is it simply a case of “bad sex.” Throughout the evening that “Grace,” describes, Ansari’s words and actions are pushy and obnoxious, his desire for sex clearly his top priority. This behavior is wrong and seems particularly tone deaf coming from someone whose work often deals with the prevalence of sexual harassment/assault on the dating scene and who is known for his take downs of male assholery. At the same time though, Ansari is merely a product of a society that teaches men their own feelings and desires are paramount above everything else; a society that allows men to be oblivious to a woman’s cues and signals and plow forward with all the attention and care of a bulldozer on the fritz. Ansari was likely not aware of the ways in which he was making “Grace” feel uncomfortable and violated. While this in no way excuses his behavior, it at least proves that he is not the power-abusing predator some are making him out to be.
The mistakes Ansari made are in no way unique to him. They are systemic behaviors that our society has tolerated and fostered for far too long. He, like any other person who has made an unknowing mistake, deserves the chance to reflect and grow from the experience without the world drawing comparisons to the likes of Harvey Weinstein and Louis CK. His actions were wrong and I make no attempt to excuse them, but Aziz Ansari’s pushy and over-eager dating style is a far cry from the horrendous cases of sexual assault, harassment and rape that have poured out of Hollywood in the past months.