Sex, Harassment, and Aziz Ansari by Safia Southey


The current question of Aziz Ansari is an extremely polarizing topic; everyone seems to have an opinion. For those who are not familiar: Aziz Ansari went on a date with an anonymous girl, henceforth referred to as Grace. After dinner, they went back to his house where, according to her, he pressured her into sexual behavior that she did not feel comfortable with, which she fought back against with both verbal and non-verbal cues. Several months later she talked to a reporter from babe.net where the story was released, which resulted in a controversial debate across the internet.

To start, let’s speak about the journalistic integrity of the piece. While these types of articles afford women sexual liberty in being able to include this in discourse, when dealing with matters of sexual abuse or violence, this is not the best place for this kind of piece – on the same page as this call-out for feminist action, you can find a list of how to give the best blowjobs. Further, the author was extremely inexperienced, and only provided Ansari with less than six hours to respond with a comment, on a Saturday during awards season and the holidays, when the industry standard is 24 hours to respond. The article purposefully depicts Ansari in a very negative light, without a sense of neutrality on the subject, offering her own input every so often.

The journalistic standards and the platform in particular are an issue, especially the way the author chose to sensationalize the issue and cash in on this larger cultural #MeToo moment. But the fact remains that there exists a whole ethos where guys both “don’t have to pick up on non-verbal cues”, but can also be incapable of picking up on them – as they have no cognizance of such a vocabulary due their own social programming. The present imbalances in gender power dynamics cut both ways – in a best-case scenario, males are not equipped with the skills because they are not expected to develop them. That’s the status quo, but it doesn’t mean that it’s the way things should be. If anything, it’s about changing the conversation around expectations and behaviors during intercourse. Consent isn’t just about a hard yes or no (although Grace explicitly said no to Ansari), especially considering the power dynamics in these situations. This idea isn’t even remotely new to feminist and sexual health literature, and popular culture, as was pointed out by one of the many NYT articles on the subject.

The content of the article has deeply divided feminists and the current #MeToo and TimesUp movements focusing on sexual harassment, sexual abuse, and consent in general. The question was posed: what constitutes sexual abuse? What is sexual harassment? At what point are our uncomfortable experiences just “bad sex?”

I personally believe that the situation can be classified as sexual harassment, although I also see how it can be considered otherwise as just “bad sex”. Sexual assault is defined by the Department of Justice as “any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient,”. However the term ‘abuse’ is more typically used when more physical violence is constituted. We need to use this term carefully and critically, if we start using it for less extreme situations, we will desensitize the term and dilute its importance. This also crosses into legal implications, because sexual harassment and physical abuse have different consequences. While some may argue that this situation does not constitute sexual harassment due to it crossing from implications to actions, harassment does not necessarily need to be verbal – physical coercion can be included under this definition as well. If nothing else, Ansari’s actions were gross, offensive, and left someone feeling violated. We should all be able to agree on that.

One debate that has sprung up in the aftermath of the article is one regarding what constitutes “bad sex,” as it means different things to everyone, especially between men and women. Most typically, men consider “bad sex” to be sex that is unsatisfactory, short, non-adventurous, etc. Studies show that with women the same complaints still exist, but the more common response is description of painful, forceful, or manipulative sex; they have become so used to this kind of behavior that they simply categorize it as an unfortunate, yet normal part of life.

They also aren’t mutually exclusive experiences – sexual assault is always ‘bad sex’ whereas ‘bad sex’ is not necessarily always sexual assault

There are many shades of grey regarding consent and sexual misconduct, which is partially why this topic is so controversial and difficult to talk about. Sexual assault and “bad sex” are not the only binary options, there are many intricate aspects to this and everyone may categorize such situations in different ways according to their own experiences (they also aren’t mutually exclusive experiences – sexual assault is always ‘bad sex’ whereas ‘bad sex’ is not necessarily always sexual assault). The concept of this account “trivializing” other women’s experiences makes me uncomfortable; while this interaction between Ansari and Grace was not as extreme as other forms of sexual harassment or abuse, it should not be simply written off. If we just say, “it could have been worse,” then substantive progress will not be made in this field, and we will continue to permit men to take advantage of women in sexual situations.

However, the lack of a traditional mold of what is considered sexual misconduct doesn’t matter in this situation; what is more important is the perception and safety and overarching themes of men believing themselves inherently deserving of sex and women being conditioned to not only accept this, but suffer at the hands of it.

There are power dynamics inherently present in this situation, not only because Aziz Ansari is a man of some influence in society, but also because he is a man in general. Social programming condition both men and women such that there are certain expectations going into any social or sexual situation. These expectations usually mean there is some discomfort or awkwardness when women are put in positions to refuse men. Couple this with inherent and real fear that women experience and one can see how the power dynamics lend themselves to constrain women’s behaviour, unbeknownst to men involved in these very situations. Although Ansari may have never directly articulated that she had to comply with his sexual desires, women are socialized to believe that they cannot refuse sex without some sort of retaliation. The prioritization of male pleasure over female comfort is something many women have experienced, and most have this in mind when they engage with men. This is, in some ways, a nonverbal cue that women have been forced by these situations to understand and to worry about. Maybe men should take a page out of their book on the subject of nonverbal cues. Cognizance of the cultural power dynamic is important for men so that they reduce this sense of entitlement going into any sexual or romantic relationship. However, to expect these invisible constraints on women’s behaviour as being the impetus of solely the men is exactly the mind-reader concept that these articles refer to. Men should be made aware but it is negative reinforcement to take it far by saying that it is the onus of men to only recognize these nonverbal cues. It takes both men and women to communicate this explicitly using both a cognizance of non-verbal cues but also direct verbal ones.

I do not mean to infantilize the woman in question or say that she did not have agency over her own actions. We cannot blame her or any woman for feeling that she did not have the opportunity to say no or to just leave. While she made various other decisions that day that led her to Ansari’s bed, she did not deserve what happened. No matter what you think about nonverbal versus verbal consent, entering an apartment is not consent. We can discuss and contemplate what happened inside that apartment, but entering it was by no means consent to what happened inside.

While people have criticized responses to the article which attack Ansari’s sexual desires, such as him putting his fingers forcefully in the woman’s mouth, this leaves out the crucial aspect of consent. Of course we should not kink-shame, whatever people choose to do in their own beds is their own business. However, we cannot simply attribute the complaints of Ansari’s actions to it being “strange” to the general public. If the woman did not consent to Ansari’s behavior, aggressive, kinky, or otherwise, she has every right to be uncomfortable.

This debate is a good challenge to the current movement bringing attention to sexual assault and harassment. While some have argued that the babe.net article divides the movement and takes attention away from the larger picture, I believe that we ought to be conscious of all forms of sexual misconduct, from small gestures and unintended coercive tactics to rape and other forms of extreme sexual assault.

We cannot write off these small moments because there are “bigger things to handle.” That being said, the quality of the article does not adequately address the issue at hand. As I have said before, men are often unaware that their actions are hurtful, especially in a context where consent seems to be implied, such as on a date. Ansari has been lauded as a feminist and as someone who stands up against sexual harassment and such issues, which is exactly why this story is so controversial – if a male feminist can also commit sexual assault, who can’t?

Was it Ansari’s responsibility to recognize Grace’s actions and stop pursuing his sexual acts, even though she was not actively saying no? Should men be checking in every so often to ensure that the woman wants to continue? This seems difficult if not impossible to do consistently, and could certainly “ruin the mood.”

According to the original babe.net article, Grace had sent a message to Ansari the day after the incident saying, “I just want to take this moment to make you aware of [your] behavior and how uneasy it made me.” Ansari responded apologetically saying that he misread the situation. While I do not condone his behavior and believe that he acted poorly, I still respect Ansari for apologizing to Grace once he was confronted with his actions and do not believe that his career should be ended because of this incident. Men need to be held accountable for their conduct, but in the situations where they obviously were not aware of how harmful their actions were, it is much more useful to start a conversation and explain why it was inappropriate instead of merely attacking them, and we can start by creating a recognizable vocabulary to arm ourselves as both men and women for what may be perceived as an uncomfortable discourse.

Nonverbal cues are as important as they are confusing: was it Ansari’s responsibility to recognize Grace’s actions and stop pursuing his sexual acts, even though she was not actively saying no? Should men be checking in every so often to ensure that the woman wants to continue? This seems difficult if not impossible to do consistently, and could certainly “ruin the mood.” As many critics of the babe.net article have suggested, men should not be expected to be able to read their partners’ minds in order to achieve consent.

Sex should be enthusiastic, as consent is not simply agreeing to actions being forced on them; if someone is begrudgingly agreeing to participate in sexual acts, they are not truly agreeing. If they only consent after being begged or pressured repeatedly, then perhaps one should stop pushing and realize their partner does not want it.

Ansari should have stopped once he realized Grace was not enthusiastic, and sex and sexual acts should always be conducted by choice without intense encouragement from the other party. If you have to tell the other person to go down on them or forcefully move their hand such as Ansari moved Grace’s hand towards his penis, and if the other person resists with comments such as “Whoa, let’s relax for a sec, let’s chill,” as Grace said to Ansari, then perhaps it is not consensual. There needs to be mutual understanding of the situation with equal participation, or else it is not just “bad sex,” it is harassment.

While the journalistic integrity of the article is questionable to say the least, that doesn’t change what the woman’s testimony said. I don’t know about ruining his career – but I definitely will never look at him the same way or consume his material after reading what was written, especially since I personally have had similar experiences. The #MeToo movement isn’t about a witch hunt against men; it’s not about the punitive measure but rather accountability. There’s a subtle difference between the two. Punishing men who have aggrieved women in clear ways surely deserve it. But, it is in this conversation that we realize so many men do not fall in this clear category. Rather they are simply products of their social programming, of cultural expectations of masculine behaviour and sexual behaviour.

Ansari’s humiliation is the humiliation of all men who have in some way perpetuated this culture. To call Ansari’s actions reprehensible is to critique the social programming and the institutions that enable these vacuous spaces to be filled with disgusting behaviour. That’s what we should fight for and in my opinion, what the moderate interpretation of the #MeToo movement is. That is why, babe.net with its sensationalism undercuts the momentum of social reform and progress for feminism. Ansari has just become the scapegoat for a larger paradigm shift – that this social programming is wrong. It is not a personal indictment of Ansari but an indictment of all men (and women) who will continue to act according to this social programming where consent and cues are not considered, evaluated and then acted upon through clear and open communication.

Read the original article here.

The Fight Is Not Over by Safia Southey


Warning: this piece refers and talks about sexual harassment with some detail. Further, I refer to men nearly consistently as the aggressor in this paper and women as the victim, but would like note that this is not always the case, as men can just as easily be and often are the target of sexual assault and harassment (statistics show that 79% of victims are women, 21% are men). As well, most of my statistics solely regard the United States, due to the fact that there has been a great amount of data collected there on this topic.

My mother raised me traveling from the second I was born, running off to Egypt, Greece, Turkey, France, England, Mexico with just a small child and a backpack. I was always so happy when traveling with my mom, constantly receiving free food with strangers acting out of generosity and kindness; but never truly noticed the constant harassment that my mother faced as a white, unmarried American women. She was expected to provide something in exchange for all the hospitality (unwanted attention) from strange men in markets and on the streets and in the places where we stayed, leading us to have to hop from hotel to hotel, escaping the men who would touch her inappropriately during Turkish baths, appear at our door in the middle of the night, talk to her as if she was an item to be purchased. “You are a woman and therefore they believe they have access,” she once explained to me, teaching me that as a woman I will not receive the same opportunities or treatment or safety as men in an identical situation.

When I moved to Jordan after high school, I was warned by my family for my safety, with strict instructions not to walk around at night or talk to strangers, or really any men in general. I barely left my apartment except to go to work for the first month of my trip, out of pure fear. The first time I walked to the office, a three miles journey mostly along the highway, I was met with cars honking at me every ten seconds in attempt to scare me or get my attention, and stares that bore into my skull by every man I passed by. Every time I go traveling alone, I know I have to be careful. I hear stories about people hitchhiking through the countryside in the Caucuses and Western Africa and as much as I want to do that, I know that I will never be able to, at least not by myself. I do not believe that women should stay at home and hide from any potential conflict (I write while traveling through Asia by myself) but I’m also so naïve as to go into small villages where rape is common and women are treated as inferior. This is not about a lack of bravery, it is about safety.

I am lucky. Actually, no I’m not, but the fact that I believe that nothing “too bad” has happened to me yet shows the mindset instilled in women now; that unless you’re brutally raped or murdered, you are essentially lucky. We say that things are improving for women because people are becoming more aware, with Anita Hill, Monica Lewinsky, the #MeToo movement and the general recent onslaught of prominent men being ousted for their behavior. But the fact that the women who came out against these men are still being called liars and publicity whores, that when I told my friend about sexual harassment statistics he said “but you don’t know how many of those are made up,” and that men still do not understand that they are not owed sex in any context, demonstrates that things are not that much better than before – just better hidden.

Things may be getting better, but that doesn’t mean they are good.

We have become apologists for male behavior, blaming ourselves for putting out the wrong signals, or saying that they just didn’t know that what they were doing was wrong. Me, my mother, and women and general, have become so accustomed to harassment, that we excuse it now as a part of life. Men reaching up my skirt in my apartment elevator in New York, employers inappropriately touching me, older men utilizing unequal power dynamics to create sexual situations, waking up with bruises in somebody’s bed after drinking a little too much, boys holding me down with threats of “telling” if I don’t comply, being fingered while asleep, having boys beg for sexual attention because they believe they deserved it, tongues being stuck down my throat at hostels as I begged “please stop” – and those are just some of my personal experiences, not including any of the horror stories that I have heard from so many friends and family. According to RAINN, there are 321,500 victims (age 12 or older) of rape and sexual assault on average each year in the United States. One in three women ages 18 to 34 has been sexually harassed at work, and one in six women will experience attempted or completed rape in their lifetime. At this point, when talking to a woman about sexual assault, it’s more surprising to me if they don’t have a similar story to share.

Most of the time, I hear about men using coercive or manipulative tactics for sex, believing that they are owed something, not understanding that this is a form of sexual harassment in itself. In fact, 13.3% of college women indicate that they have been forced to have sex in a dating situation, which is often not immediately thought of as assault. Rather than getting angry with men for actions that they aren’t aware of as harassment or assault, we should instead teach them. Next time somebody shames you or manipulates you or guilts you into sex, explain to them why this is unacceptable. This isn’t easy, and I admit that I don’t usually do this. It’s not easy to tell somebody that you don’t want to have sex, maybe because you don’t want to offend them, or because you think they’ll like you less, or because you don’t think you have a choice in the matter, or because you feel unsafe. But if we do not speak out in these situations then it will continue to happen and the cycle will never cease. Of course it’s not just up to the women; men, please be aware that you are not entitled to sex because you bought us dinner or a drink, or smiled at you affectionately, or touched your arm. And don’t resort to “negging” if rejected; bullying women out of insecurity will not fix anything and instead reinforces the belief that we can’t say no. In many ways, being aware of what you are doing is more difficult, as you may not know necessarily what behavior you are looking for. This is why we need better education systems in regards to sexual conduct. And while I appreciate that at least in the US there have been substantive changes in schools from elementary to college in order to prevent sexual harassment, there is so much more still to be done.

Sexual harassment often stems from gender roles instilled at a societal level, as women are socialized to be submissive in sexual situations. We are taught that we shouldn’t say no, that it’s unattractive to be aggressive or outspoken, and that while women should and can be leaders, they need to maintain their femininity and subservience in order to be successful. If you disagree, look at the 2016 election and the fact that our very own President encourages half the population to just “grab ‘em by the pussy.”

Most men are also taught from birth that they need to be aggressive and take charge, that women like a “bad boy,” and that you’re a “cuck” if you ask for consent. There needs to be a change in how we raise our children in regards to these gender roles, or else nothing will change. In schools, women are still taught not to be overly flirty, or else you will give men the wrong idea, taught that if you dress too provocatively you’re “asking” for assault, and that it’s only strangers to be weary of, when in eight out of ten rape cases the victim knows the perpetrator. A more open dialogue and a change in the language used is necessary or else these issues will continue to arise, no matter how many more men are exposed for sexually inappropriate behavior.

Let’s talk about Woody Allen. The concept of separating men’s sexual behavior from the work they have done or people they are otherwise confuses me; yes, we should not write off everything somebody has accomplished because they groped a woman, or masturbated in front of her, but we need to take it into account when evaluating them as a person. I remember the first time I told my (male) friends about being harassed by a mutual friend, and them defending this behavior by saying, “yeah, but he tells a different story, plus he’s never done anything to me so I still think he’s a great guy.” “He’s just joking around,” “it’s a different culture,” “he just had a little too much to drink,” “he’s not usually like this,” – too often, accounts of assault are met with doubt and defensiveness, justification and oftentimes anger. Women are not prone to telling stories of sexual assault just for the fun of it, for the attention; we know the skepticism with which it will be received. In 2016, U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received 12,860 receipts of sexual harassment in the workplace, 54.1% of which were dismissed as “no reasonable cause,” meaning that enough proof was not found to prove that discrimination occurred.

The American system of “innocent until proven guilty” can be problematic here, as sexual harassment is on occasion nearly impossible to verify. Even though every 98 seconds an American is sexually assaulted, only 6 out of every 1,000 perpetrators will end up in prison. This is exactly why is it so necessary for the mindset to change on this issue; instead of immediately doubting women and attempting to discredit them (such as calling Anita Hill “a little bit slutty and a little bit nutty” after her testimony against Clarence Thomas), we must genuinely attempt to find the truth. This does not entail always believing the accuser, as of course there are outliers, but we need to address the systemic disbelief and accusation that disincentivizes so many women from speaking out.

As Rhe-Anne Tan perfectly explained, “There is a deep complexity in defining a movement that is so personal and so tied to individual hurt – it’s both systemic and also deeply personal, and this prevents people from engaging with the usual detachment that they afford other issues. This is also what makes reconciling different branches all the more difficult, since positions are held so viscerally and strongly. To disagree with someone’s position is almost equated to invalidating their lived experience, their own existence as a female. Whether or not that’s valid is up for debate, but in the interim it’s clear that we need to respond with compassion and openness to change (which is easier said than done), because the temptation is to talk over the experiences of others.”

I had a hesitancy to write this and especially to use personal examples, as there is an inherent fear in not only opening up, but to being called a liar or too aggressive or that I am just looking for attention. The reason I’m writing this is because these are issues that need to be more publicly and openly talked about, and I want people to understand that sexually inappropriate behavior is not limited to just rape, but a whole list of other more subtle and often confusing experiences. Not all men are guilty of sexual harassment, but instead of getting defensive and saying that you’re one of the “good ones,” perhaps looks back at your actions and re-evaluate, and see if “#you too” were ever slightly too pushy, or could have handled a sexual situation with a little more consideration.

In this New Year, reconsider your resolutions. Women need to continue to lead the change for a different power dynamic, but men also need to make an enormous effort to create a different future, one where women do not need to be afraid.