The Aziz Ansari cultural moment was inevitable.
Ansari, the immensely talented actor who just won a Golden Globe for his work on “Master of None,” has been very publicly accused of unwanted sexual aggression during a first date by an anonymous 23-year-old woman who met him at an Emmy after-party last year.
Her story, “I went on a date with Aziz Ansari. It turned into the worst night of my life,” on the website Babe, has sparked intense conversation, some of it along generational lines, about whether in this “Me Too” moment women are going overboard, mistaking seduction for harassment.
The Atlantic’s Caitlin Flanagan, 56, described the story as “revenge porn,” meant to humiliate Ansari. The Guardian’s Jessica Valenti, 39, on the other hand, said that where men might see an “everyday, reasonable sexual interaction,” women are saying “what the culture considers ‘normal’ sexual encounters are not working for us, and oftentimes harmful.”
Flanagan and Valenti are both spot on. A single complaint by a nameless accuser has tarnished the reputation of a man who should probably do a better job communicating with his sex partner. I’m frankly not sure that a public shaming is the best way to drive that lesson home. Or that this is really any of our business.
In the last three months, dozens of men — many of them household names — have been called out and punished for their horrendous sexual mistreatment of women (and some men). This reckoning was long overdue, and hard won.
Women such as the actor Rose McGowan risked their livelihoods and emotional well being to confront men like Harvey Weinstein, nearly omnipotent and willing to professionally kneecap women who dared to tell the truth about him.
The Weinsteins of the world (and the Charlie Roses, Matt Lauers, Mark Halperins, and hey, I could go on forever) are easy to condemn. They used their power to sexually assault women, then coerce their silence.
Women have the right to a harassment-free workplace. I have little patience for the sad men who now wonder whether it’s OK to tell a colleague she looks nice, who complain that innocent office flirtation has been ruined, or claim that no one really knows how to behave with anyone anymore.
Come on now, guys. It’s not that hard. Treat your colleagues with respect and professionalism.
When it comes to dating, the lines are much fuzzier. And the privacy issues are much more troubling. Babe Editor Amanda Ross told me she had no hesitation about granting anonymity to “Grace,” because her accusations were “of a sexual nature.” “It was never a question for us,” said Ross, 24. “We know who Grace is, we vetted her story extensively. We asked her for everything. She is so wonderful and just wanted to tell her story. No problem.”
But there is a problem. No pattern of behavior was demonstrated in the Babe story. No crimes were alleged. Ansari stands charged with making his unnamed date feel uncomfortable, and among other things, offering her white wine instead of red, which she prefers. The story, and its intimate level of detail, just doesn’t seem fair.
As a woman who became single after many years of marriage, I can tell you something I think is true for many women: When I like a man, I have a much higher tolerance for sexually aggressive behavior than when I don’t. Yet even if I like someone, I will not be rushed into doing something that makes me uncomfortable.
But I have a lot of years on “Grace,” who was only 22 when she went out with Ansari.
On Babe, a sassy website aimed at women 18 to 24, “Grace” described a date that started out with wine at Ansari’s home, a pleasant dinner at a restaurant aboard a schooner in the Hudson, then an aggressive seduction that left her feeling abused. She was uncomfortable “at how quickly things escalated.”
“Grace” gave Ansari what she described as “verbal and non-verbal cues to indicate how uncomfortable and distressed she was.” She couldn’t tell, though, whether Ansari was oblivious to her cues or ignoring them.
Her descriptions of their sexual interactions are graphic, and intended to mortify Ansari. Yet he didn’t force her to do anything. Sometimes she complied with his sexual requests, sometimes she resisted. What is clear, in her telling, is that she remained ambivalent during the encounter. She did not initiate any of the action, which is not unusual for a woman, even in consensual and mutually satisfying encounters.
Ansari, 34, sounds like an inflamed teenager whose intermittent attempts at sensitivity were overruled by his hormones. In a grown man, that is nothing short of creepy.
Here we have an eternal dilemma; two people together, but on two separate emotional trajectories: “Grace” was delighted to be going out with a famous actor who has posed as someone sensitive and interested in women’s issues. She was disappointed and confused when he turned out to be crass and sexually aggressive. Ansari was disappointed and confused when she later told him she was upset.
“It was fun meeting you last night,” Ansari texted, according to a screengrab published by Babe.
“Last night might’ve been fun for you, but it wasn’t for me,” she replied. “You ignored clear non-verbal cues; you kept going with advances. I want to make sure you’re aware so maybe the next girl doesn’t have to cry on the ride home.”
Ansari: “I’m so sad to hear this. Clearly, I misread things in the moment and I’m truly sorry.”
I, too, am truly sorry that “Grace” had such an awful experience. My daughter is about her age, and if a man treated my girl that way, I would be furious and hurt on her behalf. I would also caution her about the importance of verbally setting boundaries and how celebrities make terrible romantic prospects because they are so often warped by their fame, money and power.
I would also tell her that we need to be clear about the difference between sexual assault and horny dudes who move too fast on dates. Both may exist on a continuum of disrespect for women, but one is not the same as the other.