Affirmative Consent, Toxic Masculinity, and Aziz Ansari

I don’t know about you, but I’m currently infuriated with people and society. I mean, if we’re being honest, that happens almost any time I pay attention to them. But I’m especially infuriated right now about the situation with Aziz Ansari.

It’s incredibly painful that a creator I’ve looked up to and saw as woke and feminist could behave in such a way, thinking it’s okay. Thinking it’s typical, normal sexual behaviour. Not only so, but that so many people would agree with his narrative–even in prominent journals and magazines where some of the authors are “feminist” women.

If you’re not familiar with what happened, I’ll give you a short rundown. Aziz Ansari and a woman met at a party, exchanged numbers, and later went on a date. After dinner, they went to Ansari’s apartment. There, the woman felt immediately and constantly pressured to engage in sexual activity despite verbal and non-verbal (but very clear) signs that she was not interested. Ansari kept trying to wear down her noes into yeses.

This week, Bitch Media’s Feminist Snack Break live stream was about this very incident. I listened as Dahlia Grossman-Heinze discussed and dissected articles and opened up a conversation around consent and coercion. This got me thinking even more, and I just had to get my thoughts out.

Many people have been saying that Aziz “isn’t a mind reader” and that this is an assassination of his character. Yes, the woman chose to remain anonymous. And yes, she spoke to Babe. But she didn’t seek them out. They pursued the story and asked her. Babe did not necessarily handle the writing of the article very well. As Jezebel said, it was a missed opportunity. But none of those things indicate that what happened to this woman isn’t true or wasn’t wrong.

I think we can all agree that Aziz Ansari is not a mind reader. However, as a sexually active sentient human, he should be aware of what his partner is doing and saying and take that into account. Sure, they were at his place and that could lead to sex. But if the woman is CLEARLY not into the way it’s going, stop pushing. Stop trying to coerce her. This is where the idea of affirmative consent comes in.

Affirmative consent is by no means a new idea and did not just pop up to surprise men at the start of the #MeToo movement. It’s been around for decades and has been talked about a lot. Why does it seem so surprising to men? Because they weren’t listening.

The notion of affirmative consent did not fall from space in October 2017 to confound well-meaning but bumbling men; it was built, loudly and painstakingly and in public, at great personal cost to its proponents, over decades. If you’re fretting about the perceived overreach of #MeToo, maybe start by examining the ways you’ve upheld the stigmatization of feminism. Nuanced conversations about consent and gendered socialization have been happening every single day that Aziz Ansari has spent as a living, sentient human on this earth. The reason they feel foreign to so many men is that so many men never felt like they needed to listen. Rape is a women’s issue, right? Men don’t major in women’s studies. (Lindy West)

During any sexual encounter, your partner should feel comfortable, should feel heard, and should feel like their pleasure matters too. If they are not an enthusiastic participant throughout, you need to stop and think about that. If you’re not sure they are into it? Ask them. Worried that will kill the mood? IT WON’T IF THEY’RE INTERESTED. You know what’s worse than being asked (which is actually thoughtful)? Being pressured or forced into doing something you don’t want to do.

Other articles suggest that Aziz isn’t to blame because the woman shouldn’t have let herself be put in that position. Are people really still making arguments like this? Putting the onus on women again and again to not be harassed or assaulted as if men have no role in it at all? As if everything at all times is always the woman’s fault? Women don’t choose to be victimized. They are made victims when someone decides to perpetrate violence or harassment against them.

Let’s tally this shit up. She was 22 and is a photographer in the industry. Aziz Ansari is 34. Ansari is wealthy, powerful, and famous in the industry. Ansari is a man in a world filled with toxic masculinity. The 22-year-old woman lives in a world that hates women, one where men scream, threaten violence, and actually perpetrate violence when women simply turn down their advances. She was alone with him in his apartment.

Going to his apartment after a date is not consent to sexual activity. It’s consent to go to his apartment. He immediately tried to initiate sexual contact, and she expressed her discomfort repeatedly through word and action. Many commentators say it’s her fault for staying and letting this treatment continue. She could have left at any time. But sexual harassment and assault are about power, and Ansari is the one who had it. He is the one who ignored her discomfort, convinced that his desires were more important.

This inappropriate sexual behaviour is endemic of rape culture. Men are taught that aggression is sexy, that they need to seduce and conquer, that they must persist and not take no for an answer. Heterosexual sex in our culture treats women as objects for the desires of men.

A lot of this stems from a culture that encourages narratives of men chasing women, and women withholding sex from men until they convince the women otherwise. These narratives express the idea that all women don’t mean no when they say it—they want you to keep asking until they say yes. Sadly, these stories in pop culture inform many people’s view of sex and romance.

There’s a reason so many people are conflating bad and sometimes criminal behavior with romance: traditional ideas about seduction rely on tropes of women withholding sex and men working hard to get it. It’s a narrow notion of heterosexuality – one that does a good job excusing abusive behavior. (Jessica Valenti)

For this to change, we have to continually have conversations about consent and believe people when they say behaviour is harmful. There are a lot of different ways sexual harassment and assault are perpetrated, and not all of them are illegal. What happened in with Ansari wasn’t against the law, but it was certainly more than “just a bad date.” It was harmful to that woman.

A lot of #MeToo detractors and Ansari defenders seem to think that this is about attacking men. It’s not (though certainly some men deserve it). I know people are often defensive when their bad actions are pointed out and they are brought to account. But the goal here isn’t attack. This isn’t even about these men specifically (though they should be held accountable). This kind of behaviour is so wide spread. These men are symptoms of a broken culture. Of rape culture. We just want you to finally hear us. Listen to us. Understand what we’re saying. Be better.

What Aziz Ansari did is wrong, and it’s not normal sexual behaviour. But it’s clear that it’s been normalized, and that’s not the same thing. Coercion is not consent. Silence is not consent. A lack of a “no” is not consent. “No means no” isn’t enough—it’s yes means yes.

Sources and stuff

Original story on Babe.net

“Feminist Snack Break: Let’s talk about Aziz Ansari” hosted by Dahlia Grossman-Heinze of Bitch Media.

“Babe, What Are You Doing?” by Julianne Escobedo Shepherd on Jezebel

“Aziz, We Tried to Warn You” by Lindy West in The New York Times

“Here’s Why Aziz Ansari’s Behaviour Matters” by Emily Reynolds in The Guardian

“Abuse Isn’t Romantic. So Why the Panic that Feminists are Killing Eros?” by Jessica Valenti in The Guardian

Twitter thread from Jessica Valenti

Twitter Thread from Andi Zeisler

Twitter Thread from And Zeisler

Beth is the founder and editor of Fuelled by Fiction. She is a twenty-something east coast Canadian girl who loves writing about books and feminism.