The Conversation We Should Be Having About the Aziz Ansari Incident

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In the past week, we’ve seen a new round of Feminists vs. Feminists. In one corner, we have young feminists, righteously angry at comedian Aziz Ansari and supportive of his pseudonymous accuser “Grace” and Babe, the publication that told her story. In the other corner, we have a motley collection of older feminists, ranging from novelist Margaret Atwood to professional contrarian Katie Roiphe. Their precise opinions vary, but they collectively believe that Grace went too far in publishing the sordid details of her harrowing date with Ansari, and that she should have left the date—or at best, sucked it up when she realized how wrong it had gone.

In one particularly awful example of this ongoing battle, we saw TV host Ashleigh Banfield excoriate Grace. Banfield, seemingly only able to view the situation through a legalistic lens, railed at Grace, looking directly into the camera and calling her accusations “sloppy” and “reckless”. Babe journalist Katie Way fired back in a letter, angrily insulting Banfield’s appearance and age and quickly shutting down any potential for reasonable debate.

Why does it always have to happen this way? At the center of this story is a man who, despite probably not breaking any laws, behaved at best boorishly, with no consideration for his date’s feelings, and at worst, coercively, repeatedly pulling her hand onto his penis or shoving his fingers into her mouth even after she’d asked him to stop. And instead of publishing pieces that address how Grace felt, or how Ansari could learn a lesson from this incident, or what we should do when men get pushy, or after leaving a situation like that, the vast majority of publications are instead publishing clickbaity, shouty pieces that do nothing to advance the dialogue about sexual harassment and assault (a notable exception is Lindy West’s New York Times’ opinion piece).

So what should the conversation be about? There are a few things we need to discuss, and those conversations needn’t overlap nor be held within a purely legal context. They should be had honestly and openly, without name-calling or victim-shaming. Here goes:

First: Was Ansari’s behavior wrong? In a binary world, this is a tricky question, but fortunately, we live in a world of nuance. Ansari’s behavior may not have been illegal, but is that really the point? Not at all. What he did was coercive, at least to a young woman who held him in high esteem after his years of talking about relationships and romance and how women should be treated. For many women—particularly for the large number of us who have experienced sexual violence before—the threat of violence is often looming, particularly when you’re with a man who won’t stop placing your hand on his penis, or sticking his fingers in your mouth even after you ask him politely to stop.

So yes, Ansari was wrong, and frankly, we know—from those years he’s spent talking and writing about the subject—that he knew better. He’s talked explicitly before about mixed signals and how they don’t equal a “yes”, so we know that he had the tools to realize that Grace was uncomfortable and to stop what he was doing. He chose not to. That may not be sexual assault in the purest of legal terms, but it’s gross, boorish, and potentially coercive.

When TV host Ashleigh Banfield slammed Aziz Ansari’s accuser. Image from CNN.

Second: Should Grace have acted differently? This question is also frustrating, and somewhat pointless, but let’s address it anyway. It’s true, as Bari Weiss pointed out in her New York Times piece, that in such a situation, a woman can leave, but we can’t know what Grace was feeling. Perhaps she was in shock. Perhaps she froze. Perhaps Ansari is stronger than he looks on TV. In retrospect, it doesn’t matter—she didn’t leave at first, and Ansari did behave badly.

But, that shouldn’t preclude this from being a teachable moment, and from us saying, without shame, that it isn’t wrong to teach young women that, in those situations, they can walk away. They can shout, they can scream, they can stab his goddamn hand with a fork, and they can call a taxi and go home…but if they don’t, that doesn’t make them lesser, or bad, or in the wrong. If they want to believe the best in a person and therefore hold out hope that their date will change course, if they consented briefly then withdrew that consent—or even if they had been hoping for just a wind-down, and not a full stop—the shitty behavior of men still isn’t their fault.

And finally: Was Grace wrong to “out” Ansari to the media? This, I think, is what Ashleigh Banfield and Katie Roiphe and Bari Weiss and countless men on Twitter are really angry about, or afraid of. And it’s possibly the only question amongst these that I believe is worthy of a bigger debate. It’s a question of strategy and tactics, not of what’s right, and those topics should always be up for discussion.

I’ll admit, when I first heard about the Babe piece, which included Grace’s thoughtful morning-after text message to Ansari and his apology, I was surprised that she then chose to out him publicly. But then, reading it in all its sordid detail, I understood why: He’s built a career out of being the “nice guy,” the one who understands women, and he’s profited off that. He appeared on television in support of the #MeToo movement while privately pushing the boundaries of consent. I don’t necessarily agree with her choice, nor is it necessarily the one I would have made in this case, but I support her.

image from Time

Keep in mind that Grace didn’t call for a boycott of Ansari’s work. She didn’t ask Netflix to drop him, nor did she seek to “ruin his life,” as some of the “bad feminists” are wont to claim. In fact, I haven’t seen any real calls for Ansari’s career to end, and I’m glad; I don’t think it should. Rather, I hope he learns from this incident, and comes back stronger, and ready to live what he’s been preaching. It’s possible; in fact, it’s a tenet of transformative justice, something to which we should strive.

And therein lies the rub. Instead of shouting at one another, we should be talking openly about what we hope to achieve when we out men who have behaved with a sense of entitlement to our bodies. Are we seeking their apologies? Their reform? Do we believe that they can be reformed? These questions matter, and though they’ll differ from one situation to the next (I, for one, don’t think Harvey Weinstein is redeemable and do think he can go straight to hell), it’s important that we ask them each time. In the absence of due process in the legal context, we must at least think about process: How can we become better respecting others’ boundaries, about asking for what we want, and about learning not to behave with disappointment when we don’t get it? And how can we move toward a model of justice, rather than one of retribution?

These are all hard questions that will take real dialogue (and a little bit of humility on the part of each of us) to achieve, but I believe that we can get there if we try.

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