A few months ago, The New Yorker published “Cat Person,” a touching, relatable account of a young woman who flirted with a slightly older man, ended up having bad consensual sex with him, and was left with the grimy feeling of shame for having wanted something good. The story went viral—it struck a nerve for many women who’d had similarly disappointing, hurtful romantic sexual experiences and felt that they had nobody to blame.
babe recently published a similar story: only in this case, instead of the subject being a bumbling, inexperienced man, it was feminist sweetheart Aziz Ansari. And unlike “Cat Person,” which received a positive response for its nuanced portrayal of relationships, “I Went On A Date With Aziz Ansari” created a storm.
It goes like this. Ansari and 23-year-old mystery woman (who we know as “Grace”) go on a date. It’s a little weird, but fine enough, until they’re back at his place, where very suddenly, the night takes a direction she’s not comfortable with. Grace spends the rest of night trying to deter his sexual advances. Ansari spends rest of night trying to get laid. She describes multiple attempts of trying to slow things down; she avoids answering sexual questions and does not respond to his physical cues.
Have we dropped the bar so low for men that we’re willing to let Aziz Ansari, of all people, get away with this level of callousness and lack of empathy simply because it doesn’t tick the right boxes to be called “assault”?
The central question being debated is this: Did Ansari commit sexual assault? And there are two main opinions. Either it was not assault, and Grace’s is simply telling a story of a really, really bad date, or it was sexual assault, and Aziz is both inappropriately aggressive and a fake ally.
This approach misses the point. When we ask whether it was sexual assault, the implicit question is really whether Grace should have spoken up at all, or if we’re being too harsh on Ansari. We’re working from the baseline assumption that Grace’s experience only deserves to be spoken about if it is assault.
That approach, applied to anyone, is dangerous at best. Applied to Ansari, it’s toxic. Here’s a man who has made a career of being a cool, progressive millennial. Those who love him love him for his bits on feminism: his Netflix show Master of None included an episode on sexual assault and harassment; he has co-written an academically researched book on dating; a healthy portion of his stand-up revolves around sexism.
We’re talking about an actor whose public facing image is based on an intricate understanding of sexism and the power structures around it. We’re talking about letting him off the hook because according to his statement following the story, “everything did seem okay.” The fact that he “didn’t see” the boundaries his partner was trying to set is concerning: if he’s spent so much time studying women & their interactions in intimate settings—which we know he has because it is his job—how can he not have seen Grace’s discomfort, which in her account was overt and palpable? It follows the expectations we have for people who claim to be experts in a particular field: How would we feel about a doctor who “didn’t know” antibiotics can’t treat viruses? Or an engineer who “forgot” about the order of operations? That they should know and do better.
When a version of this story was written about an awkward, bumbly, inexperienced man, like Robert in “Cat Person,” we had sympathy for the main character, Margot. We understood why she was upset, and we understood the damage that can be done to women—especially young women—through an experienced man’s inadvertently callous behaviour. When this story is written about a clueless mystery man, it’s a story about a bad date and bad sex.
But as the narrative applies here, I have to ask: Have we dropped the bar so low for men that we’re willing to let Aziz Ansari, of all people, get away with this level of callousness and lack of empathy simply because it doesn’t tick the right boxes to be called ‘assault’? Is it that unreasonable that Grace (and the rest of us) expect him to have the baseline courtesy his entire celebrity persona is built around?
It begs the question: when do we start demanding more from men than to just not assault women? When do we start demanding that men not only avoid criminal behaviour towards women but actually make an effort to treat us with empathy? If we cannot do that with Aziz Ansari, who preaches careful and empathetic behaviour towards women and all people, when can we ever expect to start?