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Aziz Ansari and the Reductive Ways We Talk About Consent

After sexual misconduct allegations emerged against the actor, the Internet erupted in a debate over "mixed messages." But such arguments miss the larger question: Is it time to re-envision the way we conceive of consent?

Sirin Kale

Sirin Kale

Photo by Eric Charbonneau 

On Saturday, sexual misconduct allegations emerged against Master of None co-creator and actor Aziz Ansari: A 23-year-old photographer, pseudonymously referred to as "Grace," told Babe that Ansari had coerced her into sexual activity.

The allegations against Ansari—one of the most prominent figures in the comedy world—have made headlines around the world. A fierce (and depressingly familiar) debate has raged online about whether his behavior constitutes sexual assault, or simply a bad date.

Ansari met Grace at a 2017 Emmy after-party, and the two subsequently began messaging. After dinner at a Manhattan restaurant, they returned to his nearby apartment. At this point, Grace alleges that the comedian began pressuring her into a range of sexual activities, including oral sex. She claims that Ansari pushed her hand towards his penis repeatedly, although she moved her hand away each time.

“I know I was physically giving off cues that I wasn’t interested. I don’t think that was noticed at all, or if it was, it was ignored,” she told Babe. “Most of my discomfort was expressed in me pulling away and mumbling. I know that my hand stopped moving at some points.”

After she explicitly articulated that she didn’t want to have sex, Grace says that Ansari poured her a glass of wine. “I said, ‘Next time.’ And he goes, ‘Oh, you mean second date?’ and I go, ‘Oh, yeah, sure,’ and he goes, ‘Well, if I poured you another glass of wine now, would it count as our second date?’”

Grace then told Ansari that she doesn’t want to feel forced into having sex. Initially, he appeared to respect her decision but then allegedly pressured her into performing oral sex on him. According to Grace, this pattern—of her rejecting his sexual overtures and then feeling obliged to comply in the face of relentless pressure—continued for much of the evening.

She finally persuaded him to call her a cab and “cried the whole ride home. At that point I felt violated. That last hour was so out of my hand."

In a statement Ansari confirmed that he had met a sexual encounter with Grace, but one that "by all indications was completely consensual." He added: "The next day, I got a text from her saying that although 'it may have seemed okay,' upon further reflection, she felt uncomfortable. It was true that everything did seem okay to me, so when I heard that it was not the case for her, I was surprised and concerned. I took her words to heart and responded privately after taking the time to process what she had said.”

Aziz Ansari on the set of Master of None. Photo by Ali Goldstein

In a controversial piece on The Atlantic, writer Caitlin Flanagan argued: “Apparently there is a whole country full of young women who don’t know how to call a cab... They’re angry and temporarily powerful and last night they destroyed a man who didn’t deserve it." Another social media user said skeptically: “Someone said Aziz Ansari needs to lose his career... for going on a date with a chick who blew him twice but didn’t like the experience so she said she was sexually assaulted."

In part, the Ansari allegations have touched a nerve because—much like the viral New Yorker short story “Cat Person”—many women will find Grace's experience unnervingly relatable. Almost all heterosexual women will have, at some point in their lives, encountered a sexual partner who pressured them to engage in sexual activity. But should we classify such acts as a form of sexual assault? And are these binary definitions of sexual assault and not-sexual-assault even helpful?

“They’re unhelpful,” says Dr. Fiona Vera-Gray of the University of Durham. Vera-Gray has worked in the sexual violence sector for a decade as a researcher and as a UK government advisor. “Categories of rape or not-rape are useful for legislation, policy, and research. But these categories don’t represent our lived experiences.”

Instead, Vera-Gray argues that we need to reframe our understanding of consent in terms of sexual ethics. “How much are you respecting the fact that the other person has their own autonomy?” she asks. “Are you looking for reciprocity in your sexual encounters, as opposed to just thinking, Well, she didn’t say no?

Vera-Gray also emphasizes that many women in Grace's position would also consider the danger of an unwanted sexual advance turning into something much more unambiguously violent and non-consensual. “Women have to make this calculation about how to avoid escalation,” she says. “Because this encounter with a different man could very quickly turn into what would be seen to turn into, legally speaking, a form of sexual assault.”

Shutting down any man's sexual advances—let alone a wealthy and powerful celebrity like Ansari—can also feel incredibly difficult given that women are often socially conditioned to be deferential and compliant, Vera-Gray adds.

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Ultimately, she believes that the debate around the Ansari allegations can help catalyze positive change, specifically around heterosexual models of consent. “Heterosexuality often presents sex as something that’s done to women," she says. "But when you think about it, if what you’re doing isn’t being reciprocated—if someone’s not touching you back, if you’re having to move their hand to places—something’s not okay.

“Ansari’s behavior isn’t just about entitlement, but also comes out of a cultural backdrop that presents sex as something that’s done to women.”

However you regard the allegations against Ansari, it’s clear we’re moving towards a cultural moment in which conversations about consent and acceptable sexual conduct are becoming more prevalent—which can only be a good thing.

“We’re talking about the entire situation within which women exist and try and have some version of an equal life,” Dr. Vera-Gray says. “There are conversations that are happening now that I wish had been happening when I was a teenager.”