As of Saturday night, the public has thought way more about Aziz Ansari’s sex life than most of us ever cared to. Has the #MeToo movement finally overreached? Is Aziz Ansari, a self-anointed millennial relationship expert, just bad at sex? Or are we seeing an inevitable clash between the ideals of rah-rah sex positivity feminism and the realities of a world shaped less by lady magazine cover lines and more by outdated gender norms, by sex education dictated by pornography?
Babe.com’s 3,000 words on a terminated date between a 23-year-old photographer and the Master of None star felt excessive, and at times lurid, as though the publication behind the piece had conflated journalistic seriousness and length. We now know how Ansari kisses, how he moves his hands, his speech patterns when he wants to have sex, what kind of wine he prefers. At The Atlantic, Caitlin Flanagan, guns blazing, condemned the piece as “revenge porn” published with the intent of humiliating its subject. People have a right to privacy, she argued, and the anonymously sourced piece violated that.
Many critics of the piece’s publication point out that aspects of the Ansari story differ from others in the unfortunate pantheon of industry gods felled by harassment claims. In The New York Times, Bari Weiss concluded that Ansari was guilty of not being a mind reader. It’s “the worst thing to happen to the #MeToo movement” since it started last year, Weiss argues. (Besides all of the sexual abuse, I’d venture.)
Weiss is correct that the woman’s anonymous story doesn’t include a verbal “no” that was ignored; in fact, the woman kept returning to the sexual encounter even after she was pretty sure she wasn’t happy with how it was going and when she finally did say “no,” Ansari complied, they put on their clothes, and watched Seinfeld.
Unlike other cases roped into the sexual harassment reckoning, Ansari hadn’t pushed the woman to perform sex acts in exchange for professional advancement, or threatened her career if she didn’t comply with his requests. And unlike, say, Brett Ratner, Ansari didn’t deny any parts of the story, and apologized both at the time and now.
Publicly, professional and amateur opinion-havers seem to have decided that we’ve finally reached the breaking point of #MeToo that columnists have been warning about for months. Privately, friends and acquaintances who work in the comedy and entertainment spaces have confessed to me that they’re leery of the Ansari story’s role in the #MeToo conversation. I tweeted about my hesitance to see this as a clear-cut case of abuse, and a long, widely varying set of opinions ensued, some thoughtful and in agreement, many thoughtful and in disagreement.
Lost in the conversation about newsworthiness and privacy, even beyond the conclusion that Ansari behaved hypocritically, is an uncomfortable truth about young people, sexuality, and consent. Weiss danced with it when she asserted at the end of her piece that women needed to be braver, and that men need to stop pursuing sex like they’re porn stars. But Weiss doesn’t get at the why. And until we understand the why, young women like “Grace” and young-ish men like Ansari will have grey-area-to-outright coercive sexual encounters that leave nobody satisfied.
In the last decade or so, feminism has come to mean whatever its self-designated say it means. I was in college when Sex and the City’s finale aired, and my friends and I, in that stupid way almost all 20-year-olds are stupid, used to repeat the Charlotte York refrain “I choose my choice!” to each other before making decisions we knew in advance were irresponsible. Re-watching the show as a student loan-paying adult, I realized that line wasn’t supposed to be a cool thing badass chicks who don’t give a fuck say to each other. It was intended to be biting commentary on how when everything is feminist, nothing is. When feminism just means feeling good about yourself all the time, it’s a marketing slogan, not a viable philosophy.
Years later, my first writing job was at a feminist-leaning website, where I witnessed the “fourth wave” take its fuzzy shape around softer issues like media representation and sex positivity, and harder issues like opposition to sexual harassment and campus rape. Sex was either something to be celebrated as victorious and empowering or reductive and victimizing. There wasn’t much language for what happened in the middle, for “bad” sex, for sex that didn’t leave a person feeling good about herself, for sex that felt mildly coercive but didn’t cross the line.
Back in 2007, Cosmopolitan tried to name it, calling sex that isn’t fully consensual or exactly non-consensual “grey rape.” But including the word “rape” in a description of something that isn’t actually rape, unsurprisingly, didn’t take off. And most of the examples used in the piece involve sex that is clearly non-consensual, sex that continues after a verbal “no” or a physical struggle.
Rereading Cosmo’s piece now, it seems like we’re having the same conversation a decade later, with a different cast of characters with different technology at their disposal. Many of the women experiencing “grey rape” were in college or their early twenties, the average Cosmo reader. They want to have the all-caps GREAT SEX the magazine promises, but that GREAT SEX requires them to gloss over the complexity of what many young women want from sex. The piece quoted a psychotherapist named Robi Ludwig, who said, “Women’s self-esteem at that age is tied into how they are experienced by men, and part of dealing with that social anxiety is to drink it away or drug it away. They say to themselves that it’ll work out okay, with some thinking that maybe they’ll end up in a relationship.”
I was once a woman in her early twenties; I remember how that feels. I remember how, even though I was raised by parents who taught me to tell people exactly what I want and what I will not tolerate—women, men, bosses, strangers who look at me funny—there was a particular resistance in my mind when it came to telling men that they couldn’t have what they wanted from me. Sometimes women have sex with men just because they don’t want to make it awkward. The quote from the Cosmo piece—“Women’s self-esteem at that age is tied to how they are experienced by men”—is diametrically opposed to the concept of being self-possessed enough to disappoint men by turning them down.
Some young women, particularly millennial young women towed through their teens by internet feminism, reach young adulthood knowing how to say “yes” but not knowing how to come out and say “no.” NO isn’t as fun, fearless, female as YES. You’d never see NO on the cover of Cosmo unless it was followed by the words “MORE DRAMA.”
There’s also a fear of physical retaliation, the seed of panic that sits in the pit of a woman’s stomach when an encounter turns from fulfilling to frightening. The likelihood that Ansari would have physically retaliated against his anonymous accuser is small; ostensibly women turn men down for sex all the time without experiencing physical consequences. But the two had just met; they barely knew each other. How could she have known what kind of guy he was? Women feel this fear all the time when things start to sour. We want them to go well, we go into them hoping they will. Sometimes they don’t. I’ve never seen a mainstream women’s publication publish 10 super hot tips on how to leave a date with a guy who you definitely don’t want to sleep with.
As women like Grace were raised on the promise that they will one day love liberated sex, men Ansari’s age were raised on the worst possible place to learn about sex: the internet. Ansari’s anonymous accuser compared his actions to that of a “horny” teenager who didn’t know what he was doing, like somebody who learned about how to have sex from watching pornography. Men born after 1986 or so, men now in their thirties, have likely had access to the internet and its commensurate trove of porn since they were tweens. (That’s not to say that all pornography is bad in all circumstances, but even the most sex-positive among us can probably agree that it’s a bad thing for young people to watch during their sexually formative years.) There’s bound to be a clash between women raised to believe sex is empowering for women and men who spent their teen years jerking off to sex that’s frequently degrading to women.
And even without porn raising boys to believe that human breasts look like two half-globes perched high beneath tight spray-tanned pectoral skin, young men and women are still, to an extent, raised to believe that it is a woman’s job to be a sexual gatekeeper and a man’s job to argue his way into sex. Some men are raised with the fucked-up notion that nonverbal cues are not a hard “no”; some women are raised with the fucked-up notion that they should give nonverbal cues when they want to have sex, but don’t want the man they’re about to have sex with to think they’re easy.
If nothing else, the Ansari piece exposed that there is no consensus on what “consensual” sex is. How can we possibly accuse anybody of being deliberate, ill-intended predators based on definitions which large swaths of the population dispute? How can we accuse a young woman of being a weak whiner if we don’t understand the mechanisms that went into her decision making?
What consent looks like, why it’s shaped the way it is now, who is giving it and who is deliberately misreading it should be pretty basic tenets of what sex is. It’s clear, however, that not all young people are on the same page about what nonverbal cues mean, of what sex means, of what an invitation to an apartment means, what a predator is. It’s not a simple discussion. But if we don’t have it now, in 10 years some writer, spurred by a sex scandal involving a celebrity, will go back to an old article she remembers reading in her early twenties, back in 2018. She’ll read it again and shake her head in disbelief that after all that, we’ve still made so little progress.