Like everyone else, the burning question on my mind going into Aziz Ansari's new Netflix special, Right Now, was whether or not he would address the Babe.net article.
He did––barely a minute into his set, in fact. Right off the bat, Aziz Ansari is more grounded, less hyper, so clearly transformed from the Aziz Ansari of yesteryear. The entirety of his monologue on the topic can be read here, but this was the most important part:
"There's times I've felt scared. There's times I've felt humiliated. There's times I've felt embarrassed. And ultimately, I just felt terrible that this person felt this way. And after a year or so, I just hope it was a step forward...I always think about a conversation I had with one of my friends where he was like, 'You know what, man? That whole thing made me think about every date I've ever been on.' And I thought, Wow. Well, that's pretty incredible. It's made not just me but other people be more thoughtful, and that's a good thing."
On his last point, Ansari was right. In many ways, the Babe.net article felt like a watershed moment in a movement already chock full of watershed moments. Up until that point, the #MeToo movement (at least in my limited perception as a straight, white dude) had been about speaking truth to power, exposing the many abuses that women faced at the hands of affluent men who felt they could get away with anything. Yes, the movement led many men to introspection, but for a lot of us, especially the "woke" ones, there was also a certain degree of detachment.
The perpetrators of the most prominent #MeToo cases were men like Harvey Weinstein: true predators who intentionally wielded their substantial power and social clout to target and rape women. Even someone like Louis C.K., who wasn't outright raping or physically assaulting women, displayed consistent patterns of using his status to target and sexually harass women around him.
None of that applied to me. I already respected women in the first place. I had been in a committed relationship for nearly seven years, and I was 100% positive that I had never used my status (I'm another writer in Brooklyn; what status do I even have?) to pressure anyone into doing anything sexually that they didn't want to do. Of course I'd strive to empower the women around me. Of course I'd call out sexual abuse if I saw it in the workplace. Of course I supported the #MeToo movement wholeheartedly. But #MeToo wasn't about me.
Then the Babe.net article about Aziz Ansari came out. The piece followed "Grace," a girl who went on a date with the comedian after a chance encounter. Grace described how they went back to Ansari's place after dinner, he made it clear that he wanted to have sex, and she spurned his advances multiple times. They did engage in sexual contact (not sex, but he kept attempting), during which Grace signaled that she felt uncomfortable.
This excerpt from the article stood out to me:
"Most of my discomfort was expressed in me pulling away and mumbling. I know that my hand stopped moving at some points," she said. "I stopped moving my lips and turned cold."
Whether Ansari didn't notice Grace's reticence or knowingly ignored it is impossible for her to say. "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."
Ultimately, Grace texted Ansari after the date, telling him that the encounter made her uncomfortable. Ansari apologized to her directly and later clarified in a public statement, "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."
Journalistic issues with Babe.net aside, the whole situation sat poorly with me. Unlike all the other publicized #MeToo stories—wherein I could safely say that the perpetrator was, indeed, a remorseless, sexist predator who should never work again ("How is Max Landis even the same species as me?")—Ansari's case felt murkier.
I immediately recognized his behavior as uncouth. He was selfish and gross. If a friend came to me and told me that was how her date went down, I'd say something like, "That guy sounds like a massive a**hole, hope you never see him again." But I probably wouldn't say, "He sexually assaulted you, put him on blast."
Part of my hesitation came down to Grace's description that most of her cues were nonverbal. As a person on the high-end of the autism spectrum, nonverbal cues are a pain point for me in general––I have a very hard time reading and interpreting them, and I always ask people close to me to verbalize explicitly what they want from me, sexually or otherwise.
My point in bringing this up is that while nonverbal cues are practically imperceptible to me, they aren't necessarily natural to everyone else, either. Through that reasoning, it was easy for me to imagine a scenario wherein Ansari genuinely read the sexual encounter as fully consensual and Grace genuinely tried to stop it through nonverbal cues. In that situation, Ansari would be in the wrong, but it would still be hard for me to consider him a sexual predator, as opposed to it just being a really bad date.
But the situation at hand was even more complicated. Grace did verbally tell Ansari that she didn't want to have sex, and he still persisted in trying to move their encounter in that direction. I had the distinct thought that if it had been me in Ansari's shoes, I definitely would have stopped at that point, even if I hadn't picked up any of the nonverbal cues.
At the same time, I didn't understand why Grace wouldn't just leave his apartment––even in her recounting of the experience, she never seemed to feel unsafe. She was also in an entirely different industry, so there wasn't the same subtextual pressure that might have existed if she had been a budding stand-up comedian. Obviously, no one has the right to judge whether or not another person should feel unsafe in a given situation, but I wanted to fully empathize with the story, and I felt that my lack of understanding was preventing me from connecting. I couldn't wrap my mind around what kept her there, but I wanted to.
So I asked my girlfriend what her thoughts on the situation were, and she told me that she fully understood what Grace had felt. And I read articles on the topic written by women, most of whom fully understood what Grace had felt. Moreover, almost every other woman to whom I brought the subject up had a similar take––encounters like the one between Ansari and Grace are ridiculously common, and nobody really knows if it's "sexual assault" or not. But, at the very least, it's not a good thing.
So maybe it's not useful to get bogged down in technicalities. Shouldn't we be holding our sexual encounters to a higher standard than "not technically sexual assault?" If so many women are leaving sexual encounters with men feeling like they were, at the very least, deeply uncomfortable, that means we need to do a whole lot better. Doesn't it?
Grace's story brought to light a deep rift in the way men and women are socially conditioned to communicate, especially in sexual scenarios. Men are taught to be aggressive. Women are taught to be demure and non-confrontational. This means that in uncomfortable sexual situations, a lot of women will respond physically through subtle physical cues to avoid making a scene, instead of shouting "NO" or outright leaving––and a lot of men aren't conditioned to pick up on those cues.
Again, this means we need to do better. Our sexual encounters should not be defined by whether or not the other person literally ran away.
And sure, it would be great if every woman felt comfortable enough to outright say "NO" when they didn't want things to move further, but women are also put in very precarious situations should men respond with violence––and the fact that most men would never react like that doesn't change the fact that some men do, and women don't know which until it's too late.
In the end, it doesn't matter if Aziz Ansari did or didn't technically sexually assault Grace. What matters is that she left the date crying because she felt violated and didn't feel comfortable enough to express that in the moment.
What's important is that men who feel uncomfortable with the story––especially the "woke" ones––take the opportunity to confront their own dating experiences, come to terms with how their own behavior might have made someone else feel that way, and hopefully use the reflection to grow into a better person.
Incidentally, this seems like exactly what Aziz Ansari did. The frenetic, hyperactive Aziz Ansari who played Tom Haverford in Parks and Recreations is no more. While he still goofs on his cousin Harris after nearly a decade, his main point is deconstructing how jokes evolve, mature, and rarely age well with time. Aside from that, Ansari performs a sober set exploring the mortality of parents and the subtle racism that pervades modern, liberal white culture. Finally, Ansari concludes:
"That old Aziz who said, 'Oh, treat yo' self,' whatever, he's dead. But I'm glad, 'cause that guy was always looking forward to whatever was next: 'Oh, am I gonna do another tour? Am I gonna do another season of the show?' I don't think that way anymore. 'Cause I've realized it's all ephemeral. All that stuff, it can just go away like this. [Snaps fingers.] And all we really have is the moment we're in and the people we're with."
It's not the world's most hilarious stand-up special, but it isn't supposed to be. Right Now is Aziz Ansari's reckoning with himself.
Perhaps, if we truly want to be the "good guys" we claim to be, we should all aim to do the same.