STAFF BLOG: YOU DON'T NEED TO BE A MIND READER. ALL YOU HAVE TO DO IS ASK.
BY LUCY WHYTE, COMMUNICATIONS INTERN AT THE EQUALITY INSTITUTE
In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the rise of the #MeToo movement, the widespread prevalence of sexual harassment and assault has been brought to the forefront of the public eye. Despite the issues associated with #MeToo including that the burden of speaking out against sexual assault continues to lie with the survivors, it marked an important turning point in the movement to end the harmful culture of silence.
It was in this context that Babe.com published a story detailing a sexual encounter between self-proclaimed feminist writer and actor Aziz Ansari, and 23-year-old photographer known only as Grace, who described her discomfort with Ansari’s aggressive advances for sex. It was a story unlike most others coming out of the #MeToo movement in that it did not involve a clear-cut story of an abuse of power and sexual assault, but subtler elements of a woman’s growing sense of discomfort, a man’s persistence crossing into coercion, and the slipperiness of consent. It was messy. It was confusing. And it was nauseatingly relatable.
Grace’s story has pushed #MeToo into unchartered territory in its depiction of a coercive sexual experience that did not necessarily fit into the dichotomy of rape/not rape, and the media simply couldn’t cope with it. The New York Times published an article by Bari Weiss titled, “Aziz Ansari is Guilty. Of Not Being a Mind Reader”. Yes, you read that correctly. According to Weiss:
“If you are hanging out naked with a man, it’s safe to assume he is going to try to have sex with you…If he pressures you to do something you don’t want to do, use a four-letter word, stand up on your two legs and walk out his door.”
And the gloriously ignorant opinions did not stop there, with Caitlin Flanagan at The Atlantic claiming:
“Apparently there is a whole country full of young women who don’t know how to call a cab, and who have spent a lot of time picking out pretty outfits for dates they hoped would be nights to remember. They’re angry and temporarily powerful, and last night they destroyed a man who didn’t deserve it.”
Just wow. There’s so much to unpack here and you may want to take a moment for the rage to die down before we dive in.
To start, it’s 2018 and we’re still victim blaming?! Apparently Grace should have known that if you’re naked and you’re with a man, you should just accept the fact that he’s going to try and have sex with you whether you want it or not, and if you don’t leave on your own accord then it’s your own fault. And let’s not take into account that consent can be given and taken away because, you know, it’s your body and you can change your mind whenever you want, or that leaving a situation in which your personal boundaries are not being respected can be incredibly frightening and potentially dangerous.
The trope of the irresponsible, (probably) drunk woman who can’t even look out for her own personal safety and, as a result, shouldn’t be surprised to have been coerced, assaulted or raped, is just so wrong I can’t even believe that I have to type these words. The many, many problems with this representation of women have been pointed out SO MANY TIMES, and still, victim blaming continues to be a feature in mainstream media portrayals of sexual encounters. This is a testament to the glaring need for #MeToo if only for men to finally start listening to sexual experiences from the woman’s perspective and grasp the insidiousness of coercion in sex.
Also, I’m pretty sure absolutely no-one expects Ansari, or anyone else for that matter, to be a mind reader. That’s actually why we have the concept of affirmative and enthusiastic consent because simply assuming that your sexual partner wants to have sex as much as you do is not good enough. Excusing Ansari’s behaviour on the basis of his mind reading abilities, or lack thereof, just serves to perpetuate the myth of the “grey area” in non-consensual sex and absolves him of any responsibility for his actions. Let’s be clear here, there is no grey area of consent. Consent must be affirmative and enthusiastic, otherwise stop what you’re doing because it ain’t consensual.
But most importantly, sex does not have to constitute sexual assault or rape to be problematic and worthy of our attention. For all the #MeToo campaign has done for chipping away at the culture that has allowed sexual harassment and assault to thrive in the workplace and beyond, we haven’t even dipped our toes into the quagmire comprising all the issues with a society that prioritises male sexual pleasure while at the same time sexually objectifying women. I mean, we are living in a world where online pornography overwhelmingly depicts violence against women. If this is where teenage boys (and girls) are forming their attitudes towards what is acceptable in sex then we need to talk about what constitutes consent, instead of shutting down women who are brave enough to come forward and speak about their experiences.
In their slandering critique of Grace, The New York Times and The Atlantic completely ignored the power imbalance between a young, unknown woman and an older, famous male, the possibly scary and confusing experience of being coerced into performing sexual acts, and the cultural backdrop of centuries of misogyny that have treated coercion in sex as acceptable or even sexy.
We need to start talking about the pervasive gender power imbalance that benefits men and puts women in a spot where they are uncomfortable or scared to say no. It’s disappointing that the media not only missed an opportunity to start the conversation through Grace and her story but actually contributed to the harmful culture of male sexual entitlement and victim blaming that we try so hard to change. It’s an uncomfortable topic because it has the potential to place absolutely anyone in a position where they must face the prospect that they have acted in a coercive way during sex, but it’s one we must face if we want to break down the norms that have let coercive behaviour flourish for so long in the bedroom.
 Bridges, A, Wosnitzer, R, Scharrer, E, Sun, C & Liberman, R 2010, ‘Aggression and Sexual Behaviour in Best-Selling Pornography Videos: A Content Analysis Update’, Violence Against Women, 16(1), 1065-1085.