I stood on the cold corner in the heart of Crown Heights dusting crumbs off my five-year old’s chin. We were waiting for our Uber home to Bushwick, which usually takes about five minutes or so after school. His little friend from class ran up to him suddenly, threw her arms around him and kissed his cheek. He barely had enough time to wince. After the encounter, he wiped his cheek furiously and turned down his mouth.
“No, honey!” I said to her. “You have to ask if he wants to be hugged. And no kissing please.” She looked up at me and shyly apologized. I turned to my son, “And remember to let your friends know they have to ask you for hugs, OK?” He nodded. It felt like a lesson that was too mature for their tender minds, but I feel that way about a lot of things I have to tell my child.
I think we’re all starting to get the point that sexual assault is on a spectrum. Since last week, the topic of consent has been at the forefront of my mind. It's once again danced across trending headlines and caught fire on Twitter. I’m suddenly thrown back into every sexual harassment training I ever had at work. Back through every time I had to dodge unwelcome flirting and every date gone bad or sexual encounter that felt pressed. The other night my boyfriend and I were discussing the latest scandal, around Aziz Ansari, who was recently outed by a woman claiming that their date ended in non-consensual sexual activity. While we were talking about how disgusting it all is, he asked me if I’d ever experienced something like that — if I’d been in a similar situation where I felt pressured to have sex even when I didn’t want to. And I didn’t mean to, but I had to chuckle.
I replied without even hesitating. Of course I had, especially in high school and college. I walked through a jungle of boys and men who absolutely never took "no" for an answer. I remember wearing a fake diamond ring on my wedding finger just to deter unwanted attention. My friends and I once got pulled over by a police officer who just wanted our number. Every person alive has some story about being uncomfortable or feeling peer pressured into something they weren’t ready for. Women know this feeling all too well. Reading the woman’s account of her date with Aziz, I was reminded what dating in my early 20s was like. Sneaking an arm around me that I didn’t ask for, leaning away from a proposed kiss, having sex when I didn’t actually want to. Dating and not knowing how to communicate what you do and don’t want is just as awkward as dating and not knowing how to get a girl to like you. For me this awkward dating phase lasted until my mid-twenties. For Aziz, apparently he’s still there.
Still, I think it should be said that I don’t believe Aziz Ansari’s actions are comparable to the stories we have heard in the past few years regarding men like Harvey Weinstein or Bill Cosby or Woody Allen. He’s is just another poorly educated, sexually tone-deaf amateur with a cool job. But sexually tone-deaf amateurs can scar women, demolish self-esteems and create toxic environments. We make light of the awkward guy who tries to kiss his unwilling date because he can’t tell she doesn’t like him, but we forget how that isn’t always such an innocent situation. Pressuring women, or anyone, into being touched already makes you a pretty big creep and we need to have a conversation about it.
After reading the woman’s account of her date with Aziz and the apology that he issued, I thought about the relevance of stories like this. Did we all need to know how bad in bed Aziz Ansari is? Probably not. Did we need to inject our opinions into this woman’s story and weigh out what she should have done? The most valuable takeaway from this so-called scandal is that men and women need to get better at communicating. I do not feel that what Aziz did was rape. I can say that confidently because I have been raped. Getting up or inching away from my attacker was not an option. Checking my phone and calling myself an Uber was also not an option. As this situation illuminates, there is indeed a spectrum of sexual assault and that means we need to talk about it.
It seems pretty simple to ask and then wait for permission when it comes to touching other people. In those unsure moments, this could be the saving grace. Asking a woman if she wants to be touched doesn’t have to sound creepy or weird and it doesn’t have to bruise anyone’s ego. It’s a kind and mindful question to ask and it’s kind and mindful to also then hear the answer. I’m a child of the '90s. I was in high school during a time when women were still very often silenced and put in the corner. I can remember feeling like my wants and needs were pretty insignificant compared to the largeness of the men and boys in my life. So, I’m OK with embarrassing a few celebrities when the reality of the life they think they live comes back to smack them in the face. I’m OK with petty stories about dates going viral if it will shake up the norm enough to retrain the men who think a “no” is a “maybe.” Even if you don’t rape someone, pressuring someone into sex is an aggressive act and experiencing it (especially experiencing it from most of the men you encounter) is tiring, oppressive and hurtful.
No, Aziz is not a rapist in this case. I don’t think he should lose his entire career just because he acted like a prick to “Grace.” What he is is an example of a kind of guy that women encounter way too much. Some of us have the mind to walk away at the first sign of aggression. Some of us are still in high school and don’t know what to do. But the more we talk about what consent means and looks like and what willing and engaged sex looks like, the less we have to hear about date rape and sexual harassment at work and women who are prevented from success because they feel intimidated by men and men who have had their careers ruined because they thought she was playing hard to get.
(Photo: Ben Gabbe/Getty Images for The Moth)
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