Culture

Aziz Ansari, Consent And The Difference Between “Okay, Fine” And Yes

A coerced, frightened, resigned compliance does not equal consent.

This week, actor Aziz Ansari was accused of sexual assault by a young photographer, identified as Grace. In an interview with the website babe, Grace describes how she met the Master of None star at an after party and agreed to a date — and how, when they arrived back at his apartment, Ansari became sexually aggressive, ignoring her verbal and non-verbal signs of distress. The next day, he texted and she replied, telling him how she felt. He responded, “Clearly, I misread things in the moment and I’m truly sorry.”

It’s a graphic, harrowing read, made all the more disturbing by Ansari’s posturing as a Nice Guy, a Male Feminist – from the storyline on Master of None where he cut off Bobby Canavale’s Chef Jeff character for sexually harassing coworkers, to his recent appearance at the Golden Globes wearing a Time’s Up pin.

But the comments. Oh, the comments.

“She gave him two blow jobs – how is this assault?”

“She could have just left.”

“Why did she let him go down on her?”

“Women should stop sending mixed messages.”

The Ansari story hit especially close to home for me, because I’ve been there too.

The Difference Between “Okay, Fine” And Yes

The night before my birthday last year, I went on a second date. We had met the night before, eaten gelato and drank cheap wine, made out on the footpath where the street curved into black. We’d planned to go to a bar again, but I texted on the bus home from work — I was tired, so did he just want to come over?

“I don’t know if it sounds super suggestive, which isn’t what I’m going for,” I wrote — after eight hours on my feet, I didn’t have the energy for sex, and besides, I genuinely wanted to hang out.

“No, no, no! That’s fine!” he responded. “I have no intentions, it would just be nice to hang!”

We lay on my bed chatting, and then he kissed me, and I kissed him back. He immediately moved his hands south and I pushed them away, reminding him I wasn’t up for it. “Of course,” he said, and then did it again moments later, and again after that.

As the clock inched towards midnight, he became more aggressive. “I have something to give you for your birthday,” he growled. “I really want to go down on you.”

I told him I didn’t want that and could he just drop it, to which he said, “of course,” and minutes later he was a lustful animal again, and I became scared of this man twice my size. And this went on and it went on until, blinking back tears, I whispered, “okay, fine,” because it felt less threatening to just get it over with, and he did it, and I squeezed my eyes shut so tight it felt like they had dropped into the back of my brain and I was just floating in space, and when I pushed him away he snarled, “don’t you want to feel good?”

It flooded in at once. I said, “didn’t you hear me when I said I didn’t want to?” and he said “well yeah, but when you kiss me like that, I can’t help the way it makes me feel,” and I wondered what Bret and Jemaine would think about that. I told him I’d been assaulted before and he said whoa, whoa, he wasn’t one of those guys and besides, if he knew that then he wouldn’t have pushed so hard.

And then he left, but not before he asked for a hug and said “the ball’s in your court,” and I couldn’t believe he didn’t realise that I had already snapped my racquet in half, set the court on fire and the game was goddamn over.

I lay in my bed, numb, thirty minutes into being twenty-nine years old, and I thought, well, fuck.

The next day, I texted my sisters about what had happened, and one of them said, why didn’t you get him to leave? You shouldn’t invite guys round if you don’t want to sleep with them. You’re sending mixed messages, you’re not a victim. You need to accept responsibility for your actions.

And for a moment, I thought, was it my fault? Should I have kicked him out? Maybe I shouldn’t have kissed him, maybe I shouldn’t have let him into my bed. It was nice, right, because he cared about me getting off, not about himself. God, I’m such a bitch.

And then I remembered what I’d said when he was on his way over – that I wasn’t up for anything – and I remembered how I said it again, and again, and again. How he didn’t care, how he persisted until I broke.

Technically, Technically, Technically

In The Horizon of Desire, feminist author Laurie Penny writes:

I thought about consent, and why the very concept is so fearful to anyone invested in not looking under the carpet of modern morality. I thought about the number of situations I’ve encountered where no, technically, nobody committed a crime, and yes, technically, what happened was consensual. Maybe someone pushed a boundary to its breaking point. Maybe someone simply lay there and let something be done to them because they didn’t feel able, for whatever reason, to say no.

The “technically” matters — as Penny writes, her male friend pondered aloud, “technically, I don’t think I’ve raped anyone.” Technically, I don’t think Ansari would think he did. Technically, I don’t think my guy would think he did.

Technically, technically, technically.

It is not so much about making monsters out of all men as it is about illustrating the potential for all men to be monstrous, even the Nice Guys. Though these men may not be as calculated in their predation as someone like Weinstein, the phenomenon is equally damaging in that it ignores the complexities of power and circumstance, reducing consent to a monolith without consideration for the path there.

As we experience this major shift in public consciousness, the reckoning of men who have abused power or denied women theirs, we must too shift our understanding of consent as a non-negotiable. A coerced, frightened, resigned compliance is not the same as an enthusiastic yes — and while technically rape has not occurred, certainly the possible effect on the woman in question is indisputable:

“A coerced, frightened, resigned compliance is not the same as an enthusiastic yes”

Why wasn’t I listened to? Why was I ripped out of myself in this moment? What could I have done differently? Am I devaluing the experience of real victims by reacting this way? Maybe I should toughen up.

These are all ways in which we are gaslit, made to think that our reactions don’t matter, that our words never did because we went along with it, didn’t we, and we liked it, didn’t we, because otherwise we would have stopped it, wouldn’t we?

With the sexual liberation of women has come an expectation that a girl who is up for something is up for everything. We must either be nuns or sluts, with no room for anything in between — and men are entitled to our bodies either way, whether we are chaste until “I do” or performing for them, to be discarded the next morning.

Stories like Grace’s, and mine, and so many others, matter because they highlight how far we still have to go in understanding the nuances of consent.

We know that no means no, but do we know that a woman can say yes to one thing and no to another — that sex is not a zero-sum game?

Or that she can change her mind, and that doesn’t make her a tease or a bitch?

Do we know that it’s the Nice Guys too — the ones who are well-versed in Feminism 101, who’ll say sorry I misread, I never meant to hurt you, but technically I didn’t do anything wrong, because we had a good time, didn’t we?

Penny puts forth the idea of “consent culture”, writing:

It means expecting more — demanding more. It means treating one another as complex human beings with agency and desire, not just once, but continually. It means adjusting our ideas of dating and sexuality beyond the process of prying a grudging “yes” out of another human being… Sexuality should not be about arguing over what you can get away with and still call consensual.

We must do better. Time really is up.

Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen is a Melbourne-based writer, bookseller and the Marketing & Communications Manager of the Feminist Writers Festival.