January 19, 2018
Content warning: Rape and Sexual Assault.
Over the past several months, the #MeToo movement has gone viral on social media as countless women have come forward to share their experiences with sexual assault and harassment. Originally coined by activist Tarana Burke, the phrase “me too” was re-popularized as a “way for users to tell their experience with sexual violence and stand in solidarity with other survivors” after The New Yorker published an article in which more than a dozen women accused film producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment, assault, and rape. Although the movement’s impact has been largely positive, as the conversation around sexual assault expands to include women’s experiences with a “gray area of violating, noncriminal sex” it’s important to acknowledge that patriarchal standards of consent perpetuate a dating and sex culture that can lead to trauma, regardless of whether it fits the legal definition of assault.
Last weekend, Babe published the story of Grace, a 22-year-old photographer who went on a date and then had a sexual encounter with Aziz Ansari, a self-proclaimed feminist known for his comedic social commentary on the complexities of modern dating. According to the account, after the pair returned to Ansari’s apartment, he quickly escalated the situation despite Grace’s verbal and nonverbal cues that she was uncomfortable. After Ansari continuously attempted to initiate sex, Grace stated, “I don’t want to feel forced because then I’ll hate you, and I’d rather not hate you.” Ansari’s coercive behavior continued until Grace eventually stood up and he called her a car.
Unlike the response to most other accounts of sexual assault that have recently been made public, the reaction to Grace’s allegations has been predominantly negative. In a New York Times op-ed about the encounter, Bari Weiss writes, “The insidious attempt by some women to criminalize awkward, gross, entitled sex takes women back to the days of smelling salts and fainting couches. That’s somewhere I, for one, don’t want to go.” An article published by The Atlantic goes even further in minimizing the harm inflicted by Ansari’s actions, alleging that “what [Grace] felt afterward—rejected yet another time, by yet another man—was regret. And what she and the writer who told her story created was 3,000 words of revenge porn. The clinical detail in which the story is told is intended not to validate her account as much as it is to hurt and humiliate Ansari. Together, the two women may have destroyed Ansari’s career, which is now the punishment for every kind of male sexual misconduct, from the grotesque to the disappointing.”
While Weiss, Caitlin Flanagan, and many other online commentators have moved to dismiss Grace’s account as a disservice to #MeToo that removes women of their agency, their arguments seem to miss the broader objective of the movement. Regardless of whether a woman is subjected to a “bad date” or forced into unwanted sexual activity, both experiences reflect the socialization of sexual violence and the assumption that women should accept harmful sexual situations as normal. Rather than shaming those who speak out, we should move to challenge damaging narratives that downplay men’s responsibility to respect their sexual partners and women’s autonomy to make their own decisions. Ansari’s actions may not reflect malicious conscious intent or a crime but they certainly illustrate the subversive patriartical teachings of all-powerful men and submissive women. He believed he had the authority, power, and right to question Grace, rather than accepting her as an equal human being. As Emma Gray writes, “if the #MeToo movement is going to amount to sustained culture change―rather than simply a weeding out of the worst actors in a broken system―we need to renegotiate the sexual narratives we’ve long accepted. And that involves having complicated conversations about sex that is violating but not criminal.” Grace’s encounter with Ansari is difficult to confront, in part, because it’s painful admitting how common and normalized such interactions are: “If we begin to call all sexual assault what it is, we will have to voluntarily admit more pain into our lives, pain that we have up to this point refused to let in the door.”
As the rising number of women, including Grace, who have been encouraged to speak out by the #MeToo movement indicate, the statistics about sexual assault are overwhelming. According to the Rape Abuse Incest National Network and Know Your IX:
- In the United States, someone is assaulted every 98 seconds.
- About 3% of men living in the U.S. have experienced an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime. For women, these numbers are even higher—one out of every six has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime.
- Rape and Sexual Assault disproportionately affect transgender women and communities of color:
- 21% of TGQN (transgender, genderqueer, nonconforming) college students have been sexually assaulted, compared to 18% of non-TGQN females, and 4% of non-TGQN males.
- Approximately 34% of multiracial women, 27% of Alaska Native/Native Indian women, 22% of black women and 14.6% of Hispanic women are survivors of sexual violence.
Despite these alarming numbers and the prevalence of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, depression, and drug and alcohol abuse among survivors, only 12% of college student survivors report assault to police. Even more alarming, only 7% of survivors of incapacitated sexual assault report to the police. Survivors cite several reasons for not reporting, including fear of retaliation; being unsure of whether what happened constitutes assault; and fear of being treated poorly by the criminal justice system. In order to end decades of victim-blaming and silencing, we must uplift survivors, regardless of whether their experiences conform to narrowly constructed perceptions of assault.
Although many of the responses to the allegations against Aziz Ansari have dismissed their relevance to the #MeToo movement, it’s important that we talk about Grace’s experience as an opportunity to educate and improve society’s understanding of consent and feminism when it comes to sex and all interactions. We must continue to call out the normalization of a misogynistic dating culture that enables further violence and challenge the fact “that women are socialized to be docile and accommodating and to put men’s desires before their own.” Once we do so, we will come closer to permanently eradicating all forms of sexual assault. We must continue to encourage enthusiastic, constant consent, empower survivors to share their stories, and stand in solidarity with them, no matter how difficult it may be.