The issue with being a young writer and journalist is that quite often, you can’t tell your editor ‘No’, or fight for certain things, whether it’s the clarity in your writing, the point in your statements, and of course – the ever-contentious headline.
In 2018, I wrote for The Express Tribune about Aziz Ansari’s encounter with Grace, an anonymous woman who accused the comedian of sexually pressuring her on a date. The issue was a gray area because the encounter started initially consensual, and while Grace appeared to consent to her problematic interaction with Ansari, she still did it under duress.
I wrote for The Express Tribune, highlighting how the sexualization of women and the fact we are viewed as less than human makes it difficult for men to respect and be intimate with us at the same time.
While my article was changed to shift the focus on the agency of women, I still think men struggle with being respectful and intimate with us, and over-sexualize the women they go on dates with, are friends with, or with whom they are talking. While sex is nothing to be ashamed of, it’s possible to value women without seeing them as “sites of sexual satisfaction for men.”
I’m not sure I even agree with what I wrote here anymore, or even the version of my article that was eventually published – which shifted blame from Aziz. (At the time, I didn’t want it, but it was a middle-ground in a piece I was afraid that might totally exonerate Aziz from blame and responsibility.) What I do know is that as the #MeToo movement enters its third year, and even liberal favorites like Joe Biden have been accused of rape, women and men are still sizing each other up in sexual relations, and women and girls are confronting what it means to have consensual sexual interactions in this day and age, we still have a long way to go.
In the wake of the #MeToo movement, we have another star to add to the universal blacklist of men who have been accused of sexually assaulting or raping women: Aziz Ansari. It’s a huge disappointment, not only to South Asians excited by positive representation in media or fans of Aziz’s comedy, but feminists and advocates of the #MeToo movement.
Aziz counted himself among the people supporting women to tell their stories without fear of being judged or condemned, wearing a Time’s Up pin when he accepted a Golden Globe for his 2017 series, Master of None.
Ironically, it was the sight of the pin which spurred his accuser to break her silence.
But something’s different when you read the story of “Grace” (not her real name), who connected with Aziz at an Emmy’s afterparty because they were using the same vintage film camera. Grace, who had a lobster dinner with him, psyched she was going out with a star comedian, a rare and interesting opportunity that doesn’t visit girls in lifetimes. Grace, who went to Aziz’s apartment and then left on an Uber, crying all the way home.
What makes Grace’s story different from conventional narratives of sexual assault—whether it’s men violencing women after repeatedly being told to stop, sexually harassing them in professional settings, or manipulating and coercing them over a long period of time while they inhabit positions of power—is that she met Ansari of her own free volition, on a date, and they met as equals.
But that is precisely what makes the reality of sexual assault—and the way men practice and perceive sex—so pernicious. It doesn’t have to be a clear-cut sexual attack to constitute not only a violation of the woman’s body—but her mind. At stake is something deeper than the physical body and all its joys and pain, but something that can’t be physically touched: the hope of intimacy, connection and understanding.
Throughout the encounter, Grace struggled to say ‘no’. While she expressed she was uncomfortable and wanted to stop, she still felt pressured into doing something she didn’t want to do. And she did it.
Throughout the encounter, Aziz failed to see that Grace was uncomfortable, and wanted to escape the interaction. He failed to stop even when she made it clear she wasn’t enjoying it.
This story—and many others like it, whether they’ve happened to us, our friends or people we know and don’t know—isn’t just the failure of individuals. It’s the failure of the culture.
It’s the failure of a culture where hyper-sexuality dictates the relations between men and women, where women are expected to go on as if everything is normal because saying ‘no’ would be abnormal.
It’s the failure of a culture where women are not seen as sentient human beings worthy of respect, conversation and friendship, but sites of sexual satisfaction for men.
And it’s the failure of a culture where men aren’t taught to be receptive to women’s emotional cues, where emotion and intimacy have been torn away from sex because porn dominates the sexual imagination. A date isn’t a chance to get to know someone you like, but an invitation to fuck them. And fucking isn’t always the same as sex.
But it isn’t only the failure of American culture. Aziz is a brown man, who grew up and lives in America. Aziz is a Muslim man, who was probably affected by the conservatism surrounding sexuality rampant in South Asian communities and culture.
While the public isn’t familiar with Aziz’s entire sexual history, it’s fair to assume that these dimensions of religion, community and identity affected his sexual growth, just as they do for all Muslim-American youth in the US.
Without an outlet to express himself sexually—where sex and even discussion of it becomes taboo—Ansari probably suffered like all of us did. And he discovered his sexuality in the dark.
The added factor of an American society desexualizing South Asian men, emasculating them in the shadow of the wholesome white American male, probably led Ansari to feel like he had to overcompensate to ‘prove’ his sexual mettle.
The facts are still hazy, and we haven’t heard Aziz’s side of the story, only that he was “surprised and concerned” when the alleged victim first told him she felt uncomfortable the day after.
Others have argued that this exposé will damage the #MeToo movement simply because Aziz wasn’t in a position of institutional power over Grace, and a degree of consent was involved in their relations.
But #MeToo is a trend more powerful than just one story or case. Whether Grace’s story with Aziz even qualifies for the hashtag is something the culture will decide.
After all, it was Aziz’s Time’s Up pin that incensed Grace to tell her story, making her angry enough to inform the public that he may be ‘woke’ in his public beliefs, but perhaps not as much in his private actions.
It’s a startling reminder that even the men with the best intentions act on their worst impulses. The old adage during the feminist movement rings true here—“The personal is political.” And as James Baldwin, a gay black man and critic of American race relations as well as sexuality, noted, the challenge in America for all men is to “achieve [a] viable, organic connection between his public stance and his private life.”
Until the personal becomes political, and until we implement our ideas and ethics into our actions, more stories like this will emerge and we will be left throwing up our hands.
Time’s up doesn’t just mean that women hold men to account, though that is certainly part of it. It means that men change their behavior to respect women as human beings, and fulfill their own humanity in the process.