“Aziz Ansari is guilty. Of not being a mind reader,” the New York Times declared this week. The Atlantic, spitefully announced Ansari to be “humiliated” and women “temporarily powerful” to a chorus of sceptical “hmmms”. The Pool recounted, along with women all over the world, our collective, consensual bad dates – the times we’d said “yes”, when really we meant “no”. Some commentators asked if babe.net’s now-infamous publication of an anonymous woman’s sexual encounter with the actor had tarnished the #MeToo movement. Jezebel proffered, succinctly, “Babe, what are you doing?”
If you’re not up to speed, babe.net published a piece entitled “I went on a date with Aziz Ansari. It turned out to be the worst night of my life” on Sunday, which was unsurprisingly controversial. The editorial – a lengthy, 3000-word account – depicted a date which began with dinner and ended with “Grace”, the 23-year-old interviewed by babe.net’s Katie Way, crying in a cab home. The detailed description of the sexual encounter in between illustrated Ansari’s ignorance – or, perhaps, careless disregard – towards the woman’s comfort and enjoyment, despite her saying she “didn’t want to feel forced”. She amounted the incident to allegations sexual assault against Ansari, or sexual coercion. Ansari later stated that he believed the encounter to be “completely consensual” and was “surprised and concerned” when he later learned that wasn’t the case.
The article was universally accepted to be very poor reporting – tabloid-like and salacious in execution – yet hours later, discussion was sparked and eventually caught fire. So far, the reactions have been much more illuminating than the piece itself.
Because, in its wake, the article has uncovered the blind spots that #MeToo couldn’t primarily address – the ones that, perhaps, we’ve been reluctant to see. From a more open and supportive discussion over consent, prompted by the Harvey Weinstein scandal, the conversation is organically evolving into something more – it’s delving into the in-betweens (albeit largely concentrating on heterosexual relationships). The sexual encounters that might be not be criminal – and it’s important not to conflate the two – but are still unequal. Male sexual entitlement. Nocturnal selfishness. Sex that serves men first. The times that hover right in the middle of our position as sexually liberated, empowered feminists, and the societal expectation that we are there to please men, because they said so. The sex you told your friend you “just let happen”, as perfectly depicted on Twitter by Ashely C. Ford this week. The time that Ansari repeatedly stuck his fingers in a woman’s mouth, when she’d told him she wasn’t enjoying it, or acted like he should be afforded a reward because he had the graciousness to go down on her. The temerity of “taking” you anally, despite not asking first. What’s the deal with that? Where’s the line? Why do so many men not give a shit whether we’re having a good time, and where did they learn that it doesn’t matter?
The conversation about bad, uncomfortable sex, usually confined to all-female WhatsApp groups, or nights in, or nights out – or shamefully buried away – is tiptoeing into public consciousness
What many commentators have found is that, with the new conversation we’re developing, the need for new language is pressing. This stuff has, until now, said Buzzfeed’s Alanna Bennett in a widely-shared thread, been kept so far under the radar that we don’t have the terms to label the behaviour, or the words to explain it. It’s why Cat Person, the viral short story about an consensual, unequal sexual encounter, from the New Yorker is still the most read piece on their site more than a month later.
With the force of #MeToo, the conversation about bad, uncomfortable sex, usually confined to all-female WhatsApp groups, or nights in, or nights out – or shamefully buried away – is tiptoeing into public consciousness. The gaping void between what men deem to be bad sex (typically, “I/she/we didn’t come”) and what women know is bad sex (feeling emotionally or physically pressured, feeling like your pleasure comes second, or, frequently, not at all) is being prodded and probed.
It’s not a comfortable discussion by any means – but in that sense, at least, it rings true because that’s precisely what many women have been feeling and unsuccessfully vocalising for years; that we’re not comfortable with this. Now, men are getting uncomfortable too – because they’re being forced to confront their own behaviour, and acknowledge the consequences of it.
In Jill Filipovic’s widely shared piece for the Guardian this week, she unearthed a sentiment that has stuck: "Note that men never have to say 'no means no' or even 'yes means yes.' They’re the ones posing the question, not answering it”. That’s the issue; that’s the baseline we’re all nodding along to. It’s showing up the broader issues that we are bursting to discuss, and to try and fix.
And in that sense, the Ansari/babe.net debacle is far from “tainting” the #MeToo movement, rather, it’s a force for good.