Editor’s Note: Lucia Brawley is a co-founder of amp.it, a new digital media network for cosmopolitan youth, and an executive producer of two-time Interactive Emmy finalist, “Take Back the Mic: The World Cup of Hip Hop.” She has performed in theater, film and television in New York, Los Angeles and Europe and was a political organizer for the Obama presidential campaigns. She is also the author of the Consenting to Lead Facebook group and a graduate of Harvard with a master’s in acting from Yale. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two daughters. Follow Lucia on Twitter @luciabrawley. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
This week, an anonymous accuser’s account of regretting what appears to be consensual oral sex with actor and comedian Aziz Ansari exploded into the media, with the words “sexual misconduct” splashed across television news, the internet and newspapers.
The account, published Saturday on Babe.net, described a date the young woman (referred to by the pseudonym “Grace” on the site) had with Ansari last year. She wrote that during the evening he pressured her for sex, which she participated in, but he did not use force.
She concludes, at the end of the piece, “I believe that I was taken advantage of by Aziz.” Was she?
As a society, we must take this incident – appearing in the public consciousness during our #MeToo moment – as an opportunity to have some painful, nuanced conversations.
For example: Sexual assault and rape are never the victim’s fault. But we cannot indiscriminately start destroying careers over consensual sexual activity, which based on her account is what this case appears to be.
When we do that, we trivialize the brave victims who are coming forward about actual sex crimes.
After reading “Grace’s” account of her date with Ansari, a male friend said to me, “It seems the price of fame is that any date that goes south will now be posted on the net for public consumption, like a Yelp review.”
Consider that if men publicly shared details about bad sexual experiences with women, we would call them misogynist monsters.
So what happened here? Despite his pronouncements of allegiance to the #MeToo and #TimesUp causes, it sounds as though Ansari willfully ignored his partner’s nonverbal cues. However, it also sounds as if he ultimately did take no for an answer, and checked up on “Grace” with a text the next day. When she replied that she felt violated, he responded with an apology, saying he had understood their encounter to have been consensual … because it was.
By her account, however uncomfortable she told Babe the encounter had made her, she did not stop him or leave his apartment when, she says, he performed oral sex on her. Nor did she resist or leave his apartment when he urged her to perform oral sex on him; by her own description, she complied twice.
Ansari is not Harvey Weinstein. He’s not even on the same planet. We have to differentiate between the two if our #MeToo movement is to succeed. If we don’t, no one will take our valid claims seriously and things will get worse for women.
“Grace” was not working for Ansari or looking for a job from him. He gave her white wine at his apartment; she tells Babe writer Katie Way that she would have preferred red. She could have told him that. She didn’t, then blamed him. She could have said she didn’t want to go home with him. She didn’t, then blamed him. She could have left his house at any point. She didn’t, then blamed him.
It sounds from “Grace’s” words as though they each had different expectations of the date: he, that they would have sex, she, that she might date a celebrity. Her horror appears to have stemmed from disillusionment at their differing agendas.
Some of my female friends argue that Ansari had all the power in this scenario, that as a wealthy male celebrity he is a beneficiary of the patriarchy’s privilege. But Ansari’s position is more complicated than that – he is no shoo-in with the American patriarchy.
As a man of color, he has overcome decades of racism to pave a way for leading men of South Asian descent in American entertainment. His accuser may not be giving him the benefit of the doubt as a man who has lifted up women writers and actors with his Netflix show “Master of None.”
It is apparently politically incorrect in some women’s eyes to mention “Grace’s” power as a young, desirable woman who admits to actively flirting with Ansari while she was on a date with someone else and inviting Ansari with her eyes until he asked her for her number. That would be no excuse for Ansari to sexually assault her, but he did not.
People can have very different perceptions of a situation even when sex isn’t involved. Sex only blurs matters further, unless we make ourselves abundantly clear.
From “Grace’s” description, Ansari’s behavior sounds just tone-deaf, selfish, and boorish. But a woman like “Grace” has agency, too – and she must use it if we are to overcome the so-called patriarchy.
Very often, we have much more power than we realize. To call “Grace” a victim is to trivialize victims and to diminish “Grace.”
Women are strong. Let us show it. We are playing into a narrative of fragility and helplessness when we say “yes” with our actions – as “Grace” appears to have done – when we mean “no.” We are painting ourselves as hapless victims if we decry men for making choices for us, even after we have left the choice entirely up to them.
We need to allow ourselves to disappoint their desires. We can’t blame them if we willingly acquiesce to their desires and regret it later.
We should think long and hard before asking men to see inside our hearts and minds to divine our true feelings. To count on such omniscience would only pave the way for greater ambiguity and subjectivity in our sexual relations.
My husband and I send our girls to karate to learn how to say “no,” and to fight back. We want them to not accommodate aggressive people, not take candy from strangers, to speak out and say “STOP” at the top of their lungs if someone is bothering them.
It is painful even to have to say it, but we, as a society, have to teach our sons not to rape. At the same time we have to teach our daughters confidence and self esteem so they can stand up for themselves and say “no” in every situation that makes them uncomfortable.
It’s 2018. We women must stop accommodating everyone all the time.
As a survivor of sexual assault myself, I understand palpably the delicacy of sexual dynamics. But our culture will never evolve unless we all accept our responsibility for making changes that increase accountability and conscious decision-making on all sides. That way, we will be able to distinguish more easily between consensual and nonconsensual sex.
Let us teach our daughters that sexuality is healthy. They should be clear and safe if they want to have sex, and clear and safe if they don’t.
Otherwise, we teach men and women that women are to be conquered. If a woman wants a man, she should tell him. If she wants to be “conquered,” tell him. Don’t make him guess or he may guess wrong with the next woman. When “no” means “yes,” “yes” can mean “no.” Therein lies danger for both parties.
Dave Chappelle recently said that in order for the #MeToo movement to succeed, “You’re going to have to accept a lot of imperfect allies.”
If we reflexively guillotine every imperfect ally like Aziz Ansari without finding out his side of the story, we will have no allies left. There is a whole spectrum between a bumbling, clueless lover and alleged predators like Weinstein and Trump. If your date is being creepy, let him know, get out of Dodge, and be sure you teach your sons better one day.
There was a line that stood out to me in actress Lupita Nyong’o’s chilling New York Times op-ed, in which she alleges narrowly escaping sexual assault at Weinstein’s hands (which Weinstein denies). She describes a moment when, she says, he tried to coerce her into doing his vile bidding by calling her “stubborn.” She replied, “I know.”
The women Weinstein attacked did nothing to deserve his alleged criminal predation. Ansari is a completely different story, but Nyong’o’s injunction fits it too. It is alright to be stubborn in your own defense, no matter what the man says. It’s a requirement.
Women must embrace our stubbornness, and not acquiesce unless we want to. Men must learn we’re for real. When we say, “no,” there will be no doubt that we mean it.
Meanwhile, men must have these same tough dialogues among themselves and hold each other to a higher standard.
We are all swimming in the rapidly shifting waters of our national sexual mores. The only way for us to learn how to navigate them is to be honest with ourselves and each other.
Corrections: An earlier version of this commentary incorrectly identified the website where an account of a woman’s date with Aziz Ansari appeared. The correct site is babe.net. This piece has also been updated to give the author’s current home city; it is Los Angeles.