In 1998, I had an experience on a first date that was very similar to what “Grace” described in her interview with Babe magazine about her “date” with Aziz Ansari. There are differences, of course. My date wasn’t a celebrity, he was more aggressively persistent, and he actually injured me physically. I had never been afraid to stand up for myself before – a truth that made my story less believable to my friends, who had trouble reconciling the “me” they knew with someone who could be so easily subdued and become so compliant, under what they considered to be insufficient duress. I spoke to a detective, who told me that the way I “behaved during and after the encounter” was not likely to convince a jury to convict.
I decided he was right.
I was not devastated. I am sometimes alarmingly pragmatic, even when it is my integrity that is under fire. I gathered my pride and moved on.
The man in question was a co-worker. We worked in a large call center. He was fired a few weeks later for reasons I was not privy to. I never saw him again. A year later, during a smoke break with another coworker that I was just getting to know but who had been an employee as long as I had, the conversation turned to dating coworkers, and all the reasons why it was a bad idea. She told a story about a male coworker who refused to leave her apartment on a first date, who was physically aggressive and persistent with sexual advances, skating a line between bad behavior and actual assault. She had a roommate, whose unexpected return diffused the situation, but she said she believed that barring that, the story would have had a different ending. One like mine, I thought. It was then that I blurted out the question to which I already knew the answer: “Was this guy’s name __________ _________?” and of course, it was.
We stood there a long time, in silence, she and I, letting the chill of validation trickle through us like iced sugar water. It wasn’t just me. He did that to someone else. We didn’t need the status afforded to “credible” victims. Now, we knew we weren’t to blame. I have seen a similar rush of tense validation in the last few days, toward the woman called “Grace” – countered, of course, by vicious condemnation.
Since the Ansari story broke, I have seen a wave of solidarity among women, who are reporting experiences where they felt uncomfortable leaving a situation that became too sexual, too fast, or where their partner turned grotesque and indifferent, not to just their lack of enthusiastic consent, not to just their clearly uninspired reciprocity, but to their presence beyond the physical. There were other stories from women who tried to extricate themselves gracefully from similar circumstances and saw the situation escalate beyond persistence, beyond coercion, beyond their control.
I can’t speak for Grace, and I can’t speak for Ansari, but I have watched the debate about the “badness” of what he did vs. her credibility as a victim, and, as always, I am surprised by the vitriol with which women will condemn other women.
I am never surprised by the men who fail to condemn other men. For some, that reason is stark and simplistic – they don’t care about what men do to women. For others, I imagine they replay situations that they have been a part of, where they rationalized their own dogged persistence and ignorance of boundaries, and repackaged the memory as seduction rewarded by consent.
I understand that. I have ignored boundaries, persisted in the face of indifference, tried to validate my own attractiveness by trying to convince a former partner to revisit my bed. It’s not quite the same, but I understand the need to gloss over an uncomfortable truth that you can’t change.
In Grace, I see a girl who hoped that the private persona of this person she admired would match the public one, and instead had to endure this awkward, blundering, adolescent whose invasive advances seem to be gleaned from bad porn, watched in the dark by those who prefer their partners two-dimensional.
In Ansari, I have trouble separating the socially awkward, quirky self-described introvert from the confident, self-proclaimed feminist and “woke bae.” His obvious ineptitude is more suited to the former, who seems behind the learning curve on empathy, and his woman-supportive words are suited to someone who values his partner’s needs as much as his libido. His persistence, and his entitlement, are more consistent with someone who has become accustomed to getting his own way. He had an opportunity to turn his “we are all feminists” preach into practice, and he failed.
I see refrain after refrain of He didn’t rape her. Why didn’t she leave? Stop undermining the real victims with this whiny cult of victimhood! Stop ruining feminism by equating a bad date with rape!
There may have been opportunities for her to remove herself from the situation.
There were, without question, opportunities for him to change his behavior, opportunities that were likely there long before he struck up a conversation with a fan over a camera.
Is bad, uncomfortable, selfish, obligatory sex a crime? No. Nor should it be. But given the undeniable current of recognition for which this article was a catalyst, it is more the norm than many may have imagined. But some of us knew. We knew what it means to be the ill-fitting part of a narrative that we had no part in creating, for whom the status of “legitimate” victim is a constantly moving target designed to protect the bro who is just trying to close the deal.
No one should feel coerced, or manipulated, or intimidated into sexual contact. If we are going to ask more of women, demand that they stand up for themselves at their most vulnerable, then we should ask more of men, particularly those who are clearly using the language of consent as a strategy for manipulation. We need to raise our standard for acceptance of behavior that crosses the line from a flirtatious pursuit to a selfish agenda intended to wear the target’s resistance down.
And “at least he didn’t rape her” isn’t the place to set the bar.