OPINION: Shifting The Consent Dialogue from Legality to Morality

In the weeks after Babe.net published an anonymous account of a 23-year-old woman’s date with Aziz Ansari, op-ed writers wrote up a flurry of responses criticizing the article, drowning out the voices of many women who identify with the experience shared by the woman with the alias “Grace.”

Grace’s story is significant and merits our attention. Her date with Ansari devolved into aggressive advances, during which he continuously ignored her multiple expressions of discomfort. Coming from anyone, the actions Ansari took that night would be saddening and disappointing. Coming from a man who has created a persona for himself as a feminist and an expert in the world of dating, they are especially shocking.

In the face of the allegations against Ansari, op-ed writers from the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Atlantic disparaged Grace and her choice to share what she went through. Many of these writers debated the legality of Ansari’s actions and focused on whether they qualify as assault, rather than discussing whether they were acceptable. The women among them attempted to distance themselves and the #MeToo movement from Grace.

Babe.net reporter Katie Way’s informal tone at certain points in the article undercuts the influence of its own message. For example, critics were quick to point out Way’s mention of how Ansari chose white wine for their dinner date — “I didn’t get to choose and I prefer red, but it was white wine” — questioning the relevance of such a detail to the overall story.

Babe.net also neglected certain journalistic standards in its publishing process. For example, its editorial team gave Ansari six hours to respond to their notice before publishing, rather than the typical 24. Matters of journalistic integrity such as these have left the article vulnerable to accusations that its intent was to attract readers, rather than publish a serious report contributing to an important national conversation.

However, it is likely that the reason people have denounced Grace lies in the compulsion that many women feel to accommodate men’s wants during sexual situations, and the shame that often follows it. A gendered power dynamic existed in Grace’s situation which paved the way for Ansari to pressure her into doing what he wanted.

The normalization of such a mindset is the reason why, even in conveying her sympathy for Grace, the Times’ Bari Weiss puts her experience in the category of mere “lousy romantic encounters.” It’s the reason why Caitlin Flanagan of The Atlantic referred to those who relate with Grace as a “whole country full of young women who don’t know how to call a cab.”

Our society has progressed such that we can publicly acknowledge that women shouldn’t be coerced into sex or physical intimacy. Conversations on sexual misconduct are becoming increasingly present in the national conscience.

Discussion is especially necessary on college campuses, where hookups often take place between strangers and under the haze of inebriation. Although Teal Dot bystander intervention trainings and online Haven courses begin to address the issue, they tend to depict it in a one-dimensional way that does not account for the grayer areas of sexual misconduct. This lack of nuance has led to skepticism among students regarding the efficacy of Teal Dot and Haven.

The power that social expectations can hold during sexual encounters is often dismissed by those who believe that coercion can only occur by forceful or physical means. In reality, sometimes the “bad guy” is someone a person might have initially liked who pushes past the boundaries that person set up. Experiences like Grace’s can be traumatizing, but they are rarely talked about, making those who go through them feel confused, isolated, and even guilty about their own trauma. Close friends of mine have told me that, until the Ansari story broke, they felt like they couldn’t talk about their own similar experiences, even with those they trusted.

We’ve been conditioned to think Ansari’s behavior is normal, even justifiable, so people are fixating on whether or not it’s legal and whether the allegations against him really fit in to the cause being addressed by the #MeToo movement. But as Samantha Bee recently said in response to #MeToo backlash, “It doesn’t have to be rape to ruin your life, and it doesn’t have to ruin your life to be worth speaking out about.”

It’s hypocritical to present oneself as a feminist then take advantage of patriarchal standards when suitable. It’s pathetic to pretend that one thinks everything is perfectly consensual when one’s partner is protesting or upset. And it’s wrong for society to continue silencing women who go through trauma under the pretext that others have been through worse.

We’re not going to slowly chip away at the silence anymore. It’s time to shatter it.

Aalia Thomas PO ’21 is a Los Angeles local originally from New Delhi. She loves dog-spotting, “Work” by Rihanna, and the swinging benches between Lyon and Mudd. ​

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