Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the position of the Minerva Quest or its affiliates.
This article is partially in response to this piece published on the Quest on January 21.
In the last few weeks, varying opinions around the case of Aziz Ansari have emerged. Some have come out in support of Grace’s decision to bring attention to the encounter and some others, such as this CNN reporter, believe that this kind of ambiguity hurts the #metoo movement as a whole. We have encountered yet another place where we remain divided—just as we were divided as to whether marital rape was considered rape until 1979, or whether a woman was at fault if she was intoxicated, or out alone at night, or if she didn’t explicitly say no. Now, we come into another one of these discussions where we have to redefine what sexual assault means within our collective understanding—and these conversations will not be finished anytime soon.
Because of this, it is more important now than ever to grapple with our gut reactions as to how we label the experiences of others. One of the biggest pieces of rhetoric floating around the Aziz Ansari controversy is that what happened to Grace was just a “bad date,” and that many women have similar stories. Many of us do not characterize these experiences as sexual assault—nor do we have to. But it’s the fact that this type of experience is so widespread that is the crux of the issue—not whether we consider this particular account to fall under the label of sexual assault. It is to be expected that when someone decides to label their experience as such in a way we do not agree with, it makes us deeply uncomfortable because it requires us to confront our definitions of our own lived experiences. We don’t necessarily have to change those definitions—that decision is up to each individual. But we must resist the urge to discount the definitions of others just to protect our own.
We have gotten to the point where we are comfortable calling out the Harvey Weinsteins and the Bill Cosbys, the serial rapists and abusers who used their platform and power to abuse women for too long without repercussions. We have gotten to the point where we reject “no means no” and demand affirmative, enthusiastic consent. We have gotten to the point where we understand that a woman’s clothes or her alcohol consumption do not justify her being assaulted or raped. We have begun to reject the age-old “boys will be boys” rhetoric, insisting that people be held accountable for their actions. We have made progress in so many ways, although that progress is largely still not felt among the more vulnerable members of our society.
It is through these conversations that we uncover the unhealed parts of our collective cultural narrative around sexuality.
But our work is far from done. Grace sharing her story has done something incredibly important to these conversations, regardless of whether you agree with her actions or believe what happened to her was sexual assault at all.
This case has exposed yet another layer of the toxic messaging our culture purports around gender and dating. It is something much more subtle, more widespread and much less frequently addressed, but is something many of us have experienced. It is the discomfort or hesitation during an encounter, the boundaries that were seen as challenges to be overcome, perhaps the eventual “giving in” to gloss over any awkwardness or get out of a situation gracefully and safely (as we’re taught we are supposed to do). It is that sinking guilt and disappointment in the taxi home wondering why you didn’t act differently in the moment, and the added layer of anger and hurt when the other person had absolutely no idea that you were even upset because they were that oblivious to your cues or chose to ignore them.
Many of us have these types of stories, and many of us don’t call them sexual assault because it’s not so black and white—and maybe, like Grace, we consented to certain things. Maybe we didn’t give an explicit no, or only gave nonverbal cues that we wanted to stop. Maybe we stayed the night or agreed to a second date. But it falls in the insidious grey area which is still deep-rooted in our culture. It reveals the subtle socialization that both men and women receive about sexual expectations that can leave us so painfully on different wavelengths.
Ultimately, this discussion is not about whether you consider what happened to Grace to be sexual assault. If we step back, we can see that her story has presented us with a tapestry of shades of grey that are difficult to grapple with—but the last thing we should be doing is discounting her experience because it does not fit into our current archetype of what we consider sexual assault.
Let’s look a little deeper and think about why she decided to label it in the way that she did. What moments can we pinpoint that signify more systemic issues? We must come to understand how boys and men can come to miss subtle cues, and why society teaches girls and women to give these cues only subtly in the first place. We are taught not to be direct to avoid awkward or dangerous situations, but that is how these signals are allowed to be ignored. Instead of asking why Grace didn’t “just leave” the situation, let’s look at what socialization led to that being a difficult decision, and what societal conventions she would have had to violate in that process. Let’s try to understand all of the smaller ways our society failed so egregiously to equip us with the skills to not hurt each other deeply and unconsciously through our actions.
It is through these conversations that we uncover the unhealed parts of our collective cultural narrative around sexuality. It is so much easier to protect our black and white interpretation of what is acceptable because it allows us to leave parts of our own behavior unexamined—the discomfort of realizing that behavior you have perpetrated or experienced (and perhaps did not consider damaging) is now being labeled as sexual assault is jarring, to say the least. But if progress is really what we are committed to achieving, these conversations are beyond necessary.
The “bad date” rhetoric surrounding this story is the “what was she wearing” of our current moment in history, and there will be more as time goes by.
And to the other members of my community who feel as if some of the response to Grace’s story jeopardizes your ability to speak openly and candidly, I want you to know that I am here to engage with you, to listen to you, to hear you as we struggle collectively through the experience of being a woman (whatever defines that for you) within the interminable expectations placed on us to be too many conflicting things at once.
I promise to defend your right to define your experiences in a way that is authentic for you, even in the midst of a society that rejects that right to self-definition, which tries to tell you how you are allowed to characterize those experiences based on what is collectively considered legitimate. I will stand behind your decision to speak out, or keep quiet, or report, or not report, or be anonymous, or attach your name to your story. I will keep rejecting any rhetoric that tries to tell you that your decision to speak out and redefine what is acceptable is hurting a movement meant to do just that, or allow anyone reduce your experience to a “bad date.”
The “bad date” rhetoric surrounding this story is the “what was she wearing” of our current moment in history, and there will be more as time goes by. Regardless, we must remember that we are not in a race to put our assaults or experiences on a continuum of bad to worse, allowing the fact that one person’s experience is more severe than another remove its validity to fall under the same definition. One person’s story does not cheapen another’s, even if it’s a challenging one to deal with—it merely forces us to engage with the root causes and subtleties of the issue more deeply. Each story that comes out exposes a different part of a culture that allows for the sexual predation against women to go unchecked in so many different forms, and that is in all of our interests.
And, as is true for each of us, I can only speak to my own experience and my own perception of these events. I will inevitably miss the mark in some parts of this discussion because my opinion only reaches as far as the limits of my knowledge and is colored by experiences I have been unfortunate enough to experience and those that I have been fortunate enough to avoid. But instead of seeing this as a weakness, let us find strength in the diversity of our lived experiences by listening to each other to understand not only the nature of each other’s opinions, but how and why we have come to hold them. There is a lot to unlearn, but through each conversation that we engage with in presence and integrity, with each case of listening to the experiences and opinions of others without judgement, the closer we can get to collectively unpacking the subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) cultural messaging that ultimately hurts us all.