Attention continues to rise for inappropriate sexual behavior by male celebrities. This weekend, an article highlighting a sexual encounter between Aziz Ansari and an anonymous woman (Grace) has brought up discussion of consent, sexual pressure and coercion, and where his responsibilities lie within this brief relationship.
A major challenge of celebrity is the illusion of intimacy. Personally, I like Mr. Ansari. I greatly enjoyed "Master of None" and have found his work to be excellent over the years. But his work as an actor, producer, and writer tell me nothing about him personally. My connection to him is passive - I watch him in his shows and feel like I am getting to know him, know who he is, know how he thinks, but it is just one way. He has never met me, knows nothing about me - and the information I have on him is a created image. As with all created images, there is no doubt a certain mirror into his life, but it is necessarily going to be full of inaccuracies.
I believe this is one of the major reasons there seem to be a large amount of blame placed on this anonymous woman, and general backlash against the #metoo movement due to this woman's story. Aziz is a good guy or she should have done A, B, or C! She's treating him unfairly!
This is also a bit like a real life version of the "Cat Person" short story that was recently published in the New Yorker (and my fictionalized response in the man's perspective here). Was this really more about bad sex, a consensual tryst that Grace did not enjoy, that led to her complaining about her experience later?
These are important questions to ask, but maybe we are missing some bigger aspects of this situation. The Atlantic published an article considering some of the current challenges with sexual behavior in relationships, saying, "Sexual mores in the West have changed so rapidly over the past 100 years that by the time you reach 50, intimate accounts of commonplace sexual events of the young seem like science fiction: You understand the vocabulary and the sentence structure, but all of the events take place in outer space."
In this article, I want to take some time to explore these sexual harms that
often get lost in discussions - those that are not assault or violence,
yet still cause pain and fear in others.
What are we missing in our dialog with children and teens about sex? How are gender roles fitting into expectations about sex and relationships? A choice to hook-up and have casual sex is not inherently bad or wrong, even if many people (and USA culture) have moral beliefs against this behavior.What I encounter again and again in battering intervention groups is that in the sake of seeking consent, and in having sex as a part of courtship, development of intimacy beyond physical passion is lost.
Many abusers definitely gain consent before engaging in sex, although I question how explicit this consent is. One article defends Mr. Ansari by saying he shouldn't be a mind reader, yet men often accept implicit consent with few or any verbal consents to sex. They have definite understanding of nonverbal cues, but push against those in the knowledge that verbal rejection is hard to give after sex begins. Women feel pressured to consent, and may even fear saying no could lead to violence.
During group discussions, I will outline various kinds of intimacy and where they can fit into development of a relationship. Certainly, the first kind of intimacy guys in my groups go to is sexual. That physical passion I mentioned earlier. That is indeed a type of intimacy, and an important one for health in a relationship. Often what is missing from that analysis of passion, however, is a desire to be with that person, loving touch beyond sex, desire to pleasure your partner, and gaining knowledge of what the other person likes or does not like sexually or within physical touch overall.
Other categories are more difficult to discuss. What about emotional intimacy? The idea of closeness - a shared bond where you know someone's opinions, thoughts, and even their values or morals - can be equally intimate and critical to development of a healthy relationship. The equivalent to a random hook-up with a stranger might be going on a first date and telling that person your most intimate details, such as your worst fears, abuse you experienced in childhood, deeply held political or social beliefs that are controversial - and while some people do this during first meeting someone, the experience of someone dumping so much information at the beginning is often off-putting. Closeness takes time to develop, and takes time to foster in a healthy way.
Psychological intimacy can be considered along with commitment. An alignment of goals, values, and meaning in life. Again, it takes time to grow this aspect of intimacy, and a hook-up equivalent might be meeting someone and telling them that you should get married, pool your finances to buy a house you have chosen for the both of you, have children immediately, or any number of other intimate choices made when relationships become closer.
Emotional and psychological intimacy seem ludicrous to develop so quickly on a first date, yet for some reason we do not have deeper and more critical thinking about quick physical intimacy development. It is a risk - often a dangerous and hurtful risk. Certainly, if someone does not use safe sex, then there is risk of STD or STI or pregnancy. Along with that risk, however, is the truth that you might end up with someone you are not compatible with, or might make choices that coincide with pressuring or controlling someone into having sexual behavior they are not 100% comfortable with. The person you have random sex with might equate that with something much more emotionally or psychologically intimate - and if you are not on the same page your behavior can easily cause harm.
Some of the hangup I am seeing with people defending Mr. Ansari are that he did not sexually assault her, that his behavior was not sexual violence, that she gave consent for their sexual encounter therefore it shouldn't matter. This perspective denies the idea of sexual control, sexual alienation, and sexual irritation - ALL of which there is zero doubt that he is responsible for in his encounter with Grace.
Sexual control is making someone do something they do not want to do sexually, or keeping someone from certain intimacy they want to engage in. There are many forms of sexual control that involve coercion or pressure. Constant asking for sex, trying certain sexual behavior repeatedly and ignoring boundaries set by the other person, not listening to protests (verbal or nonverbal), and yes, not picking up on nonverbal cues, requests, or complaints.
Control is a human experience - we ALL do it, and sexual control can be a very destructive aspect of sexual behavior that we need to be addressing on a more active basis. We need to avoid lumping all sexual harms into violence - because in Mr. Ansari's case, he is being equated to other men who have engaged in sexual assault and violence. Without understanding the difference here, we risk his behavior and other's being dismissed because it clearly does not have the same impact or destruction therefore Grace gets blamed for daring to report this, rather than us realizing that regardless of the level of harm - it is still harm, and it is still destructive!
Sexual alienation and irritation are also very human things. It is where a person does something physically or sexually intimate that their partner becomes irritated by, or something which pushes that person away. One of the biggest alienating factors are not talking about sex, not talking about desire, not developing sexual knowledge of a partner over time. Other irritating/alienating sexual harms can involve things such as flirting that the other person does not like, use of pornography that is not okay with a partner, and blindness to or ignoring of another person's sexual boundaries. Again, some of these are clearly a big part of the incident with Mr. Ansari and Grace.
Defenders of Aziz Ansari lament that this could destroy his career. Attackers say sexual harm is sexual harm and he should be held accountable. When we make this into a binary argument, we miss the point that he needs to be held to account for his behavior that is problematic, and he needs to be aware of the level of power and influence his fame affords him and where that fits into his dating life. Grace describes the "hour or so" in his apartment involving him attempting different sexual behavior, her intermittently engaging and then disengaging and while her internal dialog was clearly confusion and anxiety over his behavior, his internal dialog could have been anything from entitlement of his celebrity status, confirmation bias on when she seemed willing to engage in sexual acts (while ignoring when she was not), and definitely overall entitlement to continue pursuing sex after she verbally and non-verbally expressed her discomfort.
Instead of lumping Mr. Ansari with violent, abusive, and sexually assaultive male celebrities, we should build awareness for the layers of sexual harm, and learn better ways to guide men toward responsibility, accountability, and health in relationships. Instead of being sad that his career is damaged and building anger toward
Grace, we should be exploring where we focus on condemning celebrities yet ignore how common these
patterns are for everyday men toward women. We need to be taking this opportunity to nuance the different kinds of sexual harm beyond rape and other forms of sexual assault, so we can adequately address their impact, and the intent men have behind them.
*For additional reading on this topic, I suggest reading Nehmat Kaur's "What Should We Expect from Liberal Feminist Men Like Aziz Ansari?" or Karishma Attari's "Aziz Ansari has a long way to go before mastering his own sense of entitlement." or Emma Gray's "On Aziz Ansari And Sex That Feels Violating Even When It's Not Criminal"