Years ago I wrote for a celebrity gossip site. Back when the format was still in its online heyday, I fancied myself a female Michael K, awkwardly imitating the witty snark and acerbic barbs that shot so many celebrity bloggers to fame. As immature as it was, at the time it was a way for me to practice writing; I didn’t know where to start and I needed something to motivate me daily. After growing up in a world where celebrities were only as accessible as the latest copy of People, keeping up with the minutiae of rumors and sightings not only gave me constant material, it was also a bit equalizing. Celebrities really were like us—shitty human beings, mostly.
Eventually, to my relief, I found an opportunity to move on. Celebrity gossip had become too depressing. If you’re an avid reader of blind items, as I was, it doesn’t take long to figure out that Hollywood really is the den of evil your mom always warned you about, and worse than we could possibly imagine. It got to the point where TV and movies were no longer enjoyable because of the long list of abusers involved with each production. So I transitioned to other forms of pop cultural criticism, and never really looked back.
Imagine my surprise all these years later watching headline after headline reveal what I first learned in forums and on alt boards almost a decade ago. Many of the big names have come up, repeat offenders whose antics were whispered about for eons before finally coming to light. The rumor mill is lit with signs that there are still major revelations to come. And the hits just keep on coming. Now they’re extending to people whose reputations were otherwise squeaky clean, those who never so much had an accusatory comment on a Jezebel article. Such a case is Aziz Ansari.
This weekend, Babe writer Katie Way revealed that Aziz Ansari, at best, is a lousy date who can’t (or won’t) recognize boundaries. The account, unlike many offered on the internet, is detailed and thorough in its rundown of the entire incident. Speaking on behalf of a woman she refers to as “Grace,” Way explains how the two first met at the Emmy Awards in 2017, later having dinner and drinks in Manhattan before heading back to his apartment. There, Grace was subjected to a veritable buffet of bad sexual behavior, from the rude to the just plain coercive. The encounter left her feeling shaken and violated.
Reading through his actions was illuminating but also extremely familiar. Many women, like myself and those on my Twitter timeline, can recall having been through something similar. But seeing it laid out like that in print, where mental detours can’t pummel you into a canyon of self doubt, makes it so much clearer. Seeing how many opportunities he was given to back down or respect Grace’s wishes, to avoid exactly what ended up happening, and how he deflected each one, is eye-opening. I have to ask, Aziz Ansari: how is it so easy to miss these signals?
I’m not asking for advice, mind you—though if I needed some, Grace’s account would suffice. I’m asking how you could even want to have sex with someone who clearly is not interested, much less ignore so many signs of rejection to do so. The behavior is so far removed from what occurs to me naturally that I can barely fathom how a person could do it. How could it possibly be satisfying to thrust yourself onto someone who doesn’t want you? How could you deliberately ignore the lack of reciprocity? The absence of return pressure in their kiss. The pull from their body as they move to get away. The flimsy excuses to leave or divert your attention. Though passive, these are clear signs of resistance and to ignore them, you would have to have no respect for another person’s right to be disinterested and say no. That isn’t sex, it’s punishment.
Maybe that’s the point.
In her account, Grace says she can’t be 100% sure if Ansari simply didn’t notice her resistance, or if he chose to ignore it. And that is fair. I can’t speak for her or her experience. But I do know that there is something seriously and fundamentally wrong with pushing for sex, and it was clear, from Grace’s perspective, that she was miserable. When Ansari asked her how she wanted to be fucked, and she said, “Maybe on the next date,” that should have been the end of it. But it wasn’t. And when she told him she wanted to take it slow, and not feel forced (because she “didn’t want to hate him”), what did he allegedly do? Pretended, briefly, that he respected her wishes after she drew a line, then immediately and deliberately initiated oral sex, following up with, “Doesn’t look like you hate me.” From where I’m sitting, it appears Ansari knew exactly what he was doing.
If I were to guess, I’d say that Ansari has had at least one night of very hot consensual sex with someone who was really into it, and has been trying to replay that scene with other people ever since—whether they were into it or not. It seems like a predictable byproduct of treating women like a masturbatory aid, in that sex becomes more about casting a stunt double for your latest fantasy than actually connecting or engaging another person. While I respect the right for people to have sex without intimacy, it does not excuse pursuing it with someone who is not on the same page. And definitely not to the extent that you bulldoze all signs of resistance to the point that you traumatize them.
You may wonder why I placed stock in those blind items all those years ago. I’m well aware of the pitfalls and legal implications, and how whisper campaigns can be weaponized deliberately by people with an ax to grind. I’ve always kept that in mind. But to me it makes sense that the abused, in the anonymity of the internet, started to come forward and tell their stories in the forums and comment sections and private emails that would later form the blind item community. It was the only way they could be heard at all. After observing the rumors for awhile, you start to notice the patterns, the names that keep showing up, and the unexplained holes in the popular public narrative that they fill. Kevin Spacey, Bryan Singer and Harvey Weinstein were all but an open Internet secret. The warning signs were there. There’s almost always a warning sign. In the absence of blind items, maybe the warning about Ansari (as with Louis C.K.) was in his own work.
A recent analysis suggested that of men who commit rape, most will admit it, but not if the word rape is actually used. They’ll admit to various forms of sexual coercion and assault, and even the literal definition itself, but if you actually use the word, they deny it. I wonder if that’s you, Ansari. I wonder if you took Grace’s discomfort as a reluctant “yes” because that’s all you wanted to hear. I wonder if you realized you were pressuring Grace to do something she wasn’t comfortable with. After all, you didn’t hold her down, did you? You just broke her down by insisting on your desires, by initiating contact after pretending you wouldn’t, by pulling her hand back to your genitals when she pulled away, by getting her guard down by making her think it was over, and then starting up again. You’re not like one of those other guys. You might have coerced her, but you didn’t necessarily use force.
If there’s one thing in 2018 that I’d like cismen to know (or rather, remember), it is that passive signs of resistance to sex count as a no. Mixed signals are a no. The absence of a no is not a yes. Sex is not some will they or won’t they game where a woman only offers resistance for “fun”. Her consent is not a negotiable for you to break down. If she does not feel safe being straightforward about her desires and intentions while in the heat of the moment, there are often physical safety and psychological factors involved. Women only speak up in an environment where they feel safe to, where their needs and concerns are listened to, validated, and respected. If you did not create or support that environment, ask yourself how that occurred and and why. Ask yourself why you feel comfortable operating in the gray area of consent to increase your chances of getting laid and why that is more important to you than another person’s bodily autonomy. If you can’t read body language and voice inflection and the myriad of other factors that inform a social interaction, reflect on whether that’s because you weren’t taught, or because feigning ignorance of it works to your benefit. Your inability to read the signs is not our fault, but it is our problem.
Ansari has since responded to the allegations but so far, it’s unclear how this will affect the third season of his Netflix show Master of None (for which he just won Best Actor at the 2018 Golden Globes), or if it will at all. But one thing’s for certain. We know now why he hasn’t bothered to fire Dave Becky.
Holly Green is the assistant editor of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer living in Seattle, WA. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.