I want to talk about ‘the Ansari story’ too. I’m late to this party; I’m always late to this kind of party. I don’t keep up to date on the news, let alone on social media movements and storms. Nevertheless, I don’t think it’s too late to add my penny’s worth, which is this:
the reactions to the story reveal that most of us – even those of us who are committed to feminism – are still stuck thinking in sexist modes of thought.
(And what I mean by ‘sexist’ is ‘male supremacist’ or ‘misogynist’, not something vague that ‘cuts both ways.’ I could have said ‘patriarchal modes of thought’, but I’m not a big fan of the term patriarchy: I find male supremacy more descriptive of a culture in which the male is the default human, the male perspective is the perspective, and male comfort is prioritised.)
Just in case anyone else is even later to the Ansari party than I was:
I’m talking about a piece called, ‘I went on a date with Aziz Ansari. It turned into the worst night of my life,’ as told to Katie Way of the feminist website Babe in mid January. It’s the story of the night that a 22-year-old photographer – not a public figure, known as ‘Grace’ – spent with Aziz Ansari (a comedian of whom I had never heard). It went viral, often attached to the #MeToo tag (I haven’t quite got to grip with hash tags yet so I can’t say whose fault that was, or what hash tag etiquette or orthodoxies may or may not have been violated). Predictably, there was a backlash.
I’m interested in dissecting the complex response so as to sketch an anatomy of its sexism.
This is my brief summary of the events as related in the article:
After a first date dinner Grace went back to Ansari’s place with him but was made uncomfortable by the speed with which he undressed her and himself, repeatedly sticking his fingers down her throat (to wet them?) before trying to penetrate her with them, and asking her over and over ‘“where do you want me to fuck you?”’ She describes finding this difficult to answer, because she didn’t want to be fucked at all, but did manage to say, ‘”next time”’. He is supposed to have said, ‘”Oh, you mean second date?”’ and, “Well, if I poured you another glass of wine now, would it count as our second date?’” Upon which he resumed his offensive. She went to the bathroom, collected herself, came back and told him ‘“I don’t want to feel forced because then I’ll hate you, and I’d rather not hate you.”’ She relates that he said ‘”Oh, of course, it’s only fun if we’re both having fun”’ and she was relieved, thinking he had understood and would now be simply affectionate. But his next move was to tell her (non-verbally, by pointing) to suck his penis. Unhappily, she complied. Then he told her he had to show her something, led her over to a mirror, bent her over in front of it and asked her if she wanted him to fuck her right there, while pushing his penis against her behind in the motions of intercourse.
She straightened up and told him she really didn’t want to “do this”. They dressed, but once again he started kissing her, sticking his fingers down her throat, and tried to undo her trousers. She recalls saying, “‘You guys are all the same, you guys are all the fucking same’” and got up to call herself a taxi. She began crying on the way home and told some friends what had happened.
That’s quite a dry sample, not including all the details, but I’ve provided it because what other writers include or leave out or emphasise in their retellings of Grace’s telling is revealing. I do suggest you read it for yourselves if you haven’t already, or possibly re-read it carefully, so that you’ll be able to judge whether others are misrepresenting the narrative. (I think that many are.)
Some of the backlash came from other women committed to feminism; some of the responses that came from powerful quarters like The New York Times and HLN were unpleasantly retaliatory: launching what they framed as a counter-attack against a threat to the #MeToo movement, or feminism, or women in general – but, as far as I can make out, against a very young woman who was unarmed and hadn’t made a single aggressive move.
I’ll start with the New York Times opinion piece ‘Aziz Ansari Is Guilty. Of Not Being a Mind Reader’, by an NYT editor, Bari Weiss.
First off, I object rather strongly to the suggestion that Ansari’s greatest failure was ‘not being a mind reader.’
If you come over to my place and I say ‘where do you want to sit while I cut your hair? and you say, ‘next time,’ I do not need to be a ‘mindreader’ to know that you don’t want me to cut your hair on this occasion. Actually, you have told me so, verbally, albeit without using the word ‘no’ (which my question did not invite anyway, because it was a leading question).
If you come over to my place and I say ‘where do you want me to fuck you?’ and you say, ‘next time,’ I don’t need to be a ‘mindreader’ to know that you don’t want me to fuck you on this occasion.
If you come over to my place and I say ‘where do you want to sit while I cut your hair?’ and you just keep moving away from me, trying to avoid my scissors and pulling your hair out of my hands when I grab hold of it, but say nothing at all, I still don’t need to be a ‘mindreader’ to know that you don’t want me to cut your hair on this occasion.
If you come over to my place and I say ‘where do you want me to fuck you?’ and you just keep moving away from me, trying to avoid my kisses and pulling your your hand away every time I put it on my genitals, but say nothing at all, I still don’t need to be a ‘mindreader’ to know that you don’t want me to fuck you on this occasion.
You’d think that the much-mentioned ‘common sense’ of conservative talk, and the anti-feminist variety of conservative talk in particular, would be enough to establish that we all, women and even men, use – and understand! –non-verbal cues on a daily basis. We also frequently express dissent verbally without using the word ‘no.’ As I’m not really into the rhetoric of common sense, however, I’ll mention that studies have demonstrated this particular bit of utter obviousness. I’ll even insert not one, not two, but three relevant links if you want to check. (I pinched them from Emma Gray’s piece on the topic, which I find admirably measured and sensible.)
And I’ll ask you to just think about it a moment: do you actually use the word ‘no’ every time you want to express your dissent? Have you ever answered ‘just milk, thanks,’ when someone asked ‘how many sugars’? Were you quite confident they would understand you didn’t want sugar? Even if they were a man?
Imagine just such a scenario: the sugar-holder is indeed a man, and he goes ahead and plops three sugars in your cup: wouldn’t you feel that he had, in however minor a way, shown scant regard for your wishes?
You could be forgiven for getting shirty with him for deliberately ignoring your ‘just milk, please.’ It’s unlikely anyone would jump down your throat for asking him to be ‘a mindreader’. At most they’d suggest he was only absent-minded, thinking of other things. (Not really listening, possibly not all that interested in how you wanted your tea?) If it were absent-mindedness, some people would overlook it; plenty would still give the guy a hard time.
So we do expect men to be able to read indirect verbal cues, and non-verbal cues, in non-sexual situations. But there’s some kind of intellectual interference like a magnetic field that messes with our critical compasses when it comes to analysing relations between women and men. When we’re talking about sex, if men are involved, we can’t see straight. (I’m willing to bet that the response would have been rather different if it were a woman who had behaved as Ansari did. Her conduct wouldn’t have been overlooked as standard.)
But, long story short: Ansari didn’t need to be a mind reader. Grace gave multiple non-verbal and verbal cues that he ignored, in a way with which most girls and women are familiar from their encounters with boys and men. (I’ve had sexual encounters with women, too, and only once did I meet that kind of steam-rolling heedlessness in a woman. She was so much an exception that I remember thinking in surprise, “oh, she’s acting like a man.”)
And if it really was absent-mindedness rather than callous disregard that made Ansari ignore the signals? Perfectly possible. But what I’d say is that to allow yourself to be absent-minded in a sexual encounter is not so benign as when you’re making coffee. Especially when it’s a systematic sort of absent-mindedness affecting almost one half of the global population in their relation to the other half.
I’ve got plenty more to say on this: I’ll be back next week.