#AzizAnsari 6: It Didn’t Count

Bonus material accompanying #AzizAnsari 6: Denying Female Agency

(Or, Common Reasons Some Rapes/Sexual Assaults Don’t Count)

 

“It didn’t count because it wasn’t bad enough

This one sometimes comes from people who have themselves been victims, or are ‘survivors’ (and no, I don’t intend to communicate disdain with those quotation marks, only to mark the word out as a term chosen and popularised by the feminist movement for a particular purpose. It’s a term I respect and often use, though there are equally feminist arguments against its use in at least some contexts).

Tiffany Wright, for instance, contrasts Grace’s story with experiences of her own that she would call assault: “This summer, I fell asleep in a man’s bed after telling him I didn’t want to have sex, and woke up to him inside of me. A few months before that, after I passed out at a college party, a stranger stuck his fingers inside my unconscious body and used my limp hand to get himself off. Some time during the aftermath of those two events, my now-former boss (who had 57 years to my 21) kept me after work, grabbed my waist and tried to kiss me.” She also claims to have “experienced the kind of situations Grace described. And while they can be distressing, and confusing, and humiliating, they are not assault.” I actually sympathise and agree with much of Wright’s thinking, but not the implication that assault only occurs when someone is unconscious, severely inebriated or an employee of the perpetrator. The degree of choice or constraint experienced by a person prior to or during an action or event that harms them does not fundamentally alter the labelling of that action or event: if you live in the Bay of Naples and Vesuvius erupts, destroying your home, you are a victim of a natural disaster whether or not you were free or not free to have gone to live elsewhere. The degree of choice you had may alter our perception of the severity of the harm, and how sorry we feel for you, but not the fact of the disaster or your status as victim of it. Neither do I agree with Wright’s position that our own experiences should dictate the terms of a debate: ‘these are my experiences, and they provide the lens through which I view all discussions of sexual assault.’

As I pointed out in my last post, ‘sexual assault’ can legally speaking cover a broad range of behaviours of very diverse severities. This desire (which Wright shares with my friend Anonymous 1) to protect the purity of a category to which we feel we belong is understandable, but perhaps not always entirely defensible, intellectually or ethically. And the notion that some assaults or rapes are ‘real’ while others are not is, I think, more dangerous to women than the legally justified application of these terms to a wide range of scenarios.

This proposition is also made by those (often but by no means exclusively men) who fear that behaviours they think are reasonable will be criminalised or condemned, that therefore their own sex lives may have to change, and sex might lose its fun. This is, essentially, a conservative attitude: one that doesn’t want our sexual culture to change too much. Kyle Smith, arguing that Grace simply regretted the evening and framed it as she did to get revenge, clearly falls into this category.

Then there are the many women who like Bari Weiss argue that ‘I too have had lousy romantic encounters, as has every adult woman I know’, and that the most ‘useful term for what [Grace] experienced’ is ‘“bad sex”’. These seem to fall somewhere between the Kyle Smith desire to conserve the culture of sex as it is, and the Tiffany Wright desire to protect the purity of the victim/survivor category. I suspect that Bari Weiss falls closer to the conservative end of the spectrum; her arguments are actually very similar to Kyle Smith’s. But for others it seems to be less conservatism and more a reluctance to accept unpalatable ideas such as ‘many men don’t require their partner to want sex in order to enjoy having it’; they prefer to believe that men are simply a bit dim and women aren’t making themselves clear enough.

 

“It didn’t count because you should have expected it (and got out sooner)”

Bari Weiss: “If you are hanging out naked with a man, it’s safe to assume he is going to try to have sex with you.”

Compare Michael Portillo on BBC Radio 4 The Moral Maze episode ‘Moral Complicity’ 18.10.17: the culture of sexual harassment in Hollywood is “not just engendered by the people at the top: it’s understood by the people at the bottom, who have come to Hollywood, you know, they’re jolly good-looking, they come from the middle of Iowa, they have an amazing opportunity to make millions of pounds, and they’re entering a situation which maybe they understand.” He derides the suggestion that the women who accused Weinstein might not have known what they were getting themselves into: “you think they would have been – you know, having arrived in Hollywood, Tinsel Town, you think they’d be surprised by it – you think so?” Their foreknowledge, he argues, makes them more complicit than victims.

This proposition engages the idea of default consent: your going to his place, or to Hollywood, constituted consent because you should have known that going to his place/Hollywood meant there’d be sex. This argument serves to reduce the culpability of the alleged perpetrator by proving the complicity of the supposed victim, who is now no longer a victim because they were complicit.

 

“It didn’t count because you didn’t fight back (hard enough)”

Bari Weiss: “If he pressures you to do something you don’t want to do, use a four-letter word, stand up on your two legs and walk out his door.”

Compare Melanie Phillips at the How To Academy debate ‘The #MeToo Movement Has Gone Too Far’ arguing that if you are sexually harassed at work you should just punch your harasser in the face and/or leave the job because clearly it isn’t a working environment for you. Staying in the job and then speaking up about it is something she derides (with, apparently, no awareness at all of the fact that some people in this world experience financial constraints).

This argument also turns on default consent and is a close cousin of the above: your passivity constituted consent; only natural for him to have a go, and keep trying, if you didn’t yell ‘no’ in his face, punch him or leave. Again, this serves to mitigate the responsibility of the alleged perpetrator.

The Unbeatable Eloquence of Bates

It might seem odd to post a review of Laura Bates’s new book Misogynation: The True Scale of Sexism in the ‘Optimism’ section, but Bates’s work is all about rousing resistance by raising consciousness, and the signature deftness with which she slays anti-feminist rhetoric is truly cheering.

Really this is a review of an event on the topic of her book, rather than the book itself (a collection of previously published essays aimed at ‘joining the dots’ of sexism). And though her writing is good, it’s hearing her speak that is the real Laura Bates experience: she can string together more complex sentences bearing more factual data and incisive arguments with more speed and eloquence than any other public speaker I have ever heard.

Has #MeToo gone too far? Do feminists think wolf-whistling is sexual assault? Read the rest here…

#AzizAnsari 5: Sexual Assault?

I think it’s time to talk about the definition of assault.

Let me first make it clear that my aim is neither to assert nor to deny that what Aziz Ansari did to the ‘Grace’ of the Babe article is sexual assault.

My aim is to examine some of the responses to the single use of the word ‘assault’ in that article, and perhaps clarify a thing or two.

Briefly, the relevant bits of the original Babe article: Grace is quoted saying ‘“It took a really long time for me to validate this as sexual assault”’, and ‘“I felt violated”’.

In my favourite New York Times article ever, Bari Weiss called the story an ‘insidious attempt … to criminalize awkward, gross and entitled sex’.

Kyle Smith, in his National Review article entitled ‘Feminists, Stop Bad Sex Before It Happens’, claims that Ansari’s behaviour ‘fell well short of a crime’ but that, ‘following the guidelines that have been established on campus’, the young woman mistakenly ‘channeled her bad feelings into the language of crime.’ He quotes her phrase ‘I was violated’ and states that here she is ‘implying that not merely assault but actual rape took place.’ But, he says, ‘no crime occurred. Sex willingly embarked upon by both parties, even if one party feels reluctance or disgust or shame, is not a crime.’ (I should point out here that it’s a bit of a stretch to claim that Grace’s ‘I felt violated’ is in any way intended to mean ‘I felt like actual rape took place’, when ‘to violate’ as ‘to rape’ is hardly in common contemporary usage; it is perfectly plain that she is using it in its more dominant and current sense as ‘to fail to respect’. This is a shabby little attempt on Smith’s part to smear the article with the panic-inducing taint of the false-rape-allegation myth.)

In a Guardian Opinion piece coming from a very different angle to Smith’s, Tiffany Wright also protested Grace’s use of the word assault: ‘Assault is not a feeling. Discomfort is a feeling, embarrassment and hurt and anger are all feelings, but assault has to have an objective definition because of the legal and social ramifications that come with it. When we act as though disrespect, harassment, assault and rape are all different words for the same thing, the conversation starts to lose its legitimacy.’

What was interesting, though, was that neither Wright nor any of the others actually provided that ‘objective definition’ they claimed was being trampled all over.

Now, it’s important to mention that the terms ‘assault’ and ‘sexual assault’ exist beyond their legal usages, as do countless other terms, such as ‘murder’ and ‘fraud.’ To use them is not, in fact, necessarily to engage with a legal framework of crime and punishment; it certainly doesn’t follow from the use of the word ‘assault’ that one is suggesting someone ought to be tried in a court of law. There is absolutely nothing to suggest that ‘Grace’ was accusing Ansari of a crime in any formal or legal sense. Her text message to him after the event was polite and aimed at informing rather than accusing. Read it here.

I would argue that the whole ‘exposé’ was, similarly, aimed at informing rather than punishing – but I’ll return to this. For now, let’s give the question of legal definitions some consideration. The writers above were angry she’d used the term ‘assault’ and adamant she’d used it incorrectly, but none of them actually quoted the law.

According to the United States Department of Justice,

‘sexual assault is any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient. Falling under the definition of sexual assault are sexual activities as forced sexual intercourse, forcible sodomy, child molestation, incest, fondling, and attempted rape.’

Notice that this legal definition is rather broad, embracing a number of very different behaviours; if violations of different magnitudes are being grouped under one umbrella, this isn’t Grace’s doing. Neither is it unusual in law: the acts of stealing a loaf of bread and stealing a car are both termed theft; all murders are not equally heinous, nor do they receive the same penalties. The reality is that some sexual assaults are ‘worse’ than others: it doesn’t follow that they are not all sexual assaults.

Now, is there anyone who can say that Grace gave ‘explicit consent’ to having her breast touched, to being digitally penetrated, or to receiving oral sex?

Let’s revisit her account:

‘Within moments, he was kissing her. “In a second, his hand was on my breast.” Then he was undressing her, then he undressed himself. She remembers feeling uncomfortable at how quickly things escalated.

When Ansari told her he was going to grab a condom within minutes of their first kiss, Grace voiced her hesitation explicitly. “I said something like, ‘Whoa, let’s relax for a sec, let’s chill.’” She says he then resumed kissing her, briefly performed oral sex on her, and asked her to do the same thing to him. She did, but not for long. “It was really quick. Everything was pretty much touched and done within ten minutes of hooking up, except for actual sex.”

She says Ansari began making a move on her that he repeated during their encounter. “The move he kept doing was taking his two fingers in a V-shape and putting them in my mouth, in my throat to wet his fingers, because the moment he’d stick his fingers in my throat he’d go straight for my vagina and try to finger me.” Grace called the move “the claw.”’

Now, there certainly are situations in which people are coerced into performing acts – such as ‘giving’ oral sex – but that can be harder to argue, so let’s focus here on Grace as ‘the recipient’ of ‘sexual contact or behavior’.

Is there any evidence in her account that she gave ‘explicit consent’ to any of the contact or behaviour described?

No.

Of course, there is the possibility that her account makes omissions – but none of the writers quoted above who so vociferously denied that this episode involved assault made that accusation. They were drawing their impressions and inclusions from the Babe piece, the only detailed evidence that we have to go on. Ansari declined to say more than that he thought the sexual contact had been ‘by all indications completely consensual’. He does not actually cite any instances of ‘explicit consent.’ On what grounds should we believe there was any?

(We’ll leave aside for now the fact that she actually gave a number of indications of dissent.)

I’d like to just mention the UK definition of assault while I’m here: from the Sexual Offences Act 2003, Section 3 (still current in 2018):

Sexual assault

(1) A person (A) commits an offence if—

(a) he intentionally touches another person (B),

(b) the touching is sexual,

(c) B does not consent to the touching, and

(d) A does not reasonably believe that B consents.

(2) Whether a belief is reasonable is to be determined having regard to all the circumstances, including any steps A has taken to ascertain whether B consents.

 

If Ansari’s response to the story is sincere, he believed that there was consent; but was this ‘reasonable’? Is there any evidence of his taking ‘steps’ in order ‘to ascertain whether’ Grace really did consent?

In the absence of any such effort, his ‘belief’ may not be ‘reasonable’, the sexual touching not consensual, and the term ‘assault’ potentially applicable.

But I repeat, I’m not here to argue that it was an assault and that Ansari should be charged. My point is that those writers who have accused ‘Grace’/Babe of abusing the letter of the law have cast their stones rather wide of the mark. If she had meant to accuse Ansari of sexual assault in a legal and formal sense (and I do not believe that she did), the letter of the law could actually have upheld her.

Whether any court would have actually convicted Ansari is another matter.

I find it interesting – almost amusing, nearly appalling – that both US and UK law offer definitions of sexual assault that are more progressive than those implicitly held by the three writers quoted above, two of whom at least consider their own thinking to be feminist.

 

I’ll be back soon to consider why this could be.