July 18, 2019

The Aziz Ansari Paradox

“You probably already know—or think you know—what happened on the night of September 25, 2017 between Aziz Ansari and an anonymous woman calling herself “Grace.” These are the accepted facts: she went on a date with Ansari, they went back to his house, and then had some sexual contact that left Grace feeling deeply uncomfortable. No crime was alleged, since Ansari did not force himself on Grace in any way, but this was clearly a nasty encounter for her. The next day, she texted Ansari telling him as much and he apologized for having “misread things.” Several months later, she published her account on the website babe.

For a few weeks following the publication of Grace’s story, the internet was awash with claims and counter-claims about the rights and wrongs of what had taken place. Every media outlet offered up its judgment on Ansari. To some commentators, he was the victim of a witch hunt, persecuted by an internet mob with no respect for due process. On the other side, many feminists argued that his behavior exemplified the aggressive, entitled, chauvinistic attitude that too many men show towards women. Others suggested that the reaction against Ansari was disproportionate—yes he had behaved badly, but that badly? Everyone had an opinion, not only on what he had done, but on what the incident revealed about sexual politics in the #MeToo era.

In the language of feminist theory, Ansari’s behavior fell somewhere on the “sexual violence spectrum.” This begins at one end with commonplace forms of sexual misbehavior (e.g., cat-calling, lewd comments, “microaggressions”) and extends all the way along to rape and sexualized torture and murder. The feminist claim is that everything on the sexual violence spectrum should be viewed as emanating from the same source, although some acts clearly cause more harm than others. While Ansari did not force Grace into sex, he did ignore her discomfort in a way that was arguably coercive. His behavior could therefore be placed somewhere towards the less severe end of the spectrum: worse than a misogynistic joke, but not as harmful as a sexual assault.”

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