What’s Missing From Coverage of the Aziz Ansari Sexual Assault Allegation
Sometimes the news isn’t as straightforward as it’s made to seem. Juliette Virzi, The Mighty’s associate mental heath editor, explains what to keep in mind if you see this topic or similar stories in your newsfeed. This is The Mighty Takeaway.
Editor’s Note: If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.
“I’m apparently the victim of sexual assault. And if you’re a sexually active woman in the 21st century, chances are that you are, too.”
That sentence is how Bari Weiss begins her op-ed for the New York Times regarding the sexual assault allegations that surfaced on Saturday against Aziz Ansari. According to the publication babe, Ansari coerced a 23-year old woman — referred to in the piece as “Grace,” a pseudonym — into sexually engaging with him. On Sunday, Ansari addressed the allegations (you can read his statement here).
Weiss’s criticism was not the minority. In the days following the allegations, the story was criticized for minimizing the impact and importance of the #MeToo movement and humiliating Ansari in “3000 words of revenge porn.”
If you’re anything like me, you may have read coverage of this news and walked away feeling conflicted. And while many of these articles do make thought-provoking points we should talk about, one thing that hit me over and over again was what was missing from the coverage — compassion.
Instead of pausing first to validate Grace’s experience, we’ve immediately jumped to these scorched earth opinion pieces questioning if the assault was actually assault, and what Grace “should” have done in the situation. As allies — and as decent human beings — rather than judging, we should be exercising compassion, saying “I believe you” and validating Grace. The way this story has been handled highlights the fact that we need to do a better job of how we initially respond to sexual assault stories — because the way the media talks about it trickles down to how we talk about it in our own lives.
The summer after my first year of college, a close friend confided in me and another friend that she had been sexually assaulted at the end of high school. She shared the perpetrator was one of our mutual friends. My friend and I both listened to her recount her experience, but had different responses to her in that moment — both were wrong.
My friend instantly jumped into a story about how her sorority sister, who had been raped by a relative for many years, disliked when girls “cried sexual assault” the next day simply because they made a choice they regretted. She used comparison as a tool to invalidate her experience. I instead, sat there, listened, but didn’t say anything at all. I invalidated her story with my silence. Though we had different reactions, both had the same consequence: we had invalidated our friend in her moment of vulnerability, and it led to her closing off emotionally from us for years after.
I bring up this anecdote for two reasons. One, because most of us at one time or another haven’t responded well to a story about sexual assault, and it’s vital we learn why our reactions matter. And two, because these are the majority of responses we’ve seen in the wake of the Aziz Ansari sexual assault allegations. It seems that we are either immediately calling into question whether or not Grace’s experience was “bad enough” to be considered assault or are so overwhelmed by the prospect of having to “pick a side” that we don’t say anything at all.
When news like this breaks, the media informs us on how to think about difficult issues, and harsh criticisms of victims like Grace leave a mark. In a study on shame after a sexual assault, it was found that up to 75 percent of women reported feeling ashamed about themselves following sexual assault, with being assaulted by a known assailant significantly increasing the extent of shame reported. Not only will this coverage likely impact Grace’s mental health, it may also affect other survivors who may continue to stay silent in fear of being dismissed.
This is something Mighty contributor Monica Sudakov wrote about in her piece, “5 Reasons Sexual Assault Survivors Don’t Open up About Their Abuse.”
Most of us feel deep shame about it. We question what we did wrong. Why didn’t we stop it. We must be bad. We must have deserved it… Especially if it’s a relative, someone well known or someone powerful. The odds are we will be disbelieved and that’s humiliating.
This isn’t to say we can’t have conversations about the larger societal implications of news like this. In fact, we should talk about the irresponsible way babe broke this news, keeping the focus more on the explicit details of the sexual encounter, instead of how it affected Grace. We should talk about what constitutes consent, even if something isn’t “legally” considered assault. We should talk about why encounters like this don’t seem like “real assault” because of the way we’ve been told to view sex. These discussions are so important, but we shouldn’t have them first before acknowledging the traumatic experience of a survivor.
We all need to do a better job in our first responses to someone who opens up about their experience of sexual assault. Because even though she was anonymous in the story, Grace is a person who should be treated with respect and compassion.
Our first priority shouldn’t be deciding if her experience was “traumatic” enough to be taken seriously. This kind of stigma keeps people locked in shame and silence. We all need to do better when it comes to talking about sexual assault.
If you or a loved one is affected by sexual abuse or assault and need help, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.
Photo via Aziz Ansari Facebook page