Why Aziz Ansari's Actions Were Sexual Assault — Not Just a 'Bad Date'
Editor’s Note: If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering for its graphic description of an experience of sexual assault. You can contact the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.
The recent news concerning a woman’s “bad date” with actor and comedian Aziz Ansari has sparked an essential discussion on what “counts” as sexual assault. Some claimed the woman, referred to anonymously as “Grace,” was taking away from the importance of the #MeToo movement. Then others, of course, didn’t believe it was assault simply because it wasn’t “legally” assault. but there were those of us who saw the situation for what it was: sexual assault.
There is so much I want to say on the subject, but for the purpose of keeping this as an article and not an essay, I want to discuss the part that most affected me as a survivor of both childhood and adult sexual abuse and as someone who grew up in household permeated by male rage, threat and physical violence. For me, that part was the widespread blame of the victim and the complete and utter denial of her sexual assault. It appeared to me that there were far more people standing against Grace than there were for her. And those people came with questions. So many questions.
“Well, if she didn’t want to have sex with him, why did she allow him to undress her?”
“Why didn’t she leave sooner?”
“Surely she was teasing him?”
“Why didn’t she hit him/kick him/push him away?”
Questions like the ones above are nothing new. It’s pretty common knowledge that women are often treated to a truly horrendous and humiliating questioning process when they report being raped or sexually assaulted. Yet, despite my understanding of this warped worldview, despite hearing it over and over again, I am still shocked by it, each and every time. It still turns my stomach and, more than anything, it promotes a vicious cycle of self-blame and self-hatred.
To the people questioning this situation, I want to give you a little insight into the reason someone might go along with things they are uncomfortable with. That reason: fear for our safety.
In an ideal world, every sexual encounter would be mutual and each person would be respected and, believe it or not, there would enjoyment on both parts. The trouble is, we do not live in an ideal world. We live in a world where women are often taught to fear men from a very early age. We also live in a world where we can often fear male rage and violence. And while, yes, we do understand it is “not all men,” we have learned from experience and statistics this happens, a lot. And the truth is, I do not know a single woman who hasn’t got a story like the one Grace shared.
My own story, or stories, are very similar to the one Grace shared. I’m not proud to say I have engaged in sexual activity with men when I haven’t wanted to and I’ve done things I wish I could take back — but they are far more than waking up the next day full of regret. It is waking up the next day and knowing I did what I had to do to feel safe. Let me explain that further. See, like Grace, I have been pushed, persuaded and manipulated into sexual activity. I have said no more times than I can count. I have walked away from a man in a nightclub, only to be crept up on only seconds later. I have been on dates with men I thought I knew and could trust and ended up realizing far too late that I did not feel safe. And see, people have asked me why I invited said guy back to my apartment or why I went to his. They questioned me over my intentions and told me if I were not interested in sex, I shouldn’t have been alone with him.
And this is where the problem begins for me. A woman spending time alone with a man is by no means an invitation for sex. It is not a declaration or a contract of what will happen. The fact is that, yes, some women will go back to a man’s apartment because they want to have sex and that’s fine. But it is also fine if that same woman changes her mind for whatever reason. In fact, forget the reason. She doesn’t owe that to anyone. It’s also OK for me to go back to someone’s apartment and expect not to be assaulted, raped or brutally attacked. See, call me naive, but I want to believe that humanity is good. And so, yes, there have been times I have been alone with a man in a bedroom and, like Grace, I have done things I did not want to do. But I do believe, or rather, I am trying to accept that I am not responsible for the things that happened to me by the hands of a man who couldn’t take no for an answer.
I’m going to be talking about a personal and really graphic incident now, so I advise you to stop reading here if you fear this could trigger you.
It was summer of 2005. I stayed on campus because I feared going back home (remember that male rage, threat and physical violence I mentioned earlier?) to live with my father. I spent the summer working as a summer school assistant and for the most part, it was a lot of fun. That summer ended, however, in tears and fear, regret and blame. I had become pretty close to this Italian guy, let’s call him Marco. On his last night in England, he asked me to join him and some friends at the bar for goodbye drinks.
At the end of the night, Marco had asked to walk me home and since I felt pretty safe with him, I said yes. During the walk home, he pulled me under a tree and kissed me. It was a perfectly innocent kiss, I thought, and I remember feeling good about it. I also knew I wanted nothing more than that and I didn’t expect to have to explain that to him. I mean, I could have gotten into my history of childhood sexual abuse and how I’m terrified of sex or most sexual activity since it happened, but I didn’t want to spoil what I thought was a nice moment between two consenting adults. I also figured that if it turned out he did want to have sex, if things escalated, I could always say no. But what happens when your chance to say no is stripped away from you? When the very word is ignored, over and over again? What happens when, like in Grace’s case, the person you are with becomes forceful and aggressive? That’s what happened to me that night under that tree.
Marco and I were kissing one moment and the next he has unzipped his jeans and is pulling my hand towards him with great force. I looked down at my hand and felt sick. I felt disgusted with myself for touching him. I said no. I did what you’re expected to do, what you’re told you should have done. I said no four times, maybe even five, but each time my “no” became weaker and weaker, just like he knew it would. See, that’s the thing. Men like Marco, men like Aziz, they rely on it. They rely on a “no” that has become weakened by manipulation, force and coercion. I tried to walk away from that tree, but he wouldn’t let me.
“Just one more kiss,” he said. And yes, this is probably the part where a rape apologist comes in and says… “Ah, see, you should have walked away there. You had a choice.” But did I? Did I actually? Please consider I had already experienced this man forcing me to touch his penis. In my mind, if I did not agree to “one more kiss,” he could actually rape me. So, yes, I did kiss him. I was disgusted, but I kissed him. I kissed him because it felt like the safest thing for me to do in that moment. The truth is, that kiss wasn’t enough for him and after a few minutes, he pushed again. This time it was for me to take off my clothes. Overall, the night continued like this for a while, with him pushing me to go further and further until I walked away. Well, ran actually.
Here’s the thing: until I read Grace’s story, I did not believe this incident to be sexual assault. It was, instead, in my mind a “bad date” as Aziz apologists are calling it.
I wish I could say this was a one-time occurrence, but it wasn’t. Similar things have happened to me throughout my whole adult life, up until the moment I found a partner I could trust, who doesn’t force me into anything with which I am not comfortable. Up until that point though, there were far too many situations like that time with Marco and there was always one question burning at the back of my mind any time it would happen. It was a question we hear so often today in society — “Did you expect him to be any different?”
My answer: Yes. Yes because if I didn’t, I would never have met anyone. I would never trust anyone and because, despite our fears, we yearn for connection. But even this answer doesn’t suffice for those asking that question, does it? I know this because we are told not to trust a man after one date. Please allow me to remind you 1 in 3 women experience sexual or physical violence — most likely from their intimate partner, according to a report from the World Health Organization. So it doesn’t matter if we meet someone in a nightclub, online or even if we have been dating for years; we are still at risk of sexual or physical violence at the hands of men. That is a fact.
A year after my incident with Marco, I met a guy online whom I started dating. I won’t get into that because it was a truly traumatic experience, one I am still trying to cope with, but I will tell you that after two years together, our relationship ended in rape. So like I said, it doesn’t matter who you go home with or who you date because you are not to blame. There is only one person responsible for rape or sexual assault and that is the person who carries it out.
I do not believe Grace is responsible for what happened that night. I do not believe it was due to miscommunication or as The New York Times claimed, a case of Aziz not being a “mind reader.” It does not take a mind reader to hear the word “no” or to understand the multitude of ways Grace tried to let him know she was not interested in sex. Yet he persisted and in the end, we can only assume that Grace stayed longer than she wanted to, did more than she felt comfortable with because she didn’t feel safe — because she was repeatedly ignored.
I grew up in a household controlled by fear and from an early age, I learned that I must be passive, must be quiet and tip toe around (sometimes literally) if I were not to awaken the beast that was my father. Granted, my case may be an extreme one and I appreciate not all women have gone through this, but fear of men is something many can relate to. It’s all around us.
I guess all we can really hope for is that men start to take something away from the current discussions surrounding consent and that, as a society, we can learn to blame those responsible and not the ones who did everything to prevent what happened to them. It’s been said that many men are currently scared because they fear “anything being classed as sexual assault these days.” To those men, I ask they use that fear to learn about consent. Women, believe it or not, are not out to get you. We quite simply want to be respected.
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.
We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.
Photo via Aziz Ansari Facebook page