Aziz Ansari, Sexual Harassment, and the Important Conversation Surrounding Assault

As a South Asian entertainment writer, I’ve always supported Aziz Ansari and his work. It’s reflected in my own. I’ve written about his successes. His work in “Parks and Recreation” and “Master of None” defined how a South Asian-American character should be represented in the media and popular culture. He’s always proclaimed himself to be a feminist, talking about the importance of listening to women in his various stand-up comedy acts and his 2015 book, “Modern Romance: An Investigation.”

He helped construct the ladder for fellow South Asian-Americans to climb on and show off their talent.

That’s why I’ve felt profoundly let down recently. It’s taken a week for me to write this after Grace (not her real name) brought to light her horrible encounter with Ansari. It was published on Babe.

For me, Ansari was one of my heroes for a long time. Just a few weeks ago, I cheered loudly when he won the Golden Globe for his performance in “Master of None,” creating history as the first South Asian to ever win. His work has helped break barriers in the industry but I will not let his harassment of Grace become a reason to pull down the work of his fellow South Asian peers who continue to excel.

It’s hard not to take it personally when it comes to Ansari. The desi community is definitely reeling because for so long, we have proudly called him our champion. It’s disappointing to see he used his platform to hoist himself as a feminist but didn’t practice what he preached. I can only hope the discussion that has opened up doesn’t die anytime soon.

As for Ansari, he may not necessarily be a sexual predator, and this may be a one-time incident (I hope) but it has scarred me as a fan alone. That’s why, I can’t even begin to imagine what Grace went through.

In the piece on Babe, she talks to the writer Katie Way about her date with him in September 2017. They met at an Emmy awards party and a week later, he asked her out.

Their date included drinks at his apartment, dinner at a fancy oyster bar, and then back to his apartment, where the night completely derailed for her. The article on Babe is triggering. It dives into the many visceral details of what allegedly took place. Ever since it was published on Jan 13, the story has been met with an incredible amount of attention, especially because of the current climate and the rise of the #MeToo movement.

Over the last few months, its been emboldening to see powerful men being taken down from their pedestal because of brave women who came forward with the truth. It has resulted in the long overdue and powerful Time’s Up Movement. Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K., Charlie Rose, Mark Schwahn, Jeremy Piven, Jeffrey Tambor, Matt Lauer, Roy Moore, Al Franken are only a few men in this expanding list. For them, their careers are now over, as they should be. Should we also add Ansari to this list? Maybe or maybe not.

However, while Grace’s account doesn’t seem incredulous because it didn’t jeopardize her entire career or because she wasn’t taken advantage of while trying to get ahead, the trauma she experienced shouldn’t be diminished. Just because Grace didn’t leave his apartment yelling and screaming, which is what society assumes is the telltale sign of harassment, doesn’t mean she wasn’t harassed.

Once back at the apartment, it didn’t take long for Ansari to make moves on her. It started out as kissing but the further and quicker it went, the more uncomfortable Grace became. She gave him nonverbal cues and eventually flat out told him no.

A lot of people proclaim what followed next was not sexual assault or harassment. Unfortunately, those who believe this don’t seem to understand what coercion really means.

Ansari agreed to just chill on the couch when she told him she didn’t want to feel forced, she didn’t want to hate him. He responded by saying it’s not fun unless both of them are into it. He may be slow or dense but after this, one would assume he got her point. Soon after they took to the couch, Ansari put on “Seinfeld” on TV and resumed trying to pressure her into sex. He asked her to go down on him, she did. It’s clear from the article that he was way too aggressive and pushy.

Now, the same people who thought this isn’t harassment also say she could’ve gotten up and left at that moment instead of doing what he told her to do, especially if she didn’t want to. The thing is, none of us were in her position at the time, so it’s not our place to decide whether she froze or just felt really pressured. But it’s important to pause and think about it: 10 days ago, she didn’t think she would get to go on a date of a comedian she admired. 10 days ago, she didn’t think that comedian would treat her like an object.

If you read the story, you’ll know that in the first 30 minutes of them making out, she gave him nonverbal cues about being in discomfort before strongly saying no. It seemed like he understood and that’s why he moved them to the couch to hang out. Or at least that’s what I assumed when I read it. That’s probably what Grace assumed, as well. Or maybe he thought she’d agree once she’s a little more comfortable around him. It’s a tricky assumption to make on either side. He continued to test her “no” and pushed for oral sex and a blowjob. Grace gave in to this mounting pressure.

Coercion is not consent. If a woman has repeatedly signaled to you, non-verbally and verbally, that she doesn’t want to be physical with you, men still feel a need to test this. It seemingly gives them power. It’s also what society has always taught us. Grace’s encounter with Ansari has opened up for a larger conversation about not just content but enthusiastic content.

Pakistani-British actress Jameela Jamil, who stars in “The Good Place,” opened up about it in her blog, saying “CONSENT SHOULDN’T BE THE GOLD STANDARD. That should be the basic foundation. Built upon that foundation should be fun, mutual passion, equal arousal, interest and enthusiasm. And it is any man or woman’s right at ANY time to stop, for whatever reason.” Her post is titled “What We Need to Learn from the Clusterfuck.”
And what a clusterfuck it really is.

At the end of her night with Ansari, Grace told him “all men are the fucking same” and said she was leaving. He called her an Uber and she left, crying in the car on her way home, texting her friends to let them know how badly her night had gone. The next day, he texted her to say he had fun meeting her. She responded with a lengthy text, letting him know how uncomfortable she was the whole time and that he should’ve picked up on it, maybe he did and ignored it. He replied with an apology for misconstruing the situation.

Everyone is divided on whose side to take since the release of Grace’s story. Ansari’s supporters, despite condemning his actions, wonder if what transpired between the two constitutes as sexual assault or an unfortunate episode of sexual proclivities; a really bad date. Was it her fault for not getting out of the apartment sooner because he never physically forced her into staying? Why did she have to go down on him or remain naked with him? Why wasn’t she more vocal, more clear with the word NO?

All of this brings out a larger conversation about how we, as a society, expect women to fight for their rights. Why should she even be in this position without fearing about the potential consequences of saying NO, STOP. We should be questioning why so many men have decided they will continue to harass women because they were what, horny? A lot of women are sympathetic towards Grace because they can relate to what she went through.

Instead of talking about finally educating the society on what matters, the Ansari story has snowballed into several other topics. One of them is the way Babe handled this whole story.
The fairly lesser known publication describes its target audience as “girls who don’t give a fuck.” Their mission includes this: “babe is into good news reporting, trash trends, personal stories, industry-leading analysis of fuckboys and the pettiest celebrity drama.” Yes, they are also aware of how they contradict themself.

In her writing of the story, Way sets up this monumental issue by talking about something small like how Grace wanted red wine at the restaurant, instead he ordered her a white. She brings this up to apparently highlight Ansari’s forceful nature even before they went back to his place.  She also spends time in the piece where Grace talks about her need to wear the right type of clothes for her date with Ansari. While reporting about sexual harassment is a difficult task, several reporters have, especially in the last few months, successfully tackled it. With this Babe style of reporting, something seemed off. To top it all, some of the follow-up stories on Babe dot net, after they published the Ansari piece, are in extremely poor taste.

In fact, as Way met more and more criticism, she retaliated. Ashleigh Banfield, an HLN anchor, narrated her open letter to Grace on-air, saying she is chiseling away the #MeToo movement that so many women have wanted for so long.

As her rebuttal, Way wrote an email criticizing Banfield, not just criticizing her take but also mocking her looks, her age, and her opinion.

Once again, the conversation has swiftly moved away from Ansari’s behavior and the importance of talking about consent to the whole “women attacking women” trope and it is baffling. Similarly unbelievable is another excuse a lot of fans are coming up with is that Ansari is being punished for being brown and successful. Let’s be real: that is some solid BS. If the #MeToo movement has taught us anything, it’s that we’re bringing down men who take advantage of women or other men, no matter what their race is. If you’re a pig, you’re a pig.

Ansari’s response to this story was unsatisfactory, to say the very least. He explains the story from his point of view, which is fair enough but that’s about it. Nowhere in the statement does he genuinely apologize to Grace (at least not publicly). Nowhere does he take responsibility for anything that happened. Nowhere does he talk about what he learned from all of this. Here is his complete statement:

In September of last year, I met a woman at a party. We exchanged numbers. We texted back and forth and eventually went on a date. We went out to dinner, and afterwards we ended up engaging in sexual activity, which by all indications was completely consensual.

The next day, I got a text from her saying that although “it may have seemed okay,” upon further reflection, she felt uncomfortable. It was true that everything did seem okay to me, so when I heard that it was not the case for her, I was surprised and concerned. I took her words to heart and responded privately after taking the time to process what she had said.

I continue to support the movement that is happening in our culture. It is necessary and long overdue.

Where does Ansari’s career go from here? The actor did not show up for last night’s Screen Actor’s Guild Awards, where he was nominated for the Best Actor category. When his name was announced, it was met with silence and zero applause. He did not win. “Master of None” wasn’t officially renewed for a third season by Netflix but before any of this, it had a sure shot of returning. Now, it’s doubtful. Grace mentions to Babe that Ansari spoke to her about a new, secretive project he was working on. I don’t know if it will ever see light of day anymore.

Maybe things could change if Ansari was open to a more honest conversation about his behaviour and sincerely apologized for it; if he shouldered the burden of what he did because right now, it looks like it’s only Grace who is suffering the consequences of his actions. Isn’t that what we need to change? The culprit should be facing the blame and not the victim. Let’s hold them responsible. Let’s ask for more; let’s ask for better. Maybe that’s what we learn from this entire Aziz Ansari story.

 

 

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