You’ve probably heard by now of the increasingly controversial and inflammatory piece in Babe in which Grace (not her real name) describes a date with comedian Aziz Ansari. It has not gone down well. The Atlantic called it racist “revenge porn.” Bari Weiss of The New York Times, a writer who has consistently and, it seems, deliberately misunderstood most female-driven efforts of the Trump era called the letter indicative of a lack of female agency. In short, a lot of white women in highly prestigious publications have been vocalizing a lot of hand-wringing that I’ve been hearing men doing in less prestigious and less public circles. This is not to say that these female authors are caping for men or anything of the sort. What it does mean, however, is that there are a lot of men who are reading Grace’s account in Babe and getting very nervous.
It is very easy to look at Harvey Weinstein and make a moral judgment. The man was an immensely powerful studio executive with the power to make or break careers. He stands accused of forcing himself on dozens, if not literally hundreds of women. He is, quite frankly, unattractive. In short, he fits the image of a serial rapist. We can look at his behavior and match it to what we collectively understand about rape. There is no semblance of consent anywhere in there. Men can examine their own behavior and say “I have never whipped it out and masturbated into a potted plant,” and do so with confidence. They are not Harvey Weinstein.
But Aziz Ansari is more complicated, because it is less cut and dry. There are not hundreds of women coming forward. There is no weird sexual behavior, only relatively common practices. The woman doesn’t even have a firm identity that we can use to make comparative judgments about our proximity to her. (This is not to say I don’t believe the account, just that anonymity often raises public suspicion a la Rolling Stone’s “A Rape on Campus”.) Men read Grace’s story and begin to panic. They’ve done things like that before ― had sex without communicating, had a hook-up end with someone in tears. Does this mean they too will lose their careers, their standing in the public? If it can happen to Aziz Ansari, a self-proclaimed feminist comedian, could it really happen to anyone?
Of course, that last question is deeply ironic insofar as it reflects the common refrain of anti-rape advocates (”It can happen to anyone!”) used to describe the reality of women’s day-to-day experiences. The cold sweats of men imagining that at any moment, any future or past sexual partner could say they crossed a line is just a hint of the choking panic women feel doing everyday things, like, say, walking down the street or riding the subway.
But this panic has morphed into indignation and lines in the sand. “#MeToo has gone too far,” many men and assorted women are declaring across the internet with their fists slamming the proverbial table. They say the scale of abuse is being compressed to the extent that now even a sideways glance is grounds for a public shaming. They say that we are being asked to become psychic, to peer into the minds of women who are just so not straightforward. How are we supposed to know what they’re thinking ― and not just what they say they’re thinking, but what they’re really thinking? They ask, as Bari Weiss does, why we must criminalize “awkward, gross and entitled sex.” They muse, “What if we just asked women to stand up for themselves more? That would solve a lot of problems.”
Harvey Weinstein is an anomaly, or at least a relative rarity. Aziz Ansari is not. When Weiss adds the throwaway line, “I’m apparently the victim of sexual assault” at the beginning of the piece, it has a kind of weight to it that few readers likely pick up on. It signifies that, yes, the epidemic of sexual violence really is as widespread and pervasive as we’ve been saying, because sexual violence doesn’t just entail brutal, violent acts of rape. It means that, no, it’s not just as easy as women being able to boldly proclaim their sexual agency in the same way that men do without being labeled a slut or a whore. It says that, yes, men are complicit in this system in a variety of ways and at different places within the hierarchy of abuse.
The sad fact is that Grace, whoever she may be, did not choose to have what to most men seems an unpleasant sexual encounter become so deeply upsetting. Perhaps another woman would have been disturbed but ultimately unaffected in the long term. But this is not how trauma operates. We do not get to choose when and how it affects us, or under what circumstances it can seep into us. When we freeze up, choke on our words, are unable to fully sit in our bodies it is not because we consciously choose to do so, it is because we revert to some primal instinct of self-protection.
Aziz Ansari is not going to jail. He may well be among the many legions of men ― Dustin Hoffman, Gary Oldman, Johnny Depp ― who have been labeled as abusive and who have carried on as if nothing ever happened. But the culture will never change and the necessity of a movement like #MeToo will never dissipate unless the Aziz Ansari’s of the world recognize that they too must examine their behavior and, as uncomfortable as it may be, change it.