Aziz Ansari, politics of modern dating and the thin line between a bad date and sexual assault

Swetha Ramakrishnan

Jan,16 2018 18:41:00 IST

The storm is here, Mr Wayne — as Catwoman would have said to Batman, regarding the ongoing sexual harassment cloud hovering over not just Hollywood but men and women all around the world.

After a horde of celebrities have come out in the open to speak about their sexual harassment experiences in a post-Weinstein world, it is a recent article on independent feminist website Babe, which recounts in detail a date gone horribly wrong OR an encounter of sexual assault — depending on which side of the debate you stand — that has tipped this whole narrative from a serious concern over safety and equality of women in the entertainment industry to an inverse debate on what constitutes sexual assault in an age of modern dating.

The article —  'I went on a date with Aziz Ansari. It turned into the worst night of my life' — starts off by describing how Grace (pseudonym), a 23-year-old photographer from Brooklyn, met Ansari at the Emmys after party in September 2017, and at first he "brushed her off", but exchanged numbers later on. After exchanging some "flirtatious banter", they went on a date. What happened later that night constitutes the rest of the piece.

Let's just get this out of the way then, before anything else: The headline and structure of the piece is problematic. It paints (in very broad strokes) a victimising profile of the woman, and is a blinkered version of what happened that night — one that focuses more on calling attention to horror of a bad experience, and less on the dynamics of consent and degrees of (sexual) attraction at play.

However, the reaction to the article has been extremely polarised.

Some people on Twitter have gone ahead to say that it " trivalises the #MeToo campaign" while others have pointed out that this incident, infact, is what constitutes rape culture. Here are some tweets:

This poses the crucial question that an incident of this nature poses: What is the difference between a bad date and sexual assault? And how do you know when you're crossing the line?

Unfortunately, I have only disappointing answers for those of you who were hoping to glean a more concrete point of view about Aziz Ansari.

If the article on Babe is anything to go by, the incident was both — a bad date and, in some parts, sexual assault.

Allow me to elaborate. It begins with Grace being charmed by Ansari on meeting him at the Emmys after party:

They flirted a little — he took two pictures of her, she snapped some of him — and then she and her date went back to the dance floor. “It was like, one of those things where you’re aware of the other person all night,” she said. “We would catch eyes every now and then.”

After their date, which happened a couple of days after they met, they headed back to his apartment, and that is when her discomfort starts to come through:

Within moments, he was kissing her. “In a second, his hand was on my breast.” Then he was undressing her, then he undressed himself. She remembers feeling uncomfortable at how quickly things escalated.

This exact feeling is hard to bracket. Countless women will tell you that they've been in the same place as Grace — that the pace at which she thought the night was going clearly didn't match his pace. This, clubbed with a small anecdote about not being asked her preferred type of wine, by and large constitutes a bad date.

After arriving at his apartment in Manhattan on Monday evening, they exchanged small talk and drank wine. “It was white,” she said. “I didn’t get to choose and I prefer red, but it was white wine.” 

She then asks him to slow down and "chill", something Ansari did not pay heed to as he didn't slow down. By Grace's account, he went ahead to perform oral sex on her, which is the exact opposite of slowing down.

She says he then resumed kissing her, briefly performed oral sex on her, and asked her to do the same thing to him. She did, but not for long. “It was really quick. Everything was pretty much touched and done within ten minutes of hooking up, except for actual sex.”

Does this qualify as assault? Maybe, maybe not. But it most certainly means Ansari didn't respect his date's wishes. They were on different sides of the spectrum of consent. And what he goes on to do further (again, as per Grace's account), definitely falls far more into the assault zone than just merely being a bad date.

But the main thing was that he wouldn’t let her move away from him. She compared the path they cut across his apartment to a football play. “It was 30 minutes of me getting up and moving and him following and sticking his fingers down my throat again. It was really repetitive. It felt like a f**king game.”

Throughout the course of her short time in the apartment, she says she used verbal and non-verbal cues to indicate how uncomfortable and distressed she was. “Most of my discomfort was expressed in me pulling away and mumbling. I know that my hand stopped moving at some points,” she said. “I stopped moving my lips and turned cold.”

Multiple questions have been posed to Grace after reading this account, some of which are familiar responses to any sexual assault case: Why didn't she say NO more loudly? Why wasn't she clear about her stance? Why didn't she get up and leave?

But here's the thing: the onus of clarification and consent should never lie with only one person (usually the woman) and it is preposterous to expect that someone should have just said no (maybe she tried), or walked out of his apartment (maybe she didn't want to give up on expecting decency), if their date wasn't going in a preferred direction. That's clearly far easier said than done.

Still from Master of None's season 2 on Netflix

Still from Master of None's season 2 on Netflix

If this 23-year-old has binged watched Master of None like I have, and had dreams of Aziz Ansari (also like I have), the solution to a bad date with him can't simply just be "walk out of there" or "say no". There's a power structure at play here, and Ansari seems to either be fully aware of it, or dismissive of it, both of which goes against the woman in question.

Later, according to the piece, she excused herself to go the bathroom to calm her nerves, because Ansari kept propositioning sex to her, in many different ways. When she returned he asked her if everything was okay, to which she said,

"I said I don’t want to feel forced because then I’ll hate you, and I’d rather not hate you."

Things then cooled down for a bit, before he motioned for her to go down on him. She obliged, but only because she felt pressured. Needless to say, the night ended very badly for Grace, but it also gave us no indication of what Ansari was thinking or feeling. Through the piece, we only get a sense of what she felt and how she saw the night paying out.

As a result, here's a crucial question for Aziz Ansari:

There were enough times in the night where she indicated (quite clearly according to her account) that she was not comfortable having sex with him. These were not mixed signals. These were her using whatever she could, verbal and non-verbal, to make her displeasure evident. Her walking away when he forced his hands down her throat, her saying 'Let's slow down and chill out', her making faces and saying "All men are the same" — How do you ignore these signs?

One a first date with someone, you are looking for signs of how they feel. It's only the most natural behaviour when you are around someone new. They aren't going to let on to everything they feel verbally. A lot of the vibe can be gauged by body-language and facial expressions, and anyone who says they weren't paying attention to these signs on a first date, must surely come from a place of some privilege (in this case it is that of being a celebrity and assuming that the person in front of you most definitely wants to sleep with you).

Teasing and sexual politics are rampant in first dates. You may find yourself in a situation with someone where you are dying to kiss them, but can't let that on. You may want only to kiss them, but not have sex. There are different variations and combinations of how each person behaves on a first date.

But the true mark of difference between a bad date and sexual assault is consent. While consent can be fudgy — especially in a situation when you are around someone new and emotions are at play — it's not that difficult to understand. Especially if you are Aziz Ansari, have starred in a show called Master of None and understand the nitty-gritties of modern dating.

This whole episode reinforces the fact that modern dating is perilous and everyone needs to be on the same page.

Updated Date: Jan 16, 2018 19:36 PM