So much has been said about the allegations against Aziz Ansari as reported on a website called Babe . Whether you think he’s a total jerk or just another guy and whether you think the woman they call Grace is a victim or an opportunist, from the fallout on this, it is clear that many of us are not communicating effectively when it comes to sex.
Our current plan of giving haphazard education to teenagers that is either abstinence-only based or fear based (how to protect against disease and unwanted pregnancy) is not addressing the issues at the heart of how we engage with each other as sexual beings.
For those of us in the field of sexuality, it may seem simple. Spend time hanging around the sex-positive community, and you are likely to be schooled in basic yes, no, maybe verbiage and how to respond with grace when receiving a no. You've probably also given some serious thought to what full, enthusiastic consent entails.
But unlike among the sex-positive community, most adults are not attending sex parties or Tantra workshops and get little to no continuing education on this critical subject. Maybe you've found some good sources for sex education online. Yet, in general, our society is not teaching people how to be a person in the world. Not when it comes to sex.
When I read Grace’s account of her night with Aziz Ansari, it wasn’t hard for me to put myself there. I was 22 once. I, too, had recently come into my feminist consciousness, and was proud to be one of the first women’s studies majors at Penn State University. I thought I knew what there was to know about sexuality. Yes, I was probably that foolish.
I was also a highly sexual person. I was trying to manage my life, making sense of all I had learned in college and all I had been through (yeah, #metoo), how much I wanted a special man in my life and how much I loved being sexual with men. I am truly grateful that there was no Facebook, Twitter or texting, no forum for me back then to allow me the ease of exposing all of my inner drama to the world. What a mess that would have been. How many people I may have embarrassed and hurt, including myself.
Because I didn’t know all there was to know about sexuality, nor do I now. But I know a hell of a lot more. Enough to know that although sharing stories is powerful and cathartic and healing and necessary, it is possible to share one’s experience without naming others. It is also an option to share directly with the person who you feel has wronged you in some way, without publicly shaming them. I think this was Grace’s first intention. Perhaps we can blame the media for taking it to another level and painting her as the victim and Ansari as the offender.
The shaming aspect of this story, though, is a problem. I see shame at the heart of our collective pain around sexuality. Shaming only does further damage. It is not part of the sexual healing we so badly need as a culture.
I see shame at the heart of our collective pain around sexuality. Shaming only does further damage. It is not part of the sexual healing we so badly need as a culture.
As mixed up as I was in my 20s, I needed to go through that time. That was part of my journey as a sexual being, as a woman. I have many old journals filled with furious scribble as a record of my angst-filled 20s. My frustration at men who didn’t want me or only wanted sex from me. My inability to connect with my own desires. My harsh judgment of the world.
I wouldn’t deny Grace that same opportunity to purge herself of her emotions, to explore every nuance of this date that left her feeling empty and used. But for her to broadcast it is not necessary for her growth or healing. Nor for his.
I put myself in her place. She’s 22. He’s famous. From her own account she is persistent in pursuing him. To me Aziz Ansari is nothing. I’ve never seen him act. I have not followed his career in any way. He’s not of my generation. But I get it. When I was 22, I was infatuated with the actor John Malkovich. I loved his deep voice and had been moved by the characters he played. There was a masculinity I was attracted to that went beyond traditional good looks. I sensed he was highly sexual and intelligent and aware of both. He seduced me with his thoughtful pauses, his raw emotion, his words.
I am imagining me at 22 in a position to be alone with him. Me at the apartment of John Malkovich. If he said to me, as Ansari is reported to have said to Grace, “where do you want me to fuck you?” what would my response be? I look directly at him, lower my eyes in a moment of pretend shyness, and then look back up. I channel my best Sally Field southern accent from "Places in the Heart." “Why, that’s entirely up to you, Mr. Malkovich.”
I may have been a fool at 22 in many ways, but my experience with men had taught me something- they often wanted sex. I don’t think I would have been so silly as to think that I would be John Malkovich’s girlfriend/woman/mistress/wife. I probably would have thought, simply, this is my chance to fuck John Malkovich. This is my chance to feel what it’s like to abandon myself to the whims of this man.
In the movie, "Dangerous Liaisons," Malkovich's character asks, “Why do you suppose we feel compelled to only chase the ones who run away?”
This narrative is woven deeply in our culture. The man chases, the woman retreats. He chases again. This time, she pauses, she considers and reconsiders. He is persistent. Eventually, she gives in.
We are all taught how to play and maintain this game. And, yes, it can feel sexy at times. But when someone doesn’t want to play, it can seem as though they are still playing. That’s the problem with the game.
When someone doesn’t want to play, it can seem as though they are still playing. That’s the problem with the game.
I imagine that for every Grace that has been in Ansari's apartment, there have been many more who have been ready and willing to fuck right then and there on the countertop.
I’m not saying that he did a good thing by ignoring her subtle (and perhaps not-so-subtle) hints that she wasn’t on board with his agenda, but it may have felt like business as usual to him.
To those who wonder why she didn't just leave, it’s important to note that there are women who would have just left. But that was not Grace and we need to understand why some people freeze up in situations in which they feel they don’t have control, while others are able to use their fight-or-flight instincts.
According to Bessel Van Der Kolk MD, international expert on PTSD and trauma, and author of "The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma," when people experience a trauma that they are not able to escape (for example being sexually abused as a child) their brains remember that. Those same people may find themselves reacting in the only way they were able to react when faced with the previous traumatic situation - by freezing up. They still feel powerless to act even when faced with situations in which they may, in fact, be able to act and actually protect themselves.
According to Lisa Feldman Barrett, author of "How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain," emotions such as fear and anger and happiness are not hardwired. We are taught concepts in culture and we have past experiences that cause us to link those emotions with certain experiences. This means we don’t all react the same way given the same situation. We react based on the concepts we’ve learned and our past experiences.
It’s possible that Grace didn’t feel a sense of agency or choice. As much as I disagree with the way in which she went public about her experience, I feel compassion for her and can imagine why she may have stayed and may have continued to engage with Ansari in a sexual manner even though it wasn’t what she wanted. This, after all, is what women are taught to do. Please your man. That’s how you keep your man. But don’t please too much, or you might seem like a slut. Either way, women often lose.
Another woman may have walked into the situation as I imagine I would have walked into John Malkovich’s apartment, assuming that he was going to want sex - and prepared to give it. A different woman may have expected a little heavy petting, some romance, some conversation, more drinks, taking things step by step, and then saying goodnight the minute a condom was mentioned.
I must admit that although I feel compassion for Grace, I also feel the kind of pity that comes from sympathy, not empathy. I’m not proud of this, but part of me has the urge to shake my head at her and say, "Oh honey, what were you thinking? Of course he wanted to fuck you."
I realize that attitude is neither helpful, nor kind, and perhaps it is me talking to my 22-year-old self; I, too may have entertained such thoughts.
Of course, I shake my head at Ansari too. I hope he is doing some soul searching to see where he went wrong. The rest of us could also benefit from looking inside at where we land in the fallout. Rather than shaming him or blaming her, perhaps we can use this as an opportunity to see where we fall short as a society. How is it that a simple date can be so wrought with miscommunication? Where have we gone so wrong that women are taught that their sexual pleasure is secondary, if important at all, and that both men and women are to prioritize men’s sexual pleasure, even if it causes women some form of pain?
What if we saw sexuality as the powerful and beautiful gift that it is? If we learned how to listen, how to read our partner’s body language, how to honor our own desires and respect those of others? If we revered the beauty we saw in others, perhaps we wouldn’t feel the need to chase those who run away or the need to stay when we really feel like running. Imagine not having to play games, but feeling we could be honest about our desires and what we are offering to share.
Imagine if women were seen as gaining something by sharing their sexuality, not as having lost a part of themselves?
Unfortunately, this will not happen until there is a huge societal shift, one where vaginas are no longer viewed as commodities that lose value with use, until we see enveloping as just as much of a powerful act as penetrating. Imagine if women were seen as gaining something by sharing their sexuality, not as having lost a part of themselves? Grace is not alone. There is an epidemic of “bad sex” out there, of dates ending with a woman in tears. It’s better to have no sex than bad sex. But even if it was mediocre, I must admit I probably wouldn’t kick John Malkovich out of bed.