The Aziz Problem: Where do we go from here?

By Alexa Mazzarello
@alexamazzerello

The tectonic plates may be shifting, but not without setbacks, distractions, and uncomfortable conversations.

Last week’s story on babe.net recounted one woman’s unsavoury sexual experience with self-proclaimed feminist and lauded comedian Aziz Ansari. The article, penned by Katie Way, brought forward a polarizing conversation about consent and the #MeToo movement.

“Grace” came forward about her date gone awry with Ansari after he accepted his award for Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy TV Series for Master of None — all while wearing a Time’s Up pin.

If it’s your first introduction to this story or if you’re confused by all the moving parts, CNN provided a pretty good chronological synopsis of the major pieces. Read them here first.

Since the story broke on January 15, I spent the week reading every article and Twitter thread, watching every news story about it, engaging in conversations online, researching terminology I wanted to be more familiar with, and calling a lot of friends. If there was a side, I had chosen Grace’s. In publicly showing that I supported her story and her coming forward, I also unknowingly became an ally. It wasn’t what I had expected to happen, but several women began to reach out to me in private to share their own experiences. I guess what happens when you say, “I believe you,” is that more women come forward. You’re seen as an ally and a safe space. In every single woman’s story is the fear of not being believed, a fear of being ridiculed, a fear of being told it was “not that bad.”

This is what has made me feel compelled to say something further.

The media

A #MeToo backlash piece is hella good for ratings. Both The Atlantic and The New York Times headlines screamed click-bait. The original story put Babe on the map.

We don’t believe women. Women don’t even believe themselves.

When the story first broke, in my rage I asked this one question: Why did it seem like everyone was rushing to defend Aziz instead of listening to Grace? The dangerous beast inside me was lit up. Yes, there is a difference between sexual coercion and sexual assault and rape, but all of that exists within one cultural framework that permits it all. A culture that is so deeply and instinctively ingrained in us that we don’t rush to believe Grace (woman), we rush to defend Ansari (man). I think this is a key piece of the conversation that has been overlooked. I can’t count the number of women who have admitted to me, in sharing their own #MeToo stories, that they always thought it was just them, that it was their own fault.

The instinct to question Grace is the kind of behaviour that has historically kept women silent. Regardless of our own feelings about her story, we have to acknowledge that our ingrained belief systems and instinctive actions unintentionally fail us.

The consent debate

In many of the pieces published on the topic, there was a glaring lack of dialogue surrounding consent. When did Grace say yes? Why did Aziz persist? Why did he continue sexual advances after she expressed even the slightest discomfort? Why did he try again after she came out of the bathroom crying? Instead, we read that Grace stayed too long and didn’t say no loud enough, or hard enough, or enough times. Weiss’s “he couldn’t read her mind” perspective dismisses the fact that his actions and repeated attempts express a sexual entitlement that is familiar to almost every single woman. Just because it’s common or “normal” does not make it okay. What might have happened if Grace stayed longer? I read one woman say that reading Grace’s story was extremely triggering because it was so similar to the evening of her rape. That’s how it had all started. We should brush up on our knowledge about consent, its history and law. Did you know that consent is not the absence of a no, but the presence of a yes? The “No” series (linked below) produced by The Heart Podcast is a must listen for everyone engaging in any kind of sexual relations.

Power dynamics and gender politics

Aziz is in his 30s, Grace her early 20s. He’s a celebrity, she is not. There is an obvious power dynamic at play here, one that is very common in most sexual assault, coercion, or rape cases. I’ve been Grace, and reading her accounts of the night I totally understand why she felt pressured, coerced, and also why she continued, stopped and started, and didn’t “leave soon enough.” I don’t think that makes her “another weak millennial unable of calling herself a cab.” I think it makes her a young woman who’s been socialized to act a certain way. Perhaps she didn’t even realize she had bought into it. Ridiculing her for sharing her story is a distraction from a larger and more important conversation about the sexual politics at play in this case, and our own personal lives. As written in a recent Jezebel article, “Grace says she felt pressured to go along with it, exposes cracks in the modern dating contract; even if Ansari were not a famous man, the fact that Grace perceived him to possess enough power that she felt coerced is a statement about the ways women are conditioned, even with decades of entrenched feminism, to concede to that perceived power.”

What now?

This is an opportunity to ask better questions, to dig in to the nuance, to pay attention to our anger, and to channel it. I’ve compiled resources that helped me sort out my feelings last week. They made me cry, they helped me make sense of my rage, and they made me laugh because they were so familiar (some are hilariously accurate). But most importantly, they made me remember why, above all, we cannot be distracted from the task at hand. We need to listen to women now and for as long as this takes. Women all around us are coming forward. They’re being heard for the first time. They’re being believed for the first time. They’re sharing stories that validate other women’s experiences and then THOSE women, too, can come forward. This domino effect is powerful and essential. We need to listen to all the women who have tried to speak up for far too long.

And just for the record, Caitlin Flanagan, if women being dangerous means we are successfully disrupting and shifting these tectonic plates, then yes, you are so right. We are very fucking dangerous-and not just temporarily.

Here’s my list of six must-watch/must listen resources that helped me answer the question: “Where do we go from here?”

  1. To Tell The Truth: Eight women met in New York for a conversation, led by Rose McGowan. 28 minutes. https://www.thecut.com/2017/12/rose-mcgowan-harvey-weinstein-sexual-assault-and-harassment.html
  2. No (2017). A series of The Heart podcast where Kaitlin explores her sexual boundaries from youth to adulthood. 4 episodes. http://www.theheartradio.org/no-episodes/
  3. Full Frontal with Samantha Bee on the #MeToo Backlash. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=II-OP6vdMs8&feature=youtu.be
  4. Time’s Up & the Climate of Change. https://www.cbsnews.com/videos/oprah-winfrey-on-times-up-and-the-climate-of-change/
  5. Jessica Valenti thinks the Aziz Ansari story will be the most important one of the #MeToo movement: https://www.facebook.com/theopposition/videos/389477651496635/
  6. This Portlandia sketch: “I’m not bad, right?” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K2n7cMOMRbI

 

Additional references/reading:

 

Resources on how to report sexual assault: