Over the weekend, a website called babe.net published the story of an anonymous woman’s sexual encounter with comedian Aziz Ansari. The woman describes Ansari repeatedly ignoring her “verbal and nonverbal cues” and aggressively pursuing sex; she says she left his apartment in tears. Later, she texted him to express how uncomfortable the experience had made her, and he apologized, saying, “Clearly, I misread things in the moment and I’m truly sorry.” In a statement this weekend, Ansari reiterated the sentiment: “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.”
In discussing the babe.net story, many observers brought up “Cat Person,” The New Yorker short story that became an unexpected viral success last month — another exploration, albeit fictional, of contemporary sexual dynamics. Each describes an evening that a woman in her early 20s spends with a man in his 30s, and the tension in each comes from the disjuncture between what the woman feels and what’s going on around her. Each describes a sexual encounter that might safely be described as bad: uncomfortable, filled with misunderstandings, and ultimately, for the woman, upsetting. The similarities mostly end there (significantly, one involves a celebrity, and was apparently nonfiction). But both stories inspired enormous outpourings of online discussion — and in particular, a profusion of young women attesting to the familiarity of such experiences.
The response to both “Cat Person” and the Ansari story finds the #MeToo conversation changing and flowering in a new direction: one in which women are eager to discuss and change expectations around sexual manners more generally, not just to litigate right and wrong. It’s a more complicated conversation, because the boundaries transgressed are less clear, the villains less outsized, the causes less concrete. As critics of the Ansari story have pointed out, these aren’t stories where women firmly vocalize a lack of consent; rather, these are stories about how young women — having internalized society’s messages about how it is their responsibility to please men, to be compliant, to be down for anything — end up acquiescing to something that makes them feel rotten inside. And yet there is clearly a robust hunger for these sorts of conversations: “Cat Person” was one of The New Yorker’s most-read pieces of the year, while Bari Weiss’s New York Times op-ed criticizing of the Ansari piece reportedly broke ChartBeat. (Rebecca Traister’s piece about how consensual sex can still be bad, written in 2015 but uniquely relevant to this current moment, is the most-read piece on the Cut at the moment.) Critics have argued that a story like the one about Ansari suggests that the #MeToo movement has gone too far, and there have certainly been legitimate concerns about the lack of editorial care shown in babe.net’s treatment of the anonymous woman’s story. Yet it might be more productive to see this as the emergence, however imperfect, of a separate (if related) conversation — one that requires a more nuanced response than the clear-cut cases of assault and harassment that launched our current feminist reckoning.
The backlash to the Ansari story was visceral and immediate. “If he pressures you to do something you don’t want to do, use a four-letter word, stand up on your two legs and walk out his door,” wrote Weiss. In The Atlantic, Caitlin Flanagan gave us all a helpful history seminar (her own experiences of near date rape occurred “roughly between the kidnapping of the Iran hostages and the start of the Falklands War”) and castigated what she sees as “a whole country full of young women who don’t know how to call a cab, and who have spent a lot of time picking out pretty outfits for dates they hoped would be nights to remember.” These women are, to quote Flanagan, “angry and temporarily powerful, and last night they destroyed a man who didn’t deserve it.”
Yet maybe I’m premature in saying this, but aside from a knock to his reputation, Ansari hasn’t been “destroyed.” He hasn’t lost his job. His show hasn’t been pulled from Netflix. Sure, knocks to someone’s reputation — especially when your brand is predicated on being a woke feminist ally — can be damaging. But embarrassing stories about celebrities’ sex lives have always been gossip fodder. (After all, we all know Leo DiCaprio likes to fuck with his noise-canceling headphones on.) A story like this might have popped up on Gawker five years ago, except it would have probably faded from memory soon after publication. The difference is how such stories are being received in our post-#MeToo moment. Now, women’s internal experiences are seen as worthy of discussing, and a lot of women are being more vocal about articulating a connection — if not an equivalence — between the kind of commonplace misogynist behavior that Ansari reportedly displayed and the more heinous offenses committed by men like Weinstein and his ilk. As Guardian columnist Jessica Valenti put it on Twitter, “A lot of men will read that post about Aziz Ansari and see an everyday, reasonable sexual interaction. But part of what women are saying right now is that what the culture considers ‘normal’ sexual encounters are not working for us, and oftentimes harmful.”
The alarmist response from the likes of Weiss and Flanagan seems predicated on the notion that women can’t tell the difference between bad sex and assault. (It’s a similar argument to the one levied against the “shitty media men” list — that men who send “creepy DMs” and men who rape shouldn’t be on the same list, lest they be conflated.) And yet the very existence of this backlash shows that women do know how to tell the difference. Public opinion about this story is divided, and it’s being debated feverishly on the pages of major media outlets, on social media and message threads, and between men and women in their homes. That in itself is a good thing. We’re all thinking out loud, together, in real time.
I understand why Weiss and Flanagan are concerned: We are in something of a Wild West right now, where we haven’t figured out how to determine what punishment fits what crime. It’s a messy, complicated learning process with unpredictable consequences. But instead of seeing the Ansari story as the moment #MeToo jumped the shark, why can’t we see it as the moment that the conversation took on more nuance, and with a more nuanced public response, too? Weiss argues that “the solution to these problems does not begin with women torching men for failing to understand their ‘nonverbal cues.’” Rather, she writes: “the feminist answer is to push for a culture in which boys and young men are taught that sex does not have to be pursued like they’re in a porn film, and one in which girls and young women are empowered to be bolder, braver and louder about what they want.” Why do these things have to be mutually exclusive? Why can’t this “torching” (which seems so far to extend to being the subject of an embarrassing story and some social media outrage) be the thing that leads to us all thinking a little bit harder about what an equal sexual playing field would look like?
That seems to be exactly what is happening. By talking about these stories, women are making that push happen. Instead of thinking of stories like these as “destroying” a man’s life, let’s think of them as sparks that ignite a necessary conversation, for both the women that think “I’ve been there” and the men who look back on their past behavior and feel “surprised and concerned” that everything wasn’t really okay all along.