The issue of sexual assault in the workplace — and Hollywood specifically — feels kaleidoscopic. By the time you write about an aspect of it, everyone’s focus has shifted onto another angle. Another scandal has suddenly aired, and you have to update your argument and stretch your perspective to make it elastic enough to encompass all that you want to say. It feels paradoxical: Write about all of it, and you risk sounding hopeless and banal, offering nothing with nuance or originality. Write about only one part, and you risk sounding reductive.
This is not a column about the trajectory of the #MeToo movement and the backlash against it as a whole; I haven’t quite mapped out the constellation I want to trace there yet. This is a column about the difference between reading minds and turning down mashed potatoes politely at your aunt’s house.
On Jan. 14th, Babe.net published a story about an anonymous woman’s date and subsequent sexual encounter with actor Aziz Ansari in Sept. “Grace” felt that upon making it back to his TriBeCa apartment after their weird date, Ansari repeatedly ignored her verbal and non-verbal cues that she was highly uncomfortable and wanted him to stop his behavior. She felt coerced and violated, and told him so over text afterwards, telling him to be more mindful in the future. He apologized but indicated he felt everything was fun and consensual. His outspoken and lauded support of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements made Grace want to tell her story.
Was it assault? Or bad sex?
This is the question that preoccupied and obsessed every conservative pop culture pundit, every feminist and anti-feminist in the blogosphere, academics and TV critics alike. The website Jezebel published a rejoinder titled “Babe, What are you Doing?” noting that “a side effect of the tidal wave of sexual assault and harassment reporting since Oct. is that, having been long confined to explicitly feminist outlets, reporting about sexual impropriety is, all of a sudden, considered general-interest prestige reporting.” Jezebel was cynical about the fact that Babe had approached Grace rather than the other way around, and condemned some of the amateurish mistakes of the inexperienced writer.
Babe majorly screwed up the execution and writing of this story. But regrettable as this may be, what is almost worse is how the botching of this story bolstered one of the most insidious false arguments that people who defend the men in stories like this one fall back on: That we can’t expect or assume men to be mind-readers.
Caitlin Flanagan dubbed the Babe article “revenge porn,” writing that the anonymous woman and the author of the article “may have destroyed Ansari’s career, which is now the punishment for every kind of male sexual misconduct, from the grotesque to the disappointing.” On Jan. 15th, Bari Weiss wrote an op-ed titled “Aziz Ansari is Guilty. Of not Being a Mindreader.” Each of these arguments are built on pillars that aren’t as concrete as their authors clearly believe them to be, but that’s another story — though for what it’s worth, I think Jezebel’s article is highly worth reading for how it points out flaws in Flanagan’s argument alone.
Many, like Tucker Carlson and Ben Shapiro, argue that the #MeToo movement is reaching too far; that yes, sexual assault is bad, but innocent men are being dragged under for small actions or not being able to easily pick up on every clue. To them, it is a wildfire spreading out of control. The assumption that men should always be able to pick up on clues is expecting too much. They are sympathetic to the plight of single (well, not always) men in this day and age: The conflation of misreading mixed signals and rape is striking fear into the hearts of all our warm-blooded American males.
Part of what is so discomfiting about stories like Ansari’s — and Louis C.K.’s, incidentally — is some of these guys have crafted personas as men who can understand and articulate the nuanced ways in which men diminish and dismiss women. Their comedy often depends on it. Until these stories come out, they’re praised for their awareness. If they can build reputations, make money and garner praise from being able to pick up on subtle cues — how can they be missing signals in their own real life?
In 1999, Celia Kitzinger and Hannah Frith (of Loughborough University and University of the West of England) wrote an article titled “Just say no? The use of conversation analysis in developing a feminist perspective on sexual refusal.” In it, they argue that refusals in general — not just those centered around sex — are often complex conversational interactions. In other words, we are constantly in situations in which we prefer to say no rather than yes: turning down an invitation to a party where we know we won’t have fun, passing on a lunch date with a coworker we abhor, turning down a second serving of your lovely aunt’s horrible mashed potatoes. We say things like, “Oh I would, but I don’t know many people there,” or “I’ve got a lot of work to do, how about in a few weeks?” or “Thanks, Aunt Margaret, but I’m trying to cut down on carbs.” For the most part, we all understand how a polite or evasive refusal works. We give and get them all the time.
The point of this article, in 1999, was that it should not be necessary for a woman to explicitly say “no” in order for their refusal of a sex act to be understood. The focus on “just say no” implied that other forms of refusal were open to reasonable doubt, a weakness that was and has been exploited historically inside and outside of the courtroom in the dissmissal of women’s testimonies about assault and rape. They argued that the focus on rape prevention shouldn’t be so centered on refusal skills or assertiveness training. (This is a vast oversimplification of a tightly written 24 pages full of comprehensive research, but a full pdf of it is available online).
While tactics like “just say no” have since evolved into mantras such as “yes means yes,” (many of which have culminated in the kind of university affirmative consent policies that are ridiculously impossible to enforce), the point still stands: The expectation that men should be able to pick up on obvious indicators of discomfort — verbal or nonverbal — is not going too far. It’s an attempt to demystify the boundaries of consent that seem to be bewilderingly murky to so many men in this area alone.
It would be foolish to think, by the way, that the horror over expecting men to pick up on — and then acknowledge and react accordingly — to cues of discomfort has nothing to do with the rich history of the sexualization and romanticization of the explicit lack of consent seen in the films and TV shows we voraciously consume as a nation. How many film scenes can you think of where a woman is yelling at a man, who then stops her by grabbing and kissing her? How many times does she then melt into his arms? (Though vaguely outdated now, I recommend a documentary called “Miss Representation,” a 2011 Sundance Film Festival Official Selection that captures how attitudes in the media filters into and shapes our collective consciousness). Besides, we understand hints, suggestions and evasive ways of communicating when they’re meant to signify interest, rather than a lack thereof: When someone says I love you without actually saying “I love you.” “If you’re a bird, I’m a bird.” (“The Notebook”). “As you wish.” (“The Princess Bride”). You get the point.
Perhaps the most visceral image in Grace’s story is a description of one of Ansari’s repeated moves: sticking his fingers into her mouth. If you are in that close proximity to another person’s body — so intimately involved with them — and you are unable to tell they aren’t enthusiastically into it, you shouldn’t be having sex. So for the people who will read this (and pieces like this) and still protest about innocent men misreading signals — chances are, if you’re really that fantastically awful at reading body language, you’re probably not great in bed anyway.