Was it a Bad Date? Or Was it Coercion?

I’ve been obnoxiously glued to the Aziz Ansari news story the last couple of days. It’s not a pleasant story, but I can’t seem to get it out of my mind. At this point, I’ve probably read a dozen essays in response, and another 2 dozen lengthy Twitter threads dissecting the situation, and placing blame on him, or on her, or on both.

If you haven’t seen the story, it’s from a woman who is using the name Grace, and it’s about a pretty terrible date she had with Aziz Ansari. You can read the original report here.

The story has grabbed me for a couple of reasons. At first it was just because it was about Aziz Ansari. We’ve always been big fans at our house — since the Tom Haverford days. In fact a couple of hours before the story broke, my 16 year old daughter, Olive, pulled out the GQ issue with Aziz on the cover to reread his interview, and we were talking about wanting to move to Italy, inspired by a recent re-watch of Season 2 of Master of None.

That night when I was getting ready for bed, I saw a tweet about the story, and my first thought was that I hoped that somehow Olive would not see it, because I knew she would be crushed. (But of course she saw it. And of course it broke her heart.)

I think the other reason I haven’t been able to stop following the story, is because the responses are so polarized — and not in a political way. Some people have read Grace’s story, and are furious at her. They believe she was very wrong to share the story. Others think Aziz was in the wrong, and feel like this story — though it’s not violent, and not rape — opens up important conversations. And the profile of the people who hold these views is not clear cut at all, for example, there are staunch feminists on both sides. And I have dear friends who completely disagree on this.

I can see where the angry-at-Grace folks are coming from. I could feel it as I started reading the story. Since I had already seen the headline, and knew it wasn’t going to end well, it was like watching a horror movie. I could feel myself thinking: Don’t do it, Grace. Don’t go home with him. Nope, don’t let him undress you. Walk away Grace. He’s not going to listen! He’s going to keep pushing and pressuring! He clearly doesn’t care if you’re into this or not. Get out! Go home!

Of course, I can assume that part of me thinking those thoughts was because as fan, it would feel better if Aziz was never the bad guy, and it would be easier to blame Grace.

But then I started picturing Grace, who was 22 at the time. That’s not a child, but it’s still quite young. And she’s with a celebrity who is 12 years older than her, and GQ-cover famous. He may not be physically imposing, but the power dynamic is still very much in his favor. Additionally, he’s known as being a feminist ally — someone you can feel safe with.

I could imagine her hopeful perspective, even as the date got weirder. Thinking that this is a good guy. And she should want to be there, right? She should want this opportunity to hang with super cool Aziz Ansari in his apartment. She doesn’t get a perspective change until later in the evening, and once she does, she leaves. But until that perspective change, I can picture her hopeful for a great night.

In contrast, we go into the story without that hopeful perspective. And it’s easy to think she’s dumb for not seeing it, or not leaving right away. I don’t think she was dumb. I think it’s understandable.

There were several things I read that changed my original attitude about the story, and ultimately I am glad Grace shared it. Some of the stand out pieces:

I read this tweet about seeing this as an everyday normal sort of interaction: 

This really struck a cord for me. If this is normal, if this isn’t something to talk about, then that’s a huge problem. Then, I read this thread by Sady Doyle, and was like woah. She goes through each argument, and rebuts it. It’s strong.

Next was a compelling heartfelt essay from KatyKatiKate, called Not That Bad. The whole thing is really good, and the line that hit me? “This is a common, normal hookup. A shitty, painful hookup where Grace’s comfort and pleasure were like #7 on the priority list. Mean, punishing sex is normal. And awful. Our normal is awful.”

That kills me. And it resonates. How in the world do we continue to keep what women are feeling or experiencing such a low priority?

And then I read this thread, where a teenage Mormon girl is coerced into performing oral sex, and didn’t dare speak up until she read Grace’s story. It reminded me how common this kind of situation is, and that it’s confusing and horrible. As the coerced person, you know you didn’t want to do it, but didn’t scream NO and run away, so maybe it’s your fault? (It’s not your fault.)

I read another essay that talked about how some people are rejecting this story, because if we accept it, we have to examine all of our past sexual experiences, and maybe admit some were worse than just a “bad date.” Perhaps if we’re honest, we were pressured or coerced. Maybe we only gave in because we were too tired to stop saying no, and giving in was easier. Or because giving in was the safer option, and more likely to keep anger at bay. And who wants to have to think of that? It’s heavy stuff.

As I read, I saw one commenter point out that maybe the differing responses to this news story are generational. If you’re Gen X (like me) or older, maybe you’ve been on these kinds of “bad dates” many times, so this is just sort of normalized. And since Grace wasn’t physically forced, then someone in my generation might feel that this doesn’t qualify as a #metoo story. But younger generations — like Millenials, and my own kids (Gen Z), expect better.

A Facebook friend, Steph Lauritzen, wrote that she hasn’t ever liked Aziz, because she feels like the worlds he creates through writing show his real feelings, and that his real feelings are he doesn’t respect women. She writes, “I keep thinking that I’m not surprised by men anymore. If a man spends a lot of time talking about feminism while simultaneously creating a world devoid of gender equality, his actions in public inform me about his actions in private. Look at the art men make. Art doesn’t lie.”

Another conversation talked about the over-arching problem of our society telling men to chase, and to keep pressuring, and to achieve sex no matter what. And then, the same society not telling women how to talk about their sexual preferences at all — and not even letting women know they’re allowed to have sexual preferences.

Much of the discussion has been about communication. Some people feel Grace clearly communicated with both verbal and physical signals. Others say we’re expecting Aziz to be a mind reader, and that she should have been more clear.

On this point, I’m with those who feel she communicated clearly. I was convinced when I read a thread about how studies have been done on gender, miscommunication, and ‘soft nos,’ and the overwhelming conclusion is that men demonstrate competence in all areas, but claim ignorance when they are talking to women and the topic is sex or dating. From the study:

“Drawing on the conversation analytic literature, and on our own data, we claim that both men and women have a sophisticated ability to convey and to comprehend refusals, including refusals which do not include the word ‘no’, …we suggest that male claims not to have ‘understood’ refusals…can only be heard as self-interested justifications for coercive behaviour.”

Another topic that comes up a lot in the discussions is the concept of Enthusiastic Consent. The idea is that “no means no” isn’t even close to being good enough. Instead you need an enthusiastic YES! And you need to keep getting those yeses throughout the sexual encounter, because consent can be withdrawn at any point — meaning you might be into it at first, but if you get distracted, or uncomfortable, or remember something sad, and are no longer into it, you’re allowed to say: Never mind, I don’t want to keep having sex.

There’s also many ongoing conversations about how this story is hurting #metoo. Or how this is #metoo jumping the shark. Or how women have gone overboard now. I say: Baloney. Clearly, the responses show us we need to talk about this stuff — out in the open where we can hash things out. And I haven’t heard a single person call for Aziz to go to jail, or boycott his work. Things are not out of hand.

Interestingly, the articles I’ve read from bigger publications have all been sympathetic to Aziz, and really quite condemning of Grace:

Caitlin Flanagan wrote in The Atlantic, The Humiliation of Aziz Ansari. Caitlin thinks women are being bullies.

And Bari Weiss wrote in the NYT, Aziz Ansari Is Guilty. Of Not Being a Mind Reader. Bari thinks women are being helpless weaklings.

But some of the smaller (but still powerful) publications have been the opposite:

Mary Elizabeth Williams wrote in Salon, Aziz Ansari and #MeToo backlash: We won’t stop talking about consent. Mary responds to both Caitlin and Bari and says;

“So are we helpless or power-mad here? Snowflakes or bullies? Whatever you may think of Grace’s narrative, or her use of the unquestionably loaded word “assault,” it’s clear that the eagerness to demand that women limit what we share has become increasingly intense — as if self-policing isn’t exactly what we’ve been doing all our lives.”

And Anna North wrote for Vox, The Aziz Ansari story is ordinary. That’s why we have to talk about it. Her final paragraph:

“Perhaps what is especially threatening about Grace’s story is that it involves a situation in which many men can imagine themselves. But this is a reason to discuss it more, not to sweep it under the rug. Listening to Grace doesn’t mean deciding all men should go to prison, or should lose their jobs. It does mean admitting that many men behave in exactly the ways their culture tells them to behave. It means asking men to recognize that and do better, and it means changing the culture so that badgering and pressuring women into sex is deplored, not endorsed. None of this will happen if we refuse to reckon with stories like Grace’s.”

Me personally? I have mixed feelings. But for sure, I feel sympathetic to Grace. I feel like I can imagine some of the thought process she might have experienced. Maybe something like: I’ve communicated I just want to chill, and I think he’s a good guy, and I want this experience to be cool because celebrity and awesome comic genius, so if I can just navigate this, I’m hopeful we’ll have a great night…

And at the same time, she may have combined that thinking with: He’s relentless. He keeps pressuring me, maybe it’s easier to just do this? He’s a good guy, right? So why does this feel so confusing and coercive?

I also feel sympathetic in a small way toward Aziz — it must be awful to have your sexual preferences and peculiarities shared all over the news. But mostly I think he should have stopped. He was the more powerful person in that duo. Within minutes of the first kiss Aziz wanted to go get a condom, and Grace said, “Whoa, let’s relax for a sec, let’s chill.”

To me, that’s a clear NO. And at that point, Aziz should have said something like: Okay. Sounds good. Let’s hang out and watch TV or something.” And then not pushed for sex unless and until she was enthusiastic about it. Or, a much harsher but straightforward response would also have worked. Something like, “Cool. I won’t get the condom, but here’s the thing, I really want to have sex with someone tonight. And preferably right away. So if you’re not into it, let me call you an Uber, and we can end the night before one or both of us gets frustrated.

Yes, she could have left too, but I can see how it would have been harder for her to do that. Twenty-two years old is young enough to not have had other dates like this; for this to be a first. To not understand right away she should leave. Plus, women deal with dozens of micro-aggressions every day, we’re socialized to be polite, we’re taught by our culture that being sexualized is connected to our self worth, and we live with the real fear of violent retaliation. We’d like to think we’ll always be bold and walk out of a bad situation, but sometimes, all those things can make it really hard to leave.

I realize others see this story differently than I do. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Have you been following this story? Or is it new to you? And have you read the original report? What’s your take on the whole thing? Do you feel like this negatively affects the #MeToo movement? How about consent? At what age do you think parents should talk to their kids about it?

P.S. — As a parent, I was sad Olive read such an awful story about one of her heroes, and I was also sad that by reading this story, she would get a very weird idea of what a typical date might look like.

127 thoughts on “Was it a Bad Date? Or Was it Coercion?”

  1. Thank you Gabrielle for sharing this. I can only imagine how much work went into writing this piece. It’s been a while since I read a blog post that long, but it was well worth the read. it is so refreshing to read an ‘unsure how I feel’ piece and hearing very clearly about both sides. So many of us are unsure too. I am from New Zealand and have not heard this story, I also haven’t read it, as I think it will be too saddening.

    I am 26 and have also had “wasn’t far off” experiences – perhaps that’ll be new the level below #metoo. I’ve tried to put a positive spin on those memories and convince myself that I’ve always been a independent, confident, in control girl/woman and that I chose to have those experiences, but looking back I’ve been kidding myself. However, I am not ready to peel back those layers and look at them closer, but I am extremely glad this conversation is happening. There is hope for my future children.

  2. When I came to Design Mom tonight for a light skim of articles and pretty pictures of homes, I didn’t expect this. Thank you. I’ve been debating this event with friends over the last several days, and I seem to be talking with people who are firmly in one camp or the other. I’ve appreciated the level of thoughtful dialogue here, and the respect for people to have differing opinions. I really appreciate those who have shared their ideas of what the greater dialogue needs to be.

  3. It is interesting that in those whole conversation I have not seen any discussion of the physical differences between men and women. I have such conflicting feelings about the Grace/Azis Ansari article/situation because I really see it from both sides equally. I have been in Grace’s position and done something I did not want to do, even though I easily could have stopped it at any time if I took strong action. But I wanted to please and not make a scene. On the other side, when I was done breastfeeding my second child, I think I must have been having a hormonal rebalancing going on in my body with an overdose of testosterone, because there were a few weeks there when I kept saying to my husband “I feel like how a man must feel all the time” because I REALLY wanted sex and would do almost anything to get it. My husband would have to beat me off with a stick when it was not an appropriate time to get down and dirty. It made me think about some things differently because, from my bizarre experience, it requires a lot of strength on men’s part to not have sex with someone once they start down that road! I’m not saying it’s not possible, but it requires a huge amount of willpower. That made me realize that it is very important for women to be super clear and not get themselves halfway down that road that they don’t want to go down. It was a bizarre experience for me, but enlightening in some ways.

  4. I liked Master of None but halfway into the second my interested faded. The entire plot is about a girl saying no to dating him over and over again, and him trying to change her mind. Yes, there were some reciprocated feelings but to me it crossed the line and started to feel he was being selfish with his constant pushing. (Probably projecting my own experiences a little here.)

  5. I didn’t have time to read all the comments but I’m sure someone has already beautifully articulated what I think (or what I think I think). His behaviour, allegedly, sucked. Her behaviour, allegedly, was a bit weak. I completely understand her behaviour (as a woman wanting not to hurt feelings by saying a strong no or leaving, and also not to put yourself in danger). I also understand his behaviour (societally and sexually stimulated) . I also don’t see how we could blame either of them. Almost every movie and TV show (including new ‘woke’ ones) still indicate that a girl should play a game and turn a guy down or ignore his advances at least a few times in order to attract his attention even stronger. Every movie indicates that a guy needs to pursue often because girls play games. I find this to have been true in real life as well. None of us have been conditioned for it to be romantic for a man to ask “may i kiss you now?” “May i touch you here?” “Would you like to have sex?” – that feels stilted and awkward. I think he was pushy, yes, but I also think everything in his life and her life UNTIL VERY RECENTLY have told them that this is okay and acceptable. That doesn’t make it right and it’s a great conversation to start. it’s great to teach our boys that they can ASK directly, graciously accept a no, and move on. And its great to teach our girls that that IS romantic to be asked, to say “Yes” when we mean yes, to say “no” when we mean no, and to say “not now but maybe a different day/way” when we mean “maybe later, keep trying in a respectful way.” I don’t always want sex and am never an initiator because even though I thoroughly enjoy it and want it when it’s happening, it’s not usually on my to do list and I could easily go without it (most of the time) – my partner understands that, but he keeps trying. Imagine if he stopped trying after the amount of times I’ve said no? Of course he has to keep pursuing me (though not on the same day usually)! The lines aren’t clear within a loving happy committed relationship and I don’t see how we can ever expect them to be with other kinds of relationships. If she had been “into” him more, the story would be different. She maybe would have said no a few times just because she was conditioned to, or on a few different occasions, but then thoroughly enjoyed it when he persisted and succeeded and then they might have gotten married and lived happily ever after and the story of how he persistently pursued her would be romantic. With men, there will almost always be a power dynamic. They are often physically stronger than us. Sometimes we have to do scary things like TRY to say no to someone who is more powerful than us – I understand why we don’t, but we need to try. Sometimes we need to figure out how to trust our instincts, our feelings, and our desires. I will continue to enjoy watching reruns of Parks and Rec and other things Aziz is in because I honestly don’t think he’s any worse than many of our boyfriends, husbands, and other men that we love who have done the exact same thing. (I didn’t enjoy Master of None that much in the first place – weird acting…). Meanwhile, I do teach my kids that they need to ask for things they want and respect a no answer. (When they ask me to stop tickling them, I stop and wait until they say “more tickles!” before I continue. Have you ever tickled your kids and not stopped when they said no because they seemed to be having fun and you were having fun? this is the conditioning we have raise our kids with! When I’m too tired to play, I tell them I’m too tired to play and ask them to do something else – they’re disappointed but it’s a good lesson to learn…but of course they’re going to ask again later because minds can change and persistence can pay off.

  6. I appreciate your very thorough exploration of this issue and I relate to so many of the comments written above. Having been a twenty something in similar situations a few too many times, and having seen through my own life, and vicariously through friends and family members, the serious implications of sex – subtle assaults, outright assault, contraception failures, unplanned pregnancy, mental health problems after abortions, financial problems and relational stress from having the unplanned baby, staying in relationships way too long because of an attachment rooted in sex, and not true love or even desire… The list goes on. I wish someone had told me how very serious sex is (particularly for women!) and not let me fall into the deception that sex is no big deal, it’s just a fun thing that has no consequences. I hope I can impart to my daughters what a beautiful, yet very serious thing sex is, and that they will not take it (or have it) lightly! I think these conversations are finally exposing the nuances and complications of this aspect of a changing society.

  7. I’ve had very complicated feelings about this (I, too, was a huge Aziz fan) and I couldn’t stop crying while reading this post. I’ve had interactions like this several times, but most recently was something that happened a few months ago that I’ve tried not to acknowledge. I didn’t feel like I was allowed to be upset about it or treat it as anything but normal, even though I felt sick about it the next day.

    It started with consensual sex using protection (he didn’t have a condom, but I did and insisted upon using it) then we stopped for reasons which I can’t remember, but regardless I felt that we were done (especially since I didn’t have any more condoms). We kept kissing for a bit and then suddenly a few minutes later he pushed himself in me, and I was shocked, especially since I had been very clear that using a condom was necessary and important to me. I said “no” and his response (without being too explicit) boiled down to him promising it was okay and not stopping. I said “no it’s not” again and pushed him away and then he did stop and that was that. I was upset about it but wasn’t sure I had the right to be so I just let it go and haven’t seen him since. I did feel violated though, first that he would even do that at all, given my clear remarks on the importance of using protection, and second that he didn’t stop immediately when I said no. I don’t feel comfortable actually talking to anyone in my life about this but it does make it feel clear to me that the line between what is considered “okay” is blurry to a lot of people, and that this type of entitled behavior has been normalized to the point where people think it’s not a big deal. I desperately want it to not feel like a big deal and I very much would like to forget about it but it did take an emotional toll on me, as I felt like I wasn’t in control of my body. Worse, I still feel weak for not responding appropriately to it and just brushing it off as normal at the time, even though I knew it wasn’t okay. I still feel like I let other women down by treating it as normal, but I think it’s important for us all to remember that it can be so difficult to process things like this in the moment.

    1. K, I’ve been thinking about your comment since I read it a few days ago. Thank you for sharing your story. I wanted you to know that you were heard. There is no blurry here, you were violated in a vulnerable situation by someone you trusted. You can try to find a word to encapsulate that violation but a word isn’t necessary to understand your emotional response. You were not weak. You responded in a way that got you out of the situation as safely as possible both physically and emotionally. You made it clear that it was not OK and I hope that in the light of day, the guy realized why you stopped contacting him. Sending you love and hoping that sharing your truth brings you peace.

  8. I thought this was a good article. If we talk about these kinds of situations more and normalize for young women that it’s okay to speak up for themselves, that will be a big step. Women need to be prepared for situatons like this……..then when it happens your brain goes, oh this is what is happening, this is what I do. Otherwise, it’s too much to process. I guess what I mean is, it’s easier to act if you have a plan. When I was growing up, being nice and not making a scene was the only plan we were taught.

  9. I love how you present issues and you’ve done a great job yet again. There was never a grey area for me in terms of what Aziz did being wrong (though I understand the mixed feelings people have around the article itself and him being called out for this after there seemed to be an apology after the fact), but I pretty much agree with your assessment. I’m also impressed with the compassion your readers are showing towards Grace in the comments, something I’m not seeing entirely in other comment sections of blogs I love. Finally I love the concept of “wasn’t far off”! It’s something I’ve thought about my experiences since the beginning of #metoo but not had such a sticky way to articulate it.

  10. Just want to say that I really appreciate your balanced, nuanced take on this, as usual. In your recent reader survey, I said I wanted to hear more updates from you and this is what I meant–not necessarily all the details about your personal life, but your thoughts on things. You’re a thoughtful person, I value your perspective as being a bit different than mine (I’m younger, newer to parenting, not religious) and you write with a good voice. Thank you!

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  12. I’ve been really frustrated by the lack of attention given to race and ethnicity in this situation. There is a LOT to unpack here, intersectionally speaking, and while I agree that Ansari’s celebrity gives him an edge in the power dynamic arena, we are talking about a brown, Muslim man in Trump’s America. We don’t know Grace’s race or ethnicity but I think it’s worth asking ourselves what this situation would look like if we knew that she was white, black, Latina, Southeast Asia, etc. Would we be as likely to support Grace if she was a Woman of Color? If she was also Muslim?

  13. After your survey, I’ve been trying to put into words why reading your blog is such an important part of my media consumption. It’s because of this. The way you review and dissect important issues and news is more valuable to me than you could possibly know. To me, you are even-handed and thoughtful in a world where it’s really hard to find that kind of point of view. I’m thankful for the effort and thought you put into posts like this.

  14. Thanks for the insights. I don’t believe a man’s behavior is justified even if a woman makes a poor decision. Maybe I am too old to be listened to (60) but I think if you go alone with a man to his apartment or hotel or anywhere, you can assume he is expecting to have sex with you. Perhaps this simplistic thinking of mine has saved me from these awful situations we keep hearing about. I, however, was sexually assaulted, pushed to the ground, pinned there, and was nearly orally raped by a complete stranger in my quiet hometown on a solitary walk one evening. It was so hard to believe and process that I had to look at the grass stains on the back of my jacket the next day to accept that it really happened. I added this just to let you know I don’t live in some fairy tale mindset. (By the way, screaming, which I had to consciously tell myself to do, saved me)

  15. I’ve been thinking about this so much. I see all sides, and I think that Grace and Aziz both suffered from Tunnel Vision. They were both sending very strong physical and verbal signals about how each of them expected the night to go and they both decided to hear only what they wanted. Aziz wanted sex, and Grace wanted romance and tenderness. They tried to fit the square in the circle for as long as they could and it didn’t work out. I do think it’s a very important conversation to have because it does highlight how each gender can often choose to interpret sex and it does highlight the strong need for enthusiastic consent. I think it’s unfortunate that Aziz was called out by name, I have to say, and I think he should be allowed to recover from this professionally. I also think that not knowing what they were texting those weeks prior to their date is unfair. I wouldn’t be surprised if the messages started getting mixed up long before they met again. A few people mentioned porn and that strange thing he was doing with his hands. I agree that porn might be an issue here and porn sucks. The fact that he had to quit the internet all together (on his phone) as explained in that GQ article indicates some issues with self control. I hope his friend, Rashida Jones, makes him watch her documentary “Hot Girls Wanted” about the porn industry. Although James Franco said it caused him to stop watching porn and that didn’t seem to do much (or maybe he was even worse at one point). This is tough stuff but we are lucky for Design Mom and the community to help us think about this for the next generation. We can do better.

  16. I’ve always found Ansari to be skeevy. In Parks & Rec, he was a pig who did not respect women. His non-verbal cues lead me to believe he has no respect for any woman he deems “lower” than himself. If she isn’t in some way in charge of his career, he will show no respect. At least that is the vibe I have always gotten from him.

  17. I don’t get it. He treated her very bad, but she didn’t go either and now she is telling everyone. It’s like Highschool.

  18. And it is not that I think that it’s her fault. This guy was disgusting and maybe drugged but reading this story I wouldn’t expect him to stop (even if she says “no” loud and clear) because he seems to be an aXXXhole or at least a very eray strange and disturbed man. How can anybody belive that an actor is a nice guy because of the roles he plays or the book he writes?

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