So a woman was dazzled enough to date American actor Aziz Ansari, and according to her account he was sexually aggressive. I felt her pain whilst reading her words, I’ve been in her shoes and I don’t doubt her truth–her boundaries were violated. Polarized judgements came out in support of both sides. But in sexual politics where one person has more status, money, popularity and perhaps charisma than the other, how might this situation have been less ambiguous? Which moves wouldn’t have been perceived as definitively aggressive? At what point in the evening? In which context and setting? And would those same moves have been as damaging with every woman?
The truth is that a few women might have socialized enough to desire his cat and mouse tactics and be aroused by them. Others might have been justifiably insulted, but confident enough to call him out, pick up the phone and get a cab earlier. Many more I suspect–myself included–might have experienced too much past aggression in confronting male desire to speak out in cases where they perceived themselves in danger. It’s not easy for a woman to reject advances from those we’ve been taught or learned to admire. It’s not easy for a woman who has been trained in believing that she is sugar, spice and all things nice to become a ‘nasty’ woman. It’s not easy for a woman who believes that we are as a gender, responsible for coddling the male ego to undermine it. And for some women, it’s near impossible.
So in these cases mainstream feminist wisdom gives a glib solution. It is up to the person in the position of power in this case Aziz, to be aware of potential boundary violation, and to ensure that they carefully tread around them. They must adjust their behaviour in each and every situation. With each and every partner. Which presupposes full knowledge of oneself and that person you meet on the first date.
That’s more than a tough call, that’s an impossible expectation… especially of men socialized in a society which trains them to feel less, to understand less. Because it requires keen empathy. But empathy necessitates a training, aptitude and desire to read non-verbal cues. It requires emotional intelligence which is traditionally not the focus of male upbringing. It requires awareness, but awareness of oneself comes through curiosity, personal development and an education in society dynamics. None of which are instructed in our school syllabus.
On top of all that it requires an understanding of power and that power is more than the control of external resources. Power is the capacity to influence others which–notwithstanding systemic privilege–fluctuates, sometimes on a daily basis according to self esteem, personality, age, maturity and in every unique relationship dynamic. How can power be measured or compared, when there is no absolute, and perception of power is also a form of power?
Thus some power inequality can be compensated by our laws and attitudes. Inequality in earnings can and are being addressed in some quarters. Verbally aggressive communication is the subject of much study. Prejudice and racism is a hot topic of debate. Education in consent is embryonic so far. But of course when it comes to defining values, we should be idealistic, and keep our aspirations high as we implement the rules that govern our society.
Yet since power comes in multiple forms both extrinsic and intrinsic, the game of sexual politics will often be fraught with imbalance. Since consent is only legitimate when freely given and within an unequal power dynamic free choice is undermined, it is legitimate to wonder whether true consent is possible at all. Is it possible to ever have a perfect balance of power and awareness between two people? No. Is there any place on earth where everyone is equal? Of course not. To ask these kind of questions is not an empty timeworn philosophical ritual. For as abstract as they sound, the answers have a direct impact on our lives, especially in the #metoo era.
Cases where the power inequality is unambiguous, with the Weinsteins, Spaceys and Cosbys of this world, or where alcohol, drugs or violence are employed as a means to subdue or seduce, should legally be easy rulings. But even though these seem to be low hanging fruit, they are still not yet successfully implemented in a culture like ours which forgives rapists and blames victims.
Still sexual assault lies on a spectrum. On the question of whether Aziz Ansari should have known better and done better, I conclude a resounding yes. Yet cultural upbringing, privilege, society role models including the 45th president, mean awareness even in cases of clear boundary violation like Aziz Ansari, cannot be a given. It’s no excuse, it’s not okay, but it’s all too common. That’s a consequence of living in a rape culture. The extremes of violation can be regulated, but intersectional feminism, community structure and basic decency is as yet our only recourse where the law leaves gaping holes. Is Aziz a criminal? No. He’s just a regular entitled arsehole and sexual predator. That’s the majority of men I’ve gone on dates with and unfortunately it’s still legal.
Additional Reporting by The Amazing Chris