Martinez: Ansari allegations should not be dismissed in #MeToo conversation

Marissa Martinez, Assistant Opinion Editor

Please be advised that this column contains reference to sexual assault and rape. Sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein rocked Hollywood. Weinstein’s history of using power and influence against dozens of women in the industry was astounding, and he fittingly fell from grace soon after. Many celebrities were similarly boycotted after their accusers came forward as well. One notable exception to this rule: Aziz Ansari.

The accusations against Ansari represent a new gray area in the world of #MeToo. Tarana Burke started the Twitter movement in 2006 as a way to express solidarity through social media with other sexual assault survivors. It quickly spread in 2017 when celebrities and citizens alike started using the hashtag to spread awareness.

However, some followers of the movement erupted with anger when independent website ran an article telling the story of “Grace,” a woman who says Ansari coerced her into uncomfortable sexual encounters during a date in September. Suddenly, women who had supported the rise against Hollywood’s sexual assault problem were dismissing Grace’s story as unworthy of being part of the #MeToo movement. They argued she was single-handedly destroying Ansari, someone who had recently shown up to the Golden Globe awards wearing a #TimesUp pin, a symbol of his support for feminist strength in a post-Weinstein Hollywood. In their eyes, how could a beloved celebrity known for his progressive show, “Master of None,” be accused of sexual impropriety?

During a news broadcast, HLN reporter Ashleigh Bansfield told Grace she had “chiseled away at that powerful movement with (her) public accusation.” The Atlantic contributor Caitlin Flanagan wrote, “privileged white women (are opening) fire on brown-skinned men,” and chalked up her personal inability to understand Grace’s plight to a generational difference. The New York Times’s Bari Weiss claimed Grace’s problem was that she assumed Ansari was “a mind-reader.” Many other reductive articles, posts and comments followed, showing a nationwide inability to understand the situation and its significance.

While there were assuredly problems with the article’s execution that need to be addressed, such as its unnecessarily graphic nature and overall clumsy writing, Grace’s story raises a valid point: Sexual assault is not always black-and-white, and America’s sexual culture needs to be reevaluated.

Many critics claimed Grace should have ended the encounter with a curt “no,” and left the situation completely. But it’s not that simple — I know dozens of people who share her experience: something they previously wanted is moving too fast, too aggressively, or is otherwise making them uncomfortable. They might say they want to slow down or do something different, but many reasons, from misunderstandings to uneven power dynamics, make this hard or close to impossible. Women have been shamed, physically harmed or even killed because they said “no” too forcefully. Additional factors including age, class, race and gender identity can further deepen the difference in power dynamics, multiplying the fear of potential retribution. Those realities stay with you through every encounter, making a dicey situation even more complicated.

Entitlement to sex goes hand-in-hand with not asking for consent. Many believe that in a once-consensual situation, whatever happens next is inevitable and unavoidable unless you explicitly end the encounter. Yet, whether it’s in school, pop culture or even our own homes, we have been taught that being silently uneasy with how your hookup is progressing is “normal.” This is an unfortunate truth our generation needs to change. Sex should not be coerced. Sex should not be expected. Sex should not be persuaded into existence.

Unlearning this will be hard: Lack of communication before, during and after sexual relationships is an ugly part of our society. Yes, candidly discussing sex can be embarrassing and difficult, whether it concerns a one-night stand or a forty-year marriage. But until we revise how we view consent, people everywhere will continue to have tense and deflating experiences where they feel like they “allowed” something to happen rather than wanting it.

Programs like Northwestern’s “Student Body” True Northwestern Dialogue are a good starting point for changing the conversation. Teaching new community members about ongoing, knowing, active and voluntary consent is critical for fostering healthier sexual relationships in college. While not perfect, this TND and the sexual assault pre-program all incoming NU students take are important steps and are rightfully required.

Changing an entire country’s attitudes toward mutual consent will not be easy, and there are many situations similar to Grace’s that occur every day. However, if #MeToo is really going to change the world, it has to include more types of sexual encounters in the conversation.

Marissa Martinez is a Medill freshman. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.