Phillips: Aziz Ansari situation highlights need to readdress our understanding of consent

Ruby Phillips, Columnist

In the past few weeks, I have found myself engaged in several conversations with my friends, family and even coworkers about the culture of sex and dating today. I’ve heard questions like: Why is it so hard to say no? Why do I feel embarrassed to tell boys what I want? And worst of all: Was this thing that happened to me not OK? Could it be qualified as sexual assault?

Much of this introspection was brought on by the story on Babe on recent sexual misconduct allegations against Aziz Ansari. This article has become a referendum for the #MeToo and the Time’s Up movements.

It is important to recognize that this movement has been dominated by heteronormative perspectives and stories of sexual assault, which does not account for all the queer, transgender and gender-nonconforming people who face just as much — if not more — sexual violence on a regular basis. Beyond this, neither movement has attempted to equate the acts of Ansari to those of other men who have been exposed, like Larry Nassar or Harvey Weinstein.

But, as Marissa Martinez discussed in her Monday column, it shouldn’t even matter whether these acts are the same or not. Maybe associating them with each other serves to emphasize how interconnected they are.

This is one of the most difficult parts about understanding what we have to learn from these movements. It feels impossible to get people to understand that acts of sexual aggression don’t have to be life-threatening or jail-worthy to be worth talking about. People who engage in any kind of sex are allowed to create expectations and boundaries for their partner. Moreover, the criteria for these boundaries shouldn’t be seen as limitations to what is “hot” or “flirtatious.” Our conception of healthy sexual behavior can’t just pass the bar of not representing sexual assault. People — women specifically — should be able to bring up their own grievances or preferences in relationships, and if their partner can’t respect that, then maybe they’re not ready to be engaging in casual sex or serious sex in the first place, or any sex at all.

This brings me to my larger point, one that was addressed in an piece I read about the Ansari allegations: When I first read the Babe article, I felt angry, uncomfortable and icky. I was upset because I have been in this exact situation. It’s so familiar that I don’t need her details because I have my own. I’m sure hundreds of women everywhere have thought the same thing. My initial reaction was that this simply represented a case of “bad sex,” a phrase that I have seen over and over throughout media coverage. But when I thought more deeply and delved into the smaller instances of aggressive body language that Ansari used against “Grace,” I realized Ansari only intended to engage in sex with Grace as an act for him — something to “do” to her, rather than something that was for them both. Our culture teaches men that they are entitled to their partner’s bodies.

That is what Ansari’s story should represent to us: an example of behavior that is so normal it enables other acts. There can’t be a simple categorization where we view men as “rapists” or “good guys.” The delineation and deviance of rape and sexual assault can’t only be seen in legal or moral terms. It must be reframed as a phenomenon indicative of a system — it’s not a simple dichotomy. This sort of binary allowed Vice President Mike Pence to devise “The Pence Rule,” which refers to Pence’s comments that he won’t eat dinner alone with any woman other than his wife. But when men position themselves as “good guys” in manners like this, they can fail to be held accountable for their negative actions by maintaining the guise of chivalry. Surely the fact Ansari has published books on topics of consent and love in the digital age underscores this reality. It is as if “good” men, those devoted to women and their security, are free to do as they please if conscious and aware of their behavior. But we can’t just accept or expect this behavior from men either. We have to change the standard.

Certainly in the past year, this campus has seen multiple reports of sexual assault. Part of holding ourselves accountable to change is recognizing that this campus — among countless other spaces — is filled with Aziz Ansaris. Moreover, it involves actively acknowledging that abuse of power and sexual disrespect can take several forms and that people react to different sexual occurrences in a myriad of ways. But that should never mean they can’t talk about it. To prevent dangerous situations, we have to start with the little things.

As I said before, I’m reflecting on these concepts myself too. These things are scary and can get so complex you just want to give up. But, pushing our conceptions of what’s “hot,” or “normal,” or “weird,” like Babe’s article does, is how we can start.

When I reflect on experiences I’ve had that are similar to Grace’s, I recognize that they’re not the same because we each tell our unique, individual stories. Society can teach us that having a bad date, or uncomfortable sex is a more acceptable narrative than calling out toxic masculinity and sexual assault. But your stories are yours. They belong to you. So somewhere along the way, we have to ask ourselves how we got here and who is controlling the story.

Ruby Phillips is a Weinberg sophomore. 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.