By now, you’ve likely heard that Aziz Ansari was accused of sexual misconduct. In the alleged firsthand account from a 23-year-old photographer — who went by the alias "Grace" in a report published by the website Babe.net — she detailed a sexual encounter she had with Ansari last year in which she felt coerced and pressured into engaging in oral sex with the actor. The article quickly started a debate over whether Grace's story was an instance of sexual assault or just a "bad date," on and off social media. And what's clear from the polarizing reactions to the story is that right now, in the midst of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, is the perfect time to have an important conversation about sex and consent. It's the perfect time to have a conversation about how we talk about sex at all.
There are things that everyone needs to remember when speaking about these kinds of sexual experiences that fall into a gray area, according to sex and intimacy coach Irene Fehr. Most notably, the most important thing to remember is they’re all too common. “Grace is an everywoman in many ways,” Fehr says in an email. “We’ve all been in situations where we’ve consented to sex, but it didn’t go as we had imagined. Situations where the man acts upon the woman, without noticing her response and creating the experience together.”
In Fehr’s opinion, Grace’s story isn’t new, but is “many women’s experience of sex, not just in hookups, but in many otherwise loving marriages and relationships.”
In Grace's account, she claimed that she met Ansari at a 2017 Emmys party, they exchanged numbers, and the two eventually met in New York for a date a week or so later. After going to dinner, the two ended up at Ansari's apartment, where, Grace told Babe, things escalated quicker than she felt comfortable with despite her "verbal and non-verbal cues" that she wanted to slow down. "I think I just felt really pressured [into sexual activity]," she said. "It was literally the most unexpected thing I thought would happen at that moment because I told him I was uncomfortable.” Eventually, Grace said, she left Ansari's apartment confused about what had happened. "I was debating if this was an awkward sexual experience or sexual assault," she said. "And that’s why I confronted so many of my friends and listened to what they had to say, because I wanted validation that it was actually bad."
That uncertainty, Fehr states, keeps women from talking about these experiences openly, and "leaves the message to men that this is OK." But speaking out also leaves these women in a position to be judged, which Grace was. HLN’s Ashleigh Banfield, condemned Grace, calling her experience a "bad date" that was "at best, unpleasant," while the New York Times op-ed, "Aziz Ansari Is Guilty. Of Not Being a Mind Reader," summarized her experience as an example of "women torching men for failing to understand their 'nonverbal cues.'”
Over email, Sarah Watson, a licensed professional counselor and certified sex therapist, says that, because Grace’s story is hard to define, it leaves people looking for answers and, too often, someone to blame.
“It’s not really clear what happened. What is clear is that Grace wasn't comfortable,” Watson says. “She didn't feel safe. We need to validate her feelings and experience.”
Fehr agrees that she had "a lot of compassion for Grace — even if it wasn’t assault and just bad sex" and that the overwhelming number of responses to her story shows there's a need for more nuanced conversations regarding the idea that "bad sex" and consent don't go hand-in-hand. "It’s bad sex not because of an outcome," Fehr says, "but of the process."
Three years ago, Rebecca Traister wrote about how bad consensual sex is the real key to understanding the power imbalance in sexual relationships. "Outside of sexual assault, there is little critique of sex," Traister wrote, noting that society has tried to put sex into two neat categories — consensual and non-consensual — when, in fact, there is a “vast expanse of bad sex — joyless, exploitative encounters that reflect a persistently sexist culture and can be hard to acknowledge without sounding prudish — that has gone largely uninterrogated.” That is, until now.
“Women find themselves struggling within about their agency in sex — whether what they experienced was assault or not, not knowing what to do in such situations, how to claim their sovereignty,” Fehr says. “‘Was this assault? When do I act? What is my responsibility?’ These are hard questions that all women face, and this conversation is a good place to start.”
It’s a conversation that must also include men, as Ansari's statement released on Jan. 15 showed. The actor admitted that he had been out with Grace and they “ended up engaging in sexual activity, which by all indications was completely consensual." When Grace responded with concerns over their encounter — as shown in the reported text exchange that Babe tweeted along with the story — he was taken aback, as he wrote in his statement:
It was true that everything did seem okay to me, so when I heard that it was not the case for her, I was surprised and concerned. I took her words to heart and responded privately after taking the time to process what she had said.
If Grace is every woman, then, in Fehr’s opinion, Ansari is every man. He didn't legally do anything wrong, but that doesn't make it right. Even “well-intentioned and loving men," Fehr says, have been taught that women are there to fulfill their fantasies and thus may use coercion, even without realizing it, to get what they want. "We train boys and men out of paying attention to their feelings, which makes it very hard for them to recognize, read, and attend to the feelings of women,” Fehr says. “This is an outcome of a deeper culture of hypermasculinity that cuts men off from their feelings and sensitivity in relating.”
What Grace's story revealed is that the idea that consent is as simple as "if someone says no, it means no" doesn’t apply to these gray area situations. "The conversation should be," Watson says, "if any person engaging in a sexual experience doesn't feel safe and is uncomfortable, it needs to stop and there has to be a conversation about it."
Grace's account illustrates that the current conversation surrounding the topic of consent isn't good enough. It's not getting at the questions men and women really have. But, at the very least, Grace's story has forced people to engage in a more nuanced conversation about how sex can become safer, better, and more enjoyable for all involved. And that's a conversation that is long overdue.
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) or visit online.rainn.org.