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The Ansari matter and Cat Person

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The internet is busy litigating In re Aziz Ansari and “Grace.” Some documents in the case:

Grace’s account.

Ansari’s response has been appended to the end of the story.

Caitlin Flanagan for the defense (or is it the prosecution?):

I thought it would take a little longer for the hit squad of privileged young white women to open fire on brown-skinned men. I had assumed that on the basis of intersectionality and all that, they’d stay laser focused on college-educated white men for another few months. But we’re at warp speed now, and the revolution—in many ways so good and so important—is starting to sweep up all sorts of people into its conflagration: the monstrous, the cruel, and the simply unlucky. Apparently there is a whole country full of young women who don’t know how to call a cab, and who have spent a lot of time picking out pretty outfits for dates they hoped would be nights to remember. They’re angry and temporarily powerful, and last night they destroyed a man who didn’t deserve it.

Flanagan provides no evidence for her almost-explicit claim that Grace and her supporters are motivated by racist sentiments, nor does she give any basis for her — in my view completely over the top — prediction that this incident will “destroy” Ansari and/or his career. (I think it’s far more likely that the incident will have no consequences of any kind for his career, and may in fact help it, per Samuel Goldwyn’s famous dictum regarding publicity).

Yesterday Bari Weiss fulminated in the Times: [eta: See Michelle Goldberg’s more nuanced take in the same edition]

If you are wondering what about this evening constituted the “worst night” of Grace’s life, or why it is being framed as a #MeToo story by a feminist website, you probably feel as confused as Mr. Ansari did the next day. “It was fun meeting you last night,” he texted.

“Last night might’ve been fun for you, but it wasn’t for me,” she responded. “You ignored clear nonverbal cues; you kept going with advances. You had to have noticed I was uncomfortable.” He replied with an apology.

Read Grace’s text message again.

Put in other words: I am angry that you weren’t able to read my mind.

It is worth carefully studying Grace’s story. Encoded in it are new yet deeply retrograde ideas about what constitutes consent — and what constitutes sexual violence.

This seems to me a remarkable way of characterizing Grace’s description (which for the purposes of argument everyone seems to be accepting as accurate) of her interactions with Ansari. Anyone interested in this matter should definitely read her account in full, but for me this is the most crucial passage (warning: features fairly graphic descriptions of a sexual encounter).

Ansari is pressing Grace to engage in intercourse. She is unwilling:

“I wasn’t really even thinking of that, I didn’t want to be engaged in that with him. But he kept asking, so I said, ‘Next time.’ And he goes, ‘Oh, you mean second date?’ and I go, ‘Oh, yeah, sure,’ and he goes, ‘Well, if I poured you another glass of wine now, would it count as our second date?’” He then poured her a glass and handed it to her. She excused herself to the bathroom soon after.

Grace says she spent around five minutes in the bathroom, collecting herself in the mirror and splashing herself with water. Then she went back to Ansari. He asked her if she was okay. “I said I don’t want to feel forced because then I’ll hate you, and I’d rather not hate you,” she said. . (emphasis added)

How much “mind reading,” exactly, does Ansari have to do here? I realize that these sorts of situations tend not lend themselves to Benthamite calculations, let alone Kantian imperatives, but JFC as the kids say. If you are a man, and perhaps especially if you are a famous man, and a woman says anything like this to you, especially a woman who you know next to nothing about, that statement ought to immediately produce — even in medias res — several hours of fairly severe erectile dysfunction.

What Ansari did next isn’t exactly illegal, but it is deeply reprehensible:

She told babe that at first, she was happy with how he reacted. “He said, ‘Oh, of course, it’s only fun if we’re both having fun.’ The response was technically very sweet and acknowledging the fact that I was very uncomfortable. Verbally, in that moment, he acknowledged that I needed to take it slow. Then he said, ‘Let’s just chill over here on the couch.’”

This moment is particularly significant for Grace, because she thought that would be the end of the sexual encounter — her remark about not wanting to feel “forced” had added a verbal component to the cues she was trying to give him about her discomfort. When she sat down on the floor next to Ansari, who sat on the couch, she thought he might rub her back, or play with her hair — something to calm her down.

Ansari instructed her to turn around. “He sat back and pointed to his penis and motioned for me to go down on him. And I did. I think I just felt really pressured. It was literally the most unexpected thing I thought would happen at that moment because I told him I was uncomfortable.”

Soon, he pulled her back up onto the couch. She would tell her friend via text later that night, “He [made out] with me again and says, ‘Doesn’t look like you hate me.’”

Again, this isn’t sexual assault, in at least the limited sense that no prosecutor is going to bring a case on these facts, for both good and bad reasons, of both a legal and cultural kind.

But, as Jessica Valenti emphasizes, we need, as both a legal and cultural matter, to talk about reprehensible sexual behavior that’s not legally actionable:

It’s easy to take a stand against Weinstein or men who whip their dicks out. It’s less easy to talk about behavior that’s widely considered acceptable – but imo it’s just as important.

This is part of the problem with focusing so much on punitive action – it means anything that isn’t prosecutable or fireable gets dismissed as unimportant.

Creating a progressive sexual model & politics means interrogating not just the behaviors we all agree are wrong, but also those considered “normal,” even tho they cause harm.

A few weeks ago, the New Yorker published Kristen Roupenian’s short story Cat Person. The story caused something of a sensation, apparently because it was so resonant within the context of the #MeToo movement. (Indeed many people seemed to overlook that the story was a work of fiction). The key moment in the story comes when Margot — a young woman on a first date with a somewhat older man who to this point she has gotten to know almost exclusively via a series of text messages — realizes that she doesn’t want to have sex with him, but finds that it’s psychologically impossible for her to refuse:

Looking at him like that, so awkwardly bent, his belly thick and soft and covered with hair, Margot recoiled. But the thought of what it would take to stop what she had set in motion was overwhelming; it would require an amount of tact and gentleness that she felt was impossible to summon. It wasn’t that she was scared he would try to force her to do something against her will but that insisting that they stop now, after everything she’d done to push this forward, would make her seem spoiled and capricious, as if she’d ordered something at a restaurant and then, once the food arrived, had changed her mind and sent it back.

(Side point: some people have criticized Roupenian for supposedly engaging in “fat shaming.” I think that criticism has no merit. Margot finds that ultimately she’s not really sexually attracted to Robert for several reasons, one of which is his physical appearance. This is not presented as being in any way a moral judgment on her part, but simply a psychological fact about her).

Much more so that in the real life case of Grace and Ansari, Margot’s eventual assent is unambiguously consensual, in at least every legal sense of the word. But, as Valenti argues in the context of the Ansari matter, legally consensual in no way means “non-problematic.”

The Ansari controversy makes for depressing reading, but it’s an important conversation to have, in a cultural context in which too many people want to reduce the problematics of contemporary sexual politics to a few inevitably crude legal categories.

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