‘ Normalizing’ sexual violence

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Obviously, we can all agree the way powerful and predatory men like Harvey Weinstein or Matt Lauer have exploited women is wrong – but recent allegations against Aziz Ansari have revealed we still have a long way to go when it comes to understanding abusive behaviour.

In the online publication babe.net, a woman identified as “Grace” shared the story of “the worst night of (her) life” – a sexual encounter with the comedian some have labelled as nothing more than a “bad date.” Grace’s account has been corroborated by Ansari, who said he thought everything was “completely consensual” and was “surprised and concerned” to discover otherwise.

While I wouldn’t consider Ansari’s behavior on par with that of, say, James Toback, Grace’s story was much more disturbing to me – it was ordinary.

They met at the 2017 Emmy Awards after-party and exchanged numbers. Grace pursued Ansari. After texting for a week or so, Ansari asked her on a date. They went for dinner, and Grace accompanied Ansari back to his apartment for more wine.

“But why would she go to his apartment if she didn’t want to sleep with him?” ask people who have apparently never gone out with someone they liked spending time with. Maybe she did. Maybe she was excited to see where things would go. There’s nothing wrong with that – going to someone’s house is not consenting to sexual activity.

Grace said she “remembers feeling uncomfortable at how quickly things escalated” when they started getting physical. She said her verbal and non-verbal cues of distress were “ignored” – even when she outright told Ansari, “I don’t want to feel forced because then I’ll hate you, and I’d rather not hate you.”

“If she felt uncomfortable, she should have left,” say people who don’t understand what it’s like to be coerced into sex. As if it’s just that easy.

We see headlines all the time about women who were killed for refusing sex with a man, or even for not giving a man her phone number. And when someone you thought was trustworthy and kind – enough so that you felt comfortable going back to his apartment for a drink – proves himself not to be by getting aggressive with you, you start to wonder just what kind of aggression this person is really capable of.

That’s a paralyzing train of thought, especially when you’re vulnerable and alone with this potentially dangerous person. Those terrifying headlines will come back to haunt you, and you’ll stop thinking about trying to escape – instead, you’ll start giving in, little by little, in the hope that you’ll appease him enough that he’ll just let you go.

(That’s still not consent, by the way.)

I don’t think Ansari is a horrible person. I don’t think he intended to force himself on Grace and cause her harm. But he did, and in doing so, he’s shown how deeply “normal” sexual violence has been socialized into all of us.

What happened between Grace and Ansari was just a common hookup. But that’s something we need to change.

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