What the Aziz Ansari Allegations Teach Us About Our Limited Idea of Consent
When allegations of sexual misconduct involving comedian Aziz Ansari first surfaced, the reaction was immediate. For so many people — women in particular — the terrible date recounted by “Grace” (her name was changed) in the Babe interview sounded all too familiar: After a quick dinner, they ended up back at his place, where he repeatedly attempted to initiate sex despite her verbal and nonverbal cues to stop.
Unsurprisingly, alongside the many people who have found themselves in Grace’s position were those (mostly men) who couldn’t see what Ansari did wrong. After all, Grace could have been more forceful with her language or just gotten up and left his apartment, right? Surely she's only speaking up to advance her own career, taking advantage of Ansari’s fame, correct? (Reminder: She came forward anonymously.)
Not so fast, smug internet commenters — it’s not that easy regardless of whether the person had just won an award for creating and starring in a show portraying him as the perpetual nice guy, never able to land his perfect woman.
This is probably a good time for us all to have a chat about the concept and importance of “enthusiastic consent.” If this isn’t a term you’ve heard before, it means deliberately and clearly agreeing to and participating in sexual activity.
During my college’s freshman orientation (around 15 years ago), we all had to attend a seminar entitled “No Means No,” and all the women at the university were given bright-red rape whistles. While, yes, this was better than nothing, it’s absolutely sending the wrong message regarding consent: That unless a person specifically says “no” or literally blows an ear-shattering whistle, then they are indirectly consenting. Enthusiastic consent turns that concept on its head — only yes means yes.
What is enthusiastic consent?
Luckily, at this point we’re (hopefully) beyond arguing the value of consent. After all, as Shadeen Francis, a therapist, educator and author who specializes in social justice and sex therapy, points out, without consent, you have abuse. But she says the premise of enthusiastic consent is more elusive.
“When I teach students and couples about enthusiastic consent, I am talking less about things like jumping up and down with excitement — although that is awesome! — and more about clear, affectively affirmative agreements to participate in an experience,” Francis tells SheKnows. “Enthusiasm as a standard of consent is meant to help clarify the places at which initiators unintentionally and sometimes unknowingly cross from sexual experience to sexual assault.”
Dr. Fran Walfish is a Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist, author of The Self-Aware Parent, regular expert child psychologist on The Doctors (CBS TV) and costar of Sex Box (We TV). She says enthusiastic consent did not occur in Grace’s encounter with Ansari.
After forced mutual oral sex and other unwanted behaviors, when Grace declared boundaries and Ansari ignored her and plowed forward, this was, to Walfish, the turning point when this became a case of sexual harassment and abuse.
“At that point, my heart rate accelerated when I understood the implied power differential in their physical size, not status,” she tells SheKnows. “Sadly, this type of behavior occurs frequently in the dating scene, and not just among Hollywood's [big-] name celebrities. Put bluntly, Ansari treated his date disrespectfully and selfishly.”
Ansari has responded to the allegations in a statement in which he confirms he did go on the date with Grace, saying, “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."
The fact that Ansari was “surprised and concerned” that Grace felt violated by his actions during their date reinforces the idea that our concept of consent needs some serious work. No one should be in a situation in which what they construe as a sexual assault comes across to the other person as a consensual encounter or simple miscommunication.
And while Ansari is being applauded for acknowledging that the night with Grace did happen as she said it did, he claims he thought the entire evening was consensual, and no part of his statement contained an actual apology. In fact, specifying that he was “surprised and concerned” to find out he and Grace were not on the same page shifts the blame back to her, making it sound like it was her fault for not being clearer about her sexual disinterest.
Not to mention that “surprised and concerned” is what parents say to teenagers about a bad report card or broken curfew. It is not an apology.
Even if he did apologize for his behavior, we also can’t accept someone blatantly ignoring someone else’s signals to stop, then saying he’s sorry for it and getting away with the whole thing. As writer/comedian Lane Moore notes on Twitter, this happens all the time, and the perpetrator only apologizes after getting what he wanted out of the situation.
Why is enthusiastic consent important?
When it comes to sexual negotiation, it is easy to be misinterpreted or misunderstood, Francis points out. Both verbal and nonverbal communication can be nuanced, subtle, layered and even contradictory.
“This is why sexual assault narratives often feel controversial: Was it assault or wasn't it?” she explains. “In a ‘no means no’ culture that often lacks emotional intelligence training and comprehensive sex education to back it up, we often reduce that message to mean that only a direct an explicit no means no.”
In reality, there are many ways to communicate disinterest, discomfort and displeasure, Francis explains. And even when a no is verbalized, if it’s spoken in a seemingly half-hearted manner, it may not be considered as final as someone shouting the word while running toward the door, she adds. Enthusiastic consent aims to avoid any potential misunderstandings or miscommunications by ensuring that all participants are active, willing participants.
Not only that, but only practicing no-means-no consent misses that relationships are not always balanced in privilege, in power — social, economic or physical — and in skill, Francis says, adding that people who feel disempowered in the moment or fear consequences later may not be able to ‘just say no.’”
“Expecting all messages to be clear and direct in that way ignores the fact that these imbalances in relationships matter,” Francis explains. “It is not unusual for folks to give in or even say yes to participate because they feel coerced or otherwise compelled to do so — even if the other person is not intending to be coercive.”
These narratives are told over and over again by employees, survivors of previous assaults, students, those who are surprised by the sexual encounter, by people who are financially dependent on the other person, by people who are marginalized on the basis of ethnicity or nationality, by women, by trans folks and by gender nonbinary people, Francis says.
“With all of this room for ambiguity and pressure, emotional tone can be a useful indicator of whether an experience is consensual or not,” she adds.
What does enthusiastic consent actually look like in practice?
According to Walfish, it includes partners checking in with each other, especially when proceeding into a more intimate space by asking, “Is this OK?” or, “Does that feel good?”
Following up with physical, nonverbal cues from your partner is always a good idea.
“If your partner flinches, suddenly tenses up or you sense discomfort in them, check in with how they are doing in the moment rather than proceeding full speed ahead,” Walfish continues. “Mutual pleasure, mutual orgasm and excitation between two people can only be present with two willing partners on an equal playing field.”
If some sort of power and privilege differentials exist between partners, it’s especially important to be mindful that all parties involved are enjoying themselves and are there willingly and enthusiastically — even if you’re one of the “nice” ones.
If you have experienced sexual abuse or assault, call the free, confidential National Sexual Assault hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673), or access the 24-7 help online by visiting online.rainn.org.