The Aziz Ansari situation is beyond just that. It speaks of the larger issue, in how we’re quick to blame women and excuse men.
I think the conversation around the now infamous date with Aziz Ansari is enormously important and useful. I do feel sorry for the two living, breathing human beings involved who are now suffering the misery of having their every move and response forensically examined, analysed and argued about. That must be horrible, particularly for Ansari who does not have the protection of anonymity. However, what is done is done and given we are having this conversation, I hope something lasting comes out of it.
I have watched the debate with particular interest because last year I edited an anthology called Unbreakable: Women share stories of hope and resilience. Its premise was women writers telling the stories they had never felt able to share before. All but two of them wrote about experiences of various forms of sexual assault, abuse, harassment and humiliation. Some of their experiences were extremely serious, violent and clearly criminal, but most were what the authors themselves described as “mild”. I used that same word myself when relating my own experience at the hands of a GP. I asked the writers to concentrate on what prevented them telling their story until now – especially if they downplayed it as “mild”.
The book launched just a few months before the whole #MeToo tsunami swept so many old shibboleths away. I have been called prescient as a result and much as I would like to claim soothsayer status, I don’t think I can. I do think, however, that something has been building up inside women for a long time and that, at last, the dam has burst.
What struck me when I edited the collection was the universality of how women reacted to their situation, whether it was being verbally humiliated as a teen by the family GP for asking for a prescription for the pill, being treated like a piece of meat by a self-important medical specialist during an internal exam in front of medical students, being digitally raped during a massage in a Turkish bath, being groped by a supposed “friend” in a bar or sexually assaulted by a terrifying stranger while walking home. Every single woman froze. Every single woman then went through a complicated set of responses. Shock; what is happening? Can this really be happening? Self doubt: am I reading this wrong? Making excuses for the perpetrator: maybe they don’t mean this the way it seems, is there any way what he is doing is ok? Humiliation: this is horrible but I don’t want to make a fuss, I don’t want anyone to know what is happening to me.
The women almost universally absorbed the shame of the experience. It sat with them rather than where it should have belonged – with the man (they were almost all men). Indeed, it almost seemed easier not to accept the shame when the assault was more serious. Then it was much clearer who had behaved badly. The “milder” the abuse, the muddier the emotional aftermath.
Also on The Big Smoke
- “Cat person” and the illusion of power
- #MeToo: Ladies, what do we want men to actually do?
- Post-Weinstein: Calling women “strong” merely enables the weak
In the argument over the pros and cons of the behaviour of Ansari and his date, “Grace”, the water is very muddy indeed. Perhaps that’s why this debate is so important. Many feel “Grace” was to blame because she had plenty of opportunities to call a halt to the date and get the hell out of the flat. She was blamed for putting up with what she put up with and not being clear enough about her discomfort. Yet, if her reactions were anything like mine and the women in my book, it is to be expected that she froze when Ansari behaved in ways she found uncomfortable. No doubt she asked herself many complicated questions as the women in Unbreakable also did and doubted her own reactions. Perhaps, in fact she admits this, she was thrilled to be dating a celebrity and was still clinging to the hope that she could rescue the date she had anticipated with such excitement. Her critics, it seems to me, get all this but they hold her to blame for the complexity of her responses. “If you don’t like it, why don’t you leave?” has been the stock response to women in awful situations from domestic violence to bullying and sexual harassment in the workplace all the way down to bad dates.
Ah, if only life and human responses were as simple and clear-cut as that, we would not have any problems at all. But they are not, no more in women than in men.
What strikes me about this difficult conversation is not who was technically right and who was technically wrong, but rather how quick we are to blame women and how quick to excuse men.
We groom girls from birth to put other people’s needs ahead of their own. We reward them for being pretty, pleasing, compliant and unselfish. We want girls to be nice and well-behaved and then punish them disproportionately when they are not. (Just try being a public feminist if you don’t believe me.) We applaud boys just for being boys and excuse their roughness, untidiness and aggression as “natural”. In girls, such behaviour is seen as unnatural. Well, if we have spent generations training girls to be compliant and put other people’s feelings ahead of their own, isn’t it then a little unfair to then wag our fingers at them when doing exactly that causes them to find standing up to a man pushing his luck a bit complicated?
If women don’t communicate their objections clearly and unequivocally, the conventional view is they only have themselves to blame, yet if he fails to read her “non-verbal clues” well, who can blame him? That’s what this discussion reveals to me. That any error on the part of a woman puts her in the wrong. She is to blame. Conversely, no matter how many errors a man makes he can be forgiven and excused. That’s misogyny at work. We see it in politics (hello Hillary Clinton and her emails), we see it in the workplace, we see it in the home, so why would we be surprised when we see it during sexual encounters? Indeed, it has a benefit. If women are not forgiven for any imperfection, no wonder they stay silent and silence is what protects perpetrators.
As long as we make girls and women over-responsible and men and boys under-responsible, we risk allowing the dangerous silence to continue. And that’s why #MeToo matters so much.