In a country, which adamantly refuses to recognise “marital rape”, we are still far away from these complicated conversations about sex, coercion, entitlement and misogyny in the bedroom.
Et tu Aziz Ansari?
That’s been the reaction, far and wide, to the fall from grace of the Master of None. He was supposed to be one of the good guys, the one with the ‘Time’s Up’ pin at the Golden Globes.
Then the Babe story burst that bubble. South Asian actors, male ones that is, always complain about being de-sexualised in Hollywood. They can play nerds or shopkeepers, but at best objects of affection rather than hot-blooded desire. Ansari’s Master of None began with a sexual encounter where a condom breaks. It was sex, but it was still comedy. Now we get to see a brown face in America in a different kind of sexual light, as an assailant. And it’s not funny.
If there’s one thing the Aziz Ansari story might teach us, it is that there are no easy answers, that as much as we want this to be Harvey Weinstein black-and-white, the shifting boundaries of sexual relations between men and women remain stubbornly grey.
For those who believed that the #MeToo movement was casting its net too wide, the sexual play-by-play between Ansari and the woman identified as “Grace” was proof that the movement had finally tipped into mudslinging, washing the dirty laundry of a bad hook-up in public. “3000 words of revenge porn” as a piece in The Atlantic dubbed it.
For those on the other side, this was an example of women finally finding the voice to speak up about humiliation and indignity in the workplace and bedroom. It was proof that this did not just happen on a casting couch, and that even woke men with politically correct pins on their lapels could not check their sexual entitlement.
But as I read more and more about it, I found myself agreeing with much that was written on both sides. Grace was not being hit on by her boss, she was herself interested in Ansari, she had made the first move. Why didn’t she feel empowered enough to walk out or at least speak out, instead of, as she put it “pulling away and mumbling” and “physically giving off cues that (she) wasn’t interested”? On the other hand, why are we talking more about Grace speaking up or walking out, instead of an Ansari stopping when she finally says, “I don’t want to feel forced because then I’ll hate you”?
Both arguments sound legitimate. And that’s not a bad thing. It shows that the debate is venturing into trickier terrain, that it is becoming more deeply and complicatedly personal as evidenced by the number of bravely personal stories this has triggered among those commenting on it.
The Weinstein debate was much safer. Most of us have never been in that situation, of being an actor faced with a powerful studio mogul’s invitations to a massage and more. As men, we can take comfort that we were never a Weinstein, never the one who shoved their hand down a woman’s shirt, or asked someone who worked for us to watch us masturbate.
The angry and polarised debate around Ansari shows that now, finally, the #MeToo movement has come home. We can claim innocence when it comes to sexual assault. Sexual coercion is much trickier. We know what it means to be the horndog who might deliberately ignore signals that his partner is not comfortable with the pace of a sexual encounter, but still pushes on, just because he thinks that eventually a “no” can be worn down to at least an “ok, but just for a little bit”.
We know how much it takes to abruptly end a date and say you are going home and risk pissing the other person off, to feel guilty that you wasted their evening somehow, that they won’t like you anymore. Too many of us are conditioned to continually adjust to what the other person seems to want, rather than articulating our own desires.
This is not just about men and women. I have gay friends who acceded to oral sex just to avoid full intercourse much as “Grace” said she did that night, afraid that otherwise they might be regarded as a tease. It’s the way we have been taught to navigate desire, to strike a sexual compromise that saves face somewhat all around. We have been taught that in a sexual encounter, one presses for it and the other one acquiesces, one pursues and the other one is pursued, and once those roles are fixed, we are stuck with them.
That’s why more than Weinstein or a Donald Trump, Ansari has struck such a raw nerve. We could be aghast at the allegations against Weinstein and Trump, but Ansari strikes much closer home. We’ve all been there. Je Suis Aziz Ansari, as much as Je Suis Grace. We’ve been in their shoes in some fashion or the other.
The problem is that we are trying to pack all this raw complexity into the same overstuffed #MeToo hashtag. As Jill Filipovic writes in The Guardian: “we’re arguing about whether Aziz Ansari is a sexual assailant, and missing the more relevant conversation about sex, male entitlement and misogyny in the bedroom.” This is a culture problem which we are turning into an Aziz Ansari problem.
It’s a conversation we are far away from in India. Other than the flurry of the #MeToo allegations against university professors that surfaced on a Facebook post, the whole movement has largely washed over us. The Kangana Ranaut-Hrithik Roshan drama quickly turned into ‘he-said, she-said’ tabloid fodder. But while we think of casting couch and Bollywood, we all know if a #MeToo explodes in India, no place will be immune – academia, media houses and political corridors. In a country, which adamantly refuses to recognise “marital rape”, we are still far away from these complicated conversations about sex, coercion, entitlement and misogyny in the bedroom.
The sad story of a fellow desi, Aziz Ansari, has brought us to the brink of those conversations. But do we have the courage to have them? Or is it safer to just line up for, or against, Aziz Ansari?
Sandip Roy is a journalist, commentator and author.