By Poulomi Das
Studies show that men are adept at understanding “softened refusals” from women: altered body language, the abruptness of conversation, little hints. Why does this alertness disappear when it comes to matters of sex?
In the last 24 hours, 34-year-old Aziz Ansari, actor, stand-up comedian, author and co-creator of Netflix’s Master Of None, has gone from being TV’s most progressive feminist bae to joining the ranks of celebrated personalities with allegations of sexual misconduct against them.
Less than a week after the 75th Golden Globes where Ansari proudly wore a #TimesUp pin and accepted his award for Best Actor in a Comedy, a 23-year-old Brooklyn photographer accused the actor of assaulting her in his apartment after a date last year.
In her confessional account, the photographer, who was given the moniker “Grace” recounted in chilling detail the events of the night when Ansari allegedly ignored her multiple verbal and non-verbal cues of disinterest and persistently pressurized her for sex in a host of ways. Her obvious distress at his coercion manifested in physical cues; she repeatedly moved away from him, her hands stopped moving, as did her lips. Yet it didn’t seem to frazzle Ansari. At some point during the night, Grace managed to articulate how uncomfortable she felt and expressed a desire to take things slow. Initially, the actor acknowledged her feelings and suggested that they chill on the couch. But, the moment she proceeded to sit down, Ansari continued his aggressive behavior, pointing toward his penis, and motioning her to go down on him; a request she ended up complying with.
Grace’s account of that ill-fated night seems to be yet another evidence of seemingly well-meaning men, well-acquainted with the language of hints and reading a woman’s body language in other social situations, choosing to abandon it entirely during sexual interactions. Ansari’s — feigned or actual — obliviousness to Grace’s discomfort ensured that their date will now be deemed, at best, an instance of a powerful man rejecting the importance of consent; at worst, it is a portrait of inherent predatory behavior.
Ansari, who has amassed a reputation for his honestly fascinating takes on the changing dynamics of modern dating (including the book Modern Romance), one would imagine, is not averse to understanding the complexity and the importance of consent. He uses his comedy specials to harp on the downside of men resorting to creepy behavior while dealing with women and even won brownie points when he wrote an episode in Master Of None about sexual harassers and the need to call them out.
Aziz Ansari, like many supposedly “woke” men, conveniently neglected applying his professional beliefs in his own sexual life.
Yet, Ansari, like many supposedly “woke” men, conveniently neglected to apply these same beliefs in his own sexual life. His behavior underlines the crucial fact that the problem isn’t that men like him don’t understand the significance of non-verbal cues of disinterest or discomfort. It’s the saddening fact that they just don’t care.
Many have reacted to Grace’s story, arguing that the encounter seemed more like a date going awfully wrong given how parts of it were consensual. This argument inevitably places the burden of the “explicit no” on her; one that she doesn’t use during their encounter until the very end. What these arguments miss, however, is that the “soft no” is still a no — it’s not a practical “yes”. The soft no is a linguistic norm in most social situations, employed by both men and women. In most of our unwelcome daily interactions with friends and colleagues, we fall back on softer versions of no such as “I would love to, but I can’t” or “I’m sorry I’m caught up” or “I will let you know” instead of an outright rejection.
In fact, as a 1999 paper by Celia Kitzinger and Hannah Frith titled Just Say No? The Use Of Conversation In Developing A Feminist Perspective On Sexual Refusal posits, women have traditionally resorted to falling back on the softer versions of the “no” such as delaying (“maybe later”) or accompanying it with a compliment (“I’m flattered but…”) instead of outright refusal for fear of negative repercussions. Their study also argues how men have, as a result, mastered picking up on these “softened refusals” that come in the form of altered body language, the abruptness of conversation, or dropping little hints as for ways in which women communicate their disinterest in sex. The study ultimately concludes that the blunt use of the word “no” is hardly necessary for any man to grasp a woman’s refusal of their sexual invitation.
This means that there should be no question mark on the adequacy of a woman’s communication. What deserves a question mark, though, is men’s claim to not understand refusal unless it’s yelled at their faces.
We’ve all encountered men who revel in this sort of duplicity. How many times have we met guys who present their charming, thoughtful selves adept at picking up body language clues when we are sad, whiny, happy, or pissed? Why then, does this eye for detail vanish when there’s an expectation of sex? In those moments, they end up either being oblivious like Ansari, who claimed to have “misread the signals” in what is still a consensual act in his head or take refuge in the grey area of “mixed signals.”
There is a chance that he didn’t get it. There is an equal chance that he ignored it. Either way, this feels like a betrayal. Of all people, we expected better out of Aziz Ansari.
Featured Illustration Credit(s): Shruti Yatam/Arré
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