Rape culture in an Aziz Ansari world


We are all familiar with the stereotyping and victim blaming that often follow accusations of rape or sexual assault.  We all know the girl “it” happened to. The girl who became a cautionary tale overnight. Who is accompanied by whispers wherever she goes that say she was too willing. That she was inebriated. That she wore a slinky dress that night. Everyone has an opinion.

We have seen her character being dissected. Carved up like a cadaver, for good measure of course. Every mistake, every pinprick secret scrutinized. A man’s good name is at stake! Her intellect is poked and prodded, a lifetime of alleged “promiscuity” unraveled. A look here. A kiss there. Good girls don’t tempt good boys. A tale as old as time. One that starts with a dismissive line of reasoning. A good old “he said, she said.” A crime though? Surely not! Crimes occur in the dark of alleyways.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, rape culture signifies “a society or environment whose prevailing social attitudes have the effect of normalizing or trivializing sexual assault and abuse.”

Rape culture teaches us to raise our girls to be cautious. It tells us that our behavior predetermines how much we are at risk. It tells us that we are responsible for the actions of others, no matter how violent or destructive those actions might be. Perpetrators are forgiven easily, because after all “boys will be boys.”

Rape culture is a shape-shifter. At times, it dons the name of “chivalry.” It teaches men that to win the affections of a woman, one must be persistent because women allegedly like “playing hard to get.” Popular culture is saturated with romance as a struggle, where masculinity is equated with stubborn resolve and femininity is rendered as coy, playful and teasing.

Rape culture apportions blame to the victim. It perpetuates the myth that the victim is at fault. This is especially forceful when extenuating circumstances do not match our popular assumptions of what exactly constitutes as sexual assault. Our cultural imaginations are filled with what victims and assailants should look and behave like and what assault itself should look like. Big Bad Wolves and cautionary tales teach us to navigate our behaviors, to avoid areas and situations that could harm us. Unfortunately, the real world does not function like a cautionary tale. When we encounter incidents that do not fall within this stereotypical paradigm, we are left confused.

In a world of Harvey Weinsteins and Larry Nassars, the notion of an outwardly “woke” public figure committing such an act has been met with skepticism and disbelief. ”

A case in point is the recent allegation against beloved comedian Aziz Ansari. On January 14, Babe.net published an article documenting an alleged assault that took place against 22-year-old photographer “Grace” (a pseudonym). In a world of Harvey Weinsteins and Larry Nassars, the notion of an outwardly “woke” public figure committing such an act has been met with skepticism and disbelief. Soon after it was published, the article sparked a public debate questioning the entire premise of this particular kind of “assault.” The New York Times published the article “Aziz Ansari Is Guilty Of Not Being a Mind Reader,” written by self-proclaimed feminist Bari Weiss, who argues that the whole scenario was simply “a lousy romantic encounter.” She goes on to state, “the insidious attempt by some women to criminalize awkward, gross and entitled sex takes women back to the days of smelling salts and fainting couches.”

It is disturbing to see how Ansari’s accuser has been catapulted into such a negative spotlight. Her personality has been equated with the poorly-written Babe article, the quality of which has been used by critics as ammunition to discredit her allegations entirely. A critical thread of reasoning in this entire debate has been the supposed pettiness of the accuser, her indecisiveness, her over-dramatization, and her presumed willingness to partake in the event itself. Critics say “Grace” did not resist. She went along with it. She could have left at any time. Non-verbal cues are not legitimate. She was romantically interested in Ansari and therefore should be held culpable for not being assertive enough. How could this possibly be classified as assault?

My question, though, is how could it not? Why has public discourse treated this incident as such an unheard anomaly? Weiss’ claims that this story ultimately “trivializes what #MeToo first stood for” is directly contradictory to what it actually signifies. If anything, it depicts the overwhelming blind spot in our collective understanding of sexual assault, of victims and of perpetrators. Is this scenario really that different from countless instances where the abuser is known to the victim, where the victim “does not protest enough,” where the abuser is supposedly an upright citizen and yet is not able to fathom the simple boundaries of consent? Is not this level of scrutiny exactly the reason why many victims of sexual violence do not report what has happened to them?

The fact is, Grace did resist. She said no. She explicitly said no.  Multiple times. The problem, however, is not one of “resistance.” Contrary to popular belief, a fight or flight response is not a standard, definitive response to threatening situations. Individuals confronted with danger may react by freezing up entirely or by mentally detaching themselves from their immediate surroundings. Overt physical resistance is not the default response for obvious discomfort and should not be viewed as such.

In Grace’s case, her behavior portrayed exactly how uncomfortable she was. In the Babe article, she states that at one point, “I stood up and said no, I don’t think I’m ready to do this, I really don’t think I’m going to do this. And he said, ‘How about we just chill, but this time with our clothes on?’” But despite his supposedly “reassuring” response (which many media outlets have used in his defense), Ansari continued to make highly inappropriate sexual advances towards Grace. He repeatedly violated her boundaries and deliberately ignored her objections.

Despite the great strides of the #MeToo movement, the Aziz Ansari case shows us just how much we are lacking when it comes to understanding the complexities and nuances of sexual assault. ”

Despite the great strides of the #MeToo movement, the Aziz Ansari case shows us just how much we are lacking when it comes to understanding the complexities and nuances of sexual assault. Complexities that can, in fact, be simplified if we actually tried to grasp the idea that no really does mean no. That no should be enough irrespective of any context. It should be able to withstand any moment even during a previously consensual sexual engagement. As sentient beings with the ability to appraise and reevaluate our environments at all times, we are allowed to change our minds and especially when it comes to matters of consent.

The Aziz Ansari case signifies how damaging public reaction can be towards invalidating victim trauma. As far as it goes, it also does a great disservice to the intellect of men by presuming that they are incapable of being cognizant of non-verbal cues or the obvious discomfort of women. Aziz Ansari may not be a mind reader, but he is a human being capable of picking up and internalizing social cues. If anything, his highly-publicized status as a “feminist” should have predisposed him to become even more attuned to his date’s needs.

It is reasonable to say that the significance of this case transcends borders. Rape culture is a symptom of all patriarchal societies, despite variations in how it ultimately manifests and justifies itself. In Qatar, the subject of sexual violence still very much remains a taboo and statistics regarding sexual assault are not readily available. In my own personal experience as an international student studying in Qatar and living on campus, I have heard numerous word-of-mouth accounts of sexual abuse, where victims have not reported what has happened to them due to fears of victim-blaming. Victim-blaming in courtroom settings worldwide has been a well-documented trigger for survivors reliving the traumas of assault. Unfortunately, in Qatar, victim-blaming can easily lead to very real penal repercussions for victims who do not fit the stereotypical mold. According to a statement made to Doha News by Qatar-based criminal lawyer Dr. Najeeb Al- Nuaimi, physical evidence is a strong requirement to securing rape convictions in Qatar. He said, “She could push him (or) resist the movement by moving her hands – that would show a mark or scratch, which proves that she was under a physical struggle. But if that doesn’t show, she’s lying.” However such legal requirements do not acknowledge common responses such as involuntary paralysis of victims in moments of fear and trauma.

As society moves forward, there is an urgent need for us to reevaluate our black-and-white assumptions of consent. The issue of consent is universal. It impacts all of us despite the differences in our backgrounds, in our genders and our beliefs. It is especially relevant to us as a community of university students. We must remember that the only simple aspect to this issue is that no means no, despite any configurations of how that no might present itself. One no still means no. A whispered no still means no. A reluctant or coerced “yes” can still very much mean a no. Body language, unease, and discomfort need to be paid attention to. Each and every one of us must shoulder the responsibility to educate ourselves, to be conscious, aware and respectful of each other at all times. It really is not too much to ask. Just a basic crash course in humanity.

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