EARLIER THIS YEAR, Aziz Ansari became the first Asian-American, and the first person of Indian origin, to win a Golden Globe award. He won Best Actor in a TV comedy for his popular Netflix show Master of None. Ansari is a likeable person, at least going by his public persona. To many Americans, he is perhaps their first brush with a brown-skinned Muslim man who is relatable and funny, someone of the same culture as the rest of them. In many ways, he seems to be a man fit for this moment in time. He is the author of a book titled Modern Romance and someone who presumably knows what is acceptable and unacceptable as behaviour. He often describes himself as a ‘male feminist’. As he accepted his award, as many noticed, he wore a ‘#Time’sUp’ pin on his lapel.
Ansari now finds himself caught up in one of the most vexing questions of our time. Is he a sexual predator or a victim of a campaign gone too far? Is what he stands accused of—if not a criminal offence perhaps—something that is unacceptable, an issue worthy of addressal by the ‘ #MeToo’ campaign? Or is he simply guilty of not being a mind-reader, as a newspaper put it, someone who has suffered from the sexual encounter equivalent of a hit-and-run?
What happened was this: a website put out the story of a 22-year-old woman who went out on a date with Ansari. The two engaged in sexual activity a few times, by her account, with Ansari often being aggressive and doing things she did not like; he continued in this manner, she says, even after she made her discomfort clear to him. “It took a really long time for me to validate this as sexual assault,” she told the website. “I was debating if this was an awkward sexual experience or sexual assault... I was not listened to and ignored. It was by far the worst experience with a man I’ve ever had.” The next day, they exchanged texts. The woman told Ansari he had ‘ignored clear non-verbal cues’ and ‘kept going with advances’. Ansari apologised, saying he had ‘clearly misread things in the moment’.
There are many who are confused by the ‘#MeToo’ campaign. Many heterosexual men who are not predators—or certainly don’t see themselves as such—now fear their sexual actions could be misconstrued as rape. There was the statement signed, among others, by the French female actor Catherine Deneuve, who argued in favour of the right to hit on women, warning of a new puritanism in the air that could end up as a setback to women’s liberation. Rape is a crime, they said, but trying to seduce someone, even persistently or clumsily, is not.
We all play to a certain social script. Some argue that this is the natural order of things. Men offer an advance. Women either accept or decline it. The hand on the knee is an oft-cited example. Anything above it is definitely unacceptable. Anything below is perhaps okay. The knee itself is contentious. Its owner is its best referee. And what of consent? Yes is yes and no is no, of course. But is consent now to be enunciated and ascertained at all given moments? Nothing is obvious anymore.
But the fear of being misunderstood in the #MeToo moment is misplaced. Apart from clear cases of assault, the campaign so far has largely been about the abuse of power for sexual favours within the hierarchy of work spaces. Ansari’s is a case apart. It does not make for #MeToo outrage in the same vein. Instead, it makes for a relevant conversation about sexual culture, or how misogyny could inflect male fantasies.
As #MeToo progresses to #Time’sUp, nuances will need to be addressed. Ansari’s case is not one of sexual assault but of sexual culture, something that is neither criminal nor just a ‘bad date’; yet, what’s demeaning needs to be talked about too.