In the wake of a conversation on this subject in which I and the other person talking had a disagreement about the Aziz Ansari situation, I’m still trying to parse out some of my thoughts and feelings and I’m curious what other people think/feel on this subject.
When I read the original article about this, my thoughts and feels were very straight forward: “Well, that was fucked. For someone who prides themselves on respecting women and being a feminist ally, there’s no respect for consent here.” Essentially, that is still my thinking. The person I was talking to pointed out a discrepancy however: men are socialized to pursue sex in this way, and we in feminist circles expect men to overcome that socialization. On the other hand women are socialized to be passive and subservient, and we may not be holding them to the same expectation of overcoming that socialization.
The argument was that “Grace’s” story displays a lack of agency on her part. That she could have left the situation when she first began to feel uncomfortable. That she passively accepted what was happening and gave non-verbal cues and some verbal cues that, when ignored, were followed up with staying longer and hoping his behavior would change. This shows passivity, a lack of agency. Women must fight for their own liberation, and this means claiming and utilizing their own agency to the best of their ability.
I don’t disagree with this sentiment. It is true that women must fight for their liberation, and that doing so entails overcoming out own socialization in the same way that we expect men to overcome theirs. There is kind of a double standard there, isn’t there? I honestly hadn’t thought about it before but I can certainly see the ways in which the expectation for passivity, interestingly, plays out in the dominant feminist discourse. While I do agree that is not our job to not be raped, there is a certain passivity inherent in entirely putting the responsibility for our safety back onto men. Doesn’t that feel a lot like waiting for a brave knight or prince to come to our defense? Why do we not come to our own defense?
Yes, we should more willing to fight on our own behalf. We should grapple with our socialization towards passivity in the same way that we expect men to grapple with theirs, and we should be ready to fight for our liberation and our safety. This is actually something I’ve thought a lot about in the past, because I want to adopt children. I want to raise daughters. I want to raise strong daughters who are willing to fight, who are willing to make a scene, who won’t be passive. But I also want them to know that it’s not their responsibility to not be assaulted, that if they are assaulted the fault lies with the person who chose to assault them. There is a middle ground there somewhere, but I imagine it will hard to maintain, and I am worried about skewing too far one way or the other (and these children are only theoretical at this point).
At the same time, I genuinely wonder if saying that “Grace” failed to exercise her agency isn’t itself a slippery slope to victim blaming (which the person I was speaking with noted is something that has on occasion been weaponized by white feminists, but I will come back to that). It feels a little like shifting the responsibility so fully onto Grace that little responsibility is left to Aziz, and that feels like a surefire way to erase any responsibility he should take for his own choices and actions. It also feels like its overlooking the reality a lot of women in a situation like this either freeze or attempt to pacify the person they are with, because there is no way to fully predict whether someone might become violent if you try to leave or tell them to back the fuck off. (It puts me a bit in mind of the Margret Atwood quote, “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”)
Is there a middle ground here? Is there a place in the story for expecting Grace to have left earlier or made her boundaries more explicit while also expecting Aziz to have recognized her cues and respected what she was communicating to him? What is the most responsible and least harmful way of assessing this situation? While my gut reaction to the first two questions is YES, I genuinely don’t know what the answer is or if there even is an answer to the last question.
It was also noted that there is a racial aspect to this. I’m ashamed that I didn’t fully recognize the role that race is playing here, but now that I see it, it seems undeniable. This story absolutely blew up over night, but allegations have been leveled at Casey Affleck for years and hardly a feather has been ruffled. I can’t help but think of, in my personal life, a child of color that I am working with who has been threatened with juvie for behaviors which, when displayed by a white student, were largely ignored. These are things which we should be absolutely enraged about. We should flip tables over this, but we’re not. This is an element of the story which is being entirely overlooked, to the point that in all of the articles I have read, race has not once been mentioned.
Why should it matter that Aziz isn’t white? It wasn’t so long ago that black men were regularly lynched on the word of white women. I’m all for believing the survivor but the nefariousness of our culture being absolutely steeped in white supremacy should never be ignored, especially when the woman whose words took Emmit Till’s life admitted to having lied about him. Hell, the KKK originally advertised itself as being the white knights who would protect women from the sexual advances of black men. The history of men of color being portrayed as sexual savages and using that as an excuse to commit acts of heinous violence against them and their communities is long, brutal, and still having very real effects on our treatment of men of color today. The same is true for women of color coming forward about their stories of sexual assault: many of the same depictions that were used against men of color were used against women of color so that would effectively be seen as “un-rapable,” making them targets for white sexual violence. This legacy, too, lives on, and we need look no further than the higher rates of sexual violence towards indigenous populations for the evidence of this.
Do I think that race is an element here? Absolutely. There is no doubt in my mind that the allegations against Aziz have gained so much attention at least in part because of this. Of course they have also drawn a lot of attention due to the nature of his public persona as a feminist ally, but this does not diminish the role that race is likely playing. Again, of all of the men who have been accused of sexual harassment and assault in the media recently, the only one of them who caused so much suffering and has seen a trial just so happened to be black.
Does the idea of victim blaming undermine these elements of agency, self determination, and racial tension? I don’t know. Before today I’ve never encountered the idea that victim blaming is something that might be weaponized by white feminists as a tool of silence against communities of color. Is there a tendency to believe white women more than women of color? I’ve not looked at any research on this but I wouldn’t be surprised if there was. Is there a tendency to believe women sexual assault allegations if they’re directed toward a black or brown man, especially if the woman making the allegation is white? Again, I wouldn’t be in the least surprised, simply because of the history of racial and gender based oppression in this country, and the ways in which they are often linked. This is something I can’t speak to much because I don’t really know the background to the claim that the term “victim blaming” has been weaponized by white feminists, and I’m honestly not sure where to begin looking to deepen my understanding on this front, though I can see the logic in the claim. If you have any ideas or thoughts on this matter, or any resources to begin exploring this idea, I would love to hear them.
Ultimately, I’m beginning to think that the #MeToo movement (which, speaking on the subject of race, it seems important to point out was started years ago by a black woman) is a bit of a mind fuck. I look at the situation that was described by “Grace” and I see something familiar. I see me getting to the point that, when I was still dating him, I didn’t want to be alone with my ex. Why didn’t I leave him sooner? Fuck if I know, but if I were to wager a guess it would probably have to do with not feeling worthy of love and respect and assuming that that was as good as I could ever have. I look at the story “Grace” outlined and I see me leaving a situation before it escalated to that point…and that not changing the fact that I was later hurt by that same person. So when I see people saying things like, “She should have just left when she first felt uncomfortable,” or “She shouldn’t have even gone home with him to begin with,” I can’t help but take it a little bit personally—something which I can’t help but feel will undermine the thought I’ve put into the rest of the subject, but which remains true nontheless.
This story is not about me, and by all rights I should not take it personally. But when you recognize yourself so much in that story, it’s hard to not get those, “Are you implying that I deserved it?” feels when you see people seemingly implying that Grace should have just done a better job protecting herself. That’s not what the person I was talking to was trying to say—not by a long shot—and I really do agree with every point she made about agency and self determination, overcoming our socialization, and being aware of the racial tensions inherent in a story like this in modern America. I agree with every point that she is saying…
So why do I disagree with the conclusion? Perhaps the tone in the article she shared is what put me on edge (I found it demeaning toward “Grace”) or perhaps it really is just the way in which I’m reading into the story my own personal connections. Maybe I’m worried that placing full responsibility on Grace for owning her agency in that situation removed any responsibility for Aziz owning his—and while I know that’s not what either she or I were arguing for, I can see a broader culture jumping on the chance to persecute a female victim and erase male responsibility. Does that inclination to protect male reputation at the cost of female well-being diminish when the man in question is a person of color? There’s no doubt in my mind about that. Even though celebrities of all colors have largely gotten away with violence towards women, those who are black or brown tend to see greater consequences to their careers than white men. (Unless they throw a ball real good. Because apparently the only thing that overcomes white supremacy in America is throwing a ball real good. Unless you’re using your platform as a good ball-thrower to draw attention to racial inequity of course, then fuck you I guess.)
Am I starting to get uneasy with what #MeToo is becoming? Maybe, though not for the reasons that many others have started expressing concern. I’m not overly worried about men’s tarnished reputations. Bill Cosby isn’t in jail, Wood Allen is still making movies, Harvey Weinstein is also not in jail. I don’t think Aziz’s career will be ruined, however tarnished his reputation may be. So what is making me nervous? I honestly can’t put my finger on it, but I suspect it has to do with the safety of the women coming forward, and whether or not this will be a passing moment in history, and whether or not these stories and this moment will have any long term reverberations through history or if we will lapse back into silence.