Burke: Re-examining the #MeToo movement

The Aziz Ansari case proves one thing: that we are unclear on our understanding of assault and consent


Indeed, this most recent wave of allegations leveled against the rich and famous mirrors the sort of attitude towards sexual assault found on Universities in the wake of such controversies. 

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No twist in this latest chapter of the sexual revolution has stirred such mixed emotions amongst sexual assault advocates and the #MeToo movement as “The Humiliation of Aziz Ansari.” The story is less straightforward than previous accounts, and some have claimed that it implicates both parties to a certain extent. The role of women in cases of sexual assault is often overlooked or brushed aside as totally insignificant in comparison to the role of men. This is often valid, and in many situations women are unquestionably victims of a crime. In the Ansari case as well as others, however, it is clear that women have a more complex part to play.  Ansari’s story is complex, and is more characteristic of real world sexual interactions — contrasting with the black-and-white scenarios we are often presented with in the media. This sort of nuance ought to inform the policies we devise to deal with the issue of sexual assault, both as a University and as a country. 

Today’s frenzy of celebrity accusations might be said to have begun in earnest during the 2016 presidential campaign, reaching a crescendo in the 2017 Women’s March. Even this, however, might be said to have been kicked off by stories such as Rolling Stone magazine’s deservedly infamous — and since retracted — “A Rape on Campus.” Indeed, this most recent wave of allegations leveled against the rich and famous mirrors the sort of attitude towards sexual assault found on universities in the wake of such controversies. Though this has won victims of assault some important battles, it has also brought the problems inherent in this approach to the national stage. Most prominent among these is the tendency to imagine women as being without agency, to project a sort of innocence upon them that is not always present. Ansari’s case is a perfect vessel through which to examine these problems. 

Few saw reason to slow the avalanche of justice that buried the likes of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein and comedian Louis C.K. Ansari’s case, however, has been harder to judge than those of Weinstein and Louis C.K.  This is Aziz Ansari, after all. A “certified woke bae,” Ansari is the same person who wrote an entire book called “Modern Romance.” Even after getting over this initial shock, however, the public has been less quick to condemn Ansari with the same assuredness it did other offenders like Weinstein — and for good reason. Some have referred to Ansari’s case as a “bad date” — and with a little unpacking this sort of label becomes even more informative. No laws were broken, and the sequence of events that transpired is similar to that of a normal date. What exactly makes the date “bad,” however, is what is of interest. In the original piece, the anonymous woman (“Grace”) recalls feeling rushed every step of the way, feeling taken aback by Ansari’s advances. Many have pointed to these parts of the account and rightly labeled them as both personal indictments of Ansari, as well as opportunities for “Grace” to not only voice her concerns, but to simply refuse to go further. Ansari, though certainly overzealous, never forced “Grace” to do anything. When he realized that she was not going to have sex with him, he called her a cab. This is the action that distinguishes a “bad date” from sexual assault. Both parties participated voluntarily, even if with varying degrees of enthusiasm. 

Though shaken by Ansari’s forwardness, Grace nonetheless remained sufficiently under the spell of Ansari’s celebrity until their encounter came to the act of sex itself. Similar situations play out all the time in various settings. Power dynamics such as these manifest inevitably in workplaces and schools. Realistic, well-informed laws and rules will recognize this dynamic, as well as the fact that encounters driven by such dynamics alone do not constitute sexual assault. There is significant research to support the idea that women in particular are attracted to power and status, whereas men are drawn more to looks — with many other factors also being important to both sexes. As humans, we are hardwired to find certain things attractive. Though these sorts of appetites often drive people to act against their best interests, they are deeply and inexorably human,  and policy should take this into account. 

Psychological forces are clearly present in the Ansari case and are at work everywhere, from Hollywood to the Corner on a Friday night. We must be aware of these forces so that we can properly analyze and voice our own desires, and so that we can be clear when it comes to sexual encounters. Policy should be aimed at providing a reliable resource for victims. Incidents like Ansari’s can be avoided, but both men and women must take responsibility if we are to achieve lasting change.

Benjamin Burke is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at opinion@cavalierdaily.com. 

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