In an article for New York magazine that went viral on Friday, Andrew Sullivan joined a chorus of voices urging women to prevent the #MeToo movement from spinning out of control. It is at least the second pre-emptive war he’s attempted to enlist his readers in, and it promises to be as futile as the last. Still, his timing was prescient. “A month or so ago, a friend and I mulled over when exactly the backlash to the then-peaking #MeToo moral panic would set in,” he wrote. “Mid-January, we guessed, and sure enough here we are.”
He was referring mostly to a controversial upcoming Harper’s article about allegations of misconduct in media, but one might as well fold in the backlash that has greeted the article about Aziz Ansari that recently ran in the online publication Babe. The piece, which features an account of a date with Ansari from a young woman pseudonymously called “Grace,” is long and graphic in its description of behavior that—while absent the workplace power dynamics that have characterized stories about the serial predations of Harvey Weinstein or Matt Lauer—was still, according to Grace, unsettling and even assaultive. (In a response, Ansari stated that the sexual encounter “by all indications was completely consensual.”) Almost immediately after its publication, a flurry of critics furiously insisted not only that Grace’s story should never have been told, but that Grace’s telling of it was morally monstrous, perhaps more so even than Ansari’s behavior.
On Monday, Ashleigh Banfield, an anchor for Headline News, a network defined by prosecutorial hysteria, accused Grace of recklessly destroying Ansari’s career and “chisel[ing] away” at the #MeToo movement’s gains for women in the workplace. “What exactly is your beef?” she asked. “That you had a bad date with Aziz Ansari? Is that what victimized you to the point of seeking a public conviction? And a career-ending sentence against him? Is that truly what you thought he deserved for your night out?” In closing, Banfield intoned severely that what Ansari deserved was not a “Hollywood blackball” but rather “a bad case of blue balls.”
This followed a piece in the Atlantic on Sunday titled “The Humiliation of Aziz Ansari” by Caitlin Flanagan. In it, she laments how “weak” and diffident young women have become in the face of male aggression since around the time of the “Falklands War.” “Apparently there is a whole country full of young women who don’t know how to call a cab, and who have spent a lot of time picking out pretty outfits for dates they hoped would be nights to remember,” she huffs at the end. This sentiment is joined to the rather astonishing suggestion that criticism of Ansari might be racially motivated, a contract kill by a “hit squad of privileged young white women.” “Twenty-four hours ago—this is the speed at which we are now operating—Aziz Ansari was a man whom many people admired and whose work, although very well paid, also performed a social good,” she wrote. “He was the first exposure many young Americans had to a Muslim man who was aspirational, funny, immersed in the same culture that they are. Now he has been—in a professional sense—assassinated, on the basis of one woman’s anonymous account.”
It would indeed be tragic if Grace had—in a professional sense—fatally shot without reason the only good young Muslim man in America as he was riding through town in an open convertible, but that isn’t precisely what has happened here. As of about noon Tuesday, Ansari has yet to face any professional consequences whatsoever for Grace’s disclosure. That could well change, and if it does, we can surely expect more caterwauling from similarly minded critics. They would do well to read another piece in the Atlantic titled “To Hell With the Witch Hunt Debate,” a refreshing rebuttal to warnings that #MeToo could bring about a sex panic that would subsume good men for breathing in the general direction of malevolent and vindictive women, of which there are apparently many. “In the America of earlier generations,” the author noted, “one thing that silenced women who wanted to report unwanted sexual acts was how important it was not to damage a man’s career, his reputation, his family.” A shrewd observation made, the byline says, by one “Caitlin Flanagan.”
Flanagan’s about-face about Grace, like other emerging critiques of the story, elides many of the details of her account to paint a picture of a not-quite-abnormal awkward, fumbling evening. This happens most egregiously and predictably in a Monday op-ed in the New York Times by Bari Weiss, which will, for many thousands of people, be the authoritative rendering of what happened:
Mr. Ansari persistently tried to have penetrative sex with her, and Grace says she was deeply uncomfortable throughout. At various points, she told the reporter, she attempted to voice her hesitation, and that Mr. Ansari ignored her signals.
At last, she uttered the word “no” for the first time during their encounter, to Mr. Ansari’s suggestion that they have sex in front of a mirror. He said: “ ‘How about we just chill, but this time with our clothes on?’ ”
They got dressed, sat on the couch and watched “Seinfeld.” She said to him: “You guys are all the same.” He called her an Uber. She cried on the way home. Fin.
The following hews closer to what was actually reported: Grace tells the reporter that, after initially engaging Ansari in oral sex, she squirmed and pushed him away—even getting up and moving elsewhere in the apartment at multiple points—as Ansari continued to follow her, grope her, and move her hand toward his penis. At one point she collected herself in the restroom and returned to tell Ansari that she didn’t want to “feel forced.” Ansari didn’t relent for long, and she performed oral sex on him again before he ”rammed his penis against her ass” in front of a mirror and asked her how she wanted to be penetrated. At this point, Grace says she “said no, I don’t think I’m ready to do this.” As Weiss relates, Ansari then asks Grace if she’d like to relax, clothed, on the couch and they do. But in a section of the text completely omitted from Weiss’ retelling, Ansari then tries to kiss her, undo her pants, and stick his fingers down her throat—all after she’s said no to him firmly and clearly. She curses men, and Ansari, we’re told, tries to force kisses on her again after she’s turned away.
The title of Weiss’ piece is “Aziz Ansari is Guilty. Of Not Being a Mind Reader.” Deducing that a visibly uncomfortable woman who’s rebuffed sex physically and verbally might not, in fact, want your fist in their mouth is evidently an act of clairvoyance. This is the rhetoric of female inscrutability. On the one hand, Ansari might have thought, Grace seemed distraught and rejected his advances. On the other, she hadn’t Maced him or run away screaming. This is a “mixed signal.”
The main concern of Weiss and the others is that we’ve crossed a new threshold, where men who engage in minor sexual misbehavior, however uncomfortable they may be, are publicly scorned and ostracized just like the obviously worse men who have been in the headlines since the fall. Lumping Ansari in “with the same movement that brought down men who ran movie studios and forced themselves on actresses, or the factory floor supervisors who demanded sex from women workers,” Weiss admonishes, “trivializes what #MeToo first stood for.” But Grace did nothing of the sort. While the piece makes clear that she considered Ansari assaultive, it says that Grace “compares Ansari’s sexual mannerisms to those of a horny, rough, entitled 18-year-old”— a disappointment, given Ansari’s public persona as a sensitive, empathetic voice on dating and gender relations. At no point does she suggest he’s a Weinstein—her behavior during the encounter can be read, really, as her trying desperately not to think the worst of him—and you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone, since the piece’s publication, who seriously has. A Vox article on Grace’s encounter argues it’s worthy of discussion precisely because it was “ordinary.” A piece at Bustle says that Ansari, like the titular character of the viral short story “Cat Person,” was not “a bad man,” but rather blind to or unwilling to acknowledge, in his eagerness, signs of discomfort.
Those pieces have come in the wake of what Weiss calls “digital hosannas by young feminists, who insisted that consent is only consent if it is affirmative, active, continuous and […] enthusiastic.” As she suggests, these standards would implicate perhaps most men in misconduct that until recently would simply have been characterized as “bad sex.” But that’s precisely the point. A sexual culture in which it is deemed all right for women not to be affirmative and enthusiastic partners in sex is a culture that enables sexual coercion. I’d argue that these young feminists don’t want to “criminalize” all dubiously consensual encounters, as Weiss alleges, but rather subject them to criticism. In the cases of public figures like Ansari, that criticism will inevitably be public; it seems hard to remember now, but the standard for reporting bad or unflattering behavior by celebrities has not typically been a dozen or so alleged cases of assault.
A detailed exposé about uncomfortable sex with a prominent comedian would’ve been published by gossip mags 10, 20, or 30 years ago, albeit in a different cultural milieu and without speculation from people like Weiss about the “torching” of a reputation for all time. Grace’s critics don’t bother offering explanations as to why they’re so certain Ansari is finished, which is emblematic of the reactionary impulse. According to this line of thinking, any significant change—against racism or sexism, in the interest of this or that previously unrecognized and disadvantaged minority—may bring about some grand and catastrophic upheaval. The responses to wrongs we see and understand now must be tempered to prevent a bloodbath against the innocent that is perpetually on the cusp of arriving.
These narratives obliterate the very nuance they call for. Last week, television showrunner Dan Harmon issued a heartfelt, self-conscious, and candid apology for serially harassing one of his former writers, Megan Ganz. Ganz not only accepted Harmon’s apology, but urged others to read it as a model of earnest and deep contrition. Search all you’d like for any reference to this episode in Weiss’ or any of the other recent declamations against power-mad feminists gone wild. You will not find it.
It is true that women are being made to reckon with the fact that most of the men in their lives, including many they like and love, have behaved badly by the standards of an emerging sexual culture. It is obvious they cannot all be thrown into exile. To argue that young women, speaking as broadly and generally as #MeToo critics have, are somehow incapable of understanding this and making fine distinctions is to argue that young women are droolingly stupid. It seems like its own kind of misogyny. It is likely, even probable, that misjudgments and miscalculations will be made in a few cases. There is a difference between suggesting caution about this and implying that this generation of young women has the characteristics of a rampaging mob.
It is by no means clear what we’re all to do with a man like Ansari. But one thing is for certain: if #MeToo is to be a movement that merely indicts the worst of the worst, then we might as well start winding it down. It will never, then, be truly useful to the vast majority of women who have not been preyed upon by millionaire moguls promising them roles or bosses who can lock doors from their desks.