The news of Aziz Ansari’s sexual coercion hit our community particularly hard. There are so few Indian American men in the mainstream; it hurts to see him fall. Not to mention, Aziz is sort of the voice of our generation. He bridges the gap between thoughtful wokeness and having all of the characteristics of a goofy, entitled millennial, and he’s able to to do so in a self aware, and usually hilarious, way. After the initial disappointment, the in-fighting begins. Is Aziz a bad guy? Is Aziz a good guy who was unjustly humiliated?
But it seems to me that all of this misses the point. If you can detach for a moment from your feelings about Aziz, Master of None, Tom Haverford — all of it — there’s a really important conversation begging to be had. Aziz isn’t a bad guy or a good guy — he’s just a very normal guy. A fallible human being vulnerable to our culture’s norms surrounding sex.
When men are socialized from a very young age to seek sex from women and to be the sexual pursuers and initiators, while women are socialized to withhold sex, to flirt, and to read and react to others’ desires, this is a recipe for a rape culture. Make no mistake, based on the woman’s account Aziz was without a doubt sexually coercive, and we believe her and stand with her. But my point here is that a degree of sexual coercion is highly normalized in our culture as romantic, flirtatious, and even a form of foreplay.
Not to mention, sex is a language of its own, and it doesn’t always align perfectly with our outward identities. No matter how feminist a person is, values surrounding equality can get murky and complicated in sex. Some feminists are turned on by power differentials, and some like it rough. A person’s sexual preferences and behaviors are personal and private, and as long as there is consent among all players, it’s really none of anyone else’s business.
I don’t presume to know what Aziz’s conscious intentions were that night, but I do know that a lot of his comedy is about being an average guy trying to navigate the dynamics of dating and sex and his frustrations with not being able to correctly read the signs. If we take him at his word, he certainly did not read “the signs” that night, or rather listen at all.
What makes this particularly distressing for many is that Aziz is a supporter of feminist values and the “Me Too” movement. But once again, it’s not an either/or situation; it’s actually totally normal to have strong ethics and then be surprised to learn that you yourself have fallen short. In Aziz’s public apology, he writes, “I continue to support the movement that is happening in our culture. It is necessary and long overdue.” And so the movement he supports will teach him to look critically at his own behavior, assumptions, and norms. In an ideal world, we all learn about ourselves from the movements we support.
Until women and men are both socialized to claim their own desires and be respectful of others’, and until we all easily understand ourselves and what our desires actually are, sex is going to remain complicated and nuanced. The key, of course, is communication and consent. If you find that you typically have a hard time reading body language (or even if you are a body language genius), ask for verbal confirmation that the sexual activity is mutually desired. And if someone offers cues — or literally says they are not comfortable — STOP!
Yes, navigating dating, romance, and sex is hard, but ensuring that everyone is consenting shouldn’t be. Together, we can change our culture so that in the future this is all way less normal.
Liz Susong is the co-founder of Catalyst Wed Co. and a contributing editor to Brides.