Chivers: Affirmative Consent Isn't Optional

Aziz Ansari made the headlines earlier this year when a woman identifying as Grace came forward regarding sexual misconduct on a date.

Ansari has addressed these concerns, stating that when she informed him of her discomfort after their date, he reached out and apologized, as he misread the non-verbal cues.

While the #MeToo movement has brought up mixed feelings among the public, this case seems to be particularly polarizing. Many people believe that as he is not a mindreader; it was merely a bad date. Some believe it shouldn’t be publicized, as it is private business between Ansari and Grace. Others are calling it sexual assault.

The scary thing about the story is that I know many Aziz Ansaris. I’ve gone out with them. I’ve been friends with them. I’ve worked with them. I’ve gone to school with them. This isn’t an isolated incident. People are defending him because it’s not uncommon to have been on that exact date, either as Ansari or as Grace, and confronting that reality is terrifying. Aziz Ansari didn’t do anything illegal but that doesn’t make what he did okay.

Maybe is a no. Hesitation is a no. Silence is a no. Coercing a person into a yes is a no. “Slow down” is a no. “Not tonight” is a no. “I’m drunk” is a no. “Maybe later” is a no. Anything but a clear, explicit, and enthusiastic ‘yes’ – also known as affirmative consent - is a no.

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Let me tell you a story about a man I went out with when I was younger.

He asked to come over one afternoon. I didn’t particularly want him to as I felt like being alone, so I told him that I had things to do. He asked again. I told him I was busy. He asked again. I agreed. I didn’t want to be seen as cold and uninterested. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings by telling him no. I had positive experiences on our previous dates and I did want to see him again. So he came over.

We talked for a little while and he took my hand. I pulled my hand away. I didn’t feel like being touched that afternoon. He took my hand again. I pulled my hand away. He took my hand again and tightened his grip. I tried to pull my hand away but I couldn’t. He pulled me towards him and I pulled away harder, stumbling backwards. I told him to leave. Thankfully, he left without incident.

I never explicitly said no but he should have taken the hint and that’s not my fault.

My personal boundaries were blatantly ignored despite consistent non-verbal resistance. I reject the narrative that believes I’m overreacting to a simple attempt to hold my hand because the part of my body that was violated isn’t relevant.

He refused to take no for an answer, practically demanded he be invited over, ignored my boundaries repeatedly, and attempted to use physical restraint to get his way. It was a violation of my body that took me several years to realize.

***

We have to stop judging if someone has been assaulted or harassed enough for it to count, because any disregard for our boundaries is wrong, regardless of whether it’s a law. To quote Alyssa Milano’s powerful Twitter takedown of Matt Damon: “I have been a victim of each component of the sexual assault spectrum of which you speak. They all hurt. And they are all connected to a patriarchy intertwined with normalized, accepted - even welcomed - misogyny.”

There are plenty of reasons why a woman may not say no. Trauma may leave her frozen, particularly if she’s a survivor of sexual assault. Anxiety may prevent her from being able to find the words. Fear of his reaction may coerce her into a yes, because believe it or not, thousands of women are murdered each year for rejecting a man.

The world is not a safe place for women and men will always be one of our biggest threats. Men who take advantage of our silence or our begrudged agreement and turn the tables on us, claiming we never said no, contribute to our inability to feel comfortable and safe in the world.

We have to stop assuming that because Grace was coerced into sexual contact, she was a willing participant. She never gave affirmative consent.

Boundaries are a critical pillar to social affairs. They matter whether it’s forcing your child to sit on Santa’s lap or ignoring a sexual partner’s “no”. Sexual boundaries are relevant in every sexual relationship. Permanent consent doesn’t exist with a long-term partner and you can’t forgo consent just because you won’t see someone again.

So check in with your partner. In a perfect world, everyone would have the tools, skills, and abilities needed to clearly specify exactly what they want to happen, but the world isn’t perfect. Don’t assume everything is going well because they’re not saying otherwise.

Ask open ended questions to spark a whole conversation, instead of exclusively using “Do you like that?” or vague Ansari comments of “I want us both to have fun.” Keep the communication open and flowing. Pay attention to body language and non-verbal cues.

And if you’re even a little unsure, stop. You can always pick things back up. Ruining the mood will never be as bad as sexually assaulting someone. Ask if they want you to continue. If you’re not positive that they want you to, don’t.

Society has to stop blaming women for not saying no when we turn a blind eye to men who don’t wait for a yes. We watch television shows where men chase women and a laugh track plays while they hound them repeatedly until the woman is worn down into saying yes.  

We tell our young daughters that “boys will be boys” when they’re mistreated. We joke about the friendzone. We tell women that she should give a chance to someone she’s uninterested in because “he’s a nice guy”.

Until there is a shift in how society thinks and until men stop thinking they’re entitled to a woman’s time and body, there will be more and more Aziz Ansaris.