Ever since the Aziz Ansari story broke out, I’ve found myself torn up once again. While there is little doubt in my mind that the details in the account definitely count as harassment, I have been torn up about reconciling the fact that yet another good guy, someone I really wanted to root for is, disappointingly, just another potential asshole. I’ve been torn up about the grey area I’ve talked about so often. The grey area that continues to linger over women like me who are not innately vociferous or aggressive across all situations. The grey area that surrounds experiences that don’t always have the quintessential signs of harassment, but somehow do leave us feeling harassed, uncomfortable and sometimes violated. That violation isn’t always physical. Sometimes it’s a violation of personal space, sometimes a kind gesture is taken for granted, sometimes it’s an abuse of our politeness, and sometimes it’s the abuse of the lack of an explicit no.
But here’s the thing. As we navigate this vast and ambiguous grey area, and as the debate around consent, aggression and harassment intensifies, it is near impossible to hope for clarity without getting graphic, granular and very, very nuanced. Which is to say, the shades of grey need to be looked at individually. For example, it is no longer enough to accept that no is no. Even absence of a clear yes, is and must be taken as a no.
Three specific, and separate things to say. 1: It is impossible to attempt to gain clarity about the nuances of harassment, without really undoing and unwrapping the various elements that make up the monolith we call “aggression”. And looking at it means taking into account the subtle and not so subtle strains of power play, of the dynamics between men and women when they share intimate spaces that lie in the twilight zone between work and play, the tendency for men to persist and push with utmost confidence even when the signs and cues they receive are all pointing otherwise. It means calling out all of this behaviour that sometimes leads to us feeling violated or harassed. Even if it sometimes takes upwards of six months to realise that what we experienced was in fact harassment, and that the experience left a bad taste in our mouths. So, while it may be a little premature to lump Ansari in the same category as the Wiensteins of the world, it is unnecessary to take his side and bemoan the humiliation that this story has brought him. Because to do so is to ignore and pull a sheet over the very obvious signs of aggression, unnecessary persistence on his part, and a complete disregard for the feelings of the woman he was with.
It is impossible to begin to discuss the entire gamut of harassment unless we take into account, and take seriously, all of the instances that fall in the grey area, outside of the purview of rape and physical assault, that we typically call harassment. And to do this means to talk about the way experiences make us feel. To tell our stories, continually and unabashedly.
2: While I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that I am completely on the woman’s side, and I believe that the experience she had and how it made her feel, I cannot ignore the fact that original report, the Babe story, left me feeling very uncomfortable. Journalistically speaking. And the more I think about it, I realise it is not only important to tell our stories, but to ensure that when we seek support, we pick allies who will re-tell them or stand by us in strong and solid ways. In ways that leave enough room for debate, because debate is essential, but little room for blame. Blame for wanting to date a man, for wanting to wear whatever we wish to, for wanting help in booking an Uber, for taking our time to process and fully understand our experiences, for acknowledging how they make us feel, and for choosing when to speak up about it. This is the only way that we can ensure that the focus of all discussions, and the point of speaking up, remains on building stronger boundaries towards prevention, rather than devolving into what can just be casually passed off as witch hunts or attempts to publicly humiliate and bring shame to men in seats of power. Also, I want to take a moment to note that I can’t remember the last time that actually happened (even if it were the intention *rolls eyes*).
3: Just how hard is it to say sorry? Granted, there was an apology in the text message Ansari sent in response to the woman. But have you seen his “statement”? A politically correct, clever selection of words strung together, nowhere cleanly claiming responsibility and just saying sorry. One could argue that he got that over with in person, directly addressing his apology in an SMS to the woman herself. But why not take a stand in public, when you are after all a public figure?
In all of this, the greyness of what constitutes harassment keeps coming back to me. Perhaps he didn’t feel it was necessary to aplogise again because at the time he mis-read the signs and didn’t feel what was happening between them was not okay. He didn’t think he was being assertive or harassing the woman. Of course, he didn’t. Knowing what it is like to be harassed is a lived experience. One that only someone who has known and felt can bring to light. And so I keep going back to the need to tell these stories. To call out harassment when it happens. To help others identify, relate and sometimes even recollect, if they’ve been through similar experiences.
It isn’t always an act of violent rape. But there’s a whole range of things that happen to women all the time, at the hands of assertive, aggressive men, sometimes compounded by their power-addled brains, or just the desperate need to reach out and connect with a woman. Even when she doesn’t want to reciprocate, or engage, or react in a similar way.
Every time that I read a story of this kind, it takes me back to at least one similar experience I’ve had in my own life. Reading the Ansari story was no different. And I know I can speak for most, if not all, women, when I say I’m sure it is the same for all of them. In navigating the ambiguous greyness of what constitutes harassment, our only measure is what it feels like. And when it doesn’t feel right, we must speak up. Because stories give shape to subtleties that otherwise remain in the purview of the nebulous grey.
One might argue that this is a widespread and somewhat baseless panic. one might wonder why so many women are suddenly speaking up now? Are we fining strength in numbers? Hell, yes. Are we slowly learning that it’s okay, and important, to speak up? Also, yes. But it is also that reading each others stories brings clarity to each and every one of us. It makes us think back to experiences we have had, that we may have dismissed as shitty dates. As bad behaviour. As the odd and uncalled for assertion. As the inability to understand real implied and stated cues that say no. Behaviour that we second guess, knowing all the time that it doesn’t feel right, but that we choose to ignore and not react to — with an explicit no, or a clear boundary, or a firm request to step back — because we want to be absolutely sure that we’re not imagining it. Because maybe, what we were subjected to, lay squarely in the nebulous, hazy purview of what we call the grey area. Behaviour that we know for sure makes us feel uncomfortable, violated, harassed. Behaviour that we’re too polite to call out for what it is. Harassment.