Aziz Ansari and the Paradox of ‘No’

A viral story highlights the lingering difference between the language—and the practice—of consent.

Kevork Djansezian / BAFTA LA / Getty / The Atlantic

It was true that everything did seem okay to me, so when I heard that it was not the case for her, I was surprised and concerned. I took her words to heart and responded privately after taking the time to process what she had said.

I continue to support the movement that is happening in our culture. It is necessary and long overdue.

That was Aziz Ansari, responding to a story that was published about him over the weekend, a story that doubled for many readers as an allegation not of criminal sexual misconduct, but of misbehavior of a more subtle strain: aggression. Entitlement. Excessive persistence. His statement, accordingly—not an apology but not, either, a denial—occupies that strange and viscous space between defiance and regret. I was surprised and concerned. I took her words to heart.

The story was published, on the site, on Saturday; over the weekend, it quickly evolved from a story into a story about a story into a story about a story about a story. It was treated as a referendum on the current iteration of #MeToo. And as an exploration of the power dynamics at play in a world in which a private sexual encounter can be converted, nearly instantly, into a piece of sharable media. The story was discussed in The Atlantic and in The New York Times and in The Washington Post and on Glenn Beck’s radio show. It was discussed on social media, both as a relatable example of sex gone wrong, in the manner of a nonfictional “Cat Person,” and as evidence that #MeToo has confused justice with vigilantism. The story was politicized and polemicized and, in the process, turned into a parable: an interaction between two people, presented as an embodiment of the questions that linger, still, around the rhetoric of sexual consent.

So while the Babe essay, as told to the reporter Katie Way, is a story about Ansari and an anonymous woman—“Grace,” the story calls her—it has also become, via the transitive properties of digital media, a story about many other anonymous women, and many other anonymous men. It is, on top of everything else, a story about sex that is bad not according to the binary logic of “legal” or “criminal,” but according to a more complicated kind of metric: This is an encounter, as told by Way, whose centrifugal forces whirl around the wishes not of the couple, together, but of the man. It’s a form of bad sex—hetero sex, in this case—that is at once extremely common and rarely discussed (so rarely, indeed, that it required a work of fiction to be talked about in a wide way). And it’s a form of bad sex that, even when it does become a topic of conversation, is often caged in the language of jokey stereotype: bumbling men. Aggressive men. Men being men. And women, for their part, the recipients of all the manliness.

Much of the immediate backlash against the Ansari story, then, frames Grace as a kind of walking paradox, simultaneously empowered and weak: Here she is, those framings suggest, the beneficiary of feminism’s hard-fought sexual freedoms, allowing herself, again and again, to be objectified. And, further—here the backlash attempts to locate the story within the current #MeToo movement, and to ironize its premise—to be willingly victimized. “The single most distressing thing to me about Grace’s story is that the only person with any agency in the story seems to be Aziz Ansari,” Bari Weiss puts it in The New York Times. She goes on to note that a person in Grace’s position could “use a four-letter word, stand up on her two legs, and walk out his door.” She could just say no to him, full stop, fin. She could, as Caitlin Flanagan argued, summon the strength of older generations of women and do “whatever it took to stop him from using your body in any way you didn’t want.”

Those criticisms minimize, however, the messily human complications that whisper their way, stubbornly sotto voce, into our lingering sexual scripts. There is the threat, for one thing—always—of a sexual encounter escalating into violence. But there is also the fact that the women of today live within the exhaust of longstanding demands on femininity: that women be pleasing. That they be compliant. That they be nice. That they avoid, in sexual encounters as in so many other kinds, making things awkward. “No” is, in theory, available to anyone, at any time; in practice, however, it is a word of last resort—a word of legality. A word of transaction. A word in which progress collides with reticence: Everyone should be able to say it, but no one really wants to.

The Ansari story, as told by Way, is on top of everything else one of a woman who tried, repeatedly, to communicate “no” without actually saying it—until, finally, she had no other choice. It is a story, as well, about those protestations going either unheard or ignored or thoroughly misunderstood. What’s both striking and tragic about Way’s recounting of events—and, too, about Ansari’s response to it—is that both parties involved in the encounter seem earnestly confused about what was understood between them, and what was not. He texted her the next day telling her that he’d had “fun” meeting her the night before; he seems to have meant it. He seems to have been genuinely surprised that his assessment hadn’t been reciprocated. “I’m so sad to hear this,” he responded to that news. “Clearly, I misread things in the moment and I’m truly sorry.”

That confusion is part of the parable. It is part of the irony lurking in a story about an anonymous woman and a decidedly not-anonymous man. Ansari, after all, is not just a navigator of the culture of the moment, but also an author of it. He has literally written the book about Modern Romance. He has co-created a Netflix series that is in many ways a sitcomic version of the ideas at play in its pages. He has defined himself, show after show, stand-up special after stand-up special, interview after interview, as a male feminist, as a proud ally—as the kind of person who could both wear the Time’s Up pin and actually explain what it means to wear it. He has adopted the guise of a celebrity who is thoroughly fit for this heady moment, at home in a culture that is ever more feminist, ever more inclusive, ever more empathetic.

And, yet, here he is—here, even he, is—presented, in the context of Katie Way’s story, as a textbook embodiment of the behavior meant to be combated by “yes means yes” laws, and by movements—on college campuses, yes, but beyond them, as well—for affirmative consent. Here he is, seemingly entitled and aggressive and awkward not just in the most charming of ways, but also in the most insidious. Here he is, taking one of the core assumptions of the modern rom-com—the thinness of the line between romantic pursuit and something more predatory—to its IRL extreme. He is Lloyd Dobler, thrusting his boombox skyward and love-ward; he is Ted Mosby, arriving unannounced at Robin’s window once again; he is Alex Hitchens, announcing to his clients that “what she’s really saying is, ‘Get away from me now’—or, possibly, ‘Try harder, stupid.’” He is every romantic hero who has, in the name of romance itself, refused to take a hint. He is every guy who has served as a reminder of the banality of romantic predation. Just as Bari Weiss said: “The only person with any agency in the story seems to be Aziz Ansari.” She resists; he persists. Again and again. “It was really repetitive,” Grace tells Way, of the experience. “It felt like a fucking game.”

And it’s a game, as Rebecca Traister argued in a 2015 piece for New York magazine, that is rigged. Still. In spite of—and in some senses because of—all the progress that feminism has made on behalf of women and their sexual agency. “It may feel as though contemporary feminists are always talking about the power imbalances related to sex, thanks to the recently robust and radical campus campaigns against rape and sexual assault,” Traister wrote:

But contemporary feminism’s shortcomings may lie in not its over­radicalization but rather its under­radicalization. Because, outside of sexual assault, there is little critique of sex. Young feminists have adopted an exuberant, raunchy, confident, righteously unapologetic, slut-walking ideology that sees sex—as long as it’s consensual—as an expression of feminist liberation. The result is a neatly halved sexual universe, in which there is either assault or there is sex positivity.

It’s an awful irony: Women spent so much of their time and energy and capital reminding the world of their right not to be raped, that the next obvious step in their sexual liberation—discussions about what makes sex good, in every sense, for all involved—got obstructed. In this manner, too, Ansari’s story serves as a parable. Way, informed by Grace, presents someone who is keenly aware of the letter of the law—“‘Oh, of course, it’s only fun if we’re both having fun,’” Ansari replies, when she tells him that “I don’t want to feel forced”—with a much-less-keen awareness of the spirit. She presents someone who is conversant with the language of consent, but who is not yet conversant in its practice. She presents what can happen when mutuality—only fun if we’re both having fun—is not bolstered by that far more foundational thing: empathy.

The Ansari story, as it happens, was published during the arrival of a long-anticipated backlash against this version of #MeToo—backlash that has manifested not just as a concern about the welfare of men, but, indeed, as a concern about the fate of Eros himself. Catherine Deneuve: “Rape is a crime. But insistent or clumsy flirting is not a crime, nor is gallantry a chauvinist aggression.” Daphne Merkin: “Expressing sexual interest is inherently messy and, frankly, nonconsensual—one person, typically the man, bites the bullet by expressing interest in the other, typically the woman—whether it happens at work or at a bar.” The Hollywood Reporter: “In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, studios are steering clear of sex.”

Such concerns—as, indeed, so many other elements of the current culture—assume that romantic interactions proceed with a kind of Newtonian inevitability: One person makes a move, the other reacts to it. Cause and effect, volley and return, call and response—flirting, in these portrayals, is its own binary. The hand is allowed to remain on the knee, or it is swatted away. The kiss is accepted, or it is rejected. Those framings treat flirtation as a contest of wills: a game, but a game in which the competitors are not on the same team. Those framings, themselves, forget the empathy stuff: the fact that flirting—and romance, and relationships in general—can succeed only when their participants are, in every way, in it together. There is, after all, an extremely simple answer to the anxieties raised by Eros’s army: Listen. Read the room. It’s only fun if we’re both having fun.

Much of the conversation around the current iteration of #MeToo has involved, to its great credit, a recognition of structures, of hierarchies, of power dynamics: the logic of systems, applied to the intimacies of harassment and abuse. The Ansari story, on top of everything else, is at once an inversion and an endorsement of that approach. It suggests that empathy, in its own way, is a kind of infrastructure—a framework that guides human behavior, at both the sweeping level of society and at the level of everyday interactions. Empathy can be intentionally built up—or, on the flip side, allowed to crumble into disrepair. It can be openly discussed and normalized, or it can be, to our culture’s great detriment, overlooked. Ansari, in Modern Romance, talks of relationships that take place, at least initially, across the cold stretch of phones and devices. He talks of the confusion that can result when cultural transformation outpaces the human capacity for change. “We each sit alone, staring at this black screen with a whole range of emotions,” he writes. “But in a strange way, we are all doing it together, and we should take solace in the fact that no one has a clue what’s going on.”