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.”