This Is Not a Sex Panic

Stories of gray areas are exactly what more men need to hear.

Aziz Ansari
Frazer Harrison / BAFTA LA / Getty / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

The story of Aziz Ansari and “Grace” is playing out as a sort of Rorschach test.

One night in the lives of two young people with vintage cameras is crystallizing debate over an entire movement. Depending on how readers were primed to see the ink blot, it can be taken as evidence that the ongoing cultural audit is exactly on track—getting more granular in challenging unhealthy sex-related power dynamics—or that it has gone off the rails, and innocent men are now suffering, and we are collectively on the brink of a sex panic.

Since the story’s publication on Saturday (on the website Babe, without comment from Ansari, and attributed to a single anonymous source), some readers have seen justice in Ansari’s humiliation. Some said they would no longer support his work. They saw in this story yet another case of a man who persisted despite literal and implied cues that sex was not what a woman wanted. Some saw further proof that the problems are systemic, permeating even “normal” encounters.

Other readers saw a man unfairly persecuted. They saw bumbling attempts at courtship, and some miscommunication. Ansari claimed as much in his statement: “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.” As Caitlin Flanagan argued on Sunday, if Grace felt earnestly threatened, she could have simply left. Flanagan described the “clinical detail in which the story is told” as “intended not to validate her account as much as it is to hurt and humiliate Ansari.” With this story, the writer and the woman on the date have “destroyed Ansari’s career, which is now the punishment for every kind of male sexual misconduct, from the grotesque to the disappointing.”

Flanagan is not alone in this sort of warning. Last week, Andrew Sullivan wrote in New York magazine, “It’s time to resist the excesses of #MeToo.” He called the moment “mania”—a “moral panic” wherein good and decent men are being punished for minor transgressions. Over the past year, the exposure of Weinstein, Roger Ailes, and others by “meticulous, scrupulous journalists and smart, determined women quickly extended to more ambiguous and trivial cases. Distinctions among many different types of offenses—from bad behavior at private parties to brutal assault and rape of employees and co-workers—were being instantly lost in the fervor.”

Sullivan expressed concern that mildly offensive bumblers are getting lumped in with what he calls “monsters” (meaning serial, systematic, violent abusers), and that, as he puts it, “the punishment [is] almost always the same: social ostracism and career destruction.” Flanagan, who wrote in November that concerns over a “witch hunt” fell flat, cautioned Sunday that the victim in this story was Ansari: “Apparently there is a whole country full of young women who don’t know how to call a cab, and who have spent a lot of time picking out pretty outfits for dates they hoped would be nights to remember. They’re angry and temporarily powerful, and last night they destroyed a man who didn’t deserve it.”

Masha Gessen laid a foundation for the concern that the moment was going too far in punishing innocent men in The New Yorker last November with her piece “When Does a Watershed Become a Sex Panic?” Drawing from her experience as a queer person whose sexuality, like Sullivan’s, has been policed, she warned against a culture that attempts to dictate what is normal. Sullivan, who was an early, leading voice in the case for gay marriage, and was out and openly HIV-positive despite the peril that invited, also warned of his own experience and what “similar panics have done routinely to gay men in the past.”

Gessen and Sullivan both took issue, for example, with the expansiveness of the Shitty Media Men list. It included, as Gessen put it, “men who appear to be merely awkward, unskilled communicators, while others are alleged to have committed actual acts of violence and coercion.” This sentiment has progressed. The essayist Daphne Merkin wrote in The New York Times recently, “There is an inquisitorial whiff in the air, and my particular fear is that in true American fashion, all subtlety and reflection is being lost. Next we’ll be torching people for the content of their fantasies.”

Will we? Or is this the same slippery-slope argument that stifles so many cultural shifts toward justice?

Where subtlety and reflection are most surely lost is if stories are not told. Warnings against them tend to assume that readers cannot recognize nuance—from readers of the Shitty Media Men list to readers of the stories of Weinstein and Ansari. The challenge is to trust that readers can hold multiple ideas in their heads and read critically, and that there can be discussion of stories less egregious than Weinstein’s—even amid a debate about anonymous sourcing and  the decision to publish the story in the first place. The movement is easily depicted as an attempt to divide men into two bins: good or bad. In that context, it’s easy to be outraged over the idea that Ansari belongs in the same bin as Weinstein.

Of course, Ansari has not been assassinated or torched or fired from anything. His career is not ruined. He is being shamed, and in all likelihood humiliated, but readers are also being discerning and critical, skeptical of a journalistically flawed telling. To some, Ansari is indeed serving as a face of disrespectful behavior widely seen as coercive. But I will be surprised if he sees professional ruin. Many men have not seen significant repercussions, and the fundamental point of the movement is that, for centuries, right up to Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, men saw little to no consequences for coercive behavior.

It is unlikely that this will shift in a matter of months to a culture when men are overpunished. Some may be. The resignation of Al Franken springs to the forefront of debates. And unfair comparisons have been and will be made.

But relatively few people are actually calling for the professional ruin of any man who has heard Let’s slow things down and not immediately stood up and doffed his hat. Nor was Shitty Media Men intended to mean that every man on the list was on the same moral footing as a perpetrator of violent rape. Most have not lost their jobs. A man may be embarrassed that his colleagues know about the time he did a shitty thing, but they are able to continue to work with him, and to not expel him as a “sexual predator.” As my colleague Sophie Gilbert wrote last week, “Targeted sexual harassment isn’t the same thing as a clumsy pass after too many vodka sodas have been consumed … [but] I have yet to find evidence of a single woman claiming that any of these things are equal. Most women do, unremarkably, know the difference between an incident where their personal safety (or their job security) is being threatened and an incident where it isn’t.”

To target only the most egregious “monsters” is to treat only the severe symptoms; the goal is prevention. It’s easy to recognize something is amiss when a person is called to a boss’s suite and asked to disrobe. The behavior of a Harvey Weinstein is simple to condemn. The harder work is ahead, in the more common and less clear-cut moments that leave people feeling somewhere between uncomfortable and trapped. The person who says she wants to hang out and drink wine and also does not want to have sex—and a man who hears, Okay, we’ll see what happens.

These are exactly the stories that people, particularly men, need to hear. The fact that people see so many sides—and in many cases, elements of themselves—in the Ansari story is the reason it needs to be told and discussed. The story resonated with many people who’ve had similar experiences, or who thought Ansari’s reported behavior was okay because it is normal.

Even Ansari, the semi-ironic expert who authored a book on interpersonal communication, claims to have not perceived Grace’s distress. He may have perceived “mixed signals,” but also that his advances were ultimately warranted. In a sort of internal ink-blot test within the story, Ansari was seeing something totally different from his date, Grace. This sort of human mating ritual always involves complex arrays of social cues.

Part of this complexity does draw from prudishness about sex, and sex panics, that are critical to avoid. It draws from a Victorian tradition in which women (particularly women) are imbued with the idea that to have sex at another person’s first suggestion is to somehow be easy (or some such); in which culture gets mostly oriented around the male libido; in which the female libido is seen to exist only for purposes of procreation within marriage.

That framework still informs much of the rhetoric that puts the onus on women to protect themselves from sexual assault or unwelcome advances. Never mind when the woman does want sex. For many people, even consensual encounters might involve some ritualistic “I should probably get going” or “How about one more drink?” banter. If agreeing to stay a bit longer is often taken as agreement to more than that, two people can end up on very different pages. In a charitable reading, that may be what Ansari thought was happening.

The reality is that this is an audit in which most everyone is implicated—everyone has some situation in which they could have been more communicative, more respectful—and there will have to be a way to tell these stories without precipitating a sex-panic-panic. Few people want a sex panic. When I even see the term sexual misconduct on a CNN banner, it feels regressive, like a person is being ridiculed for the sexual equivalent of eating with his elbows on the table. It does seem that the shared goal is a world filled with sex that’s as minimally policed as possible—pleasurable, communicative, respectful, noncoercive, consensual sex. As much or as little of it as you want.

Ansari is not on public trial because he likes sex too much, for example—or because he likes a particular kind of sex with a particular gender or particular number of people, or because of a kink or fetish—or most any other element of sex that would not draw such widespread contempt. Relative to most of recent Western history, this is a time not of panic, but of great openness to proclivities and dispositions. The definition of normal is growing more expansive, if slowly.

The element that remains intolerable is nonconsensual sex, which—if sex is today defined by consent—means that these stories of famous men and coercive behavior are not really about policing sex. When a person is reporting feeling coerced, and other people say the story shouldn’t have been told—or that people who personally relate to it are overreacting by saying as much—that’s a more disquieting type of policing.

Telling these stories will not lead to less sex—to men being afraid to hit on people because they’re afraid of being inappropriate. It will lead to men being less creepy and domineering, and more communicative and confident in the rightness of how to go about things, and more decent and capable. This is not an anti-sex movement gone off the rails. It is a pro-sex movement just laying the tracks.