January 19, 2018

How the Aziz Ansari Controversy Can Bring You and Your Partner Closer Together

On January 7th, Aziz Ansari reached “top ten trending” status on Twitter for being the first Asian American to win a Golden Globe for best actor. His “Times Up” pin sparkled in the spotlight, as did his sterling reputation as a male feminist who gave women’s issues like sexual harassment a platform in several episodes of his hit series Master of None.

Unfortunately, on January 13th, Ansari reached “top ten trending” status on Twitter again.

But this time, it was because he too was caught up in the tide of accusations concerning sexual misconduct. But just what was he accused of? Sexual assault? Aggressiveness? Cluelessness?

This is where the controversy comes in. Ever since Harvey Weinstein, there has been a constant stream of men from Hollywood to Capitol Hill and everywhere in between being outed for sexual harassment and assault.

Then comes the story about Aziz, where a woman engaged in some seemingly consensual sexual contact but felt uncomfortable, trapped, and coerced. Some say this was nothing more than an awkward sexual encounter where two people were out of sync. Others say it’s an example of rape culture and how men don’t take the time to inquire about a woman’s boundaries.

Whatever your personal opinion about the Ansari story, it clearly brings up complex questions about grey areas between consent, coercion, and desire. It’s important for our society to dissect these issues.

But not only “our society,” in the broad sense. You too. Sometimes it’s difficult to have these discussions with friends or especially someone you’re dating, but by using this news to depersonalize the topic you can have some rich and productive dialogue.

So here are three ways you can leverage the national dialogue surrounding the Aziz Ansari scandal to have a meaningful conversation about these issues (whether with your romantic partner or your friends):

  1. How Does the Ansari Story Fit into the Broader #MeToo Narrative?

New York Times column argued that Ansari should not be lumped in with the likes of sexual predators like Harvey Weinstein for failing to be “a mind reader,” and that it’s important that the power of the #MeToo movement regarding sexual assault and harassment not be diluted by stories of confusion or regret.

You can put this question to your partner, or your friends, and ask whether Ansari should be considered a #MeToo scandal, or not. This will help open up a broader conversation; you can go deeper by following up with the next two questions.

  1. What Should Someone Like Ansari Have Done Differently?

This is a good time to discuss your thoughts on how a person should inquire about consent. If you ask this question and the other person exclaims: “He did nothing wrong!” You can simply ask, “Well, you’d never want someone to leave a sexual encounter feeling uncomfortable or violated, right?” So, what should someone do to make sure their partner is feeling safe, and actually desires the sexual encounter?

Affirmative consent is a good place to start. Affirmative consent is the groundbreaking notion (sarcasm intended) of actually asking your partner if they “want to keep going,” or if they would rather stop. People debate whether this is a wise legislative policy to enact or not, but that doesn’t need to be the focus of your conversation. Do you think you should use affirmative consent in your relationships? If not, how should someone check in with his or her partner as sexual contact escalates?

While much is being said about the importance of affirmative consent, two problems remain. First, consent isn’t a one-time event, it’s an ongoing process. Sexual encounters can quickly morph from the consensual, to the uncomfortable, to assault. For instance, agreeing to passionate kissing isn’t granting a license for sexual intercourse. In other words, healthy sexual relationships require ongoing communication and sensitivity to the other person’s feelings. In the heat of the moment, feelings can change in multiple ways (doubts about the relationship crystalize, fears about sexual performance or of engaging in certain sex acts, or the realization that this isn’t what you want) suddenly causing one partner to want to stop.

Additionally, the focus on consent, affirmative or not, has obscured another important part of sexual relationships—desire.  The fact is, countless numbers of people are consenting to sexual acts that they don’t desire. Why? Some common reasons include peer-pressure and fear of losing a relationship. Shouldn’t real, mutual desire be a part of any healthy sexual exchange?

  1. How Should a Person Communicate Consent?

Some people think the young woman sent a torrent of mixed messages during her encounter with Aziz Ansari, from going to his apartment, getting naked, engaging in oral sex, and only saying “let’s slow down,” instead of “no.”

Of course, by now we should all know that just because someone doesn’t say “no” doesn’t mean that they are complicit in any nonconsensual sexual contact. In fact, research shows that many women during sexual assaults experience “tonic immobility” – or “freezing up” and being unable to either fight or fly. So, it’s very possible that even in a case of nonviolent sexual contact, where a woman feels uncomfortable, she may feel unable to speak up and the likelihood of this is only compounded when there are imbalances of power at play.

If you are speaking with a boyfriend who feels defensive of Ansari, try explaining the above research and discuss it with him. Discuss both of your feelings about communicating consent—are you comfortable with just leaving it to a matter of interpretation in the moment? Consider discussing predetermined ways you would like to communicate your consent or your desire to stop at any time—even if that’s saying “let’s slow down” but letting your partner explicitly know that that means you don’t want to have sex that evening.

Why It’s Important to Discuss

Sexual boundaries and assault are not just problems in Hollywood. In fact, RAINN reports that perpetrators of sexual violence often know the victim, with approximately 25% of the perpetrators being a romantic or ex-romantic partner.

Having active conversations about sexual boundaries are vital for any healthy sexual relationship, and how a partner responds to having that conversation can be particularly telling.

If we’re going to take these lessons out of the “meta-sphere” and apply them to our personal lives, it’s important to have fact-to-face conversations about these topics, instead of merely ranting into the void of Twitter.

Let’s be pro-active and constructive as we explore how the #MeToo movement impacts our personal lives.

Haley McNamara (Halverson)

Vice President and Director of the International Centre on Sexual Exploitation

Haley McNamara (formerly Halverson) is the Director of the International Centre on Sexual Exploitation in the UK, and a Vice President at the U.S. based National Center on Sexual Exploitation. She leads international efforts and joint campaigns to improve policies and education among global governing bodies, citizenry, and corporations regarding the full web of sexual exploitation issues. Her advocacy work has contributed to policy improvements in social media, online advertising, retail, and hotel industries. She has advocated at the United Nations, led international coalition campaigns, presented to Danish, Croatian, Colombian and Rwandan government officials, and more

She is a former member of the Washington DC Mayor’s Advisory Committee on Child Abuse and Neglect. This Committee advises DC Mayor Muriel Bowser on the multi-faceted continuum of the District of Columbia’s child welfare services, including prevention, early intervention, treatment, and sources of permanency.

Haley regularly speaks and writes on topics including child sexual abuse, sex trafficking, prostitution, sexual objectification, the exploitation of males, and more. She has presented before officials at the United Nations, as well as at several national symposia before influencers from the Department of Justice, Department of Health and Human Services, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and Croatian government officials. She has provided training to Arlington County Child & Family Services on the social media grooming, recruitment, and advertising for sex trafficking. She has a Master of Arts in Government from Johns Hopkins University where she received honors for her thesis regarding the online commercial sexual exploitation marketplace.

Previously, Haley served for two years as Director of Communications for the National Center on Sexual Exploitation where she oversaw strategic messaging development, press outreach, email marketing, and social media marketing.

Prior to working at NCOSE, Haley wrote for a cultural media outlet. Haley graduated from Hillsdale College (summa cum laude) with a double major, and conducted a senior thesis on the abolitionist argument regarding prostitution. During her studies, she studied abroad at Oxford University and established a background in policy research through several internships in the DC area.

Haley has appeared on, or been quoted in, several outlets including the New York Times, NBC’s The Today Show, BBC News, New York Post, USA Today, Chicago Tribune, Fox News, San Francisco Chronicle, the Washington Post, Yahoo News, Voice of America, Dr. Drew Midday Live, The DeMaio Report, the New York Daily News, the Washington Examiner, USA Radio Network, the Washington Times, CBC News, The Rod Arquette Show, The Detroit News, Lifezette, The Christian Post, Lifeline with Neil Boron, EWTN News Nightly, KCBS San Francisco Radio, LifeSiteNews, The Drew Mariano Show on Relevant Radio, News Talk KGVO, and American Family News.

She has written op-eds for the Washington Post, the Huffington Post, FoxNews.com, Washington Examiner, Townhall.com, Darling Magazine, the Daytona-Beach News Journal, and has been published in the Journal of Internet Law and the journal Dignity: A Journal on Sexual Exploitation and ViolenceShe has also contributed to a digital middle school curriculum regarding the links between sex trafficking and pornography as well as the public health impacts of sex trafficking.

Further Reading