Exactly one month ago, on January 14, 2018, a woman going by the pseudonym “Grace” went public on the website Babe.net with her story of being sexually assaulted by Aziz Ansari on a date.
I read her story and was miserably disappointed in Aziz. A few days before, I was cheering for him when he won a Golden Globe for Master of None; I’ve seen every episode. A few months after my own experience with sexual assault, I read Ansari’s book Modern Romance; it spoke to me in middle of my recovery. When Ansari wrote about women’s experiences with date rape, he really seemed to get it; I was so impressed and thought, here is a man who is genuinely trying to put himself in a woman’s shoes and show up on our side.
After reading Grace’s story, I don’t want to look at his face. Her story could be mine, with a few details changed.
Grace was on her first date with Aziz, whom she met and hit it off with at a party; I was on a second date with a man who made me feel things I hadn’t felt in years. I felt like we were on the verge of an exciting romance.
Grace went back with Aziz to his place at his invitation; I invited my date up to my apartment. I told him that I didn’t want to have sex yet, but that I thought it would be fun to make out and keep our clothes on. He seemed irritated for a second, but then he said ok. I remember worrying about that flash of irritation, but then I reassured myself that it would be okay because I had set clear physical boundaries.
In the apartment, things escalated with my date just as they did with Aziz and Grace. He quickly pushed past the limits I had set, but I never said no, and responded almost immediately to all of his demands. Like Grace, I was uncomfortable, but everything was happening so quickly that I was still processing how I felt internally. Like Aziz, he indicated he wanted me to go down on him, and like Grace, I really didn’t want to but didn’t say no, and did as he wished. At one point during oral sex, I stopped and tried to reassert myself. “I still don’t want to have sex,” I said. He argued with me a little, and said that I had to finish what I started. I told him I didn’t have to, and he exploded a little, “yeah, but who does that – you?” I flinched at his raised voice and red face, and shook my head, and continued.
This is where my story and Grace’s diverge. Aziz persisted in pressuring Grace, but eventually, when she said that she wanted to leave, he backed off enough for Grace to escape. I am so glad Grace held her ground and eventually got out. It didn’t work out that way for me.
He asked me again if I was sure I didn’t want to have sex, and I told him no, I did not. A few minutes later he said, “I think at this point, we should just have sex.” I remember this moment clearly. I had the “freeze” reaction so common in rape victims – or maybe it could be called “tend and befriend.” I knew it was wrong of him to keep asking to have sex after I said no, but I couldn’t say no again. There is no clear thought process that I went through. I just froze, and then gave up. I didn’t have the mental resources to keep resisting him—to ask him to leave, to face a fight. I had told him three times that I didn’t want to have sex, and I couldn’t summon up that final “no.”
Like Grace, I felt terrible afterward. He left, and I laid in bed most of the evening, not crying or sleeping but feeling paralyzed, wishing I could shed my body. Later that night when I couldn’t stand it anymore, I reached out to him by text, telling him that I felt bad about our encounter. I didn’t go as far as blaming him for how I felt, but our text exchange was unpleasant and only made me feel worse. We broke things off the next day, agreeing that it wasn’t going to work out between us. I never really confronted him until a month later. Ironically, after I finished reading Modern Romance, I sent him an email, detailing how badly he made me feel, listing the specific things he did that were sexual coercion, and asking that he would never do the same thing to anyone else. I said I didn’t want to hear back from him, and I never did. Either he blocked my email address and never read my words, or he finally respected my wishes (too late) by not responding.
Many of us have a voice deep inside that second-guesses our instinct to avoid danger. After we have been harmed, that same voice tells us we that we are to blame for the injury. Perhaps that’s why I’ve read many comments stating or implying that Grace is responsible for what happened to her. After I was assaulted, I felt the same way about myself. I thought I shared responsibility for the way it all went down, and therefore, I couldn’t complain. My critical voice worked on me for months: Why did I invite him up? Why didn’t I say no again? Why didn’t I kick him out of my apartment?
I don’t doubt that Grace has similarly sat in judgment on herself, and that she would probably act differently if faced with the same situation. She may never feel safe enough to go up to a date’s apartment for a drink or a movie. She will never take it for granted that a date will ask for her consent, or respect her refusal, and that’s a shame. The question is, has Aziz really come face to face with how wrong he was, or how much pain he caused her? When she confronted him, he told her he was sorry to hear what she had to say, but he never admitted his actions were wrong, and then he showed up at the Golden Globes with a “Times Up” pin. I don’t blame Grace for making him show his cards.
At its root, victim-blaming springs from our deep need to believe in a just world; everything will work out if we just follow the right rules. But when a victim of abuse or injustice absorbs all the burden of healing from trauma, and the responsible party is not held accountable, nothing changes for the better.
The public response to Grace’s story illustrates why we have failed to stop sexual assault.
Many women have responded to Grace’s story by faulting her for not communicating clearly that she did not want to have sex. I don’t think it takes a mind reader to understand Grace’s words and actions as a refusal and expression of discomfort. But it is interesting that these women seem certain that things would have worked out differently if Grace had used the word “no.” Before my encounter, I also thought that if I just said “no,” then nothing would happen that I did not want. I was wrong, and the version of myself that believed “no” will protect me is long gone.
To be clear, I think there is great value in retraining everyone, regardless of gender, to unlearn the lifelong habit of listening to the inner critical voice that suppresses what we really feel or want to do and urges us to please other people instead. After my experience, I started therapy and I am quickly learning to retrain my brain. I will never allow anyone to steal access and control of my body again without a fight.
Unfortunately, my therapy lessons and retrained responses cannot control someone else’s behavior. I cannot stop my rapist or others from continuing to rape by changing my response to bad (or criminal) behavior.
What if we choose to question Aziz’s behavior, instead of Grace’s response?
Why didn’t he ask Grace if she wanted to participate in oral sex?
When Grace answered his repetitive close-ended question “where do you want me to fuck you” with “maybe next time”, why would Aziz give her another drink and ask if that counts as the next date?
Is he really unable to understand that “next time” means “not tonight?”
Why would he continually pressure her to have sex after she said “I don’t want to feel forced, because then I will hate you, and I don’t want to hate you?”
Eventually, I flipped the switch and started questioning the behavior of the man who assaulted me instead of judging myself. How many times should you ask someone to have sex after they say no? There is only one correct answer: zero. If you are pursuing a relationship or in a relationship with your partner, they will tell you when they are ready for sex. If you are seeking a one-night stand, then you need to accept that isn’t happening and try another night, with someone else who has given a clear expression of their desire for the same thing.
One of the most frustrating pieces of my recovery was finding the right language to convey what happened, and I still don’t think we have exactly the right words for Grace’s experience or mine. I recognize that my rape story lacks the element of physical force or threat that many rape victims endure. I was not rendered physically helpless at any point. I am able-bodied and mentally healthy, and my assailant did not have a weapon or hit me. Sexual coercion and abuse are both accurate, but can be inadequate words to express the extent of harm.
Public critics also wrestle with Grace’s choice of words to describe Aziz’s behavior. After much internal debate and searching for validation of her experience, she describes it as an assault, and I support her use of the word. It took me about a year to say the word “rape” out loud to myself. I still shift between using the words rape, assault, abuse, and coercion depending on who I’m speaking to and what I need to communicate. For now, I think sexual assault or rape are the best descriptors we have in English for my experience or Grace’s, though legal definitions of a sexual crime may vary in different states. But if you are one of those outraged folks who read Grace’s account and your major beef is word choice, you need to take a step back and question why that’s the part of the story that upsets you most. If you are hung up on legal definitions, I understand that; I spent months reading different statutes to ascertain whether I was legally raped. But immoral and abusive behavior can be legal; as recently as the 1990s, spousal rape was still not illegal in every state. Our laws still have a lot of catching up to do today.
One of the myths that I see spreading in the comment sections of the Ansari story is that Grace has hurt the #MeToo movement by telling her story and discrediting the stories of “real” sexual assault. But none of my fellow survivors have expressed that sentiment – quite the opposite.
Months after the incident, I connected with local groups of sexual assault survivors. At first, I was worried that the others would find out what happened to me and shun me, as my story wasn’t a “real” rape. I have connected with survivors who were drugged, physically subdued, and even kidnapped, and when I shared my story, they only treated me with sympathy, and they were angry with the man responsible.
Grace, if you see this, then thank you. I hope you have a network of supportive friends and fellow survivors. You did a good thing, speaking up. I’m on your side.
For more information about the #SurvivorLoveLetter project, visit https://survivorloveletter.tumblr.com and support End Rape on Campus.