Aziz Ansari and the Limits of 'He Should Know Better'

Sloppy seduction or sexual assault? If those are your terms, you're already missing the point.


Everett Collection/Newscom

As this mass cultural conversation about sexual consent continues, I keep remembering a discussion I had last fall. A friend, a woman in her mid-20s, was embarrassed by the comments about her appearance that a middle-aged man she was working with kept making. His remarks weren't lewd or egregious—more along the lines of "that dress looks nice on you" at the beginning of a business meeting, when no men present receive similar sartorial appreciation. Enough to make my friend uncomfortable, to wish he would stop; not severe enough to quiet the doubt that maybe she was overreacting, that maybe she should just shrug it off.

I asked her if she had said anything to the man (who was not her co-worker but someone she encountered frequently in professional contexts) about his comments, and we discussed the merits of this approach: Perhaps he didn't realize he was making her uncomfortable. If she said something, he would likely stop. And if he didn't, then she knew what she was dealing with—not someone clueless, well-meaning, owed the benefit of the doubt, but someone actually intent on harassing (or very poorly hitting on) her. And then that situation could be confronted appropriately.

Yes, she agreed… mostly. But there was something giving her pause: "I shouldn't have to say anything. He should know better."

He should know better because it was 2017. He should know better because she had not been enthusiastic or receptive to his comments on her physical appearance. He should know better.

She's not wrong. And neither is the chorus of people protesting a recent article, in babe, about a sexual encounter involving the actor and comedian Aziz Ansari. The story described a date a young woman had last year with Ansari, as told by the young woman, called "Grace." It ended when his aggressive and clumsy attempts at seduction left her in tears.

At no point, according to the article, did Ansari force himself on Grace, threaten her, or make her fear for her safety. Nor did he hold a position of power over her or represent some sort of gatekeeper in her industry. She simply thought Ansari would respect her initial statements about slowing down, that he was genuine in professing to be OK with that, that they could continue engaging in some sexual activity without him continuously pressuring her for sexual intercourse. She stuck around largely because she thought things might get better.

Some, like Caitlin Flanagan in The Atlantic, have mocked Grace for this. To Flanagan, Grace clearly wanted something from Ansari—affection, romance, a relationship—that he wasn't willing to give, and her whole grievance is predicated on a pathetic refusal to give up on that scenario and either give in to the sexual encounter or get the hell out of Ansari's apartment.

But to others, including a lot of prominent younger feminists, the pathetic one here is Ansari. He should have stopped pawing at Grace and pushing for sex once she expressed reservations. Her continued presence in his home wasn't consent for him to keep pressing for something she had already said she didn't want. And anyone questioning her reaction, worrying about whether this tale was fair to Ansari, waxing about how affirmative consent is anathema to seduction, or explaining that everyone has had encounters like these is missing the point: Women are tired of having encounters like these. Women want better.

What has tended to get lost between these two takes is their shared premises. Even among old-school conservatives and "problematic" feminists like Flanagan, there has been little suggestion that Ansari's actions are awesome and defensible. You won't find many people arguing that this is how men are supposed to pursue women, that dating necessarily involves women playing hard to get and men taking that as coyness, or that she was leading him on by being in his apartment and owed him some level of sexual activity. The most full-throated defenses of Ansari's actions argue instead that they were both drunk, that her cues were subtle, and that he may (as he allegedly said in a follow-up text) have genuinely thought she was enjoying herself.

Meanwhile, relatively few people are actually calling Ansari's actions sexual assault. People insisting that it's stupid and trivializing to say this was assault or harassment are mostly railing at strawmen. Yes, the story has been inartfully squeezed into the #MeToo frame, but that's more a matter of media economics than anything else. There's no mass of people pushing to criminalize actions like Ansari's or saying he should be fired from any of his projects. His critics' biggest ask has been that people use this as a discussion point and a cautionary tale.

But also lost is this: One of the hardest parts about adjudicating these things on paper is all the minute things that make a difference in the moment. People don't like to focus on this, perhaps because it undermines some cultural need to create heroes and villains, or victims and villains, in every narrative. To make things clear cut.

Why did Grace stay? Flanagan scoffs at the idea that she thought she could change the course of things: What led her to believe that this time would be different? But things are always different. The way someone kisses, or smells, or touches you. The music they play. The connection you feel. How you think the other person sees you. How high your expectations were for the experience beforehand, and how closely it conforms to them. For the many, many people not guided in their sexual relationships by some sort of strict social or religious code, any or all of these things can factor into how far they'll go sexually with someone and when.

Sometimes you don't leave right away because you're still assessing the situation—maybe it was just an awkward first pass. Maybe you are just getting used to each other. Maybe they misunderstood you earlier. Can you turn it around? Do you want to? Staying or going isn't a predetermined conclusion; there's a process of figuring things out.

There is, to be clear, absolutely nothing wrong with that. But while one person is doing this dance internally, the other person may well have no idea. Part of not being sure is at least some want for the other person to like you or impress you still, which can manifest in something that at least looks like enthusiasm. Sometimes we all give off more ambiguous signals than we realize.

Things are also different at a more basic level: Sometimes people do not respond like Ansari allegedly did. Flanagan latches on to the fact that Grace supposedly told Ansari that men were "all the same" as evidence that she should have known better. But this accepts that Grace's assertion was right. Certainly plenty of men pick up cues and accept no as an answer the first time. Certainly plenty are content with some intimacies on a first date and not others. Certainly first dates have happened where the man would happily have sex but the woman isn't sure yet and so they wait and they wind up a happy couple. All sorts of things are possible, because neither men nor women are a monolith in their sexual wants or prowess and because encounters between two individuals are always particular.

Without judging the specific actions of anyone in the Ansari story, it's possible to use it as a jumping off point to talk best practices for similar situations. For those in Ansari's position, the key is to take a partner's initial reticence seriously. If someone says he or she doesn't want to have sex but continues to hang out and/or engage in other activity with you, enjoy this and don't keep pressing for more. Or if that doesn't work for you, stop and call the night to a close.

And if your date says something unclear about their wishes, ask them to elaborate. It may be awkward, but it's better than the alternative. When Grace told Ansari, "I don't want to feel forced because then I'll hate you, and I'd rather not hate you," it wasn't quite the obvious instruction some have been making it out to be. (My first thought on her meaning there would be, "OK, make sure she feels comfortable going forward," not "stop all sexual pursuit now.")

The bottom line isn't that you must stop and verbally discuss consent to every step of sexual interaction. It's that if there is any ambiguity, it's important to use your words.

This goes for people in Grace's situation too, of course. "Most of my discomfort was expressed in me pulling away and mumbling," she says about the beginning of the encounter. Later, she says that "I know I was physically giving off cues that I wasn't interested" but she doesn't "think that was noticed at all, or if it was, it was ignored." But between these moments, Ansari offered plenty of cues of his own that this wasn't going to go as Grace hoped. Meanwihle, she continued to engage in some level of sexual activity with him, including mutual oral sex.

It's not unreasonable to think that Ansari may have interpreted her decision to stick around as openness to the possibility of not feeling "forced" with time. Grace's protestations were never a outright "no" to all further sexual activity until they were, at which point Ansari stopped and he called her a car. Being unambiguous and direct worked, and doing so earlier could have altered the course of the evening.

There are a lot of people who say: She shouldn't have to be so blunt, or to say it more than once, or to physically leave in order to show she's serious. He should have picked up on cues. He should have stopped asking about sex after her initial lack of enthusiasm. He should have known better. But no matter how true that might be, it doesn't change the fact that he either didn't understand or didn't care. And some people will always not understand, and some people will always not care.

We shouldn't have to is fine, so long as it's followed for now with: but when you do…

The same for: They should know better—than to make those comments, to keep pushing, to not understand what your cues. But when they don't…

Then more direct communication is in order. So many of today's sexual problems stem from people being socialized to be afraid of that. But it's hard to rectify when cultural chatter around the Grace and Ansari story suffers from a central source of distress within it: the main participants just keep talking and signaling past each other.