Last week, babe.net published an anonymous woman's account of her date with actor/comedian Aziz Ansari, who she says pressured her into uncomfortable and unwanted sex, failing to heed her "verbal and non-verbal cues."
In response, the internet has produced wave after wave of takes. The Atlantic's Caitlin Flanagan said the article was "3,000 words of revenge porn" and unfit for publication. Vox's Anna North characterized Ansari's behavior as common among all-too-many men, and thus worth discussing. The New York Times's Bari Weiss wrote that if Ansari was guilty of anything, it was "not being a mind reader," and fretted that this incident could tarnish the #MeToo movement. Reason's own Elizabeth Nolan Brown thought both parties—as well as men and women in general—could benefit from more communication about sexual desires.
These are wildly different takes, and there are dozens more perspectives offered in The Washington Post, National Review, Jezebel, on Twitter, and elsewhere. But most of the takes have one thing in common: they explicitly reject the original article's assertion that Aziz Ansari committed sexual assault. Ansari behaved badly, and there is much to be said about how he ignored his date's wishes, thought only of himself, and expected sexual gratification at every turn. But he is not a rapist, most people seem to agree.
And yet, boorish behavior similar to Ansari's—behavior that most pundits say they consider gross but not criminal, at least in Ansari's case—is routinely investigated as sexual misconduct on university campuses. Ansari is lucky he's not a college student; otherwise he could have been accused months or a year after the incident, investigated by a lone administrator with sole power to decide which witnesses to interview, called before a hearing to answer charges he does not fully understand, forbidden from consulting a lawyer or cross-examining his accuser, found responsible for sexual misconduct under a preponderance of the evidence standard, and expelled from campus as required by Title IX, the federal statute that mandates gender equality in schools.
I've covered scores of campus sexual misconduct disputes for Reason. Frequently, the details of the incidents sound a whole lot like the Ansari mess: intoxicated participants, a mutual desire to engage in some level of sexual activity but different expectations as to how far and how fast things should go, "non-verbal cues" that were ignored or perhaps just misunderstood by one party, agreement that a phase of the encounter was consensual but disagreement as to when and whether consent was withdrawn, and gradual re-thinking of the experience as full-on assault. "It took a really long time for me to validate this as sexual assault," Ansari's date, known as "Grace," told babe.net. "I was debating if this was an awkward sexual experience or sexual assault." Student-victims often take a long time to make up their minds about this, too. As Emily Yoffe has noted, about 40 percent of student-victims don't report their alleged rape right away—these complainants wait an average of 11 months.
Consider a few Title IX cases where young men suffered severe consequences for engaging in behavior quite similar to Ansari's, or even less obviously bad.
At Occidental College, a male student, "John Doe," had sex with a female student, "Jane Roe." Jane had every intention of sleeping with John—she had asked him to keep a condom handy. Later, she felt badly about the experience, and was persuaded by a sociology professor that because she was impaired by alcohol during the encounter, she couldn't have given consent. John was eventually expelled.
At Amherst College, two intoxicated students, "John Doe," and "Jane Roe," retired to a dorm room, where Jane performed oral sex on John. John would later claim he blacked out while this was happening, and had little memory of it. Amherst administrators deemed his story "credible," but noted that drunkenness was never an excuse for engaging in nonconsensual sex—which is what Jane accused John of, two years later. He was expelled.
Two Michigan State University students, "Nathan" and "Melanie" agreed to meet up for sex in the summer of 2014. According to Bridge, Melanie was interested in an emotional, romantic relationship, while Nathan just wanted casual sex with a friend. They were interrupted during their sexual encounter—they were doing it in a car—which made Melanie extremely upset, and called to mind a traumatic experience from her past. Nathan, according to Melanie, did a bad job of comforting her, and then tried to resume the encounter by reaching under Melanie's shirt and touching her bra. She said no, and he stopped—and that was the end of their relationship. A year later, Melanie underwent surgery to transition to a man. Afraid of running into Nathan in the men's restroom at MSU, she filed a Title IX complaint alleging that he had violated the university's sexual misconduct policy during the rendezvous in the car. Nathan was found responsible.
At the University of Southern California, "Jane Roe" and "John Doe" met up at an off-campus fraternity party and started dancing. Later that night, they went to a bedroom to have sex. Both agreed that this first encounter was consensual; it was the second encounter that Jane later disputed. This time, two other males—students from a different university—joined them. The sex became rougher than Jane wanted, and one of the other students—not John—slapped Jane on the butt. She started to cry, and the encounter came to a premature end. Jane needed counselling after the incident, and eventually decided to initiate a Title IX complaint. Since John was the only other participant in the orgy who actually attended USC, he became its subject. Jane admitted that John hadn't raped her, but he had failed to prevent the other guys from slapping her—he wasn't attuned to her needs, or looking out for her interests. Accused of 11 separate sexual misconduct violations, John was found guilty of two and suspended for a year.
I could cite dozens more cases of drunken hookups gone wrong, misinterpreted signals, and unmet expectations that culminated in powerful institutions punishing young men for sexual assault. If it would be wrong to call Aziz Ansari a rapist, it was wrong to call these young men rapists. And it would be wrong to export the campus policies under which these young men were found responsible—low evidence standards, affirmative consent, automatic belief in the honesty of accusers—to the rest of the country (something many activists want). Let's hold real sexual abusers accountable without discarding important protections for the accused in the process.