Aziz Ansari, Bad Sex, and the Dangers of 'Relying on Nonverbal Cues or Mind Reading'

Consent is sexy, but fear is a real mood-killer.


Mario Anzuoni/REUTERS/Newscom

CNN asked me to contribute to a roundup of comments on "how to date in 2018." The prompt was last week's news about actor Aziz Ansari, who was accused of mistreating a woman—ignoring her nonverbal protestations—during an intimate encounter at his apartment. As I wrote in the CNN piece:

What allegedly happened to "Grace" in Aziz Ansari's apartment was unpleasant, but almost nobody believes it was sexual assault. Most of the pundits who weighed in called it bad sex or worse, but not anything violent or criminal. Grace herself disagreed; she told Babe.net that "after a really long time," she came to view the experience as assault rather than mere awkwardness. Ansari released a statement that said he thought the encounter was "completely consensual."

It's not just the pundits. I was on Michael Smerconish's Sirius XM radio program last week when he revealed the results of a poll of his listeners, 95 percent of whom did not believe Ansari's behavior constituted sexual assault.

Differences of opinion seem especially pronounced between older and younger feminists. Matt Welch highlighted those differences—vis a vis a feud between HLN's Ashleigh Banfield and babe.net reporter Katie Way—in a recent Reason blog post.

I don't know the ages of the other participants in the CNN roundup, and I probably shouldn't try to guess from looking at their pictures. But opinions here seemed more mixed.

Jaclyn Friedman, an activist, wrote that she hopes the #MeToo movement will "scare men into finally paying attention to women as people, whether that means realizing that they probably don't want to be hit on at work, or finally paying attention to what their female partners are experiencing during sex….No more excuses about not being a mind reader or women who aren't forthright enough."

Katie Anthony, a feminist blogger, pushed the envelope even further:

You need to know that when you take her back to your apartment, there is a part of her that wonders if she's going to die there. Not every time, not every woman. But enough of us, and often.

The threat of harm is a flip of the coin with deadly stakes. A 2017 CDC report found that half of murdered women died at the hands of a current or former partner (or their family or friends). With this knowledge, we know we must say no; we also know that resistance could cost us our lives. Say no; go along. Be strong; be easy.

According to Anthony, women can't really just say no—the threat of violence is always around the corner. She even deployed a "coin flip" metaphor, wrongly implying there's a 50-50 chance that a date ends violently.

Roxanne Jones,* a founding editor of ESPN Magazine, took a much different position:

The biggest takeaway of the Aziz Ansari story is that women and girls have to learn to talk, out loud, about our sexuality. It's time to shed the Victorian-era notions still clinging to women—even those who call themselves feminists—that make it shameful to tell a man exactly what we want sexually, and how we want it.

It's dangerous to rely on non-verbal cues or mind reading to tell a guy you're OK with oral sex (giving and receiving) and making out on the couch but you do not want to go all the way, as did the woman who called herself "Grace" in the Babe.net story about her date with Ansari.

Speaking up is difficult but there is no better time than this #MeToo moment for women to find their voices, not just to expose real predators who sexually harass and assault women, but overly zealous men, as the Babe article portrays Ansari to be, who may think "yes" to a date at his place automatically means "yes" to sex….

I wrote a column in 2013 advising my college-age son to get a text message from women to indicate they had consensual sex. Just in case, as in the Ansari story, the woman goes home feeling violated because he failed to read her non-verbal cues. I got a lot of criticism for that piece but I still stand by it.

When it comes to dating in 2018, let's talk about sex. And if your partner doesn't think that's sexy, say goodbye.

Jones' suggestion that maybe college-aged males should require their partners to fill out some kind of consent form doesn't seem crazy to me. As I said in my own take for CNN:

Such caution is desperately needed on university campuses, where modern dating culture is defined by casual, alcohol-fueled hookups. Some of these incidents cross the line into rape, and should be dealt with harshly. But many others are messier, and guys are sometimes punished severely for conduct no worse than Ansari's. As an education reporter, I've covered case after case in which administrators wrongly expelled students—often young men of color—after a sexual partner complained about an imperfect encounter.

The University of Findlay, for instance, kicked out two athletes because a female student claimed they raped her—even though a number of witnesses, according to the lawsuit filed by the two athletes against the university over their expulsion, said they not only heard her give consent, but also recalled her bragging about the encounter afterward.

A spokesperson for the university told the Washington Examiner that they would "vigorously defend the process and our decision." The case is still pending.

Nowhere are the dangers of requiring affirmative consent as a legal standard—as opposed to just, say, teaching affirmative consent as a generally good thing to which people should aspire—more apparent than on college campuses, where poorly-trained bureaucrats routinely conflate messy sexual encounters with assaults. Women certainly shouldn't live in fear of men, but nor should men live in fear of women.

Correction: Roxanne Jones' last name was written incorrectly in a previous version of this article.