Late Saturday evening, the website Babe.net published a detailed account of an encounter between “Grace,” an anonymous 23-year-old photographer, and the actor Aziz Ansari. It described a September 2017 incident in which Grace says that she and Ansari went on a date after first meeting at an Emmys afterparty, and how, at the end of the date, Grace said Ansari coerced her into sexual behavior that was well beyond her boundaries, ignoring her verbal and nonverbal attempts to stop their sexual exchange. After the date, she told Babe, she texted Ansari and told him that she had been uncomfortable with the experience, and that he should have been more mindful; the website published screenshots of the text exchange. By Sunday afternoon, Ansari had issued a statement confirming their exchange, and reiterating his support for the #MeToo movement.
It was his embrace of #MeToo and Time’s Up during the Golden Globes, Grace told Babe, that made her angry enough to want to publicly tell her story. And it was, on its face, a plausibly newsworthy one: Ansari has been claiming feminism and using feminist concepts as a vehicle for his humor at least since 2014, both onstage (clumsily) and as a driver behind his 2015 dating book Modern Romance: An Investigation. One of journalism’s most important tasks is exposing the hypocrisy of the powerful; if Ansari is publicly claiming feminism but treating women poorly in his private life, that deserves to be interrogated.
However, a side effect of the tidal wave of sexual assault and harassment reporting since October is that, having been long confined to explicitly feminist outlets, reporting about sexual impropriety is, all of a sudden, considered general-interest prestige reporting. Prior to Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s Weinstein expose, which set off a wave of stories about powerful men, reporting about sexual violence was the thankless work of the mostly women who cared enough to do it. To some extent, it still is. In spite of the creation of entire bureaus (at the Hollywood Reporter, at Buzzfeed) to investigate misconduct, the prestige aspect is in the celebrity of it all, and the legwork remains mostly thankless, as is evident by the disproportionate attention paid to marquee abusers and accusers, versus the most vulnerable women.
Prestige incentivizes reporting, and although this is a positive development, it also means that more and more of these stories are botched. The revelation that Grace didn’t come to Babe, Babe came to Grace raises questions about the website’s eagerness to tell this kind of story and why. Reporting on sexual violence and misconduct is an incredibly delicate undertaking that requires a working understanding about how best to do it. At its most basic level, this means that reporters must be careful not to re-traumatize subjects, which includes consideration of the ways that their reports will be received—that is, often with skepticism and disbelief—and account for that with journalists’ sharpest tools: fidelity to confirmable facts, thorough arguments, and an abiding lack of sensationalism. (The Daily Beast’s inexcusably sloppy TJ Miller piece and subsequent treatment on social media of it as a personal milestone for the writer is a master class in how never to execute this type of reporting, unless one wishes to convey that the survivors are merely tertiary elements in the story of the writer’s career or the visibility of the outlet in which the story appears.)
Because of the amateurish way the Babe report was handled (her wine choices; her outfit), and the way it was written with an almost prurient and unnecessarily macabre interest in the minute details of their interaction (“the claw”), it left the subject open to further attacks, the kind that are entirely, exhaustingly predictable. The usual subjects emerged with the usual opinions: within minutes, alt-right toad Mike Cernovich was dismissing Ansari as a “beta”; within hours, neoliberal icon Caitlin Flanagan had written a confused, disingenuous essay in The Atlantic using Ansari’s race as a rhetorical device for her disdain for #MeToo; within days, hardline carceral-state cheerleader Ashleigh Banfield was accusing Grace of harming the entire #MeToo movement. To no one’s surprise, The New York Times’s Bari Weiss weighed in on Monday night, rolling her eyes at what she considered to be Grace’s requirement that Ansari be “a mind-reader.”
At its core, Babe’s piece about Grace is important, but the inexperience evident in the execution of the piece did a disservice to the topic—and it’s a shame, because its execution obscures an extremely valuable, timely conversation at a time when it seems finally possible to have it in a public forum. In Grace’s case, she is a decade younger than Ansari, just starting her career, and not famous—three facts that, in a more just situation, might have made Ansari more sensitive to the contours of their interaction. (That he apparently was not says a lot about the chasm between the actual practice of feminism, and the ease of simply calling yourself one.) The areas in the account that feel clear to some readers and fogged to others are worthy of serious and good-faith interrogation, and yet just two days on, we are having arguments about bad faith thinkpieces and grotesque attempts to belittle Grace’s experience, rather than actually talking about the socially ingrained cultural and political disparity that shows itself in dating scenarios.
The clearest effect of the Weinstein accounts and all that followed is that men and perhaps some women are more aware of the pervasive nature of harassment and assault in the American workplace. Though some commentators would prefer that we stop the conversation at the office door, in the private sphere, it’s also an opportune (if late) time to examine, and ideally shift, the tentpoles of what we expect from our romantic and sexual lives. In Grace’s account, she told Ansari “Let’s relax for a moment, let’s chill,” when she says he went for a condom too early for her comfort. While it may not have been the “absolutely not” or “fuck no” that tweeters the world over seem to scold Grace for not emitting, in millennial parlance, “let’s relax, let’s chill” is absolutely a verbal direction for Ansari to slow down. That he did not, and that Grace says she felt pressured to go along with it, exposes cracks in the modern dating contract; even if Ansari were not a famous man, the fact that Grace perceived him to possess enough power that she felt coerced is a statement about the ways women are conditioned, even with decades of entrenched feminism, to concede to that perceived power.
Caitlin Flanagan, in her poor Atlantic piece, calls this weakness. She writes:
But in one essential aspect they reminded us that we were strong in a way that so many modern girls are weak. They told us over and over again that if a man tried to push you into anything you didn’t want, even just a kiss, you told him flat out you weren’t doing it. If he kept going, you got away from him. You were always to have “mad money” with you: cab fare in case he got “fresh” and then refused to drive you home. They told you to slap him if you had to; they told you to get out of the car and start wailing if you had to. They told you to do whatever it took to stop him from using your body in any way you didn’t want, and under no circumstances to go down without a fight. In so many ways, compared with today’s young women, we were weak; we were being prepared for being wives and mothers, not occupants of the C-Suite. But as far as getting away from a man who was trying to pressure us into sex we didn’t want, we were strong.
Flanagan repeatedly acknowledges the generation gap between her sexual experiences with men and Grace’s, but fundamentally misunderstands the motivation for the “strength” she cites; the slapping and yelling wasn’t because women were better, stronger, gutsier, or grittier in the old days: this struggle was tied up inextricably in female purity and the stakes a woman faced in her eventual, and all but obligatory married life—where, by the way, once there, she had no recourse should her husband rape her. Flanagan also goes on to ascribe Grace’s “weakness” to a condescending presumption that Grace simply wanted companionship and perhaps commitment from Ansari, without considering that Grace might have just been trying to have a casual sexual exchange in which the actions were equal. That part is not so much a generation gap as it is a retrograde, cynical act of magical inference that does nothing but uphold patriarchy.
There was potential with Grace’s story: the conversations that followed could have given us a real shot at cracking away at the imbalanced sexual power structures that plague us—the power structures that tell us a man’s desires are more significant than a woman’s, and that conditioned Grace not to “slap” a 34-year-old celebrity who she says took it too far. This includes Flanagan, who dismissed it as “revenge porn” geared towards “humiliation,” and Bari Weiss, whose feminism works in tandem with the protection of men. If journalists are going to be the carriers of stories like this one, we have to view that responsibility as a solemn one, not one that will finally put our websites on the map, or jolt our writers into the public eye.
It’s clear from responses like Flanagan and Weiss’s that the editors of Babe were either courting a bad faith conversation, or didn’t realize the conversation they were opening up to begin with. Either way, the incident kept all of us from having the conversation we should be having. Because Babe did not have the range or depth to present Grace’s story for what it is—a starting point to discuss the ways consent can feel blurring, no matter how clear we might wish it were, and our lack of language to describe this—we all ended up opening up a conversation that did us no good at all. The story had the unfortunate effect of leaving the door a little wider for self-righteousness, allowing detractors to reiterate their shitty assumptions about millennial women and their motivations instead of questioning a set of injustices so commonplace that many people seem not to register them as injustices at all. And while Babe screwed up its execution of the story, it’s the grotesque priorities of the echo chamber that are really wronging Grace: once again, the comfort of the powerful remains, and the woman telling her story is reduced to a vessel.