“It took a really long time for me to validate this as sexual assault,” an anonymous 23-year-old woman going by the name Grace recently told the website Babe.net. By now, Grace’s story is widely known, its excruciating details, including her allegation that she was sexually assaulted by actor and comedian Aziz Ansari, have been analyzed, criticized, and defended from nearly every angle. Depending on who’s talking, Grace’s account is either a referendum on the limits of #MeToo or evidence of its inevitable backlash. It is a crucible for everything from journalistic standards to affirmative consent, power dynamics, and Ansari himself. Grace’s story has become a tabula rasa, inscribed on it a range of questions—both inevitably difficult and absurd—declarations, and, (inevitably) politics.
As the news cycle inevitably moves away from Grace entirely, I want to pause for a moment and consider what, to me, despite the lack of clarity offered in Babe’s narration, is most fundamentally unsettling about Grace’s story. After recounting her evening with Ansari, one marked by his relentless pursuit and her “non-verbal cues” indicating discomfort and distress, Grace says: “I was debating if this was an awkward sexual experience or sexual assault. And that’s why I confronted so many of my friends and listened to what they had to say, because I wanted validation that it was actually bad.” Grace tells Babe that, after thinking about the evening and Ansari’s behavior, she had decided to “validate this as sexual assault.”
If Grace’s words are striking, it is because they are familiar. There is a sizable chasm between an “awkward sexual experience” and sexual assault and its topography is largely unmapped. That Grace is trying to navigate this chasm is clear, but it is an uncharted wilderness in many respects, marked only with warnings that entry is dangerous, perhaps even perilous. Consent is the technical boundary to the chasm—which, in theory, should protect us from tumbling to its ground—a legally drawn line dividing sexual assault and an “awkward sexual experience.” But even this line is not as evident as, perhaps, it should be. It does not account for what Kate Manne describes in her book Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny as the “sex he takes.”
The “sex he takes” is not, according to the law, rape or sexual assault. It does not rise to the scrutiny of a judge and jury. It does not meet the legal definitions of sexual assault or rape. Its boundaries, shapeless and shifting, treat consent as something to be extracted, transforming sex into a commodity to be taken, rather than freely exchanged. Rarely can that sex be labeled explicitly as coercion because it conceals itself beneath a legalistic definition of sexual assault, treating consent as a binary, a simple “yes” or “no.”
Take, for example, Ansari’s response to Grace’s allegations. “She felt uncomfortable,” Ansari said. “It was true that everything did seem okay to me, so when I heard that it was not the case for her, I was surprised and concerned.” Ansari’s statement, perhaps accidentally, jumps directly into the chasm, alternating as it does between his perception that “everything seem[ed] okay” and Grace’s assertion that she had been sexually assaulted. Within the context of the “sex he takes,” both Ansari’s and Grace’s perceptions can be—and are—simultaneously true. The “sex he takes” is coercive and manipulative in its process, but its ability to extract consent transforms it into something legal. And, in the context of sexual assault, legal is more often than not synonymous with “okay,” or even moral.
As the responses to Grace’s story rolled in, the animating force behind many of them was a need to preserve the boundaries of this unmapped territory with rhetorical clarity. Grace’s perception was quickly invalidated, labeled instead as little more than “bad sex.” In a misguided response, CNN’s Ashleigh Banfield defined Grace’s experience as a “bad date” that was “unpleasant.” It did not, Banfield noted, send Grace “to the police,” nor did it “affect your workplace or your ability to get a job.” The New York Times’s Bari Weiss wrote that Grace’s story was an “insidious attempt...to criminalize awkward, gross and entitled sex,” while the Washington Post described Ansari’s behavior as “unattractive.” The National Review, always clear in its politics, warned in a headline: “Feminists, Stop Bad Sex Before It Happens.” A linguistic wall was quickly established around the chasm, exchanging assault for “bad sex,” barricading neat narratives from the complex power dynamic that hazily defines the “sex he takes.”
Despite Banfield’s insistence that Graced had doled out a “career-ending sentence” to Ansari, this boundary worked to preserve Ansari’s perception that “everything seem[ed] okay,” while completely negating Grace’s. In the narrative of bad sex, the “sex he takes” simply does not exist because coercion and consent are both clear, their boundaries demarcated and visible to any rational, resilient woman. Instead, bad sex is the stuff of our own making—a woman’s fault, of course—because coercion is “okay” as long as “no” hasn’t been uttered. In the absence of assault, we’re left with “bad sex,” a phrase that is purposefully imprecise, a label that means little but covers everything from the unpleasant to coercive to the morally harmful.
Bad sex can be an uncomfortable moment or a forgettable night, but it can also be an experience that lingers for decades, forming the core of personhood. The refusal to untangle consent leaves us with, as Grace says, in a state of confusion with the need to “validate” experiences that exist in the chasm between “bad sex” and sexual assault. We have no tidy term to describe the “sex he takes”; no helpful phrase to succinctly describe the sensory and bodily impact of such a violation.
If Grace’s perception was blatantly wrong, then it was also dangerous. Banfield argued that Grace endangered #MeToo, that her allegations “chiseled away at a movement,” because “bad sex” was not was the moment is about. #MeToo, Banfield argued, is about safety at work and freedom from sexual harassment. It is, Banfield insisted, a movement fundamentally about sisterhood which Grace had broken in bad faith. Such assertions about Me Too, both its political intentions and fundamental purpose, was braided through arguments at The Atlantic and the Washington Post, to name just a few. In the Post, conservative writer Sonny Bunch chastized Grace for rendering the unity of #MeToo precarious. “The #MeToo movement’s story has been a relatively straightforward one that garners support from both sides of the aisle and all decent people, because it is a tale of how powerful people humiliate and subjugate those who want nothing more than a chance to chase their dreams,” Bunch wrote.
“Part of...dominance,” Manne writes, “especially on the part of the most privileged and powerful, seems to be seizing control of the narrative—and with it, controlling her, enforcing her concurrence.” Both Banfield and Bunch conjured up the fiction of #MeToo in their bid for conversational dominance, as a movement born of unity and sisterhood. As the Shitty Media Men list, and now the Ansari story revealed, there were also ruptures over its future and purpose. Grace’s story provided, it seems, the perfect opportunity to construct boundaries, to re-mark the chasm as uninhabitable. It provided the final chance to shape the #MeToo narrative; to reinforce shaky but powerful foundations.
The narrative (or the “conversation”—neither words accurately conjure up the bodily reality of the “sex he takes”) requires, in these cases, a certain tidiness. In order to sustain this fictional and yet deeply utopian unity or sisterhood, #MeToo needs abuse that is easy to identify. It fuels itself on monsters, on Weinsteins and Lauers, whose actions are spectacularly vile and do not require the chasm to be mapped. These men are criminals, their behavior exists in the public realm, affecting careers and earning power. Think of how, even in the context of #MeToo, the comparison to Harvey Weinstein, as though that bar alone is proof of innocence. But if the narrative stays big and in the public sphere, its boundaries are still malleable. Once, however, it shapeshifts, entering the private space of the bedroom or home, it becomes impossible to regulate, leaving perception alone to regulated. (It will, history’s margins tell us, always be the woman’s perception that is wrong). Stuffed into smaller private spaces, reputations are harder to preserve; careers harder to rehabilitate.
The response to Grace’s story (not to be confused with Babe’s telling of that story) is a backlash in its own right; an enforcement of boundaries, a termination of the wrong kind of conversation. It gestures wildly that #MeToo should not enter that chasm because it is a wilderness, dangerous and unchartered, it could be deadly. And yet, that is exactly the territory #MeToo needs to occupy. #MeToo needs to enter the chasm and map its boundaries and label what resides there. It needs to ask whether or not we’re content with the physical and narrative shapelessness of the chasm.