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The Fine Line Between A Bad Date And Sexual Assault: 2 Views On Aziz Ansari


People are talking a lot about what happened after a dinner date between the comedian Aziz Ansari and a young woman going by the name of Grace. That's not her real name. The website Babe published her account of that date and said it protected her identity because she's not a public figure. Grace says she decided to tell her story after she saw Aziz Ansari win an award at last week's Golden Globes. He was wearing a pin to support the movement against sexual harassment and assault.


Grace and Ansari met at a party last year. They texted afterwards. They eventually went out. Grace describes what she says was the worst night of her life. And this story has caused a huge debate. Did she experience sexual assault as she said, or was it just a bad date? We're going to hear from two women with different views. And clearly we're going to be touching on some mature themes, so this conversation might not be suitable for all listeners.

Anna North is with us. She's a senior reporter who covers gender issues at Vox. Welcome to the show.

ANNA NORTH: Thanks so much for having me.

MCEVERS: And Caitlin Flanagan is a writer and contributing editor at The Atlantic. She's with us on Skype. Welcome to you.


MCEVERS: OK, just to set up this story a little bit more, Grace says that things got physical at Aziz Ansari's apartment after dinner. They kissed. He performed oral sex on her. He asked her to do the same. She briefly did. He was eager to have sex. She says she would try to move away from him and used, quote, "verbal and non-verbal cues" to show she was uncomfortable with the situation. Yet he kept trying. She eventually says she's going to call a car. He gets her an Uber, and she leaves. And she feels violated. And I just want to ask you both - and we'll start with Caitlin - what was your first reaction when you read this story?

FLANAGAN: I was really surprised that this piece had named this man, kept the accuser's name secret and then had really detailed a lot of actions that I didn't think at all qualified as sexual assault by almost any level. I think he did some dishonorable things. I think he did some things that, you know, if I was supposed to be the person in charge of approving or disapproving of what he did, I think there were some things he did that weren't nice. But it was so far away from any journalistic standard. I thought it was really shocking. And I thought, that's a terrible thing to do to somebody.

MCEVERS: And, Anna, what about you? What'd you think?

NORTH: I mean, honestly, my first reaction was just sort of recognition. This is a situation that I've heard from my friends. This is - the behavior she describes through Ansari is behavior that I've heard men confess to in their own lives. So I thought, like, yep, this feels real familiar. And I did have questions about, should Babe have handled it this way? But ultimately, like, my first thought was this story - this is just so common.

MCEVERS: And Caitlin, you wrote, you know, about sort of a generational divide when it comes to situations like this. It was really interesting. In your piece, you talked about the magazines - the books and magazines that you read in the '60s and the '70s about what women should do in a situation like this. And on the one hand, those magazines, you know, blamed you if you wore too short of a skirt. But on the other hand, they told you to keep your mad money and run away if you were in a situation you didn't like, right?

FLANAGAN: Well, I mean, when I look at young women - I'm in my 50s - they've accomplished so much that is just - I mean, women my age just sit back in awe, you know? Their goals for careers, the kinds of careers they go into, their fight to be paid equally to men - it's breathtaking. But then in this one core area, they're so weak, which is they jump into these, you know, hookup situations. I have zero moralistic comment on that.

And then they become terrified to say the thing that we were taught right away - don't kiss me if I don't want to be kissed. I absolutely refuse. I'm walking out of here. And for someone who's like the Aziz Ansari in this situation who was putting up zero threatening behavior towards her, she said no exactly one time and his response was, let's put our clothes on. You know, he did put her hand in his crotch a bunch of times, which is certainly wrong. But it's - to be exposed this way, I think, is crazy.

MCEVERS: So we should just say that Grace in the piece said that she gave verbal and non-verbal cues that she didn't want this to happen. But, Anna, I just want you to respond to this. What do you think about this idea that, you know, well, if you don't like it just go?

NORTH: Yeah. I mean, I think, you know, we'd love to get to a place where everyone feels completely empowered to say exactly what they want and to do exactly what they need to do and keep themselves safe. But I also think that the reality is that women get this message - and we've been getting this message for a long time - that you have to be really nice to men.

You have to reject them really nicely if you're going to reject them. And you have to kind of let them down easy. And you have to be sweet. And I think it can be pretty hard for women, especially young women, to switch gears from that messaging to suddenly, oh, now I need to advocate for myself. I'm going to advocate for myself in this really assertive way.

MCEVERS: We should just say Aziz Ansari acknowledged in a statement that this date did happen. He said, quote, "we ended up engaging in sexual activity, which by all indications was completely consensual." He went on to say he was surprised and concerned when Grace expressed to him in a text the next day that what happened was not OK with her. You know, so what do you make of that?

NORTH: I was glad that he had apologized. I thought it was very believable that he said that by all accounts the activity was consensual. Like, I certainly believed that he had interpreted it as consensual at the time. And I thought, like, maybe that's where the problem lies. Like, she doesn't feel like this was at all what she signed up for. He feels like it was fine. That's really the crux of the issue here. So it's useful to read his statement along with her piece and say, like, look; here's a core failure of communication and something that as a society I think we need to work on.

MCEVERS: So what now? I mean, what does this particular incident do to the larger #MeToo conversation?

NORTH: I think the answer is really different from what the answer would be in a lot of the sort of #MeToo stories that we've heard. Obviously, you know, a lot of the stories that we heard about Harvey Weinstein were very much work encounters even though he allegedly turned them into something that was very much not work. You know, these are women that were hoping to get a job from him, and what they got was something really different.

That's not happening here. This is a date. And I think that's important. But I would also say I think this is a moment we're talking a lot about sex; we're talking about gender; we're talking a lot about power. What better moment to talk about the power imbalances that can exist in dating scenarios and in sexual scenarios and to try to start breaking those down?

MCEVERS: And, Caitlin, where do you think we go now with the #MeToo conversation after this particular incident?

FLANAGAN: I'm really troubled by how many people are saying, well, this is a confusing moment, but we can make something positive about it by having more conversations. A man has been destroyed through this.

MCEVERS: Has he been destroyed?

FLANAGAN: I think he'll have a really hard time coming back from this because such a huge part of his audience is millennial. And a huge number of millennial women are just really disgusted at him right now. And I think he's been humiliated in general. And I think that the idea that, well, let's go on and make something positive about it is extremely cruel. And when we talk about empathy, we're showing, I think, as a society an extreme lack of empathy for another human being if we just say, well, too bad for him, but let's have some good conversations. This was a wrong thing to do.

MCEVERS: Caitlin Flanagan from The Atlantic, thank you so much for your time today.

FLANAGAN: You bet. Thanks for having me.

MCEVERS: And Anna North with Vox, thanks to you, too.

NORTH: Thanks so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SKALPEL'S "SALVADANIO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.