Trigger warning: Sexual assault and rape
Let me start by saying that I believe and support Grace and I think Aziz Ansari has some important self-reflection to do regarding his decision to wear a “TimesUp” pin to the Golden Globes in light of his behavior (which, while he hasn’t denied it, he hasn’t exactly taken responsibility, either). He’s certainly not alone in needing to reflect on performative allyship without accompanying action, but unlike some who sported the badge—and yet very much like fellow #MeToo revelation Louis C.K.—he’s also chosen to center an apparently significant amount of his recent work around relationships and a “feminist ally” persona (and, also like C.K, even tackled sexual harassment in a recent episode of his popular tv show, Master of None).
I have lived a life punctuated by abuse starting when I was barely more than a toddler and culminating, hopefully, some time in the past decade. I have been “molested,” sexually harassed, assaulted, and raped. I have experienced abuse so many times, at so many junctures of my life, that when I’ve written about it here in detail, some people have found it difficult or even impossible to believe. Believe it or you might as well stop reading right now—and please believe that there are people out there who have experienced much worse. But that’s not the point because abuse is abuse and most of us fight for all of us when it comes to abuse. Which is the point. Sort of.
I can’t imagine how terrified I’d be if a man shoved his fingers into my mouth and down my throat, gagging me repeatedly—the way Aziz Ansari did to Grace—during a date. I can imagine what I’d be thinking: Oh fuck it’s happening again. Reading about that, it feels like a violent act to me. Who does that as a preamble to sex? Finger-sucking I get, but what Grace described feels to me like a power move of some kind. As a survivor of multiple assaults, I know that this act alone, never mind the insistence that I touch his penis and the suggestion that I suck his dick RIGHT AFTER I JUST TOLD HIM I DON’T WANT TO FEEL FORCED and he said we should just chill, would very likely bring up familiar feelings.
I can’t imagine how I’d react because the truth is you just don’t know until it happens and then you don’t know until it happens the next time. I always thought I’d react differently when it happened to me and then I thought I’d react differently if it happened again. I mean, the Public Defender pointed out that I didn’t use the hammer at my disposal when I was 12, so why didn’t I use the knife I carried when I was 16? Why didn’t I pound the fuck out of the dude who raped me when I passed out on his couch at 34 instead of fleeing his apartment in shame? Why didn’t I push my “friend” off me instead of lying there in blurry paralysis when I was 46? Why didn’t I do the things I—and all the people who think it’s ok to judge what we do in these situations who aren’t us—think I should have done?
I don’t have answers for these questions. But I do have more questions.
Why do we have to keep explaining why we don’t behave the way you think we ought to? Why do we have to keep telling you that abuse is abuse and what *we* do should not be your focus, but rather what our abusers do or don’t do? And why do I feel like I’m writing this not just because Usual Suspects need to hear it again, but because some of the people I thought already knew seem to have forgotten?
I can’t be certain what I’d do if it was me, but I can’t even begin to imagine how I’d feel or act in Grace’s shoes because I’m not Grace, who was in her early 20s and describes this as the worst experience with a man she’s ever had. I have wondered if this is the problem people have with her story, especially when I see people using the phrases “real #MeToo” and “real victims” and “real assault.” Is Grace “lucky” because she hasn’t experienced what some of us have? Is she “privileged” because this is the worst night she ever experienced with a man?
Should she just shut up, then, and not talk about how a man’s extremely bad behavior traumatized her? Do we not understand by now how this thinking silences victims of abuse?
Do I really need to list all of the ways that people in the #MeToo movement have been mistreated? Shall we, as survivors—because everyone else really ought to take a seat anyway—attempt to create a spectrum of abuse from sexist jokes to dick-exposure to public masturbation to various shades of assault, or would someone like to assign some kind of number value to each of them and tell me where Grace fits in—or more importantly, why on Earth she doesn’t?
Why are some of the same people who usually fight for survivors of sexual harassment and abuse and against victim blaming excluding Grace from the #MeToo club as though she’s somehow cheapened our stories by choosing to tell hers? When did we start requiring a litmus test to determine what “degree” of harassment or assault rates the #MeToo stamp? Who determines which of us—and which of our abuses—are worthy of inclusion in a movement to create change in the power dynamic that allows powerful men to abuse the less powerful? Who approves #MeToo membership? And what is it about the consequences Ansari is facing—a dose of public shame cut with plenty of public defense—that is so dire that it makes a mockery of a movement?
Who decides who gets to tell their story? Who decides who gets to name names?
Because right now the rules seem arbitrary. I can’t figure out what it is about Grace’s story that has people who otherwise understand that abuse is abuse suddenly willing to defend a guy who behaved really badly—arguably worse than others outed in the #MeToo movement, if we are assigning scores—while trotting out all the usual rape-culture reasons to disbelieve a woman reporting on her experience of a man’s shitty behavior.
Part of the argument seems to be that when people claim to have been abused when *I* don’t recognize their abuse because *my* abuse was worse, their claim of abuse somehow detracts from *my* abuse. But…how? Or maybe they think Grace’s “less bad than mine” story gives “ammunition” to people on “the other side”…who are going to make spurious claims about our credibility regardless? I confess I’m baffled.
As others have pointed out, there are power dynamics at work here, as well. A famous celebrity in his mid-30s asked out a young female fan and tried to rush her into sex on the first date (h/t to Ella Dawson for highlighting this point, which has been lost in the controversy over whether Grace was actually abused—whether Ansari acted as an abuser). And again, the fact that Ansari has literally positioned himself as an aware, feminist man fighting the good fight makes his behavior all that much more appalling (and certainly more shocking and confusing in the moment).
Defaulting to rape culture is part of our conditioning. But please let’s recognize it for what it is and fight it. If abuse is abuse; if Louis C.K. masturbating to completion in a potted plant is abuse; if actresses feeling pressured to give Harvey Weinstein back rubs in his bathrobe is abuse? Then Aziz Ansari shoving his fingers down a woman’s throat, pushing her hand repeatedly onto his penis every time she moved it away, or continuing to push for sexual gratification even after she told him she wasn’t into it WAS ABUSE. It may not have qualified as legal assault, but it was most certainly harassment and it was definitely coercion and the fact that this is at all controversial among feminists is mystifying to me.
I believe Grace was abused. I believe Azis Ansari was abusive. And most survivors and other feminists I know agree with me. I have heard some describe the ideological split as between people who want punitive action and people who want change, though I’m not sure I agree. From what I can see, the hyperbolic worries that temporarily powerful survivors of abuse want to round all men up and jail them because you can’t even “come on” to a woman anymore without it being called assault are just that: hyperbole employed by people unwilling (or unable) to examine their own behavior and/or experiences. I personally just want us to acknowledge that the fact that what he did—what a lot of men have done—was abusive. I want Ansari to hold himself accountable and use his considerable platform to create real change. I want people like Grace to feel as though they can tell their stories and not have people who call themselves feminists do and say the very things that anti-feminists do and say to us whenever we tell our stories.
We don’t have to accept that all abuse is the same in order to accept that all abuse is abuse. And if we accept and agree that abuse is abuse (which seems to me to be pretty foundational to #MeToo), we don’t require a litmus test for acceptance into the club. Obviously, all abusers don’t have to face the same consequences, and I don’t think anyone is suggesting that. But can we agree that all abuse victims deserve to be heard, their abuse acknowledged, and their abusers held accountable to some degree—particularly the powerful ones? And can we agree that silencing survivors of abuse is a bad thing?
It’s clear that survivors on all sides of this are hurting, but my concern right now is less for those of my sibling survivors who are angry because Grace told her story and more for the ones who will now feel that they can’t tell theirs.
I had dinner with a woman who told me a brutal story about being coerced into sex by a very famous guy. Awful. After seeing how the woman who spoke out about Ansari is being treated, she decided not to share her story publicly.
Let this lose you some sleep tonight, Twitter.
— Amber Tamblyn (@ambertamblyn) January 18, 2018
If you’re reading this and you have experienced sexual harassment and/or abuse, even if you didn’t recognize it as such in the moment but do now—even if you think it wasn’t as severe as what others have faced—you can be in my club. And while this very necessary storm rages, I hope you’ll take good care of yourselves and each other.
Note: As is often the case, this post has undergone some post-publication edits for clarity.
PSA: Abusive commenters will be deleted and banned, so kindly piss off in advance. (Comment Policy)
Stop Waiting For The Real Aziz Ansari (Andrea Grimes on Medium)
Not That Bad (katykatikate.com )
The Fake Feminism Of The #MeToo Backlash (Claire Fallon on HuffPo)
Aziz Ansari and the Struggle to Trust the “Feminist” Men of Hollywood (Cate Young on Cosmopolitan)