I didn’t really want to write about Aziz Ansari. Mostly because others, both here and other places, have done a much better job of covering the subject than I could hope to. But also because it seems like an unwinnable argument. Because every time we’re able to move past the red herrings (no, most people don’t actually believe Ansari should be prosecuted and jailed. Yes, his career will be mostly fine. Of course, yes, the story was poorly told) and make a rather simple and salient point (he should have been more concerned about her comfort and pleasure), we’re inevitably met with the standard, still-not-really-getting-it response of “why didn’t she say no?”
So fine, let’s talk about why she didn’t say “no”. For starters:
1) No One Really Says “No”
I keep putting “no” in quotations because coercive-manipulative-quasi-date-assault apologists have determined that saying things like “I don’t know” or “let’s slow down” or “I don’t want to feel forced because then I’ll hate you, and I’d rather not hate you” don’t seem to count as “no”. (Which makes perfect sense. When I ask a friend if they’d like to grab lunch or a drink or a movie, and they respond with “I don’t want to feel forced because then I’ll hate you, and I’d rather not hate you”, I take that as a clear affirmative.) So why didn’t she say “no”?
Because fucking no one says “no.” We don’t. Think about the last time someone asked you to do something with/for them, and you responded with a clear “no”? Was it to a child or a dog? And if you answered no to that, stop and think about why you’re such a liar, because definitely you didn’t tell your friend/family member/other adult “no, I’m just not going to do that.” You told them, “Oh, sorry, I can’t make it” or “Shoot, we’re busy that day” or “Bummer, Steve’s allergic to horses so we can’t attend your cousin’s Rodeo Clown School graduation, but thanks so much for inviting us!” We beg off. Constantly.
And we’re not even being rude when we do this. It’s considered more polite to make up an excuse for being unavailable than to simply say, “I don’t want to do the thing that you want to do.” We blunt the edges of “no” by using words that essentially mean “no” but don’t seem to sting as much. This is, for all intents and purposes, the reason she didn’t say “no.” But if you really want to get technical, the other reason she didn’t say “no” is …
2) “No” Is A Rape Word
This is the outcome of demanding that assault and rape only be defined by the existence of a clear “no.” When you say “no” during sex (and it is in reaction to something your partner has done or is attempting to do, and not say, the children bursting into the room or a surprise birthday party erupting in your living room), it means “you have just done or nearly done the rape.” Saying “no” is taken deadly seriously because it (and it alone for some jags) proves that a rape happened. Which means you aren’t allowed to use it until a rape is happening. And because of the way sexual assault victims process their assaults, sometimes even when a rape is happening they won’t say no, because they don’t want to acknowledge the rape is occurring. Saying “no” forces into very stark contrast the fact that something bad is happening. And when you’re not even sure if something bad is happening, saying “no” out loud seems like an overreaction.
Also bear in mind, Grace wasn’t necessarily opposed to all forms of sexual contact. She reports that she wanted to go on a date with Ansari. She wanted to go to his apartment. She wanted to have some form of sexual encounter with him. She just didn’t want to have the encounter that they were having. Saying “no” does that entirely unforgivable thing that so many claim “verbalizing consent will do”: it kills the mood. So if Grace didn’t want to say “no”, and instead wanted to say “I’m interested in doing some things, but not the thing that we’re currently doing,” saying “no” wouldn’t actually be the right response. That’s also assuming Grace had knowledge of the situation she clearly didn’t because …
3) “No” Disregards The Real Time Decision Making
Saying someone “just should have said ‘No’” during the middle of a bad sexual encounter is the same as suggesting someone “just should have caught themselves mid-fall.” In that I would say “fuck you” to both speakers. Asking why Grace didn’t just say “no” ignores the fact that we’ve got the benefit of both her and our hindsight. She knew after it was all over that she didn’t feel respected or listened to while the encounter was happening. And we now know that she feels things went really badly for her. We get to ask the obvious question: Why didn’t you stop this?
So let’s try this one instead: At what point do you think she should have said “no”?
Was it when Ansari cut the dinner short to go back to his apartment? Was it after he started kissing her? Was it when she first felt he wasn’t listening to her? Or was it after the first time he seemed to be listening to her, agreed that they should just chill on the couch, and then started initiating sex again? Or after the second time he did that?
And before you answer that, bear in mind, Grace didn’t know what Ansari was planning to do next. For large portions of the encounter she wasn’t necessarily trying only to prevent a rape, she was probably trying to have some enjoyable and fun sex. So her motivations would continue progressing as the night did. Her line of thinking could have moved from “This is fun” to “Well this isn’t great, maybe I can get him to move his hand back that way” to “How do I get this back on track?” to “How do I call this off without ruining everything?” Because again, she wasn’t trying to indicate a rape was or had occurred. She was trying to get a guy she liked to do the things she was comfortable with and wanted to do. She wanted him to listen to her. At least until he made it clear he wasn’t listening to her. At which point “no” wouldn’t have worked because …
4) “No Isn’t A Magic Word
This is always my favorite one because of the inherent wishful thinking on a lot of people’s parts. Here’s how the logic goes: If someone says “no” and sex still happens, we know unequivocally that it was a rape. So if you’re in a situation with a date that’s getting out of hand, you just have to say “no” so that your partner knows things have gone too far, and will stop. Which is always what happens, because rapes only take place after “no” has been said out loud. Did I get all of that?
The argument a lot of people make is that Ansari wasn’t trying to rape her, he just didn’t realize she was uncomfortable because she didn’t say “no.” In addition to not knowing if that is the actual case, there’s no reason to think that Grace knew that while the encounter was happening. From her perspective, she had told him both verbally and non-verbally that she wasn’t comfortable with what was happening, and he was ignoring her wishes. Which means at some point in the evening, it would be totally reasonable for her thinking to go from “How can I get him to listen to me?” to “How can I get out of this with as little damage as possible?” And, as we’ve already established, “no” doesn’t guarantee that.
Also, even if Ansari would never knowingly rape a woman (in the “refuse to let leave, hold down, forcibly rape” definition that too many people still hold to), he was more than willing to show indifference to what she wanted or was enjoying. He was focused on his own pleasure, and had given her every indication that he wasn’t going to be giving up until he got what he wanted. Maybe saying “no” would have caused Ansari to stop, but in as many circumstances, it could cause a guy to start punching. Once a dude’s shown he doesn’t really care what you want, most women respond by mitigating damage. And I’d be willing to bet an ungodly amount of money that most of the women you know have given a conciliatory blow job in the hopes of not being raped. Maybe none of those guys would have raped us, but they sure seemed like they’d be willing to. In which case, yeah, I guess we’re guilty. Of not being mindreaders, right?
So all we’re really demanding to know when we ask why Grace didn’t say “no” is “How come this woman didn’t immediately respond to a rather fragile and intimate encounter with enough confidence and clarity to identify exactly what this man was attempting to do and how he would respond to her, and overcome two decades worth of social conditioning in order to do something literally no adult does normally in their day-to-day life even if it poses the threat of increased physical and emotional damage?” All because it’s apparently too hard to ask that dudes start checking in with the people they’re trying to fuck. Also because talking out loud about the kind of sex we’d like to have with our partners, the things we’d like to do to them and have them do to us isn’t at all sexy, and should be frowned upon. I think that’s why they call it “non-dirty talk,” and bad bands from the ’80s don’t write songs about it. Because they’re just asking why we can’t keep the status quo instead of allowing all those prude feminists to ruin sex for everyone by injecting sex with consent, fun, and pleasure. On the plus side, I’ve finally found something I feel completely comfortable saying “no” to.