Over the weekend, Babe.net published a piece titled, "I went on a date with Aziz Ansari. It turned into the worst night of my life," detailing the account of 23-year-old Grace (not her real name) who had a sexual encounter with the celebrity that she describes as uncomfortable and coercive.
Grace said over the course of their evening, despite her non-verbal and verbal cues that she wanted to slow down, Aziz continued to pursue her physically, at one point motioning for her to perform oral sex on him after she explicitly told him she was feeling uncomfortable and he suggested they "chill" on the couch. Grace performed oral sex on him twice that evening, but said she felt forced. She told him as much in a text the following day. "Last night may have been fun for you, but it wasn't fun for me," she wrote. Aziz apologized via text and, in response to the article, released a statement saying, in part, "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."
The piece prompted an instant debate about whether the article was ethical and whether what happened to Grace constituted assault. The New York Times ran an op-ed claiming Ansari was only guilty of not being a mind-reader. The Atlantic published a piece that described the accuser's allegations as "3,000 words of revenge porn" created conspiratorially with the Babe author because she felt rejected by this famous man. CNN's Ashleigh Banfield addressed the accuser in a searing open letter where she called her decision to go public with her story "appalling" and that she had "chiseled away" at the #MeToo movement.
As the old guard of media raised its concerns with the piece, young women too, seem to be conflicted with the story. But most seem focused on what they have in common: the feeling that Grace’s story is all too familiar.
Many young women feel the universality of the experience added to its importance in the #MeToo conversation. Catherine, a 25-year-old musician living in New York, saw herself in Grace."We've all been in a car home or walking home and just felt gross and dirty and violated," she says.
"You feel like something was wrong. And a lot of the time you can't identify it as sexual assault or predatory because it’s just so common. It's just like, 'That's what happens when you go on dates sometimes. People push it too far.' But it shouldn't feel like that, and that's what's so important coming out of this."
Oftentimes, many women don't realize they were being pressured until after the fact. Mary*, a 26-year-old designer from New York, said the story reminded her of something she experienced two years ago. "I remember on our second date, we were intimate with each other and I straight up said, 'I'm not on birth control.' Usually, people would be like, 'Okay, let me go get protection.' But he didn't. I was young and naive and I was like, 'Alright, whatever, I guess it's fine.' Which is horrible. And that set the tone for the rest of our encounters after that: I never saw him and a condom in the same place ever."
She said it was especially frustrating when he acknowledged her discomfort but still didn't do anything to fix it. "At one point he was like, 'You know, maybe you're nervous and you can't finish because you're worried about getting pregnant.' So he picked up on the fact that I obviously wasn't comfortable but he straight up didn't care. And now I'm angry, but at the time I didn't realize that's not how people should be behaving. Yeah, it's been normalized, but it doesn't mean that it should be."
Ana Aluisy, licensed marriage and family therapist and mental health counselor, stresses the need for these conversations.
"We do have to create awareness of how important it is to assert our rights and expectations as women in our society. We also have to make an effort to ask more questions and avoid making assumptions. Even when something may seem obvious to us, it can be perceived different to another."
Basically, the golden rule of consent: ask first, don't assume.
Some millennial women keep coming back to the question raised by critics: Why didn't Grace leave? Emma, 32, a customer service representative from St. Louis, Missouri, says Grace wasn't clear enough in her cues. "She didn't say, 'Hey I'm going to go.' If [Grace] had been like, 'No, I'm going to leave,' he wouldn't have stopped her from leaving.'"
But Larisa, a 24-year-old from Texas who works at a nonprofit, thinks this is about more than just staying or going. She believes the point raised in the op-ed about need for communication in sexual relationships has been muddled by the criticism that Grace wasn't "'feminist enough' to stand up for herself in the face of shitty sexual behavior that has become the norm."
Many women also felt the allegations were compounded by the fact that Ansari has a history as a feminist ally. Ansari's show Master of None notably went after street harassment in 2015 and workplace sexual harassment in 2017. Ansari also wore a "Time’s Up" pin at the Golden Globes. Kara, 28, who declined to provide further identifying information, said, "...he claims to be an ally and an advocate for women who is so 'woke' he wrote a book about it. When in fact, he can't even understand the nuance of being in a power position over her after bringing her to his apartment, getting naked immediately, and then actively ignoring her indications that things were going to a place she didn't want to go. He gave her the idea that if she politely indicated she didn't want to have sexual relations that he would just ignore her. What would he do if she wasn't so polite?"
Overall, young women seem eager to use the story as a jumping-off point to have a conversation about a very real problem, even if that problem complicates how we think about sexual assault. "There's been a lot of conversation in the #MeToo movement of a scale of how bad people's offenses are and I think that's a messed-up way to think about it,” says 25-year-old New Yorker Cassie. "That results in abuses being committed that people might perceive to be, quote, 'not as bad' as a violent rape." Cassie added, "[This is] part of a larger system of how some of us date and have sex in subtly abusive ways that assert gross power dynamics."
No one is accusing Ansari of rape or being the next Weinstein. But that doesn't mean behavior like this should remain normalized. For a television creator who's aligned himself with the women's movement and even made an episode of his TV show dedicated to the side of street harassment men don't see, is it unfair to expect better of him? You can critique a story, sure, but when nearly every young woman's response to a piece starts with her speaking about how she's also found herself in similar situations, perhaps it's time to be having a larger conversation about why this behavior has been so historically normalized, and how in the hell we can stop it.
*Names have been changed.
This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.