Wednesday, January 17, 2018

On Aziz Ansari, and Talking to Men

In a recent conversation in the wake of the story about Aziz Ansari I found myself trying to explain to a man that thing that many women do around men. If this were a circus, it could be something sensational and cute: the Magic Shrinking Act, the Play-Doh Woman, the Mansplainer Charmer. But it's not a circus, just daily life.

By way of explaining, here are some stories.

There's T., a guy I know. We were at a social event together once when some other guy provoked him--maybe with some comment about T.'s purported romantic prowess or lack thereof. T. responded by loudly declaring something to the effect of "just wait until I show them my [tech company] pay stub, which is bigger than yours." I made a joke about that, at which his expression darkened. Knowing that he could be quick to anger, I hurriedly said, "Sorry!" Another time, he gave a couple friends and me a ride. He swore at almost every other driver on the road. I laughed nervously and tried to keep the mood light, feeling somehow guilty for the perturbed air between us. I knew he liked classic rock, so I queued up seven songs, just for him, to play on the car speakers. I'm on the highway to hell / Highway to hell...

I'm not myself when I'm around T.

S. is a friend who I've known since I was fifteen. Our conversations alternate between analytical discussions of the article links we send each other and sarcastic banter. He sent me the Aziz Ansari article and the NYTimes response, "Aziz Ansari is Guilty. Of Not Being a Mind-Reader." What did I think, he wondered. He must have seen my ellipsis flicker onto his screen and then off a couple times then. I typed and backspaced and backspaced some more, all those tender-looking machinations of steeling myself. I was trying to prepare the right sort of response. A calm, certain, and measured one. I thought that Ansari had behaved badly, that any instigator of sexual activity needs to consider their partner's interiority. I said this. But there would be the concessions, the disclaimers: what he did was not criminal, and certainly not Weinstein-level.

I was able to type up all the things I thought. Why was it so hard to write what I felt?

Perhaps it was wise not to delve into pathos and personal experience. After all, S. said later, after he said that he agreed with me, that he thought the tone of the story was an issue. I agreed that it could have been improved, but felt hesitant when he remarked it should have been written "professionally" rather than "hysterically."

It was a revealing choice of words, if accidentally so. The word "hysteria" comes from the Greek, hysterikos, "of the womb, suffering in the womb." The word became a catch-all phrase for a variety of female afflictions and irritations thought to be caused by a "wandering womb." The advances of medical science have thankfully disabused us of any notion of a uterus magically traveling around the female body (side note--I'd love to see someone make an animated GIF of that), but we continue to use the word disproportionately to refer to women. Hysterical: the classy way to say "bitches be crazy." I wonder if S. knows this.

Either way, I didn't want to be a crazy bitch, or an angry one. And oh, I am. I am angry at Aziz Ansari for repeatedly sticking his fingers in a woman's mouth (how can you assume she's into that without asking, "Yo, are you into fingers in your mouth?" That's a pretty non-standard part of your sexual repertoire, my dude). I am angry at him for making a move on her after he had suggested "just chilling on the couch." I am angry at him for his utter oblivion, the "I had a great time!" text after she went home crying in an Uber.

I would be angry if it was my sister.

I would be angry if it was my friend.

Wouldn't you?

But if it were me? I don't know if I would know how to be angry. Maybe I would just be numb.

I hooked up once with a frat guy. He muttered that he'd had too much beer and smoked too much weed before I came over, so he was having a hard time getting it up. I wasn't really looking down there, just kind of sitting and waiting. Apparently he sobered up, because he gave me a kind of look and then it was happening. I lay there and crossed my fingers that it wouldn't hurt and felt quietly relieved when it didn't, much. Then I realized he wasn't wearing a condom and felt, suddenly, terrified. Like I'd entered an elevator in freefall. What did that feeling do? Make me slap him, like Caitlin Flanagan nostalgically hearkens back to in her Atlantic article? ("They [1970s magazines] told you to slap him if you had to; they told you to get out of the car and start wailing if you had to. They told you to do whatever it took to stop him from using your body in any way you didn’t want, and under no circumstances to go down without a fight.") I did not. I felt scared and small. I said, very nervously, "Um--are you not wearing a condom?"

"Don't worry, I'm clean," he said.

"Uh--but I'm not on birth control or anything..."

He said he would put one on later.

"Could you please put it on now?" I asked timidly. When it was over I walked very quickly back to the takeout sushi I'd ordered to a friend's dorm and ate it and laughed when one of my floor-mates jokingly called me a slut. Later I took a battery of STI tests.

"And then everything was negative, so it's fine," I told a female friend over pizza. I related the story the same way I told stories about my floormates' drunken escapades--can you believe the buffoonery of these harmless people? I did not mention the copay for the tests, or that first twinge of terror, and feeling small.

Even so, she was horrified. "He didn't have your consent to do that. That's sexual assault."

I reeled. "I mean, no, it's OK, I'm just not going to see that dude again."

It was painful to see my night through her prism, even if it made logical sense: my consent was predicated on a condition that was violated. That was enough to send a man in Switzerland who removed a condom without his partner's consent to jail; the Federal Supreme Court there decided such actions constitute rape. But I wasn't raped, I thought. I had a bad hookup.

Noted scholar Catharine MacKinnon writes in her paper "Pleasure Under Patriarchy,"

“Immense energy goes into defending sexuality as just fine and getting better all the time, and into trying to make sexuality feel all right, like it is supposed to feel. Women who are compromised, cajoled, pressured, tricked, blackmailed, or outright forced into sex (or pornography) often respond to the unspeakable humiliation, coupled with the sense of having lost some irreplaceable integrity, by claiming that sexuality as their own. Faced with no alternatives, the strategy to acquire self-respect and pride is: I chose it. […] The mind fuck of all of this makes the complicitous collapse into “I chose it” feel like a strategy for sanity. It certainly makes a woman at one with the world.”

Caitlin Flanagan would tell me, you didn't slap him, you didn't start wailing, you went down without a fight. There's a strange comfort in her pernicious logic--one that equates inaction with consent, timidity with choice. Because then you can think, I chose it. And suddenly you're not hysterical anymore.

When S. asked me what I thought about the Aziz Ansari story the first place my mind went to was that frat guy and freshman year. But something made me hesitant to bring it up.

I guess that I am not fully myself around S., either, even though I like him a great deal.

I hesitated because it was a story about the complicated nature of how we narrativize our own lives. In reminding me that my consent had been violated, my female friend shook my narrative. Today, I can say honestly that that night was a scary moment that I have thought little of since. But I am thankful that my friend responded more zealously than I did: her anger reminded me, in a moment when my grip on it felt tenuous, that my consent was important, that my body was my own.

The story about that frat guy was never just about a condom. It was about my feelings. I was unsure if S. wanted to hear those, because it seems like many detractors of the Ansari article are unhappy the woman in question shared hers. Let's remember that in the article on babe, no criminal charges are announced, no financial reparations are sought, no boycott is announced. Yet there are opinion writers everywhere acting like Ansari's defense attorneys, responding with screeds about women needing to be more proactive. Some demonstrate an eagle-eyed attention to physical or quantifiable details--she waited that long to put her clothes back on? This myopic focus means a failure to respect the emotional details of the story. A girl's tears in her Uber home aren't blood and semen in a rape kit, but our society's sexual standard should not be to get as close to the criminal edge of harm as possible before drawing back. That means respecting sex as an emotional process, not just a physical one.

This is also where things get complicated, because it goes back to talking to men. The way that I talk to many guys constitutes dancing around a wall, trying not to challenge some nebulous masculinity. Listening patiently when they explain something I already know about, or smiling even while telling them off for saying blatantly offensive shit because I don't want to seem mad, or apologizing too much. Saturday Night Live's Aidy Bryant even did a sketch on Weekend Update, playing herself:
AIDY BRYANT [rolls out on office chair]: I’m sorry I rolled out here kinda weird, did I ruin it? [...] I just do that [apologize]…it’s kind of my natural state because I, like most girls have been taught to be accommodating and be polite…I understand the impulse to be accommodating…everyone’s talking about how women should negotiate harder and ask for more money and that’s true, but I feel like maybe, just maybe, men could be just like, this much more dece? 
COLIN JOST: 'Dece'? Like 'decent'?

AIDY BRYANT: I wanna say decent but I’m trying to keep it cool and chill so I don’t come off like a shrew! [...] Equal pay is the goal but at this point I’d be happy to just even gain like a couple of yards, and that’s a straight-up sports reference for da boys! All I’m saying is that if I’m going to be more like Mark Wahlberg, maybe Mark can take a trip through my brain, which is just a tornado of ‘is he ok?’ ‘Is she ok?’
The sketch is meant to be exaggerated but it rang true--trying to keep it "cool and chill," the cringeworthy "sports reference for da boys." And that tornado which Aidy later describes as a "prison of the mind" is one that comes with silver linings: on balance, I've encountered more emotional perception and disclosure when I talk with girls. Yes, I may dance around other girls' feelings too, but it's not around an entire wall, an entire system, the way I try not to challenge masculinity. I've never had the feeling of "oh shit, I can't challenge a girl's femininity" because it's laughable to even imagine--what would be construed as an affront? This is one of the advances of feminism--that there is a wide selection of ways in which to be a woman, and as Gloria Steinem said, "We have begun to raise daughters more like sons," with all the riches of the world spread out for our grabbing.

But the second part of Steinem's quote, "few have the courage to raise our sons more like our daughters," with that Aidy-Bryant-tornado-in-the-mind, is still too true. Andrew Reiner writes in the New York Times,

"Last semester, a student in the masculinity course I teach showed a video clip she had found online of a toddler getting what appeared to be his first vaccinations. Off camera, we hear his father’s voice. “I’ll hold your hand, O.K.?” Then, as his son becomes increasingly agitated: “Don’t cry!… Aw, big boy! High five, high five! Say you’re a man: ‘I’m a man!’ ” The video ends with the whimpering toddler screwing up his face in anger and pounding his chest. “I’m a man!” he barks through tears and gritted teeth.The home video was right on point, illustrating the takeaway for the course: how boys are taught, sometimes with the best of intentions, to mutate their emotional suffering into anger."

Reiner goes on to say that we socialize vulnerability out of young boys, and this argument is borne out by research showing men are less likely to visit physicians and more likely to engage in risky behaviors. All this to say that inculcating boys with a narrow kind of masculinity, one that denies them an emotional vocabulary, has deeply negative consequences for the men they grow up to be.

It also makes life harder for the women (or more emotionally communicative men) who talk to them. My dad often mentions being in high school and feeling alienated by his male peers, who always just seemed to want to talk about cars. Sometimes I find myself standing in his shoes, perplexed by the conversations I hear groups of boys having. How is it possible to talk for so long, at such volume, about mutual funds or poker? I like your jokes and your volubility, I want to say, but I wish I knew the answers to different questions (and that you sometimes asked them): how do you know when you're falling in love? What keeps you awake at night? When was the last time you cried?

A guy I don't know very well, who I'll call N., was sitting across from me at a party one night. He wore neat, preppy sweaters, like he'd walked off the cover of a J.Crew catalogue, but seemed earnest and not douchey. During a drunken game where we all asked each other exceedingly personal questions someone asked N., who we'd already established had a girlfriend who he liked very much, "Have you ever cried after sex?"

He looked shocked for a second that it was even a question.

"Of course, yeah," he said, like it was obvious.

Some guys around the table expressed mock horror.

"It happens," he said calmly. I think he said something about things being "emotionally intense."

I don't know why that moment made me respect him so much. I suppose it was because we were sitting in a room with so many men whose vulnerabilities I had danced around like tripwire. In contrast, his nonchalant answer felt like a rare communion. I was looking across the table and picturing him curled up next to someone he loves and weeping into her shoulder. It was a fragility which I suppose he could not have known registered to me as strength.


  1. Your blog post inspired me to share my own opinions:

    Well-written and insightful, thank you.

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  3. Anonymous12:34 AM

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  4. This post is absolutely brilliant! Thank you so much for sharing!