What does Aziz Ansari’s assault accusation mean for colleges campuses?| Feb 25, 2018
Amid the flood of highly publicized sexual assault accusations in the media industry, the recent accusations toward Aziz Ansari strike a unique and relevant controversy for college campuses. Ansari, an outspoken feminist and supporter of the #MeToo movement, was recently faced with an accusation of sexual assault. The accuser with Ansari in which she felt pressured to perform sexual tasks, despite her obvious hesitancy and the combination of nonverbal and verbal cues of discomfort that she displayed. The accusation prompted an onslaught of replies targeting both Ansari and the alleged victim. Some criticized Ansari’s hypocrisy, while others questioned why the woman, represented under the pseudonym “Grace,” did not actively remove herself from the situation.
Ansari’s misconduct represents a much more relatable scenario for college students than others in the #MeToo movement, such as that of Harvey Weinstein. Rather than a manifestation of workplace harassment and power dynamics, Ansari’s case describes an instance of poor communication and inappropriate relations between peers. The power dynamic, between a 23-year-old and a famous comedian, more closely mimics campus interactions between students where power could be at play though not necessarily specifically defined or outlined.
The national media debate around Weinstein and Ansari has made clear that the two men’s misconduct are distinctly different. Weinstein stood accused of rape, while Ansari’s actions are not clearly criminal at all. Yet, as “behind closed doors at universities, actions like Ansari’s are absolutely being lumped together with rape.” Kaiser’s comment seeks to draw attention to the difference in the standard of evidence required to prove guilt in campus assault cases, which are resolved through Title IX, as opposed to in criminal court cases. A criminal court requires guilt of a crime to be proved beyond reasonable doubt, whilst Title IX requires a mere “preponderance of the evidence.” With these criteria, much less evidence is required for a college student to be condemned through Title IX than for a regular citizen to be condemned in a court of law. Had Ansari’s case occurred on a campus and had Grace accused him of “sexual assault,” he may well have been found guilty by Title IX.
Grace’s description of her interaction with Ansari does not constitute sexual assault. While the encounter by no means demonstrates acceptable or respectful sexual relations, it cannot be conflated with the serious term and consequences of assault. Defining the scenario as “assault” both wrongfully implicated Ansari and trivializes the rightfully severe term.
Ansari’s accusations send a powerful message to the administration: we must adequately distinguish between cases of assault. Both in our rhetoric and our policies, the University must make clear this difference in order to respect the severity of assault. This sort of all-too-common sexual interaction does not fall under the domain of University regulation or punishment but instead change is up to the inclination Princeton students.
The accusations highlight the lack of media coverage and popular dialogue around more routine and less extreme cases of assault. The use of physical force or the exploitation of a power inequality is clearly repugnant. However, both men and women receive little guidance, both formal and informal, on cases in the middle of the spectrum between forcefully non-consensual sex and abstinence. This issue presents a cultural obstacle rather than a procedural one. The Ansari scandal demonstrates not that the administration needs to take action but that the student body must.
When we enter Princeton, many of us are entering a sexual environment completely unfamiliar and distinct from previous experiences. We are meeting huge numbers of strangers. We are drinking in new locations. We left many safeguards and securities at home, like all-knowing friends or imposing parents. Ignorance is never an excuse, but this period of learning demands we discuss and prepare for these middle-of-the-spectrum, common situations.
For men, I would hope the Ansari story is an awakening to the importance of empathy. While we learn the concept of enthusiastic consent, in practice we find ourselves in situations where we must strive to understand our partner beyond obvious cues. that “countless men have likely behaved as Grace says Ansari did — focusing on their own desires without recognizing what their partner wants,” and “the sheer commonness” of the experience “makes it so important to talk about.” While American culture and pornography indoctrinate men to push for sex at all times, we must change both the dialogue and the practice to a norm that praises sex that is respectful and equal.
For women, many of us have grown up in “a neatly halved sexual universe, in which there is either assault or there is sex positivity.” Rebecca Traister in New York magazine describes this world where “outside of sexual assault, there is little critique of sex,” and “young feminists have adopted an exuberant, raunchy, confident, righteously unapologetic, slut-walking ideology that sees sex — as long as it’s consensual — as an expression of feminist liberation.” Celebrities like Amy Schumer tell us what it means to be a sexual empowered woman: in the movie Trainwreck, she sneaks out of the apartments of sleeping partners and fakes sleep to avoid reciprocating sexual acts. She portrays complete sexual dominance and control over her male counterparts.
But for many women, this style of sexual interaction is inconsistent with our own desires and personalities. This should not mean we are wrong or weak or not liberated or bad feminists. Many self-proclaimed feminists, like Bari Weiss, “the single most distressing thing about this story is that the only person with any agency seems to be Aziz Ansari. The woman is merely acted upon.” As women, we have the power and responsibility to change the demands of femininity to require an empowered “no” rather than to default to a polite “yes.” We are 21st century women, and I believe we have the power to say the uncomfortable or unpopular “no” that our mothers’ mothers may have thought impossible. Women must rewrite this dialogue to find a feasible and comfortable way to champion their own sexual interests.
But many would argue this is easier said than done. Even in the absence of physical force, other factors like emotional or psychological coercion can make women feel trapped in a sexual encounter. Even though she is at no fault for the uncomfortable situation, she still has the power to exit it.
Ansari’s accusations and the dialogue surrounding the story offer a uniquely relevant perspective on sexual assault for college students. The story reveals a hole in our teachings and discussions: the everyday, uncomfortable and miscommunicated sexual encounters that can leave a profound impact. While men have a responsibility to understand the less tangible aspects of sexual respect, women have a responsibility to develop a personal way to protect and champion themselves in sex while staying true to their own desires. We don’t have to dominate every interaction to respect ourselves as women. We don’t have to avoid sex altogether. But we should feel empowered to exercise our direct “no.” In reality, policies can only go so far. Students must take responsibility to change the rhetoric around sex — what it means for students today like us — on campus and beyond.
Jessica Nyquist is a junior studying computer science from Houston, Texas. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.