Aziz Ansari case: Can men be excused for not reading non-verbal cues in bed?

Comedian Aziz Ansari, who has been vocal about gender bias and sexual harassment, has been accused of forcing a woman into performing sexual acts she didn't want to participate in.
Aziz Ansari case: Can men be excused for not reading non-verbal cues in bed?
Aziz Ansari case: Can men be excused for not reading non-verbal cues in bed?
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Over the weekend, the entertainment industry was once again broiled in controversy. Shocking allegations of sexual misconduct emerged against comedian Aziz Ansari, who otherwise has the reputation for being one of those few ‘woke’ men who speak about gender bias and respect women. The woman who accused him is simply referred to as Grace by Katie Way on

Grace alleged that Aziz had forced her to perform sexual acts on him, and had also made sexual advances on her with which she was clearly uncomfortable. She also alleges that she made it abundantly clear – pulling away and mumbling, not being responsive, not moving her lips, telling him to take it slow and later, explicitly saying that she was uncomfortable.  

In a statement issued more than a day after Grace went public with the allegations, Aziz said that their sexual activity was, by all indications, “completely consensual”. He added that he was “surprised” and “concerned” when she told him later that it was not the same for her.

So, is Aziz one of the men who was simply unable to decipher what Grace was telling him with her body language? Or did he supposedly recognise them, understand them, and dismiss the signs because the explicit ‘no’ did not come loudly until later?

While we cannot claim to know what exactly happened between Aziz and Grace, what we do know is that almost every survivor of sexual assault who comes out is asked why she didn’t say ‘no’ when the incident occurred. Why she wasn’t ‘clear’ about the fact that she was uncomfortable. And that because she did not do that, she must have wanted it, too.

Can the lack of a verbal 'No' be considered 'Yes'?

Can non-verbal cues be incomprehensible?

Neerja Dasani was one of the women who found the man who'd sexually harassed her, a former mentor, on Raya Sarkar’s controversial list which named alleged perpetrators in the academia.

Writing for TNM about how the list helped her validate her own abuse, Neerja recounted how she had asked herself the same questions that are thrown at the victim by the society – “Why hadn’t I slapped him across his face that day? Why didn’t I raise the issue later and do something about it? How could I have continued to work with him?”

She tells TNM now that that at that point of time, she wanted to believe, like many women are conditioned to, that her harasser was not as bad, and that she was reading too much into it. “We are not encouraged to make our boundaries clear and say no. So, we second guess ourselves, and try to rationalise our discomfort,” she says.

Neerja does not buy that someone can be oblivious to the other’s discomfort especially in an intimate setting such as the one Aziz and Grace were in, even though the discomfort is not explicitly announced.

Sharanya Manivannan, an author who writes on women, gender and sexuality, points out that the conditioning which goes into how we think about sex has a major role to play in how we decipher consent and pleasure.

“Unless you have never been de-conditioned so as to think about consent and pleasure in a feminist way, it is not possible to not understand your partner's discomfort or other negative responses,” she tells TNM over email, “That de-conditioning is a comprehensive process, and must be approached holistically. There are no straightforward remedies, and it ideally must be built into what is taught at a school level.”

Violation is not always violent

The Aziz Ansari episode shatters another myth – that sexual assault is accompanied by violence as we know it. For instance, when Grace allegedly asked Aziz to slow down and they are sitting and ‘chilling’ – Aziz on the couch and she on the floor – he allegedly asked her to turn around and perform oral sex on her.

She did so too.

“I think I just felt really pressured. It was literally the most unexpected thing I thought would happen at that moment because I told him I was uncomfortable,” Grace said.  

“Let us understand that sexual violation is not just a question of "did he overpower her, and did she fight back and bruise him?" The bigger question is: why can't assaulters understand that 'No', or why do they overlook it?” Sharanya questions. 

She points out that a person can ‘say’ no in a number of ways – “Trying to close the knees, frowning, pushing away, bristling, not responding, being in pain. Perhaps the way to look at this is less clinically (in terms of consent/refusal) and more affectively (in terms of pleasure). A person who isn't listening to or watching their partner's cues is not interested in their pleasure or even comfort -- thereby tipping the encounter into non-consensual territory,” she says.

Skewed accountability

Of late, voices to hold the perpetrator accountable rather than questioning the survivor – her clothing, drunkenness, and intent, among other things – have been growing louder.

Even so, internalised misogyny does not allow women survivors to do that even now. 

Both Neerja and Sonam Mittal, the admin of feminist Facebook page ‘The Spoilt Modern Indian Woman’ and another sexual assault survivor, experienced this in the aftermath of the abuse.

Neerja points out that sexual interactions do not take place in a social vacuum. “There is a pressure to please the other person once sex has been initiated. Women especially feel this, and are made to feel guilty if they change their mind, as if they are withholding sex,” she says.

In the Aziz case, there's also a power play in the equation – Aziz is a celebrity, and Grace, a photographer, was fascinated by him. This may have made her feel obligated to please him. Both Neerja and Sonam were also abused by those who had authority over them.  

And these men in power often have a sense of entitlement, Neerja says: “They don’t think someone would want to say no to them, which makes them unresponsive to cues that say otherwise.”

Sonam explains that victim shaming plays a big role, too: “It's like - if you went on a date, and had a few drinks, what else did you expect? This perpetuates into perceptions and dating culture too - if a woman comes to their house, men assume it to be consent for sex. And for women, they feel obligated to have sex because they've said yes to coming to his house."

The absence of ‘no’ vs informed, enthusiastic consent

Between ‘fight’ and ‘flight’ is another place, Sonam says, and that’s ‘freeze’. 

“You’re just so shocked that this (sexual assault) is happening to you. Your brain is unable to process it at that point,” she says.

Like Sonam, Grace, and Neerja, countless other women are only able to come to terms with the assault after they process it later. This happens after they navigate shame, guilt, and understand that their ‘compliance’, if at all, was a result of fear or coercion.  

“‘Bad sex’ is when you wanted to sleep with someone but you lacked chemistry or one or both of you is unsatisfied. Performing sexual acts under coercion, due to fear of escalated violence and confusion about the dynamic, is not "just bad sex",” Sharanya says, “Is it rape? I don't know. But it is not pleasure.”

“There is little conversation about informed and enthusiastic consent and its nuances. So, it becomes a grey area - men are not taught how to read cues and when they get mixed signals, they take it for a 'yes' than 'no',” Sonam says.

“For me, the bigger concern here is not about the grey area itself but that it exists because there is lack of conversation. And because it exists, it is easy to take advantage of this grey area and make it about he said versus she said as has happened in this (Aziz Ansari) case,” she adds.

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