Is Aziz Ansari guilty of assault or of being just a really bad date?
That’s the debate currently raging in the wake of the “Master of None” star responding to an allegation of sexual assault by a woman he went out on a date with last fall.
There are two sides that are drawing supporters.
Some are saying the allegations against Ansari assault weakens the #MeToo movement.
The other side: This is the kind of conduct that has given rise to movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp and that just because it happens a lot doesn’t make it right.
The story has all of the ingredients of one that begs controversy: sexual politics and power, and comes at a time when Hollywood and the culture is grappling with the treatment of women.
In a 3000-word story published on Saturday by the website Babe, a 23-year-old photographer, who shared her account anonymously (the publication used the name “Grace” to identify her), described a date with Ansari in which she alleged he pressured her to have sex.
According to the woman, she was repeatedly “pressured” by Ansari to have intercourse, which they didn’t, and to perform oral sex, which she says they did.
The woman told Babe she used verbal and non-verbal cues to communicate she was “distressed.” Following the encounter, Ansari arranged for an Uber to pick her up, she said.
“I cried the whole ride home. At that point I felt violated,” she said, telling Babe she felt her experience with Ansari amounted to sexual assault.
CNN does not know the identity of the woman.
Ansari released a statement saying he went on a date with the woman and engaged in sexual activity “which by all indications was completely consensual.”
“The next day, I got a text from her saying that although ‘it may have seemed okay,’ upon further reflection, she felt uncomfortable,” Ansari wrote in a statement obtained by CNN on Sunday. “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.”
In a Sunday column for the Atlantic, contributing editor, Caitlin Flanagan defended the actor and said he was being professionally “assassinated” by “Grace” and the writer of the Babe report.
“The clinical detail in which the story is told is intended not to validate her account as much as it is to hurt and humiliate Ansari,” she wrote. “Together, the two women may have destroyed Ansari’s career, which is now the punishment for every kind of male sexual misconduct, from the grotesque to the disappointing.”
On Monday, the New York Times published an opinion piece by Bari Weiss headlined “Aziz Ansari Is Guilty. Of Not Being a Mind Reader.”
“I am a proud feminist, and this is what I thought while reading Grace’s story, ” Weiss wrote. “If you are hanging out naked with a man, it’s safe to assume he is going to try to have sex with you.”
On Monday night, HLN host Ashleigh Banfield read an open letter to “Grace” in which she accused her of damaging the #MeToo movement and called her actions “appalling” for going to the press with “a story of a bad date.”
“You have chiseled away at a movement that I, along with all of my sisters in the workplace, have been dreaming of for decades,” Banfield said. “A movement that has finally changed an oversexed professional environment that I, too, have struggled through at times over the last 30 years in broadcasting.”
It’s similar to a sentiment shared by Sonny Bunch in an opinion piece written for the Washington Post.
In it Bunch argues the allegations against Ansari are “nothing like the ugly tales of sexual abuse that have wafted out of Hollywood over the past six months or so” which have given rise to the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements.
“The #MeToo movement’s story has been a relatively straightforward one that garners support from both sides of the aisle and all decent people, because it is a tale of how powerful people humiliate and subjugate those who want nothing more than a chance to chase their dreams, ” Bunch wrote. “The babe story is not about this. It is about a date that went badly, one that did not live up to the expectations of the woman involved.”
But there are those who see such rallying around Ansari as just the thing that has given rise to the need for such movements.
Noted feminist author Jessica Valenti tweeted on Sunday, “A lot of men will read that post about Aziz Ansari and see an everyday, reasonable sexual interaction. But part of what women are saying right now is that what the culture considers ‘normal’ sexual encounters are not working for us, and oftentimes harmful.”
Los Angeles Times opinion contributor Jamil Smith tweeted, “I was finally able to read the account of the date with @azizansari. From the described events, he appears to have no understanding whatsoever of sexual consent. Nor do his defenders, it seems. It is appalling to see some shift attention away from his coercive and violative acts.”
In an interview with CNN’s Brian Stelter, Joshi Herrmann, editor in chief of Babe’s parent company, Tab Media, defended the publication of the story by Ansari’s accuser.
“It’s newsworthy because of who he is and what he has said in his standup, what he has written in his book, what he has proclaimed on late night TV,” Herrmann said. “Her account is pointing out a striking tension between those things and the way she says he treated her in private.”