The woman texted Ansari the next day telling him she’d felt uncomfortable. “I’m so sad to hear this,” he replied. “Clearly, I misread things in the moment and I’m truly sorry.” Ansari issued a statement along the same lines Sunday, saying sexual activity had occurred but denying any nonconsensual conduct. “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,” he wrote.
A number of people have pointed out that the allegation against Ansari has hit the same nerve a New Yorker short story did last month. They’re right: As many women see themselves in the Ansari encounter as did in “Cat Person.” But the real-life tale has opened up a backlash to #MeToo in a way that fiction couldn’t.
In the wake of the Ansari allegation, women seemed able to agree on one thing, or at least a variation on it: “I don’t think there’s anyone who doesn’t know a woman who has experienced this.” From there, though, opinions split. To some, this universality made Ansari a casualty in an onslaught of overreactions: This is just sex, they argued, and Ansari is just a man. To others, it made him a symptom: If this is just sex, we’re all very sick.
The second approach is more compelling. It’s also more constructive. That all women have had this experience says less about whether Ansari is a good or bad guy and more about how men see sex in general, and how women see it at the same time.
We know how it happens. A man wants sex after an evening out, and a woman feels obligated to comply. Her sense of obligation only deepens if he’s polite, if he says “it’s only fun if we’re both having fun,” if he has made a career on keen insights about the same power system that renders nights like these routine. Even when she’s not enjoying herself, she thinks she should be, and she tries hard to convince herself nothing is wrong until — maybe that night, maybe the next morning — it becomes too clear to ignore.
The man, on the other hand, walks right up to the boundary and reaches out his fingers so that he’s almost touching it. The scene looks enough like consent that he won’t get in trouble. Maybe he’s all too aware of what he’s doing, or maybe he doesn’t see that one step forward would set off an alarm.
We don’t know what was going on in Ansari’s head that night, but if his accuser’s account is accurate, either alternative is unsettling. In one, a man manipulates the system to win his reward with minimal risk. In the other, the system is so rigged that a man, socialized to expect sex and to receive it, pulls strings without even realizing.
For now, the conversation is centered on Ansari: Does he deserve this shaming? But if we focus only on the fates of individual men, we risk ignoring the bigger point: Whatever Ansari deserved, isn’t something broken? And how do we start to fix it?