Sometimes what’s not in a book stands out more than what is.
In 2015, comedian Aziz Ansari published a book with sociologist Eric Klinenberg about the realities and frustrations of dating. I read and wrote about “Modern Romance” when it came out; and I read it again this week, after the website Babe.net published an account of a first date that an anonymous woman dubbed “Grace” had with Ansari last year.
If you’ve somehow avoided the onslaught of coverage this week, here’s the gist: According to Grace’s telling, she let Ansari know, verbally and non-verbally, that she was uncomfortable with how quickly things were getting physical, and by the end of the night felt she had been “taken advantage of by Aziz.” Ansari, 35, responded to Grace’s account, saying that to him the night “by all indications was completely consensual.”
Part of the reason Ansari’s night with Grace has been such a big news story is because Ansari isn’t just a comedian who happens to talk about dating and relationships in his stand-up and his Netflix series “Master of None” — he also fashions himself a dating guru. So presumably he’s thought about what makes a hookup good for everyone involved.
For “Modern Romance,” Ansari and Klinenberg convened focus groups with hundreds singles in the United States and abroad. The book isn’t so much a dating advice book as it is a distillation of why online dating can be so difficult and confusing — and how and why dating and courtship have changed so much, so quickly.
“Our search for the right person — and even our idea of what ‘the right person’ actually means — has changed radically in a very, very short amount of time,” they write.
And another thing that’s changed in a very, very short amount of time: In 2015, two men could write a book about dating that barely mentions sex — and doesn’t mention consent — and that absence wouldn’t seem notable. A mere few years ago, men weren’t expected to draw attention to harassment, rape, coercion or sex that’s not assault but not quite consensual, either. It wouldn’t have been off-limits, but for decades women have been the ones writing about sex, power, rape culture and consent and the ones pushing for change. In today’s climate, more readers — male and female — might expect a book about dating to address consent.
So if consent is absent from the book, what is there? The book is mostly about the increased popularity of online dating and the frustrations that stem from it. From 2005 to 2012, for example, a third of couples who got married in the United States met through an online dating site. The authors look at how the Internet has expanded singles’ options and made it harder to pick just one. “Modern Romance” speaks well to the difficulty of asking someone out over text message; of how hard and important it is to come up with interesting rather than boring dates; the pain of breaking up over text; the prevalence of sexting and infidelity; the pain of ghosting; and more.
The authors note that women deal with nonsense from men, but they’re mostly talking about men being bad at texting or overly sexual in their messages; they don’t say much about men’s in-person interactions. “One firm takeaway from all our interviews with women is that most dudes out there are straight-up bozos,” the authors write, with Ansari adding: “I’ve spent hours talking with women and seeing the kind of ‘first texts’ they get from guys, and trust me, it’s infuriating. These were attractive, amazing women and they all deserved better.”
Ansari does mention casual sex, but mostly in the context of how it helped him grow as a person. (He was in a long-term relationship when he wrote the book.) “Say what you will about casual sex and the substance and quality of that experience, but the encounters I had in my own periods of singledom helped me grow as a person and brought me to a place to be ready to have a serious relationship,” Ansari writes. “It also made me realize the true value of that sort of connection and better understand the advantages and disadvantages of a serious relationship. Dating has its downsides, but it can be a lot of fun. Even when it isn’t, when you’re meeting other people there are always experiences that you remember and learn from.”
That doesn’t sound like a man who will push a woman to be physical when she’s uncomfortable, but of course, Ansari on the page is not a carbon copy of Ansari in person. In the book, he doesn’t go into the nitty-gritty of how those hookups went down — had he written about “the claw,” a move Grace describes in excruciating detail, for sure there would have been women readers recoiling. Now he’s got a new experience to learn from and hopefully will come up with some new ways to make out.
Most of the discussion about sex in this book is about sex that happens overseas, specifically in Tokyo (which is experiencing a decline in sexual interest) and in Buenos Aires (which the authors describe as having a “romantically aggressive culture”). In Tokyo, according to Ansari and Klinenberg, women often complain about the “herbivore man,” which isn’t a note about his diet; the word describes Japanese men who are shy, passive, so afraid of rejection that they show no interest in sex and romantic relationships.
“Surveys suggest that about 60 percent of male singles in their 20s and 30s identify themselves as herbivores,” the authors note, linking the phenomenon to the decline of the Japanese economy. “With career jobs now gone, it’s not only harder for men to meet a partner, but also harder for them to support her financially,” they write. “So it makes sense that insecurity might leave men scared of rejection.”
Of course there are also “omnivorous” men who pursue booty calls, the book notes. But the herbivore man sounds similar to what some Americans fear: That the #MeToo movement will make men too scared to have sex at all.
The opposite is the Argentine man who’s so sexually aggressive he won’t take no for an answer, the authors posit. One focus group includes a 28-year-old man who’s an expat from New York but mirrors the attitude of Argentine men, saying, “Here, if [women] say no, they’re interested.” The women the authors interviewed said that “being the object of unsolicited male attention was a daily occurrence, and many men were reluctant to take no for an answer.”
This kind of behavior sneaks into the stereotype of the typical American man, too — it’s the kind of thing the #MeToo movement is trying to draw attention to and correct. Of course it’s possible for men to be neither of these extremes and instead be respectful and desirous simultaneously. Ansari can still be a voice in the conversation about how to do that, especially after his own experience that has dozens of question marks hovering above it.