When the #MeToo stories started flooding in, I watched horrified like many others. I felt for those who had been assaulted and abused but I didn’t think about me in this context. It was about other people and their stories. I read articles that were thought-provoking, like Bari Weiss’ The Limits of ‘Believe All Women’. I talked about it with people but always looking on, not including myself in it because I haven’t suffered any serious assault. I know that it isn’t just about that. I know but I probably just didn’t want to delve into it too deeply. I thought: I have never experienced sexual harassment or assault in the workplace so I will empathise but I cannot see myself in this. That is what I thought until I read this: I went on a date with Aziz Ansari. It turned into the worst night of my life.
Grace’s story about her date with Aziz Ansari hits a lot closer to home. So much so that reading it this lunchtime triggered an anxiety episode that left me drained for most of the afternoon. This is very difficult to write, actually. I don’t think I can go into much detail but I can recognise this experience. I remember feeling pressured into doing things I wasn’t entirely sure I wanted to do. I remember being in a situation where I asked someone repeatedly to let go of me and he didn’t. I remember walking home in tears and feeling unsafe. But what I remember the most are the experiences I had with this guy I dated, a nice guy by all accounts; a guy who was respectful, polite, a guy who was very funny and talented…a guy that everyone loved. The reality, however, is that he treated me like shit. And people still loved him. Many of my friends still loved him. (My housemate warned me about him but I didn’t listen.) I recognise Grace’s confusion at seeing this guy celebrated and congratulated. He’s there enjoying life, thinking that because he gave you some half hearted “I’m sorry” everything is okay, while you sit here with your pain thinking about how much of a fool you were, thinking that you let this happen. Thinking that maybe if you’d been more forceful, maybe if you hadn’t gone to his place, maybe if you had broken up… Maybe if you weren’t as sexual, you wouldn’t have invited this kind of behaviour.
For a while I felt confused about my experience with this guy. I felt hurt but I also felt responsible. I thought I’d given way for him to treat me the way he did. I accepted his apologies while the relationship lasted, which wasn’t long. The guy emotionally dragged me through the mud and his actions and words and my miseducation of what a woman should expect in her relationships resulted in me feeling responsible for what he did. I felt guilty. I thought that because I was making out with him, I was effectively obliged to go further even if I didn’t really want to. The time when he wouldn’t let me go, there came a point when I just stopped struggling.
He didn’t rape me and we never actually had penetrative sex. Perhaps that is one of the reasons I didn’t think about my own experiences when all these stories were emerging. I also have no interest in bringing this to his attention any longer. Another part of Grace’s story that resonates with me is that I’m pretty sure this man thinks that his actions were okay. There was a time when I wanted to expose it all; I wanted all our friends in common to hate him. I wanted him not to be invited to parties. I wanted him out of the fucking city. The anger came back today.
The reason I wanted to write about this is because what happened with this guy and what happened to Grace is probably quite common. These people will not appear before a judge. There won’t be anything other than feeble apologies. He apologised to me for the way he treated me but to me it seemed more like he wanted to make himself feel better. He wanted me to say “Yes, I forgive you” in order to reassure himself that he was still the nice, respectful guy everybody knew. There were other guys; an adult who thought it was okay to hold me against him and rub his erection on me when I was 8. I thought that was my fault because I had a bright pink skirt and I had worn lipstick. It was my first time wearing lipstick. I felt pretty that day. That day I also felt like looking pretty was dangerous. There was a classmate who thought it was okay to unzip his trousers and show me his penis after gym class; he did this a few times. He was one of the coolest guys in school. He was also an idiot, everybody knew that but I felt confused/excited. There was also someone a few years ago who, after making out with me, said “I could rape you, you know”. He also said it was a joke. I smiled awkwardly. We were alone in his house. That night I grabbed my things and left and never took another call or answered another text from him.
Speaking out is important. But we also need to start unpacking what’s underneath. It’s easy to look at men like Harvey Weinstein and Louis CK and distance ourselves from them. In the words of Emily Reynolds:
Someone committing multiple, serious sexual assaults and rapes is easy to characterise as a predator, a monster, and a thousand miles away from the lives and behaviours of the often well-meaning men who are trying to engage with this cultural moment. Ansari’s alleged behaviour, however, is likely to hit much closer to home.
I believe that all of us have to ask ourselves why we think that behaviour like Ansari’s is perceived as okay. Women: how did you come to the idea that you just have to put up with it? Start there. Start asking yourselves why it is that we seemed to be programmed to crave male attention to the point of thinking that this is just part of relationships. Men: ask yourselves why you believe that it’s okay to keep going after someone tells you they’re uncomfortable. If a bodily cue seems unclear to you, ask for clarity. There is no shame in admitting you don’t know something. It’s just part of being an adult.
We must shed the years of miseducation. We must look at the culture and where it promotes ideas about relationships that are harmful. We must challenge those ideas. We must learn to have respect, real, deep, respect for ourselves and others. We must do this for the sake of the people who fought so we could have choices. We must do it so we can have healthier lives. And we must do this for the generations that follow.