The recent tidal wave of sexual assault allegations involving powerful men will mean very little if it isn’t followed by a setting of higher standards for our everyday relationships and, in turn, the regimes of sex and love.
Modern Romance: An Investi-gation, Aziz Ansari’s sociological study, shows that the definition of courtship isn’t at all stable and, in recent years, the way we connect and fall in love has fundamentally changed.
It opens with an anecdote from Ansari’s own romantic life. It’s the type of meet-cutesy, romantic comedy, lines-crossed story that the actor is now known for portraying. In some ways, especially for some loose-limbed millennials, Ansari has become the voice of today’s well-meaning lovesick man trying to negotiate technology, dating and hookup culture.
Now he’s at the centre of what feels like another major shift in how we think about romance.
In her account of a date with Ansari, Grace (whose real name was kept under wraps in the Babe.net article) detailed the actor’s alleged sexual misconduct. She recounts being coerced into sexual behaviour that went beyond her boundaries, and having her attempts to stop him continuously ignored.
The minute the story broke, the Twitter-verse audibly gasped. Here we have one of the men to whom we collectively awarded woke status being lumped in with other lecherous monsters like Harvey Weinstein and Woody Allen.
And there was no shortage of people jumping to rescue the man’s reputation. Most repeated was the “bad-date” defence — an argument that seems to repackage the old strategy of making the victim the problem.
What separates this account of sexual misconduct from other recent revelations is that it has forced us to think even more deeply about consent in the romantic contract.
In his response to the article, Ansari said: “We went out to dinner and afterwards we ended up engaging in sexual activity, which by all indications was completely consensual … 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.”
But this leads to the question, what are the indications of consent? After all, even in the most flagrant instances of sexual assault — because, apparently, there’s a sliding scale — the accused have shot down allegations by claiming that everything seemed “completely consensual”.
In an article for Elle, Sandy Doyle points out that our culture already makes sex — and especially pleasurable sex — a chore silently begrudged by all women. They have to be badgered into it. Enthusiastic consent is a kind of mythical tail pinned only on insatiable sex-unicorns. And part of the mating dance is about getting women to change their minds.
In Grace’s account of the so-called bad date, Ansari himself draws attention to this aspect of consent. “Oh, of course, it’s only fun if we’re both having fun,” he allegedly said. But moments later he nudges at this standard of consent — one that he seemingly designs — until it sighs, folds into itself and starts looking nothing like consent at all.
The bad-date defence so comfortably accommodates this routine and with it the new ideal of romance that Ansari seems to represent.
He and others have changed what we look for in a leading man. The fact that he can be self-deprecatingly funny, can call himself a feminist and deliver a sexy fun romantic experience seemed pretty important in the effort to save the romantic comedy from its formulaic paternalism.
While reading Grace’s encounter with the actor, I was in awe of how contrived this carefully curated character felt off-screen. His taking pictures with a film camera at the Emmy Awards afterparty, the oyster bar, the marble countertop — “How about you hop up and take a seat?” he said — and the fumbling, awkward crotch-grabbing that followed show that this “new” conceptualisation of the romantic figure still imagines the show of unequal power impossibly sexy.
We ought to be wary of the bad-date defence because it signals an absence of language for describing sexual coercion in the dimly lit setting of the supposedly romantic liaison. It makes the experience of having one’s sexual boundaries, needs and desires ignored as inescapably commonplace as forgetting your wallet at home or spilling marinara sauce on your white shirt.
In other words, the so-called bad date makes these transgressions seem as inevitable as bad luck, instead of regarding them as integral to patriarchy’s designs.
Sarah Smit is a Mail & Guardian journalism intern