Aziz Ansari in New York last year.
In 1975, 42 years before the comedian Aziz Ansari reportedly brought a date home to his apartment and repeatedly tried to initiate sex with her after she told him “next time” and “I don’t want to feel forced,” Susan Brownmiller published “Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape.”
“All rape is an exercise in power,” Brownmiller wrote in 1975, “but some rapists have an edge that is more than physical.” Sometimes, the 1975 text suggests, rapists “operate within an emotional setting or within a dependent relationship that provides a hierarchical, authoritarian structure of its own that weakens a victim’s resistance, distorts her perspective and confounds her will.” “Against Our Will” has been available in American libraries since its publication, which was in 1975.
Ansari would have been 7 or 8 years old in 1991 when a feminist group at Antioch College fought to establish the school’s Sexual Offense Prevention Policy (informally the “Antioch rules” or, more commonly, the “infamous Antioch rules”) requiring affirmative and sustained consent throughout all sexual encounters, and he was 10 when “Saturday Night Live” mocked the Antioch rules in a sketch that cast Shannen Doherty as a “Victimization Studies” major.
Also in 1991, Anita Hill testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, detailing repeated sexual harassment at the hands of her boss, Clarence Thomas, who is still on the Supreme Court. Like Ansari, I, too, was 8 in 1991, and I vividly recall my mother explaining sexual harassment to me in the living room of my childhood home: “For example, a man might say, ‘I have a big penis, and I bet you’d like me to —’ well, you know.” She cut off, disgusted.
In 2008, Jessica Valenti and Jaclyn Friedman edited the anthology “Yes Means Yes!: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape,” seven years before Ansari released his own book, “Modern Romance: An Investigation,” in which he explores dating and sex in the digital age.
In the summer of 2014 (perhaps as Ansari was writing his own book), the California Legislature passed a bill requiring “affirmative, conscious, and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity,” unleashing a debate on the efficacy of “yes means yes” that consumed the blogosphere for months. “Lack of protest or resistance does not mean consent, nor does silence mean consent,” the bill stated. Feminist publications covered the issue exhaustively. In October 2014, Ansari appeared on “The Late Show With David Letterman” and declared himself a feminist.
In 2015, two years before Ansari stuck his fingers in a woman’s mouth who’d just told him “no, I don’t think I’m ready to do this,” according to the woman’s account, which was published this past weekend, Kate Harding published “Asking for It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture — and What We Can Do About It,” in which she described sexual assault as “not a ‘mistake’ but a deliberate decision to treat another person like a soulless object.” The same year, Rebecca Traister of New York Magazine argued for the need to look beyond consent to systems of power in an essay titled “The Game Is Rigged: Why Sex That’s Consensual Can Still Be Bad.”
There is a reflexive tendency, when grappling with stories of sexual misconduct like the accusations leveled at Ansari this past weekend — incidents that seem to exist in that vast gray area between assault and a skewed power dynamic — to point out that sexual norms have changed. This is true. The line between seduction and coercion has shifted, and shifted quickly, over the past few years (the past few months, even). When I was in my 20s, a decade ago, sex was something of a melee. “No means no” was the only rule, and it was still solidly acceptable in mainstream social circles to bother somebody until they agreed to have sex with you. (At the movies, this was called romantic comedy.)
What’s not true is the suggestion that complex conversations about consent are new territory, or that men weren’t given ample opportunity to catch up.
The books and articles and incidents and perspectives I listed above are nowhere near comprehensive, nor are they perfect, nor are they all in alignment with one another. But they are part of an extensive body of scholarship and activism, and they have been there this whole time for anyone who cared enough to pay attention. You don’t have to agree with the Antioch rules to be aware that they exist. You don’t have to build a shrine to Brownmiller to internalize the fact that women and femmes are autonomous human beings, many of whom felt dehumanized and unsatisfied by the old paradigm.
The notion of affirmative consent did not fall from space in October 2017 to confound well-meaning but bumbling men; it was built, loudly and painstakingly and in public, at great personal cost to its proponents, over decades. If you’re fretting about the perceived overreach of #MeToo, maybe start by examining the ways you’ve upheld the stigmatization of feminism. Nuanced conversations about consent and gendered socialization have been happening every single day that Aziz Ansari has spent as a living, sentient human on this earth. The reason they feel foreign to so many men is that so many men never felt like they needed to listen. Rape is a women’s issue, right? Men don’t major in women’s studies.
It may feel like the rules shifted overnight, and what your dad called the thrill of the chase is now what some people are calling assault. Unfortunately, no one — even plenty of men who call themselves feminists — wanted to listen to feminist women themselves. We tried to warn you. We wish you’d listened, too.