Over the weekend, Babe.net published a story where a photographer in her early twenties reported that comedian, actor and writer Aziz Ansari had coerced her into sexual acts and assaulted her. “I believe that I was taken advantage of by Aziz,” she concluded. “I was not listened to and ignored.”
For those who don’t know much about Aziz Ansari, let me explain: Ansari is widely known for his bestselling book Modern Romance, as well as his stances on feminism, sex, and consent through his stand-up routines and his critically acclaimed and award-winning Netflix show Master of None. Before all of that, his character on the hit show Parks and Recreation, Tom Haverford, was largely an ironic critique of how men in today’s era view sex, relationships, and dating. And to top it all off, he wore a Time’s Up pin last weekend at the Golden Globes, supporting the Hollywood women-driven initiative that seeks to end sexual harassment and violence in the workplace.
Let’s move onto the account. There’s not a doubt in my mind that people will spend way too much time dissecting particular interactions that the piece illustrates; in the past 12 hours alone, I’ve seen way too many people (very poorly) try to explain the dynamics of a blow job. (That’s for a different op-ed though.)
But I think a major issue with the public’s reaction to these types of stories is that we stop looking at the forest and instead focus on the individual trees in the hopes that in doing so, we don’t have to digest a much more dismal, horrific picture — and our part in it.
In the case of the Aziz Ansari piece, I keep seeing the same sort of rhetoric over and over:
“She should’ve known better. This is just the way things are.”
“She wasn’t a victim; she walked into this.”
“She continued to go along with it, so it’s not assault.”
“This is common sense stuff. This wouldn’t have happened to me.”
Let’s talk about the idea of “common sense.”
“Common sense” is thrown around a lot in our world, both in innocuous and more harmful contexts, like the one above. Theoretically, common sense is about making “good judgments” in situations and avoiding scenarios that aren’t “good.”
The bad news is that in practice, our “common sense” regulations put the burden on marginalised folks to know these “rules” created by people from positions and identities of power. And if they don’t follow the rules, they’re the ones at fault; they weren’t strong enough, vocal enough, or clear-cut enough.
There’s good news, however. What constitutes “common sense” isn’t fixed, and we have the power to create a different standard of good judgment and who needs to show it, one that doesn’t place all responsibility on one party.
Unfortunately, we live in a time where women are told they have to take certain precautions around men — it’s on them to behave “well” and not on men to show the same courtesy. Women have to avoid getting “too drunk” around men in bars; they have to walk to their apartments at night with their keys ready to strike in case of an attack; and they’re told they have to have sex with men if they go to their residences, or else they’re being a “tease.” But just because these are current realities doesn’t mean that they have to be our future ones.
So what are things I’d like to be common sense in the future?
Common sense should be that everyone checks in with partners before, during and after a romantic and sexual encounter. And quite frankly, if people aren’t mature enough to handle those obligations, they should lay off romantic and sexual encounters until they’re ready for that.
Common sense should be that people stop a romantic or sexual encounter if another participant isn’t verbally and non-verbally enthusiastic — and it should continually cease unless that person explicitly says otherwise.
Common sense should be that people can rescind consent at any time.
Common sense should be that accepting an invitation to someone’s residence doesn’t mean they’re obligated to do anything sexual.
Common sense should be trusting people to know the difference between awkward sex and being sexually violated — and believing them when they say an encounter is the latter.
Common sense should be understanding that there’ll never be a “perfect” victim who checks every society-imposed box.
Common sense should be that if you’re going to build an award-winning career off of being a feminist ally, you should — uh, shocker — act like a feminist ally. Common sense should also be cutting off the mic to a person who’s profiting from faux allyship and handing it to people who are the real deal.
And common sense should be taking all situations of sexual violation seriously and not dismissing them because they aren’t “bad” enough, as these are where many of the most critical conversations lie. For many, condemning a horrendous act like rape is straightforward; thinking about why you’re placing such a foundational burden on women in social situations and so little to none on men is much harder. Even more challenging is coming to terms with the fact that your own participation in placing this burden has inflicted physical or emotional harm on others.
The “rules” of what makes “good judgment” aren’t set in stone. They change as we change. It won’t be an easy path, nor will it be comfortable, but I’m up for the challenge of redefining common sense in this arena. The question is, are you?
Lily Herman is a contributing editor at Refinery29. Follow her on Twitter. The views expressed are her own.