No one here wrote about it at the time but for a few days in early December the talk of the chatterati was a short story in the New Yorker, “Cat Person” by Kristen Roupenian. Read it if you can spare 10 minutes. (There’s an audio version read by Roupenian at the link too.) Condemning Harvey Weinstein and other degenerates named by #MeToo accusers is easy, as most are accused of behavior ranging from minor sexual assault all the way up to forcible rape. If you force a woman, or a man, to engage in sexual contact against her or his will, you’ve crossed a moral line and have committed a crime. “Cat Person,” however, imagines an encounter where the contact is reluctant but consensual. If you’re a woman out on a date with a man whom you like and then, as things get physical, you start to like him a bit less, how assertive should you be in stopping him? Is it “impolite” to stop once clothes have come off and you’ve given him every impression that you want sex? Is it dangerous to stop, as you never know which superficially charming man might turn into Harvey Weinstein if you deny him what he wants? What if you half-ass it by not technically saying “stop” while putting out some reluctant body language in hopes that it’ll take him out of the moment and cause him to stop on his own?
“Cat Person” is about the gray zone between a bad date and a true #MeToo moment, where a man’s moving faster than a woman would like but for various reasons she’s giving off mixed messages about how uncomfortable she is. It became a sensation because a lot of women (among the chatterati, at least) say they relate to it. This story about a date between a woman named “Grace” and comedian Aziz Ansari is essentially a real-life version of “Cat Person,” if the male character in that piece had been an overrated comedian prone to making schmaltzy romantic comedies. Ansari and Grace met at an event last year, flirted a bit via text, went out to dinner, then went back to his apartment, a standard boy-meets-girl story in 2017. (Except the boy in this case is a celebrity.) Once back at his place, he made his interest in sex very clear. Assuming Grace’s account is accurate, he was lower-case “A” aggressive in pursuing her, not upper-case “A” Aggressive as Weinstein and the #MeToo miscreants were. There’s no violence; no threats; no “you’ll never work in this town again” nonsense. There’s no overt compulsion of any kind, by Grace’s own admission. Eventually she leaves. The compulsion, such as it is, lies in Ansari refusing to take a hint from her signals of reluctance. At least twice she tells him that she doesn’t want to have sex that night. Both times he backs off … then, after lightening the mood and slowing down to let her get comfortable again, he resumes the kissing, groping, etc.
The basic miscommunication between them is Grace not wanting to have sex, period, and Ansari seeming to think that she doesn’t want sex yet. They’ve just met, women typically are a bit less aggressive sexually than men, he’s trying to adjust for that. She’ll come around, he seems to believe, she just needs more foreplay until she’s as in the mood as much as he is. She came back to a celebrity’s apartment after a date, didn’t she? She let me undress her as soon as we got here, didn’t she?
Grace says she spent around five minutes in the bathroom, collecting herself in the mirror and splashing herself with water. Then she went back to Ansari. He asked her if she was okay. “I said I don’t want to feel forced because then I’ll hate you, and I’d rather not hate you,” she said.
She told babe that at first, she was happy with how he reacted. “He said, ‘Oh, of course, it’s only fun if we’re both having fun.’ The response was technically very sweet and acknowledging the fact that I was very uncomfortable. Verbally, in that moment, he acknowledged that I needed to take it slow. Then he said, ‘Let’s just chill over here on the couch.’”…
Ansari instructed her to turn around. “He sat back and pointed to his penis and motioned for me to go down on him. And I did. I think I just felt really pressured. It was literally the most unexpected thing I thought would happen at that moment because I told him I was uncomfortable.”
Later she stops him again, with similar results:
“I just remember looking in the mirror and seeing him behind me. He was very much caught up in the moment and I obviously very much wasn’t,” Grace said. “After he bent me over is when I stood up and said no, I don’t think I’m ready to do this, I really don’t think I’m going to do this. And he said, ‘How about we just chill, but this time with our clothes on?’”…
While the TV played in the background, he kissed her again, stuck his fingers down her throat again, and moved to undo her pants. She turned away. She remembers “feeling in a different mindset at that point.”
No excerpt will capture the full back-and-forth of the encounter so read it yourself. She says she was upset on the way home and all the next day, and scolded Ansari via text about not picking up on her reluctance. His reply: “I’m so sad to hear this. Clearly, I misread things in the moment and I’m truly sorry.” Even in the aftermath, he gives no indication that he thought she was under some obligation to put out or that he resents her for ending the evening before sex. (The male character in “Cat Person” doesn’t come off nearly as well when he’s dumped by the heroine, but then that’s the difference between a schlub and a celebrity comedian. For the latter, the next hook-up may be only hours away.) Grace, however, says she now considers it “sexual assault.” Essentially she’s accusing him of attempted date rape. Ansari issued a statement last night saying that he thought everything was consensual, that he was “surprised and concerned” when she suggested later that it wasn’t, and that he supports #MeToo.
At the Atlantic, Caitlin Flanagan is hopping mad — not at Ansari but at Grace, for publishing the literary equivalent of revenge porn:
Eventually, overcome by her emotions at the way the night was going, she told him, “You guys are all the f***ing same” and left crying. I thought it was the most significant line in the story: this has happened to her many times before. What led her to believe that this time would be different?…
Was Grace frozen, terrified, stuck? No. She tells us that she wanted something from Ansari and she was trying to figure out how to get it. She wanted affection, kindness, attention. Perhaps she hoped to maybe even become the famous man’s girlfriend. He wasn’t interested. What she felt afterward—rejected yet another time, by yet another man—was regret. And what she and the writer who told her story created was 3,000 words of revenge porn. The clinical detail in which the story is told is intended not to validate her account as much as it is to hurt and humiliate Ansari. Together, the two women may have destroyed Ansari’s career, which is now the punishment for every kind of male sexual misconduct, from the grotesque to the disappointing.
Twenty-four hours ago—this is the speed at which we are now operating—Aziz Ansari was a man whom many people admired and whose work, although very well paid, also performed a social good. He was the first exposure many young Americans had to a Muslim man who was aspirational, funny, immersed in the same culture that they are. Now he has been—in a professional sense—assassinated, on the basis of one woman’s anonymous account.
Ansari is by no means assassinated. (Not unless some real #MeToo stories emerge about him, that is.) If defenses of his behavior are being published in the Atlantic, let alone on right-wing blogs, season three of “Master of None” is in no danger. I think the opposite is closer to the truth: Grace’s story is more likely to encourage the nascent backlash to #MeToo than it is to take him down. Pieces to the effect that the movement’s gone haywire, muddying the waters between caddish horndog behavior and sexual assault, have been bubbling up since New Year’s, most prominently in New York magazine by Andrew Sullivan. I’ve seen as many reactions on Twitter to the Ansari story in the last 24 hours (and not just from men) criticizing Grace for not being more assertive in leaving if she was unhappy as I have criticizing Ansari for letting his dong stop him from taking a hint. What about women’s agency? ask Grace’s critics. Indeed, what about it? Some on the right, in fact, are using the incident as an object lesson in the pitfalls of the sexual revolution:
It's fascinating to me that the #MeToo movement has led to a few moments of partial agreement between social conservatives and progressive feminists about the culture surrounding sexuality. It gives me a little hope. https://t.co/LRsvn1d9nZ
— Alexandra DeSanctis (@xan_desanctis) January 15, 2018
Why did Ansari misread Grace’s reluctance to have sex as essentially a request for more foreplay? Best guess: Because he’s had a few hundred encounters like this before and they usually do end in sex, and not reluctantly. “The default is now ‘yes’ to premarital sex; it is a ‘no’ that has to be extricated in media res,” writes Heather MacDonald. “No cultural taboos remain around premarital sex; those represented a repressive version of female sexuality, declared the liberationists. Males and females are now assumed to pursue sexual conquest with equal zeal.” That seems to have been Ansari’s assumption. Per the line from Grace that Flanagan picks up on — “You guys are all the f***ing same” — and the fact that so many women relate to her and to “Cat Person,” it seems to be the assumption of a lot of other people too. It’s tragic for Grace that she’s forced to navigate a romantic landscape where that’s the default assumption but Aziz Ansari didn’t make it that way.
Speaking of a backlash to #MeToo, here’s the former U.S. Secretary of State. “Let’s not infantilize women.”