CN: Sexual assault, victim-blaming, violence
Waking up to the news of Aziz Ansari– as a South Asian starved of other South Asians on screen– I felt a sense of betrayal to say the least, as I’m sure countless others did too. But my role, as is the role of any person presented with information such as this, is not to let my preconceived notions of the accused affect the support and belief I extend to whoever is coming forward. This applies no matter the proximity of your relationship – be it a friend, a family member or a celebrity I’ve never met who represents a shift countless aspiring creatives of colour have been waiting for. Clearly, this is not always easy.
However even more importantly, with cases like Aziz Ansari and a woman we don’t know – our role as mass consumers of her experience is not to offer our judgment on whether it’s true, or why she could be to blame, or why Ansari couldn’t possibly be guilty, but to cultivate a space where an open discussion can evolve concerning how these experiences can be understood and prevented.
However, what we have is victim-shaming to the nth degree battling an argument about if this was, in fact, assault. This is completely drowning out not only the voice of the woman coming forward, but the conversations we should be having: about the nuances of consent and the many types and forms of sexual encounters that can leave people feeling violated and hurt. And I heavily believe this is because of the language we use, and confine ourselves to, when talking about consent and assault.
“If ‘assault’ feels like the wrong word, surely the time has come to realise, like many words in the English language, it can have many, layered meanings”
It’s no wonder we’re stunted when it comes to this. The dialogue surrounding sexual assault and consent has only just opened up in the wake of Weinstein, and never before has the internet been used as a tool to give a voice to those affected in this way. However, our relationship with and understanding of the words we currently use so regularly have failed to evolve with the times. It seems we can’t marry the term ‘assault’ to the situation ‘Grace’ (not her real name) faced, or other situations akin to it. It seems, because her experience doesn’t add up to what many people define narrowly as assault, it immediately invalidates her story.
When we speak of assault, lets think of different definitions – say this one from the Met Police:
“An act of physical, psychological and emotional violation in the form of a sexual act, inflicted on someone without their consent. It can involve forcing or manipulating someone to witness or participate in any sexual acts. Not all cases of sexual assault involve violence”
So why is it we still can’t recognise any of Grace’s experience in this definition? If assault feels like the wrong word surely the time has come to realise, like many words in the English language, it can have many, layered meanings. And more importantly; if it still feels wrong to use this word, we still must not discredit experiences of people who try to talk about sexually humiliating situations. It’s only from these conversations that a wider change can start to take place. And denying them is signing us all up for a future where unacceptable sex is acceptable. Just because this might not be the idea of violent ‘assault’ we all have a firm grasp of, it is still a damaging experience that needs to be heard and understood, with culpable parties being held accountable.
Why didn’t Grace simply leave if she felt uncomfortable? Or say no more vocally and firmly? Asking these questions is proof that consent too, as it’s currently understood, is also clearly a term layered with variables that are often denied. These questions also, in general, show and alarming lack of empathy.
“It’s not my place to unpick Grace’s account. But it is all our jobs to at the very least practice extending empathy”
Surely it’s not hard to imagine being so uncomfortable or distressed in a situation that your body shuts down and you are unable to speak? Surely we can’t contest the fact that we’ve all been in situations we’ve initially understood as one thing, but with the space that hindsight allows, have seen means another? Therefore why can we not apply this to sex and how this fits in with the widespread understanding of consent as a verbal yes/no. How our fight or flight instinct for many results in just freezing when we feel uncomfortable or unsafe? And can we also try to adapt our understanding of consent to situations where the power dynamic is clearly off, and call for those in positions of power to actually think about how their far-reaching influence could be intimidating instead of sexy, silencing instead of empowering?
It’s not my place to unpick Grace’s account. But it is all our jobs to at the very least practice extending empathy to anyone leaving a sexual encounter feeling used and violated, as well as to try and understand why – even when this challenges our preconceptions of what warrants someone speaking out. Instead of asking where the violence is and discrediting anything other, we should be challenging our relationship with these words and what they mean to us. It is time to thoroughly educate ourselves on this, because ignorance and obliviousness can no longer be held up as an excuse that smooths over someone’s sense of violation and shame.