When I was 22, I went on a date with a guy I had met at a bar on Valentine’s Day. After a few drinks at our local whiskey joint, we walked back to his apartment to watch a new show, The Following, but within minutes of arriving, it became clear that my date wanted more than an hour of prime-time entertainment.
I’m sure you can guess what happened next: We started hooking up, I said I didn’t want to have intercourse, and after 20 minutes of aggressive persuasion on his part and several repeated no’s on mine, I finally gave in to his demands. We had quick, uncomfortable, and ultimately humiliating sex.
I wasn’t raped, nor was I sexually assaulted, but I was violated in a way that is so common that nearly every woman I know shares a similar story. I felt coerced, as did “Grace,” the subject of Babe’s controversial story about an anonymous photographer’s forceful sexual encounter with comedian and actor Aziz Ansari. It’s important to note that, while I don’t say I was sexually assaulted by my date, Grace’s experience is her own. As she told Babe, “It took a really long time for me to validate this as sexual assault. I was debating if this was an awkward sexual experience or sexual assault. And that’s why I confronted so many of my friends and listened to what they had to say, because I wanted validation that it was actually bad.”
Unfortunately, the narrative Babe chose to tell did not emphasize how Grace’s story fits into the #MeToo movement with the gravity, nuance, and care it deserves.
Rape, sexual assault, workplace sexual harassment, and coercive sexual misconduct are not the same thing. Women know that. But each of these harmful behaviors desperately need to be discussed in our social conversation about consent. As comedian Samantha Bee said on Full Frontal on January 17th in response to the backlash against #MeToo and Grace’s allegations, part of this social movement is “setting a higher standard for sex than just ‘not rape.’ And women get to talk about it if men don’t live up to those standards — especially if that man [Ansari] wrote a book about how to sex good [Modern Romance: An Investigation].” Bee continued, “What many fail to understand is that it doesn’t have to be rape to ruin your life, and it doesn’t have to ruin your life to be worth speaking out about…Any kind of sexual harassment or coercion is unacceptable.”
But instead of approaching Grace’s story from this angle — one that our misogynistic society needs and would benefit from — Babe told an irresponsibly reported, clumsily written, and ultimately damaging story that failed to report on sexual coercion and our culture’s predatory dating norms with the careful analysis it required.
Babe’s report tells the story of “Grace,” an anonymous young woman who suffered “the worst experience with a man” she has ever had after a date with Ansari ended with a degrading — albeit non-criminal — sexual encounter. Despite its journalistic flaws (Jezebel breaks them down here), the narrative was a painfully familiar one that clearly exposed our culture’s predatory dating norms, as well as the dangerous power structures that lead to men feeling entitled to sex and women fearful of “just saying no.”
But the overly editorialized report — and their bizarre choice to publish an article merely listing all of the other publications that have picked up their Ansari story — comes off as an insensitive attempt to use one woman’s traumatic experience as a convenient vehicle for a potentially viral story, rather than an attempt to protect the source who they’d persistently courted for an interview. Babe’s bad decision-making has now fueled the predictable haters, detractors, and critics: alt-right trolls, bewildered deniers, confused anti-feminists, and a litany of #MeToo opponents who have been waiting for a chance to knock the powerful movement down a peg.
In their reporting, Babe included the wrong details (what Grace was wearing and how much she was drinking), pointed to the wrong questions (did Ansari purposefully ignore Grace’s objections or just not hear her?), and drew — to the detriment of Grace, Ansari, and the #MeToo movement as a whole — a dangerously general conclusion. Because of that, several critics have been quick to regard Grace’s story as another irrational battle cry from the supposed feminist “witch hunt.”
The importance of Grace’s narrative has been overshadowed by doubt and critique, and I can only imagine that the subject herself has been traumatized all over again.
As someone who frequently writes about sexual assault and violence herself, I can’t help but see this exposé for what it is: an obvious, failed journalistic attempt to pull a real, nuanced story (male sexual entitlement and predatory dating norms) from a traumatic narrative that conveniently aligns with the kind of prestigious reporting that every outlet is desperate to get their hands on these days.
Grace’s narrative is different from the victims of Harvey Weinsten; it is different from the women of the #MeToo movement who have shared harrowing stories of sexual harassment and assault in their respective industries. But it is still of extreme importance, especially at this particular moment in time.
Grace’s story was about sexual coercion, about the dangerous dating norms that serve as building blocks for the rape culture that has dominated our lives for decades. Grace’s story was an opportunity, one poorly missed, as Jill Filipovic said for The Guardian, to challenge our acceptance of forceful, intimidating, and shameful — though not criminal — sexual standards.
When reporting on sexual assault and violence, writers are responsible for not only continuing the public’s conversation about this issue plaguing our society, but for pushing the conversation further towards actionable change.
In their bungled handling of the Ansari story, Babe hurt their own reputation as a reliable and fair outlet. They made it easier for critics and detractors to poke holes in the #MeToo movement — but the real victim of this journalism scandal is the story’s subject. Like so many women before her, Grace has been reduced to a pawn in a never-ending game of he-said, she-said in which the victim is strung up and held accountable for all of the flaws in the anti-sexual assault and harassment movement, while the accused looks on comfortably from their seat of power.
It is not enough to bring down the Harvey Weinsteins and Kevin Spaceys of the world. We have to get our hands dirty by dismantling a system that trains men to believe the thrill is in the “chase,” a system that perpetuates misogynistic power structures that puts men’s wants above women’s needs and dignity.
We have to do the work in everyday life, where the prevalence of predatory sexual norms inevitably leads to a larger culture of sexual violence that empowers men to demand and expect (rather than ask for or reciprocate) sexual pleasure from their female partners. Babe’s report may have missed the mark, but now that we’re all paying attention, let us seize this opportunity to expand the #MeToo conversation.