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The Aziz Ansari Allegation Has People Talking About ‘Affirmative Consent.’ What’s That?

10 minute read

The #MeToo allegation against Aziz Ansari is sparking a broader conversation about whether the definition of consent for sexual encounters should change, bringing renewed attention to “affirmative consent” — the idea that both partners need to consciously and voluntarily agree to participate in any type of sexual act.

Over the weekend, the online publication Babe.net published an account from an anonymous woman titled: “I went on a date with Aziz Ansari. It turned into the worst night of my life.” The woman, who is referred to in the story by the pseudonym Grace, said she met Ansari at a 2017 Emmys after party, where they exchanged numbers. After about a week of texting, they agreed to go out on a date.

After the date, the woman said that she went back to his apartment, where the comedian began to kiss her and then removed her clothes before undressing himself. According to the story, the woman “remembers feeling uncomfortable at how quickly things escalated.”

According to the story, when Ansari went to grab a condom, Grace said “something like, ‘Whoa, let’s relax for a sec, let’s chill.'” She said Ansari continued to kiss her, performed oral sex on her and then asked her to perform oral sex on him, which she said she briefly did.

The woman, according to the story, used “verbal and non-verbal cues to indicate how uncomfortable and distressed she was” throughout the evening. After Ansari asked her to have sex in front of a mirror, Grace said no, according to the story. She said Ansari then said: “How about we just chill, but this time with our clothes on?”

After Ansari texted her after the date to say he had a good time, Grace said she responded that she was uncomfortable and told Ansari he “ignored clear non-verbal cues; you kept going with advances.” Ansari apologized, telling her: “I’m so sad to hear this. All I can say is, it would never be my intention to make you or anyone feel the way you described. Clearly I missed things in the moment and I’m truly sorry.”

Ansari, in a statement released on Sunday, confirmed parts of the woman’s story, but said that the encounter was “by all indications completely consensual.”

“It was true that everything did seem okay to me, so when I heard that it was not the case for her, I was surprised and concerned,” Ansari said. “I took her words to heart and responded privately after taking the time to process what she had said.”

The article sparked a slew of responses on social media and in other publications about how both parties should have handled the situation. In the New York Times, Bari Weiss wrote that the woman should have been more verbal, writing “if he pressures you to do something you don’t want to do, use a four-letter word, stand up on your two legs and walk out his door.” HLN’s Ashleigh Banfield addressed the woman in an open letter, saying: “if you just had an unpleasant sexual experience, you should have gone home.”

But others said that the story is an example of the need to discuss uncomfortable sexual interactions that can’t easily be categorized as sexual misconduct. Feminist writer Jessica Valenti tweeted: “Why are so many people asking why this woman didn’t leave & so few asking why he didn’t stop?” Emma Gray wrote in HuffPost: “Behavior need not fall under the legal definition of sexual assault or rape to be wrong or violating or upsetting… We step into interactions, sexual or otherwise, with different ideas of what constitutes a violation.”

“I’m seeing a lot of straight, cis women identify with Grace’s story, and I’m seeing a lot of straight, cis men identify a lot with Aziz Ansari’s story. There’s a clear dichotomy,” says Jess Davidson, the managing director of survivor advocacy organization End Rape on Campus. “This is a great opportunity to have a national conversation about sexual respect and what it means to not just center your own needs and comfort in an interaction, but how to ask questions and go about sexual consent in a way that’s truly respectful of your partner.”

Others on social media agreed that affirmative consent should be discussed more in the wake of the Ansari accusation:

Here’s a primer on affirmative consent is — and why it’s controversial.

What is affirmative consent?

Affirmative consent — also known as “yes means yes” — is defined as “a knowing, voluntary, and mutual decision among all participants to engage in sexual activity,” according to the State University of New York, one of a growing group of schools that requires students to use affirmative consent in their sexual encounters. Affirmative consent goes a step further than “no means no,” the idea that consent is withdrawn when an individual clearly says “no” during an encounter.

Affirmative consent stipulates that partners must explicitly agree to engage in sex, consent can be withdrawn at any time during an encounter and “silence or lack of resistance” does not imply consent, according to SUNY’s definition, which is consistent with other definitions. It also says that a person cannot consent while intoxicated and that partners must consent every time a sexual encounter occurs, regardless of whether they’ve consented to a particular type of behavior in the past.

What is enthusiastic consent?

Enthusiastic consent often comes up in discussions of “yes means yes” consent models. According to Ebony Tucker, the advocacy director at the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence, enthusiastic consent is slightly different than affirmative consent. It’s focused on making sure your partner is not only OK with what’s going on, but actively enjoying it.

“Enthusiastic consent is more about paying attention to the person you’re having sex with and making sure that they’re enjoying what’s happening,” Tucker said. “If you don’t have enthusiastic consent, it could be that you’re ignoring what your partner is conveying verbally or nonverbally because you want to engage in activity. You’re not considering what the person is conveying because you’re not interested in having an experience with another person — you’re interested in yourself.”

In a Jan. 14 blog post, The Good Place actor Jameela Jamil wrote about the importance of enthusiastic consent in the wake of the Ansari story.

“CONSENT SHOULDN’T BE THE GOLD STANDARD. That should be the basic foundation,” she wrote. “Built upon that foundation should be fun, mutual passion, equal arousal, interest and enthusiasm.”

What’s the difference between affirmative consent and the legal definition of consent?

Every state has a different definition for consent. Some states, like Florida, Illinois and California, have definitions of consent that align with affirmative consent, according to RAINN’s state law database. But other definitions vary: Alabama defines consent as an “acquiescence or compliance with the proposition of another,” while Nevada’s laws say a lack of consent results from “force, threat of force or physical or mental incapacity of the victim.” Other states, like Missouri, Michigan, Idaho and Louisiana, don’t specifically define consent.

The conversation around affirmative consent has largely been focused on college campuses, as part of the debate about how colleges and universities handle sexual assault complaints. Several colleges and universities, including Yale, University of Minnesota, Stanford and Indiana University, have made affirmative consent a requirement on their campuses. Under President Barack Obama, the White House’s Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault recommended that universities and colleges should sexual misconduct policies to define consent as a “voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity,” echoing the definition of affirmative consent.

In 2014, California became the first state to pass legislation that requires colleges to use affirmative consent as the standard in campus sexual assault adjudication processes. New York, Illinois and Connecticut followed suit, while other states have proposed similar legislation. None of these state laws do not include “enthusiastic consent” in their definitions of affirmative consent.

What are the arguments for affirmative consent?

Proponents of affirmative consent say it is important for situations where people might not be able to say no — like when there’s a threat of violence or a power imbalance. Proponents say affirmative consent also covers situations where a person might freeze up in the moment of a sexual encounter, which can be a common response to sexual trauma.

“Affirmative consent makes it so you’re 100% certain how your partner feels. You’re not making assumptions based on physical signals. You’re not relying on previous behavior to determine how you think they feel right now, ” Davidson said. “You’re asking them a direct question: ‘Is this OK?'”

In an interview with the Washington Post in September 2017, Vanessa Grigoriadis, the author of 2017’s Blurred Lines: Rethinking Sex, Power, and Consent on Campus, said affirmative consent policies can help change the culture around sex by re-educating men and women about what consent should look like.

“‘No means no’ doesn’t work. Clearly, we need new standards,” she said. “There are a lot of other guys who are schooled in America’s weird gender norms, and they’re just not paying attention to what the woman wants because they don’t care if the woman is having a good time — they just want to have sex. We can fix that.”

Supporters, like former Vice President Joe Biden, also say that affirmative consent gets rid of any confusion that might arise from nonverbal cues so both partners are on the same page about what is about to transpire.

“It takes away all of the assumptions — and how people read those assumptions is a key part that’s being debated in this Aziz Ansari story,” Davidson said. “Doesn’t everyone want certainty that the person you’re about to engage in a sexual act with is excited about doing the same thing?”

What are the arguments against affirmative consent?

Critics say affirmative consent, when coded in laws and policies, makes it difficult for people accused of sexual assault to get due process because it could broaden the definition of sexual assault to include any form of sexual contact that wasn’t explicitly approved with affirmative consent.

K.C. Johnson and Stuart Taylor Jr., the authors of the 2017 book The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America’s Universities, criticized states for adopting “yes mean yes” laws in a January 2017 op-ed for the Washington Post, arguing that affirmative consent standards were one of several policies at colleges that stripped the accused of their rights.

“These states’ laws now have enormous inconsistencies between their definitions of sexual assault for campus tribunals and for criminal courts,” Johnson and Taylor wrote. “In the former, an accused student must prove that he obtained ‘affirmative consent’ throughout every sexual encounter, even with a longtime partner. This standard ‘is flawed and untenable if due process is to be afforded to the accused,’ a Tennessee state judge has ruled.”

Others have argued that affirmative consent policies take the passion out of sex. Academic Camille Paglia said in a December 2015 interview with Spiked Review that affirmative consent policies’ popularity “demonstrates how boring and meaningless sex has become.” In a New York Times op-ed on Jan. 18, writer Daphne Merkin argued that affirmative consent strips sex of its “eros.”

“Asking for oral consent before proceeding with a sexual advance seems both innately clumsy and retrograde, like going back to the childhood game of ‘Mother, May I?’” Merkin wrote. “We are witnessing the re-moralization of sex, not via the Judeo-Christian ethos but via a legalistic, corporate consensus.”

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Write to Samantha Cooney at samantha.cooney@time.com