Aziz Ansari’s #MeToo Moment Spurs Debate About His Relationships Book
By Vicky Camarillo
When Sandra Miranda heard that actor-comedian Aziz Ansari was at the center of sexual misconduct allegations, she thought: “Oh, crap. Not another guy.”
In mid-January, Ansari joined the ranks of dozens of prominent men — in entertainment, politics, the media, sports — who have been accused of sexual assault or harassment. Men at the center of the most serious accusations, including film producer Harvey Weinstein, have been fired and faced almost universal backlash. But the Ansari story illustrates a gray area around what constitutes sexual misconduct.
The news about Ansari hit a nerve with Miranda, a senior at the University of Texas at Austin. She is a fan of the TV comedy “Parks and Recreation,” where Ansari played a recurring character, and had read “Modern Romance,” his book about dating culture, for a class in 2016. Though she questioned the credibility of Ansari’s accuser and what she regarded as the one-sided reporting of the story, she said, “I knew my perception on him would be changed forever. … It definitely made me more critical of him as a person.”
This semester, students in two classes at UT have been assigned “Modern Romance.” Although most have said they are able to overlook the allegations against Ansari and enjoy the book, the controversy has prompted a more complicated response in others.
In the Jan. 13 story on Babe.net, a 24-year-old woman, under the pseudonym Grace, said she met Ansari at a party last year and a week later went on a date with him that ended with having sex at his apartment. Grace said she felt pressured to perform oral sex, and said Ansari tried to coerce her to have sex even though she used verbal and nonverbal cues to express her discomfort.
Ansari issued a statement claiming that their sexual activity “by all indications was completely consensual” and that he was surprised to hear that Grace had been uncomfortable.
The story, and Ansari’s response, sparked a debate about what constitutes sexual assault. Op-eds published by The New York Times and The Atlantic defended Ansari, saying that men aren’t mind readers and that the Babe.net story was revenge porn; in defense of Grace, The Week and Vox wrote that women are taught to prioritize men’s pleasure above their own discomfort and that men are taught to be persistent in their sexual pursuit of women.
Courtney Walsh and Hannah Williamson, of the UT human development and family science department, have incorporated “Modern Romance” into the curriculum of their Family Relationships courses. The research-driven book, co-written with sociologist Eric Klinenberg, explores how technology and social media have affected dating habits.
Walsh said she brought the allegations against Ansari to her students’ attention at the start of the semester, although the class won’t discuss the book until late March. She said the class will read it in connection with a lesson about relationship violence “as well as the grayer area that is currently highly relevant.”
Williamson’s students were finishing the book in mid-February. She said the timing of the allegations were “unfortunate,” as they came well after she had to submit her class book list to the university bookstore. But because the book covered empirical data about dating and relationships, she stood by her decision to assign it.
“If this book were solely about Aziz Ansari’s experience/advice about dating and relationships, I likely would have scrapped it anyway and changed my plans for the semester,” Williamson said in an email. “It essentially covers the same things that would be found in a traditional textbook, but written in a more accessible and humorous way.”
Williamson surveyed her 177 students and found that the vast majority found the book enjoyable and were not bothered by the allegations against Ansari; 12 percent felt “weird or uncomfortable” reading the book, and four students said Williamson should not have assigned the book.
“Although the numbers certainly swing in favor of using the book again in the future … I think it is worth considering that the feelings of those four students may outweigh the feelings of the others, in terms of importance,” Williamson said.
But Jake Osborne, a social work junior in Williamson’s class, said he hopes she keeps teaching the class the same way, “Modern Romance” and all.
Osborne said he’s enjoyed Ansari’s humorous writing style and that the book has been a good learning tool. He supports the #MeToo movement, but said the type of allegations against Ansari risk derailing it, and that relatively frivolous accusations may even discourage men from hiring women to avoid being accused of sexual misconduct or harassment.
He does not believe Ansari’s actions, as detailed in the Babe.net article, qualify as sexual assault.
“The way I read the article … I really felt it was more like a bad Penthouse Forum or a date that just went wrong,” Osborne said. “I feel like this is more of a step in the wrong direction. The movement’s great; this story hurts the momentum they had.”
Kailey Villarreal, a human relations sophomore in Williamson’s class, said the incident was worth adding to the #MeToo conversation precisely because of its ambiguous nature.
“If there’s so many people saying it’s just a bad date story, that means there are so many people out there that this has happened to, but they either refuse to come to terms that they have been sexually assaulted or they just don’t want to believe that this happened to them,” Villarreal said.
Villarreal is a student associate at UT’s Office for Inclusion and Equity, which reviews sexual harassment complaints against students and employees. She said sexual predators are facing a long-overdue reckoning.
But the story about Ansari didn’t change her perception of him or of “Modern Romance,” mostly because no other women have come forward with other allegations against Ansari since the Babe.net piece was published.
“It’s one isolated incident, but if it had been multiple people coming forward, I would definitely be like, ‘Why are we reading this? Why are we supporting him and allowing him to make money off of us buying the book?’” Villarreal said. Ansari “seems like a nice guy and like he wouldn’t do this to multiple people. But at the same time, it’s no excuse to what he allegedly did to this one girl.”
Miranda called the Babe.net story “messy.” Even among those who stand by Grace’s account, the piece has drawn criticism for its inclusion of banal details, the reporter’s occasional editorial commentary and the fact that Babe.net contacted Ansari for comment only five hours before publication.
But a more ambiguous story like this one, one that perhaps is relatable to more women, was “bound to happen,” Miranda said.
“Personally, nobody ever taught me, ‘If you don’t feel comfortable doing this, don’t do it,’” Miranda said. “Of course, men can’t be mind-readers, but we, as women, should stand up.”