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Columnist Hannah Robinson argues that women should use their voice.

The words “sexual misconduct” were smeared across the face of actor and comedian Aziz Ansari on Jan. 14 after an anonymous young woman spoke out about a date gone wrong with him last year. The website Babe — a spin-off of The Tab — published the 23-year-old photographer’s story last Sunday under the pseudonym “Grace.” In the account, she describes an evening spent with the star back in September, which she claims ended in him repeatedly pressuring her to have sex.

In the interview, “Grace” appears to regret engaging in consensual sexual acts with Ansari, stating she felt forced to do so — a fact she failed to tell Ansari until the next morning. The young woman’s story was met with a wide range of reactions; many stood in solidarity with her story, labeling her a victim of sexual assault, while others criticized Babe’s authenticity and the story in general, arguing there’s a difference between sexual assault and the mere fact that “boys will be boys.”

Although this story is extremely complex, the theme is made abundantly clear — in all sexual encounters, communication is key.

With the #MeToo movement in full effect, victims everywhere are finding a space to speak out against their offenders, building a community of survivors who refuse to remain silenced by fear. Victims of sexual assault are courageously collecting the fragments of their painful experiences and transforming the pieces into empowerment and strength.

This act of fearlessness deserves nothing less than reverence and support. However, with the momentum of the movement at its peak, it’s time we engage in a hard conversation. Many supporters believe this case to be a major setback for the #MeToo movement, claiming that what “Grace” experienced was closer to a bad date than assault. Feminists everywhere are finding themselves pitted against each other on either side of the argument — leaving the unity that supported the movement to crumble.

Before delving into the highly nuanced nature of Ansari’s situation, I’d first like to preface what comes next by stating I wholeheartedly believe sexual assault and rape are never the victim’s fault. In any situation, spoken consent must always be provided before proceeding with any sexual act, and failure to do so must come with consequences.

In “Grace’s” account of her date, she recalls that she felt comfortable spending time alone with him and even describes enjoying herself. The date went south, “Grace” reported, when Ansari began to make verbal sexual advances toward her. She recalls turning the actor’s advances down numerous times, and he eventually stopped.

In her interview with Babe, “Grace” stated she felt extremely uncomfortable, but failed to share this with the actor. From the account, it seems as though Ansari failed to pick up on her non-verbal communication, but did take “no” as an answer when she spoke up. Screenshots were later released showing Ansari checking up on “Grace” the next morning, when she confided that she felt violated from the previous night. Ansari followed her text with an apology, stating that he understood their encounter to have been consensual and meant no harm.

According to her story, no matter how uncomfortable she felt by Ansari’s advances, she didn’t leave his apartment when he performed oral sex on her. She also didn’t resist when asked to perform oral sex on him — twice. After reading the details, it seems as though on her date with Ansari, “Grace” was relying heavily on two hopes: one, that Ansari could sense her discomfort without it being verbally stated, and two, that he’d be able to decode her body language. 

Unless I’m mistaken, there are no known mind readers to date and even the best communicators have trouble decoding nonverbal cues. Because of her inability to speak up and stand for what she wanted, the line between assault and a bad date became extremely fuzzy. Those siding with “Grace” are calling attention to the fact that many women feel incapable of voicing their concerns to men in sexual encounters due to the shame they often receive after the fact. This aspect complicates the situation tremendously when the issue of whether consent must be verbally given is discussed. 

No matter the confusion, it’s important to note that “Grace” isn’t to blame in this encounter. Her inability to speak up and fear of refusing to engage in any form of sexual acts with Ansari comes from an age-old gender structure. This broken societal system raises young boys to assume a sort of “right” over a woman’s sexuality, while teaching young girls that they have no sexual autonomy of their own — stealing away their authority and voice.

Stories like this unveil the problem clearly. With the rise of movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp, we need to be especially careful to distinguish the boundaries between sexual misconduct that’s criminal and that which is just inappropriate. A woman being raped is a criminal act. Ansari making continuous sexual advances uncovers just how urgently men must be educated on this issue. Men must realize what things make women uncomfortable in regards to sex and what lines they shouldn’t cross, a realization that can only come from open and honest communication between the two individuals involved.

Gender communication in sexual environments and issues of sexual assault are equally as important to the #MeToo movement, as the first affects the second. As a society, we must work to clarify the difference  — where one is about education, the other is about civil rights. As long as we fail to raise young boys with respect and knowledge of a woman’s right to say “no,” sexual harassment and rape will continue to be an issue. Just as teaching young boys and men the importance of consent and their role in the perpetuation of rape culture is imperative, so  is teaching young girls and women that they must speak up in situations that make them uncomfortable. This won’t be easy. Women have been entrenched in a system that’s silenced our voices for generations, making it almost impossible to find our footing in a sexual terrain ruled by men. However, movements like #MeToo are making it easier to stand up and be heard. 

If we, as a society, begin to destroy careers based on believed consensual sexual acts, where will we draw the line? As humans, all we have are our voices to communicate what we want and don’t want, and if we refuse to use our voices to vocalize our concerns, we can never expect someone else to understand what’s happening in our minds.

Boys will be boys as long as we continue to aid appalling behavior — reducing violating acts to a cliché remark flippantly made at playgrounds and court rooms. Boys will be boys as long as we continue turning our cheeks to microaggressions and sexist remarks, instead of refusing to tolerate inappropriate behavior so deeply entrenched in our psyche that it feels normal. In order for encounters like the one that happened to “Grace” to be prevented, we must teach boys what’s right, just as we must teach young girls to speak up when something feels wrong.

Hannah Robinson is a senior communication studies major. Contact Hannah at robinshl@dukes.jmu.edu.

Hannah is a senior Communications major with a minor in English here. She's passionate about using her place in society to advocate for those who cannot. There's power in words, when we begin to accept that fact—is the moment we will change the world.