A world “too far”: Aziz Ansari’s assault scandal and why #MeToo needs prison abolition

By Shondrea Thornton

When news of Aziz Ansari’s alleged sexual assault began to spread, I chalked it up as just another drop in the trough of Hollywood revelations in recent months. Ansari, whose fame is tied to his ability to speak openly about social issues, is yet another man whose exposure as a potential abuser seemed to shake this current moment and movement to its core.

His accuser, an anonymous then-22-year-old called “Grace,” detailed a night full of mixed signals, gross misjudgements and incomplete understandings. After naming her feelings of discomfort and grappling with their impact in the rolling tide of rape culture, Grace and Ansari have become a new litmus against which the larger #MeToo and #TimesUp movements are being held.

As accusations become a daily practice, and all those affected are left in the wake, the discussion seems to become more volatile and less clear, leaving some folks to question: “when does it all go to far?”

Though none of those accused in Hollywood have faced any significant repercussions, the desire to bound our visions of sexual and gender justice around consequences, results and terminologies suggest a deep lack of imagination that I fear will cause this movement to collapse before it even begins.

It seems #MeToo is quickly devolving into the means by which we solely debate definitions of assault and create a proverbial burn-book of elites. Few have taken up the task of building in the wake of dismantling—of constructing in the wake of lack.

To be clear, my critique is not of Grace, whom I believe. It’s just that neither does my critique rest solely with Ansari. As a feminist, scholar and organizer, I grow weary with the very questions we have used to assess the worthiness of these stories and the boundaries of our support.

In our urgency to show and prove, cancel and end, we are moving toward a meaningless #MeToo without ever crafting the language or courage to say “and never again you.” We must begin to consider the liberating potential available to us in this movement, not only for those who were victimized but also for those accused. We must imagine this movement as the construction of a feminist future that includes a deeper imagination, dedication to one another and the abolition of all oppressive structures.

As I read Grace’s story, I replayed not just my own sexual history but my sexual education. Despite having extensive lessons in the ways of STDs and pregnancy, it wasn’t until I was a sophomore in college that I was formally educated on consent. Cutting through the murky ideas that permeate college environments, I was informed that anything other than an enthusiastic and continued yes was unacceptable.

That working definition seemed liberatory enough. Here was feminist theory coalesced and crystallized. Yet, in application, there was no guidance. The assumption was that, when the time comes, you would know how to act. But at 22, I was someone who was extremely sexually inexperienced and still grappling with her own maturity as an adult, a graduate and someone with a budding career. At 22, I was the same age as Grace. And at 25 I am already disquieted by the number of times my feminist theory did not end up as feminist practice.

Because definitions are not enough. Because the knowledge is merely the beginning. Because awareness is not action.

Many of the conversations spurred by Grace and Ansari are wide but ultimately shallow in their concerns. As the hand-wringing goes on about whether this is assault, who is at fault, journalistic integrity, and what interests Netflix has in this ongoing saga, we do ourselves a disservice in not asking whether this demonstrates a mutual understanding of consent, who must we teach and how can we better build a world where these stories are aired, addressed and made a part of a patriarchal past.

We do ourselves a disservice in not calling for and working toward the abolition of a culture that reifies rape and assault through sexism; a culture that simultaneously victimizes us all through the threat of prisons and state violence in retribution.

“Time’s Up” must include a resetting of the clock. A resetting to a world where women are empowered in their sexuality enough to say an enthusiastic yes so that their enthusiastic no’s have meaning. A resetting to a world where consent is coupled with emotional intelligence and awareness for both parties.

A resetting to a world where bad sex is a matter of preferences rather than blurred lines of agency. A resetting to a place of healing, forgiveness and critical accountability, instead of shame, brutality and carceral “solutions.”

In this moment, as we rally around the world we have, dismantling the pillars of rape culture and confronting the abusers in us all, we must challenge ourselves to stay grounded not just in unrelenting anger, fear or distrust, but at least also in a vision of radical optimism, change and growth.

More than anything, the news and its slipperiness should remind us that the oppressions we fight are deeply buried in our culture, our news cycles and ourselves.

It should cause us to question our minds that, though progressive, are still as involved in patriarchal culture as a fish is to water. It should remind us that these stories, much like life, are not filled with black and white boogeymen and damsels. But most of all, it should remind us that we have not yet begun to fight for the real goal: a better, different world.

To the people wondering if #MeToo has gone too far, I say that the furthest it can go is toward a complete abolition of this culture. To the construction of a feminist, and sex-positive landscape. To a world where consent is not just theoretically understood but consistently and deeply practiced as a sexual meditation.

To the people wondering if #MeToo has gone too far, I say that the furthest it can go is toward the creation of solutions that shun the state and prison-industrial complex. To the people wondering if #MeToo has gone too far, I say that the furthest it can go is toward a future in which sex is no longer a battleground or minefield, but a beautiful art.

I hope Grace finds solace in her truth. I hope Ansari can develop better skills and atone for his mistakes. And I hope we all can be more courageous, more brave and more bold. Let’s push for a world too far, because only beyond our wildest imaginations lies the freedom we have yet to grasp.

Suggested Reading:

Abolish the Box: Moving Beyond Criminality in Addressing Sexual Violence“, by The Incarceration to Education Coalition

4 Ways To Support People Who Are Survivors Of Sexual Assault“, by Kim Tran

Breaking the Cycle of Violence: Utilizing Community-Based Accountability Strategies to Address Sexual Violence“, by Annie Gorden

Shondrea Thornton is a feminist scholar and activist based in Los Angeles

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