Culture At Large

Aziz Ansari and the Limits of Consent

Branson Parler

These last few months have been a watershed in the realm of public sexual ethics, as those once silenced and abused have been empowered like never before to come forward, demanding new standards for how men in particular behave sexually. Whether in the realm of Hollywood, politics, journalism, or sports, abusers and harassers are facing a day of reckoning for their actions.

Most of the stories that have been shared have been clear situations of misconduct. But recent news involving Aziz Ansari, co-creator and star of Master of None, has proven more complicated.

A woman identifying herself as “Grace” wrote a post for the website Babe entitled, “I went on a date with Aziz Ansari. It turned into the worst night of my life” (warning: the link contains explicit content). After meeting Ansari in Los Angeles, Grace reconnected with him in New York City a short time later. They went out for dinner together, then returned to his apartment. While there, they engaged in sexual activity that made her uncomfortable. According to her account, she sent both nonverbal and verbal cues meant to express her reticence, clues which Ansari either did not receive or did not acknowledge. As the Babe post summarizes: “The night would end with Grace in an Uber home, in tears, messaging her friends about how Ansari behaved.”

This account has become a kind of Rorschach test, provoking mixed reactions in the ongoing conversation about sexual ethics. Was this assault or just social awkwardness and miscommunication? Some see Ansari as the latest in a long line of abusers. Others point out that Grace’s story is not at all abuse, going so far as to call her accusation “the worst thing that has happened to the #MeToo movement" since it began.

For many cases of sexual abuse, a key concern is consent: was the activity consensual or not? In fact, the centerpiece of contemporary sexual ethics is consent. If rational adults consent to something, it’s morally permissible. If not, then it’s not.

But the Ansari debacle raises the question: can a sustainable sexual ethic be based on consent alone? Is consent really all you need?  

Think about the question this way: why did Ansari feel comfortable with how things were proceeding while his date did not? Most likely because he’d had previous encounters with women who consented to moving very quickly into a variety of sexual activities that Grace found uncomfortable. Based on his experience, is he justified in perceiving his date as consensual? Perhaps. Is she justified in feeling uncomfortable and used? Absolutely.

Is consent really all you need?

At the very least, this thought experiment quickly helps us realize that anytime any of us consents to anything, it inevitably has a broader impact than on just two people. Someone’s consent or level of comfort is always interpreted through the broader communal mores around sex. In a sense, every woman who has consented to being treated by Ansari in this way previously played a part in that encounter. And Ansari’s own consent to treating women as nothing more than objects of pleasure and letting himself be treated as a likely trophy to be claimed (“I was with Aziz Ansari!”) played a part in the encounter as well.

So as much as we might like to think of sexual ethics in general or consent in particular as something that’s up to each individual, it just doesn’t work that way. Sexual ethics are always communal. And so a radically individualistic notion of consent is an impossible basis for sexual ethics.

Any true notion of consent has to be rooted in the fact that we, as human beings, are both free and responsible for our actions. But to see other humans in this light—not just as deterministic, instinct-bound creatures, but as creatures with real choice and freedom—implies that we are not mere bodies, not merely atoms bouncing off atoms in a meaningless materialistic dance.

Rather, a human being is a person (not just a body) and a mysterious and wondrous image-bearer of God. Any treatment of another person as something to be merely used or exploited (even if they consent to it!) is not just abuse; it’s assaulting and insulting God in effigy. To accept this means, though, that we have meaning, that our bodies have meaning, that sex has meaning, and that true human flourishing comes from using our freedom in line with that meaning rather than rebelling against it.

According to Scripture, sex is a good gift given by God for the sake of physical pleasure. But the pleasure is meant to be more than physical, because the physical unity that happens in sex is meant to be a sign and symbol of the lives of the two people who are united, not just a physical act of connection for one night. Indeed, when two people are called out of themselves to fully and wholly give to another, their love results in children. In short, the Bible says sex is so good because it’s meant to take place in the context of real care for and commitment to another person.

In contrast, the case of Aziz Ansari and “Grace” only further highlights that modern romance is increasingly care-less. We try to be enlightened as possible about consent, but in the end, consent is still a means to get what we want, without having to truly, wholly value the other person. In contrast, a biblical view of sex is not merely consensual, but is patient and kind, is not rude or self-seeking, but always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. That’s good news, for your sex life and beyond.  

Topics: Culture At Large