You probably already know—or think you know—what happened on the night of September 25, 2017 between Aziz Ansari and an anonymous woman calling herself “Grace.” These are the accepted facts: she went on a date with Ansari, they went back to his house, and then had some sexual contact that left Grace feeling deeply uncomfortable. No crime was alleged, since Ansari did not force himself on Grace in any way, but this was clearly a nasty encounter for her. The next day, she texted Ansari telling him as much and he apologized for having “misread things.” Several months later, she published her account on the website babe.
For a few weeks following the publication of Grace’s story, the internet was awash with claims and counter-claims about the rights and wrongs of what had taken place. Every media outlet offered up its judgment on Ansari. To some commentators, he was the victim of a witch hunt, persecuted by an internet mob with no respect for due process. On the other side, many feminists argued that his behavior exemplified the aggressive, entitled, chauvinistic attitude that too many men show towards women. Others suggested that the reaction against Ansari was disproportionate—yes he had behaved badly, but that badly? Everyone had an opinion, not only on what he had done, but on what the incident revealed about sexual politics in the #MeToo era.
In the language of feminist theory, Ansari’s behavior fell somewhere on the “sexual violence spectrum.” This begins at one end with commonplace forms of sexual misbehavior (e.g., cat-calling, lewd comments, “microaggressions”) and extends all the way along to rape and sexualized torture and murder. The feminist claim is that everything on the sexual violence spectrum should be viewed as emanating from the same source, although some acts clearly cause more harm than others. While Ansari did not force Grace into sex, he did ignore her discomfort in a way that was arguably coercive. His behavior could therefore be placed somewhere towards the less severe end of the spectrum: worse than a misogynistic joke, but not as harmful as a sexual assault.
Now here is the paradox, and it’s something that I’ve often puzzled over during my years in feminist activism. Why do cases like Ansari’s receive so much attention among many feminists, particularly younger ones, while the most extreme end of the sexual violence spectrum is comparatively ignored?
This is not true across the board, of course. Sexual and domestic violence support services focus on victims with the greatest need, as do public bodies such as social services and the police. These on-the-ground organizations have (or at least should have) a clear system for prioritizing the victims of the most dangerous offenders. There are also plenty of committed feminist campaigners who take on the often thankless task of advocating on behalf of the most wretchedly abused women and girls. This isn’t the place to go into detail about the deep divisions within the feminist movement—suffice to say that the group of feminists who have most influence right now, the so-called “third wave,” are the group I’m concerned with here. These are the feminist voices that dominate the public sphere—newspapers, universities, social media—and it’s here that the paradox is most obvious.
Take the issue of campus rape, a key battleground in the ongoing culture war. In the last decade or so, sexual violence against university students has been one of the most high-profile feminist issues in the Anglosphere, particularly in the United States. Although statistics on sexual violence are notoriously hard to calculate, studies consistently show that, contrary to the picture presented in the media, young women not at university are actually more at risk than those who are. This is probably because of demographic factors, rather than anything peculiar to higher education. Young women who are poor, have an intellectual disability, or are from certain ethnic minorities, are disproportionately likely to be victims of all kinds of violent crime, including rape, and are also less likely to go to university. Campuses are rife with sexism, but they are not uniquely dangerous places when we look at the wider picture across society. Why, then, has the issue of campus rape become such a cause célèbre?
Compare this with the approach to the sex trade. The way in which the Irish feminist campaigner Rachel Moran has been treated provides a particularly clear example of the paradox. Moran was 15 years old when she first started selling sex on the streets of Dublin and during the seven years she spent in prostitution she experienced some of the worst forms of sexual violence imaginable. She has since written a remarkable memoir about her experiences. And yet, far from being greeted with open arms by third wave feminists, Moran and many of the other women who describe themselves as “prostitution survivors” (they reject the term “sex workers”) have faced a combination of indifference and outright hostility from the people you would expect to be their allies. Some self-proclaimed feminists even accused Moran of lying about having been in prostitution, forcing her to present evidence to defend her credibility—so much for #BelieveHer.
Whether or not you think that prostitution is inherently abusive (as Moran does), the women involved face some of the highest rates of rape and murder of any group. Despite this, you will very often hear third wave feminists downplaying the harms of prostitution and ignoring the testimony of survivors who speak about its horrors. There is even an influential coterie who insist that the existence of sex trafficking is a myth. The same people who argue that Ansari shouldn’t have made advances on Grace because she was obviously uncomfortable will defend the right of a man to buy sex from a woman who is only consenting because she needs to feed herself. How do we explain this contradiction?
There are several reasons for the paradox, one of which is fairly obvious: selection bias. The most prominent feminist voices within the media and academia are less likely than average to have experienced the extreme end of the sexual violence spectrum because they are disproportionately white, well off, able-bodied graduates. This is particularly true when it comes to prostitution, which almost exclusively affects women living in poverty. Although we’re all perfectly capable of extending compassion to people outside of our bubble, it’s not easy. We’re all biased towards prioritizing our own (to use the well-worn jargon) “lived experience,” so of course a group of women who all went to university are going to be particularly concerned with the phenomenon of campus rape, just as prostitution survivors are going to be particularly concerned with abuses within the sex trade. The difference is, there are no prostitution survivors with columns in the New York Times.
But that’s only a partial explanation for the paradox. There are other psychological forces at play too, affecting feminists and non-feminists alike.
The sad truth is there’s very little media appetite for stories about the extreme end of the sexual violence spectrum, and for good reason. When I say “extreme,” I really mean it—it’s almost impossible to exaggerate the depravity of some of the crimes committed by men against women and girls. In the U.K. alone (where I live), I could mention the woman whose eyes were gouged out by her boyfriend, another woman who was buried alive by her partner, the teenager branded with the initial of her rapist, or the baby girl raped at two weeks old. Did you know that, in the last five years, the number of women beheaded by British men in the U.K. is greater than the number of Britons beheaded by ISIS? This is happening in the Western world right now, on our doorstep, and the situation is even worse in other parts of the world. I know this doesn’t make pleasant reading—you probably won’t follow the links and I don’t blame you—but sadly that’s exactly why such cases usually receive very little attention in the national press, let alone international coverage. No one wants to read about such things. The normal human reaction is sadness, revulsion, and perhaps also a feeling of helplessness. There are things that can be done to alleviate the situation—most of which involve better funding for refuges and public services—but there are no quick fixes.
In contrast, reading about the Aziz Ansari case can be oddly satisfying, precisely because it involves controversy. Stories like this offer readers the opportunity to express their tribal loyalties—if you believe that the #MeToo movement has gone too far, you can use this as an example of feminists hounding an innocent man; if you think that Ansari’s behavior was a form of sexual violence, then you’ll be enraged by those who trivialize it. There’s pleasure to be had in that heady feeling of righteousness.
Added to this is the effect of the Iron Law of Institutions, a term coined by the writer Jon Schwartz. Put simply, the law states that most people care more about their position within an institution than they do about the success of the institution as a whole. The result is behavior that looks bizarre from the outside, but makes perfect sense to those within a particular group. Schwartz initially used the term to describe the internal workings of the Democratic party, but his idea can just as easily be applied to political movements as well as political parties—third wave feminism, for instance.
Within such activist groups, individuals gain status by demonstrating their commitment to the cause—showing themselves to be more pure, more radical, more woke than their rivals. The endlessly updating vocabulary is a manifestation of this: knowing that the correct nomenclature is “trans woman” rather than “transwoman” marks you out as a member of the woke elite, entitled to ‘call out’ those beneath you in the hierarchy. The website Everyday Feminism is an excellent place to view this ideological arms race. The site regularly publishes articles that are so extreme they’re almost beyond parody—for instance, insisting that it’s oppressive to expect activists to behave rationally, or scolding well-meaning supporters by telling them “your tears take up too much space.” This kind of message does no good for the cause, since it alienates would-be allies. But there is an internal logic to it.
Within the most intense third wave feminist circles, individuals can increase their standing by demonstrating not only that they’re purer than their contemporaries, but also purer than feminists who have gone before. I think this is where the perverse attitude towards the sex trade comes from—many young women associate anti-prostitution activism with the Christian Right, or else with older feminists they view as prudish old dinosaurs. Pro-prostitution activism therefore becomes a rational response, even if it is inconsistent with the rest of the worldview. Other horrors are defended for the same reason. Third wave feminists will often minimise the harms of female genital mutilation (the woke term is actually “cutting” rather than “mutilation”) because criticism of it is associated with the Right and therefore branded as colonialist. Even though FGM causes unbearable suffering to women and girls of color, sometimes resulting in death, refusing to condemn the practice is seen as anti-racist. Such behavior looks bizarre from the outside, but it makes sense to those within the movement.
It’s not that we should turn a blind eye to acts at the less severe end of the sexual violence spectrum. For what it’s worth, I think that Ansari behaved badly. I also dislike cat calling, sexist jokes, and other “microaggressions.” I even think that “manspreading” merits some discussion.
The problem is what happens at the other end of the spectrum, where the worst kind of sexual violence is too often trivialized and ignored by those who should know better. The Aziz Ansari paradox hurts the feminist movement, and therefore also hurts vulnerable women and girls.
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