Biases and Confusion


From: Marie
To: Julia, Johanna
Date: Wednesday, 17 January 2018 2:30AM

Re: Aziz, #MeToo, biases, utter confusion


Hi team,

As I mentioned very curtly on our lady thread, this Aziz story has me all kinds of confused. Help me unpack here?

I’m confused because I mostly want to defend him, which is the stark opposite of how I’ve responded to all of the other allegations that have been reported over the last few months. There are a few different reasons for this.

Firstly, my initial instinct and reaction to this story is white girl’s story is off and he’s not guilty of sexual assault. Not once have I felt this way given the hundreds of other tragedies that have been reported recently. So many reasons why though. For one, the other stories have been white women (and POCs, too, I realize) coming forward against white men. And white men in positions of power over those women, to boot. The simple, yet undoubtedly complicated, difference is that in this case, “Grace” the anonymous is a white woman presenting a case against a famous POC. Like all of the cases of black men being desecrated by white women throughout US history, wherein those men may have only had the capacity for physical power over those women, I believe in and rely on our faulty foundation of innocence until proven otherwise. I have to, for self protection and the protection of my people. This singular case for Aziz in which the woman doesn’t want to be named “because she’s not a public figure” – a poor excuse; many others who’ve come forward also not public figures – is already faulty for its racial lines. On top of that, he has no power over her. It doesn’t seem they’re in the same industry, she’s not asking him to reference her for a job, he can’t blacklist her or ruin her career, etc.

Next, and this is what makes me most disoriented , is that I have so many questions when I read her telling/the retelling of her story. (Also, I wish she had written the account herself, even if posted anonymously. The author of the piece injects some commentary that are frustrating). I haven’t really questioned any of the other headline stories. But with this one, I find myself asking, angrily, questions about why she didn’t tell him to stop or say no sooner; why she allowed him to undress her; why she continued allowing him to kiss her for some time – these interactions took place over the course of an hour in his apartment according to her!; why she allowed him to perform oral sex on her; why she didn’t get dressed sooner; why she didn’t even try to leave!; why she accepted the Uber ride from him; and so forth. I can understand shock and paralysis when you’re caught off guard and in a violating situation no doubt, but she shows no sort of agency. She didn’t try to get away. Was she blinded by the shine of his fame? Likely. Did she make assumptions about him based on his television and public displays? Also likely. I’m upset with myself for the fact that I can’t take this woman’s story at face value.But it’s marked by so much. But why am I not inclined to protect her, too?

None of this is to say that I don’t question Aziz’s behavior. More than that, I’m angry with and disappointed in him as well. The disappointment comes from my assumptions about him based on his public persona as well. Disturbingly, his behavior is very much typical and culturally normalized among men. It’s infuriating. He behaved like so many of these men who feel entitled to their every desires, and it doesn’t help that he’s famous and his stardom is currently at a peak. This very well may not be the only time he’s behaved this way on a date. This is the problem. The woman’s experience IS NORMAL. By no means is he a victim in this situation. He didn’t read the situation or any of the “nonverbal cues” she gave, he didn’t listen to or hear her when she said she’d had enough. He is part of the problem, but I don’t think he should be grouped with the others.

These couple of articles in particular have resonated with me.

I have so much more to say but I can’t type fast enough and I’m late for a meeting. Thoughts??


P.S: I want to briefly clarify that by no means do I agree with everything written by the authors of the two pieces I shared. I don’t believe Aziz failed at reading her mind, as Weiss titled her piece, I don’t believe “Grace” was weak, I don’t believe believe Aziz is at all blameless. He should carry some of this weight. I just believe it’s a different kind of story from many others that have been revealed as of late. The way it was reported on the Babe website definitely doesn’t help.


From: Julia

To: Johanna, Marie

Ohh wow is it good to hear from yall about this. I too have been all kinds of fucked up about it, and I’m at a conference (in Valparaiso) so the companionship is a bit lacking for this type of discourse.

So I’ll say that I basically agree with all the feels you’ve described here. It fundamentally does not seem the same as the other MeToo related stories, and to claim similarity is belittling to the victims and misleading for the perpetrators. One of the first things I thought of when this came out was exactly what you said– this is a fully different power dynamic. These are not people who have any professional connection. It is unequivocally abhorrent to initiate sexual contact with someone who came to your OFFICE for a MEETING. When someone’s in your house after a date and “flirty” texting? Ehh, it’s a lot tougher to slap ‘abhorrent’ on that.

I hadn’t thought as much about the white woman vs. non-white man aspect, so I’m glad you brought that up. It does reek a bit of horrible instances in which white women have used their precious sexual white-ness to ruin some POC’s lives (and certainly white men have used white female sexuality to do this as well.) Another way in which the power dynamic is simplified to, as you say, really just physical power, maybe a bit of psychological power if you want to also add in his fame or the ways in which women are socialized to never say no to men for any reason.

I think a lot in these situations about how my personality (I’m sure you guys can say the same for yours as well) gives me an (unfair) advantage when shit like this happens. I cannot IMAGINE being in someone’s apartment with a dude touching me, not wanting it to happen, and not immediately saying “fuck off” and leaving. But that’s me. I have grown up with the privilege of speaking my mind and not getting punished for it. I have good experiences with getting angry with men and them generally responding. I don’t want to expect all women to act like me, because obviously that’s not fair for both nature and nurture reasons. But, damn ladies. Practice speaking loud in front of the mirror or something. Going along with societally expected passivity is bad for you and bad for all of us.

That said, I guess I think these three things fundamentally and it’s why I don’t think we should or can afford to blow this up MeToo style:

1. This is a vague story with vague, weirdly punctuated quotes. Without having been there, there is literally no way to say with certainty whether Aziz was being pushy or whether Grace’s “non verbal cues” were noticeable. So any interpretation of this interaction is going to be fraught with the personal world view & experiences of the interpreter and thus not objective.

2. We do not have an infinite amount of time to make this point, and we do not get infinite chances with our audience. This is an incredible amount of momentum for a movement. But we need to be careful. We need to start thinking less like individual frustrated women and more like the organizers of a movement. Because the last thing we need is to get so so close to actual change regarding male power and sexual harassment, and then lose their ear because we cried wolf one too many times. It’s cynical but it’s something we gotta keep in mind.

❤ ❤ Jules

VERY important P.S: I’m at this conference right now and yesterday was chatting with one of the profs after his talk, just physics stuff, nothing too serious. He comes back up to me today to invite me to his institute– turns out he’s doing some actual research on minorities in physics with a real sociologist and “found out” from the internet that I am a raging feminist. But he literally quoted Femails and said something about how I had “opinions with a capital O”. Jo, you’ve officially got name recognition in the physics world!!


now I feel like I ALSO want to clarify that I am not totally insensitive to this story. Forced sexual contact is shit. Men shouldn’t do it. Ever. I just don’t think either party should be totally demonized here.

See, THIS is why we’re all so twisted up about it. We have these entrenched views of the world and we’ve gotten quite good at classifying things as black or white, and we have lots of evidence to support the results of those classifications. I think this story is hard because a lot of angry feminist women are having to come up against some discomfort with regard to culpability and gender. And it’s hard after spending years of life only ever seeing this sort of culpability just so obviously fall on the man (and this is appropriate so so so much of the time!)

But again, if a friend ever told me this story, I would hate that dude forever.

This is all very confusing.


From: Johanna
To: Julia, Marie
Date: Monday, 22 January 2018 12:06PM


These emails, or femails if you will (because obvi this is going on the site unless you two protest), are so crucially sustaining me at the moment. Imagine if everyone—women AND men (and all non-conforming gender individuals)—had chains like this wrestling with the ins and outs of power dynamics, consent and racial biases. We would get so much farther as a society than we currently are. Thank you, Marie, for kicking this discussion off and at such a poignant time given the Women’s Marches this past weekend.

I echo every frustration that you guys voice. I do not have much more to add in that regard. The devil is not in the details; it’s in the nuance. And unfortunately, this topic does not lend itself to nuance despite the fact that it is full of it. It’s too uncomfortable—many of the parties with troubling commentaries on this topic struggle with the word ‘sex’ let alone the dynamics that go into consenting, not consenting or withdrawing consent (even after giving earlier consent!) to it.

When this story broke, it immediately made me think of ‘Cat Person’ published in the New Yorker last year. And perhaps in situations like this, art is the best medium (not law per se) in demonstrating the universality of this issue, particularly for women. I mean, isn’t that what the whole #MeToo movement is about? I guess in a way, I do not understand people’s aversion to the inclusion of a universal experience into this conversation.

That is not to say that the previous serious accusations of sexual assault are any less valid or carry any less weight. It is also not to say that applying different standards to POC men in power isn’t wrong because IT IS. It is simply to say that checking in on why we are uncomfortable with this story, despite its universality, sheds a lot of light onto the state of our own empowerment (or lack thereof).

Why is it that women still feel as though they lack the agency to voice their objections to unwanted sexual advances? It is important to remember that despite the Time’s Up, #MeToo and Women’s Marches finally happening, we still live in an uber well-entrenched patriarchy (one in which race plays a huge role) that women themselves have internalised, so no matter the circumstances of that particular situation, this conversation is nonetheless necessary to have because power dynamics matter, especially during sex.

As I have stepped back from this and tried to check my reactions against my own biases, the conclusion that is the simplest to draw is to define what good, consensual sex is for myself. At least that is the safest and most important one to make. In listening to the uproar on this topic, I continue to reject anything that perpetuates the enfantalization of women and excusal of men because it does little to move the conversations on standards for good sex beyond simply ‘not rape’. At the very least, this whole #MeToo movement should help to prioritise a woman’s safety and agency over her body above hurting a man’s ego.

***Salt-N-Pepa’s ‘Let’s Talk About Sex’ plays in the background.***

All the love,

P.S. I am floored that there are men in physics exposed to Femails. Given the recent disappointing news on the job front, this seriously helps lift my spirits!

*Photograph by Elinor Carucci for The New Yorker

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