We Need to Reconsider the Way We Talk About Sexual Assault

Sarah Lifson, Contributing Writer

As the #MeToo movement progresses, and allegations against Stern alumnus Aziz Ansari and former NYU professor James Franco come to surface, many otherwise “woke” men in the NYU community and elsewhere are misguided in the ways in which they defend against potentially incriminating sexual behaviors. Through these defenses, men seem to focus entirely on how they can avoid the label “rapist.” Instead, we should be acknowledging, questioning and eventually addressing the reality: we have been socialized to accept and engage in sexual activity that can be violent toward or damaging for women. The result is that many men feel absolved of the responsibility in engaging in nonverbal communications all together, so long as they are not convicted of legal sexual misconduct.

As many of Ansari’s defenders are quick to point out, what he did to “Grace” — the pseudonym his victim used — is legally permissible. Even under NYU’s definition, his behavior cannot technically be considered sexual assault. But this legal and procedural caveat does not excuse his clearly predatory behavior, which Grace describes in great detail. Many refuse to regard his behavior as a legitimate sexual assault because they can identify various loopholes that absolve Ansari of facing any legal consequences for his actions, such as Grace’s decision to stay at  Ansari’s apartment after rejecting his initial sexual advances. This is the case for many #MeToo stories, including the fictional “Cat Person” New Yorker story that hauntingly embodied the experiences of thousands of women.

Perhaps, instead of attempting to avoid sexual assault under legal or procedural definitions, men should aim to actually pay attention to women’s nonverbal cues and the implicit meaning of statements such as “I don’t think we have chemistry” and “I’m very busy, so we can’t hang out, sorry.” If a man’s goal is to avoid being labeled a rapist without truly considering the verbal and non-verbal cues of his partner, he should reflect on where his priorities lie and who he is hurting in the process. If he is thoughtful and honest in his interactions, if he is not ignorant to his partner’s desires and goes about things the right way, he will not have to worry about being labeled a rapist.

Especially in a university setting, nuanced discourse surrounding consent and women’s experiences are necessary to prevent both physical sexual assault and other forms of sexual trauma. At NYU, all students should hold themselves to a much higher standard than “not technically a rapist,” and foster dialogue to ensure that everyone in the NYU community feels safe in their sexual activities.


Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them.

Email Sarah Lifson at [email protected].



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