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To Raise A Feminist Son, Talk To Him About Aziz Ansari

What my son must know is that none of this is as difficult as the men around him might be saying it is.

“Wake up,” I said in a text message to my son yesterday. “We need to talk about Aziz Ansari.”

My son is on break from college and is visiting his dad in Singapore. But I knew he would be following the news and debates about Ansari closely.

We love Aziz Ansari, my son and I. My son pointed me to Master of None no sooner than it was released on Netflix. “It’s OK, not great, but we should watch it,” he said. Of course we should. Ansari is funny, we had already established. And he’s somewhat like us — of Indian ethnicity (Take that, Hollywood). Also, he is of Indian Muslim origin (take that, Hindu fundamentalists). And he’s woke.

We both were disenchanted partway through season two. I told my son I didn’t like that Aziz only dated white women. My son accused me of double standards because I didn’t turn a similar critique on Mindy Kaling. “It’s different,” I said. He sighed. Our conversations on the nuances of feminist representations are not often easy.

So, when he called me back today, he really didn’t want to talk about the whole business with Ansari. “It’s cringe-worthy,” he said.

But mothers of 22-year-old sons must persist through the cringe.

We had talked about the #metoo movement before. Like many other women, I was highly triggered on the couple of days that followed the birth of the hashtag and the deluge of women’s disturbing stories from across the world. I put my own story out there, then called my son just to hear his voice. I was rewarded with more — his words.

He spoke with a clear and profound outrage at the sexual abuse of women by men across the board. Why spare even Gandhi, we said. And we agreed we would #believeher no matter who the next accused person was (unless, of course, it was our hero Noam Chomsky, we joked; we’d have a hard time dealing with that). Raised in patriarchal India and adrift in the rising toxic masculinity of America, I found comfort, even healing, in the voice of my son, an Indian American male, the feminist I raised on my own here as a single mom.

With Ansari, though, the conversation with my boy gets complicated. We are talking about something beyond sexual assault, abuse, or harassment. We are having a conversation that isn’t even really about Ansari.

What we need to talk about are the cultural conversations rising up around the Ansari incident. What we need to talk about is training men to read women the way women have been trained to read men.

What my son must know — and what I addressed directly with him— is that none of this is as difficult as the men around him might be saying it is. It’s actually quite easy. Girls are raised into womanhood with a thorough understanding of men’s motivations and cues. Through warnings and whispers, through fables and giggles, we are tutored rigorously on what men will want — in the best, non-violent iterations, they will want your body, they will want your loyalty, they will want your food, they will want you to smile and cheer them on and tell them they make you happy. For generations, we have been lined up during training sessions and then sent forth to laugh heartily at their jokes, raise their children, starve our bodies into attractiveness, and fake our orgasms.

Sure, we have also driven change. We have re-calibrated ourselves for the “woke” boys — chase your own dreams, be a fun companion, ooh over their cooking, aah over their shared childcare, smile and cheer them on and tell them they make you happy. Also, girl, don’t push it.

Women have been trained. Now let’s finally, if it’s all right with everyone, train boys to know what’s going on with girls and women.

The first conversation I had with my son about the possibility of him in a sexual encounter was when he was in sixth or seventh grade. He asked me when boys and girls were ready to have sex. I said: “You may be ready before the girl is. She will have a lot of pressure — from society, from culture, from her friends, from boys — to be sexual. But keep in mind that she may or may not really be ready. She may feel bad after. She may want to cry. If you can be her friend through all of this, and you know you both are sure, go for it.”

Let’s finally train boys to know what’s going on with girls and women. Click To Tweet

So, yes, son, let’s cringe our way through the new part of this conversation. But this time, perhaps, it’s best I listen. “We don’t need hot takes,” my son said. “We need room-temperature, equilibrated, long term, studied, structural changes. For one, we need pornography that isn’t violent towards women. Men like Ansari are raised on such porn. Men who believe the #metoo campaign is a ‘witch hunt’ terrify me because this implies they have a great degree of entitlement and believe that the average-looking guy, the Ansaris of the world, are being unfairly humiliated. We need to watch out for their backlash.”

But we don’t need to believe my son. Let’s head on over to India, Ansari’s own motherland, and listen to what its young women are saying. I have just returned to the U.S. from a trip to Mumbai after four years away. I was invited to speak to a class at my alma mater in the Social Communications Media Department at Sophia Polytechnic about my recently-published co-edited volume of essays on South Asian feminism. After my address on my own trajectory as a feminist scholar and about transnational feminism, a young woman asked me what I thought of some of the more uncomfortable aspects of the #metoo movement, which has found its own massive expression on Indian social media. I told her we needed to embrace the discomfort. Then I asked her what she thought. Feminists in India are divided on the publication on Facebook of a list of academics whom a student accused of sexual assault and harassment. “I have studied with some of these professors,” the student at Sophia’s said to me.

I braced myself for some rape-apologist remark. Instead, she said, “And just because I did not face harassment from these professors doesn’t mean that another female student is lying about her bad experience.”

Your kind of feminist solidarity is what my generation dreamed about, I said to the young woman.

Padmini Ray Murray, a feminist scholar who heads the digital humanities program at the Srishti Institute of Arts, Humanities and Design in Bangalore, expressed a similar push for the next level of feminist solidarity, in a Facebook post:

“For those of you dismissing the Aziz incident as a ‘bad lay’ — it is sad that our experiences have socialised us to consider flagrant disrespect in sexual negotiations as something we can just chalk down to a below par experience. Aziz, in this account, disregarded ‘Grace’s’ wishes to be respected, both her wishes and her body. Is this sexual violence of the magnitude of the monstrous behaviour of a Weinstein? Probably not. Should it be considered a part of toxic masculinity that allows for rape culture to flourish? Absolutely.”

Some men in my generation feel duped. Ranjit Arab, a friend and an editor at an academic press, called me as he reeled under the revelations of women who came out with their experiences of sexual assault. “Everything we were taught was wrong. I feel cheated, angry.” He was taught to be assertive, take charge in the mating and seduction ritual. The message was clear: Make the first move, be persistent, don’t back down. All of this, he could see now, was part of toxic masculinity.

As the articles in defense of Aziz Ansari have said, women have agency. Yes, we do. But we don’t just show up in our encounters with men with an Uber app on our phones and that glorious word, “No.” We show up awash in the rules and ruse of patriarchy and its son, rape culture. As comedian and writer Kate Willett posted on her social media page:

“Good flirting…is paying such deep attention to another person’s emotions and body language that you create more intimacy with them. It’s a two-way, playful, fun exchange that makes everyone feel good. Sexual harassment is the opposite. It’s devoid of empathy, and it’s about forcing your will upon another person without having any regard for their desire. You’re comparing a paint brush to a wrecking ball.”

Sure, yes, our culture is transmuting. #Metoo, in all its iterations, all its humiliations, and all its chaos, is part of the transmutation. But there’s so much more to talk about — more deeply and with more nuance — with our sons and daughters and friends and partners.

And so, here’s what I told my son: What the Ansari incident is bringing up for women is that some women gave up their power and silently endured humiliating sex because of self-doubt. Some, like me, guarded themselves to such a degree to avoid sexual encounters of this kind that we lost out on the joys of flirtation, of mutual seduction, of the pleasures of our own sensuality. We policed ourselves because we knew no one would come to our feeble call. We only partook when we’d checked all our boxes that said, “Safe.” All of this is rooted in toxic masculinity. All of this is rooted in rape culture.

I’m having this conversation because it’s the conversation that must be had, cringing be damned. And if my son should protest any of it (and he won’t) and ask why men should bother (he won’t), I still get to be mom and say, “Because I said so.”