Slowly, the mood around #MeToo is changing. Initially, it sparked a reckoning. For months, it felt like every day, we heard about another man who did awful things behind closed doors — or out in the open — only to get away with it for years.
But the movement has been called a witch hunt, and people have started to say in less hushed tones, “Are we taking this too far?”
It all came to a head less than two weeks ago, when an anonymous 23-year-old woman alleged that actor Aziz Ansari sexually assaulted her while on a date. You probably have heard the story: They went to a restaurant and then back to his apartment, where they engaged in sexual activity. The woman, identified as Grace in the babe.net article, said she gave verbal and nonverbal cues to indicate that she didn’t want to continue. After the report was published, Ansari made a statement, saying he “took her words to heart and responded privately.”
People reacted differently to the allegations against Ansari, who was relatively well-liked and made a career out of the intricacies of modern dating, compared with other powerful men. This was a bad date with bad sex, some declared definitively. Learn to say no and leave, some women from the so-called "suck it up” generation said. Others defended her, admitting that they had been in similar situations that were uncomfortable and violating.
There was not a collective point of view, and it spurred questions about consent. Ansari is a 34-year-old man who considers himself a feminist. Aren’t there other, non-famous people out there like him? If the date played out as Grace claims and there is no collective agreement about whether she consented, isn’t there work left to do? Have the men in our lives been in similar situations, and are we having conversations about what consent means offline in a meaningful way?
We asked writers Mekita Rivas, Maria Del Russo and Masimbaashe Zvovushe to talk to men in their lives about the Ansari allegation, consent and gray areas. Their conversations were revealing yet informative. Below are excerpts, edited for length and clarity.
Mekita Rivas talks to her brother, Felix Rivas, 40.
Felix Rivas: So without knowing [Ansari] on a quote-unquote personal level, it’s hard to know anything. Like how could you — why would you want a kiss that you had to fight for?
Mekita Rivas: Yeah — that you have to assert a ton of energy and effort to get [affection].
FR: Yeah. That’s very anti-romantic. That’s not romance at all. There’s no passion there. It’s just purely physical.
MR: So are you calling bulls — t on his response?
FR: No, I’m not calling bulls — t on the response. If all accounts are true, and his response sort of leads you to think it’s true because it’s very, “Yo, my bad — I misread the signs,” right? Based on the account, he’s on a very basic, physical level. That’s the bulls — t, right? That’s not okay, this is not an excuse, this is not a justification for the guy. But she has evolved as a human being, and he’s stuck on this physical level. And we hope that as a culture we evolve, that we hold people accountable, and we invite them to be evolved. It’s physical. And you feel sorry for the guy that that’s his mission — that that was his game plan, if all accounts are true.
Mekita Rivas talks to her friend, Kyle Reinhart, 28.
Mekita Rivas: Do you find Aziz’s actions to be problematic in any way?
Kyle Reinhart: Yes, his actions are problematic. Whether they are famous or not, in all of these stories, the alpha individual uses pressure and the idea of implied consent to do things that may or may not be consensual. I feel for Aziz, that he may have gotten caught up in the emotions of the evening, but he should not have pressured the lady for as long as he did. After the first spoken words of hesitation, it should have been over.
MR: Since reading the story, have you thought back to any of your own actions or experiences, and wondered whether they were truly consensual?
KR: Yes, I have. I have thought back to when I was in high school and first experiencing romantic relationships, or those times in college where things got rather blurry. I wondered, “Did I do that? Did they do that to me? What happened exactly?”
Masimbaashe Zvovushe talks to her husband, Cory Trump, 35.
Cory Trump: What [Ansari] did was very young. He didn’t take her seriously at all. You could tell how he jumped out of dinner immediately. She was just a fling. He wanted to f — k her. He wasn’t gonna call her ever again.
Maria Del Russo talks to her brother, Billy Del Russo, 26. She starts by asking if he checks in with his sex partners to make sure they’re comfortable. He says yes.
Billy Del Russo: If we start fooling around, and things lead from one thing to another, the first thing I always say to them is, “Don’t do anything you don’t want to do, okay?” I always say that. “You’d tell me, right?” I check in with them constantly.
Maria Del Russo: Okay, but — and this may seem like a silly question — but where did the idea to start checking in come from? Was it taught to you?
BD: There were a few situations when I was younger where friends of mine were accused of things that didn’t happen. And that really opened my eyes to the fact that people can just accuse you of s — t. There are times where I’ve had sex with women, and after the fact I think, “Oh my god. What if they turn around and say that it was too much?” It’s their word against yours. I have to watch what I do.
MD: Do you take responsibility for your part in a sexual encounter and how it could go wrong, or do you just think that women don’t know how to act anymore, so you have to protect yourself?
BD: I’m definitely not blaming women for making false accusations. However, women are much more emotional than men. And I feel like women could wake up the next morning and think, “You know what? That did make me feel uncomfortable.” And then just change her mind. There’s no excuse for acting out of line. However, I feel like a girl could be unsure about what’s going on in the moment, but then think about it later and change her tune. And that’s a scary thing, too. But I always check in.
Maria Del Russo talks to her other brother, Anthony Del Russo, 23.
Maria Del Russo: Do you think you’re good at picking up on nonverbal cues?
Anthony Del Russo: I mean, yeah. Because I give them the opportunity to make that decision. I do feel like way too many guys get wrapped up in what they want, though. So they can’t hear or tune into the nonverbal cues. They don’t really care about what the other person wants, and that’s where the issues come up. I mean, I’m a guy, I like anything. I just want to make it good for her.
MD: The sad thing is that isn’t the normal point of view.
AD: I know. But whether you like it or not, a lot of guys I know — the only ways they can get themselves going in a sexual situation is to view the girl as purely a sex object. That goes a lot for college kids, especially the kids I went to school with. In order to get themselves sexually stimulated, they need to have this animalistic sexual thing about themselves. And I feel like, for them, the idea of talking to a woman about what feels good for them is mutually exclusive from that.
MD: That’s really depressing.
AD: I don’t think it’s all people. But I definitely think people my age feel like that.
Masimbaashe Zvovushe talks to her colleague, Jomo Greendridge, 47.
Jomo Greendridge: Consent is an important principle, period. It’s like courtesy. It’s like good manners. It’s a universal thing. For example, a friend of mine commented on a Facebook post and the question was, “In church or school did you ever learn about consent? Was it ever taught?” And most people said no. And one of the young ladies from my youth group said, “No never.” And I apologized to her and said, “Well we should have.” Now, no one did that for us. And so you could hide behind, “Well we didn’t [learn about it], so how would we know to … [teach] it?” So that’s the dichotomy for me. We should be educated about it and talking about it, and the dialogue is important because obviously the need is there. But the flip side is that we’re kind of letting people off the hook. Because no education is needed. It’s one of those things that you know and understand, and when you’re violating it, you should know.
Mekita Rivas talks to her fiance, Kent Campbell, 32. Campbell told her he doesn’t remember being taught about consent or discussing it with his friends or parents.
Mekita Rivas: So, do you feel like this idea of consent, was kind of like a given? Like something that you didn’t really have to explicitly talk about, but was something that you knew that you needed?
Kent Campbell: Yeah, I think so. But it’s because I was very self-conscious of that and not making women uncomfortable. Not to be very crass, but why I didn’t get laid more was because I didn’t want to push that envelope, and I didn’t want things to be uncomfortable. Because other guys, whether it was real or whether it was just talk, seemed to be getting laid more than me, but when they would talk about things and all that, I guess I just didn’t necessarily want to do it that way.
MR: When you say “that way,” do you feel like there were instances in life when you heard other guys talking about encounters that you may have interpreted as being too aggressive or problematic?
KC: Yeah, definitely. Whether the girl was right of mind, because she had been drinking, or whether it was a one-night stand, or stuff like that. But at the same time I wasn’t there — I was just going off what they said.
MR: Do you think that the tide is changing at all? Do you think men are becoming more aware of the importance of consent?
KC: Oh yeah, honestly, it was never — like I said earlier — it was never really talked about. … I feel like a lot of guys … may be taking it the other way. They’re like, “Do I need to get a signed contract now? Do I have to make sure I’m very aware?” I don’t know about all that. It may be partly joking, too. I think that is part of it. But I think a lot of guys, because a large majority of us weren’t formally taught what consent is both verbally and nonverbally, may be taking it the other way. They may think, “Well I’m a good guy, too. I would never do that.” Well, it’s not just about you. It’s the environment that has lasted so long. The environment needs to change, not just your direct behavior. I think it’s going to take some time for guys to realize that there’s a scale. And I think that’s kind of what this whole [Ansari] story brought up: Some people, I feel, are almost taking it the completely wrong way, and saying, “Oh it’s just a bad date, and that’s it.” And I think there’s some truth to that — it was a bad date, but it didn’t make it right.
Maria Del Russo talked to her friend, Cooper Naitove, 30, about consent. During their conversation, he reflects on having sex without alcohol.
Cooper Naitove: I’ve definitely been thinking about it more lately, especially given the conversations we’ve been having. Not that I was worried about getting in trouble. But more about how people have sex when they’re drunk. It gets their inhibitions out, but it also seems like you could be putting yourself in a bad situation when it comes to judgement. And I’m starting to think that maybe more sober hookups are the better way, even if they’re slightly more awkward in the beginning.
Maria Del Russo: That’s interesting, especially since you’re talking about your need to stay sober in order to improve your judgment. The conversation is usually about women needing to stay sober. But you’re saying the man needs to, too.
CN: Yeah, I mean everyone talks about sober sex and how weird that is. Most of my friends are women, and even they’ll tell me that sober sex is weird for them. So people use alcohol as a crutch. But once you add that crutch, it’s hard to remember what happens a lot of the time when you’re drinking. It’s hard to say what goes down in these situations. I’ve always thought it’s better to err on the side of not forcing things that never feel natural.
Maria Del Russo back in conversation with her brother, Billy Del Russo. In the babe.net article, Grace said Ansari’s “move” was putting “his two fingers in a V-shape and putting them in my mouth.” Maria Del Russo asks her brother if he has heard of the move.
BD: I haven’t heard of men sticking fingers into a person’s mouth before. I don’t know what you’d even be trying to do there. Like, I’ve seen it happen in porn before, but I didn’t think people actually did that in real life. I don’t get the point.
MD: Has porn affected your sexual experiences?
BD: I don’t think it’s necessarily affected it, but I think it gives you an unrealistic vision of what sex is supposed to look like. Just the setting and how you get into it and everything. And positions. It’s actually more of a surprise if a woman does act the way the women in porn do. If they’re freaky then it’s like, “Whoa.” I watch porn expecting it not to be so realistic. And if a woman is like “Oh yeah choke me,” I’m like “Uh, no. I’m not going to do that.” Because, like we talked about before, I don’t want them to misconstrue the situation later on. I’m always afraid when a woman is like, “Choke me, spank me, beat me up,” like in porn that she’s going to turn around and regret it later. So I never cross that line.
Mekita Rivas, back in conversation with Kyle Reinhart.
MR: Do you think stories like this help or hinder the #MeToo movement?
KR: I believe speaking out and letting your voice be heard helps all the people that don’t have a voice yet. It helps the victims heal and continues the conversation on appropriate and inappropriate behavior. No longer will individuals be able to steamroll and intimidate to keep the vulnerable quiet. I also believe that, when voicing your experience, you need to be rational and think clearly and fully about what you are going to say. Words stick and once you “let the cat out of the bag” it’s hard to retract and stop what you have put in motion.
Masimbaashe Zvovushe talks to her friend, Matthew Vilanova, 31. They are talking about the Ansari allegation, and Vilanova thinks the comedian was in the wrong.
Matthew Vilanova: People are so caught up in establishing levels of offense and categorizing offenders, [and] they’re missing the bigger picture. … When is it time to educate our young men about how to behave like decent people? This is less about what we’re teaching our girls, and more about what we teach our boys.
Our boys are taught that they’re somehow entitled to women and their bodies. And with questions like, “Why didn’t she leave?,” they’re taught that their own actions have no consequences, as long as they’re directed at a woman.
Meanwhile — our girls are taught not to walk alone, not to take drinks from strangers, to carry pepper spray or a weapon, to ignore incessant catcalling, to keep their heads down, and worst of all … not to “aggravate” the situation, for fear of how the man might react.
Teach your boys to be better than this. Teach them to understand all of the forms that “no” can be seen and heard. Teach them to respect the fact that they are not entitled to anyone else’s body. I don’t understand how this is being debated to be honest. She very clearly expressed discomfort with how things were happening, and he very clearly didn’t stop.
People are so caught up in establishing levels of offense with the #MeToo movement, that the message is being lost — and it’s likely on purpose.