Rules of engagement

What does consent look like in the #MeToo era?

Actor and former NFL player Terry Crews joined journalists Joanna Coles and Lauren Duca to discuss toxic masculinity, consent, and dating post-#MeToo

In an honest and enlightening debate about the new rules of sexual engagement moderated by Zainab Salbi, host and executive editor of the PBS series “#MeToo, Now What,” two female journalists joined a male actor and activist to discuss the issues and share their own stories.

The problem starts with dating apps, said Joanna Coles, chief content officer of Hearst Magazines and author of the new book Love Rules. “What happens when you communicate with a stranger who you matched with on an app is you begin on a computer-mediated communication,” Coles said. “You don’t have all five senses on fire. You can’t tell if you’re going to like this person. All you can do is have a witty exchange with them.”

That disconnect can often give rise to incidents like the much-discussed story of comedian Aziz Ansari’s encounter with a woman in which the lines of consent were blurred — just one example of how confusing these issues can be.

“It showed the moral panic within the #MeToo era,” said Teen Vogue columnist Lauren Duca, who urged a more nuanced conversation about consent and responded with a story of her own to illustrate the complicated reality of sexual experiences. During a date the night before, the man she was with failed to take her cues and began aggressively groping and making out with her, she said: “When he was on top of me, with me pushed against his counter, his only goal was to seduce me, but I no longer wanted to be there.” She had to calculate carefully — what could she say that would get him to stop but not anger him?

Ultimately, she pretended to be drunk to get out of the situation. “With his hands on either side of me, he asked, ‘Are you sure you’re not just trying to leave?’ I had to proceed to do a performance of drunkenness to excavate myself from this situation in order to get out in a way that felt safe and that wouldn’t incite a male rage spiral,” Coles said. The story is trivial, she said — “it won’t even go in my memoirs” — but it’s a single instance among many of navigating a situation in which boundaries aren’t clear.

What we need, everyone agreed, is a new level of trust and respect between the sexes.

“People have to understand that masculinity can be a cult, and when I say cult, it’s not different from David Koresh, it’s not different from Jim Jones,” said activist, actor and former NFL player Terry Crews. He likened the detachment of men to slavery, when slave masters would observe slaves being beaten and feel nothing. “There’s a lack of empathy from men who are in this cult,” he said. “A guy is looking at you that is not all the way human, and there is a humanity issue here.”

Before changing his attitude about equality, he was guilty of this as well, he said: “I believed simply because I was a man I was more valuable than my wife and the other women in my life.” When he was a football player, the guys would go to strip clubs, where they shied away from any kind of personal interaction with the dancers. “If a woman there talks about kids or anything in her life, it’s like, Stop, stop!” Crews, who played for the Washington Redskins, Philadelphia Eagles and San Diego Chargers during his NFL career, said. “Because you’re becoming a human before my eyes. And I don’t want you to be a human, I want you to be an object. You’re pretty to look at, but as you talk you’re making things too real for me.”

Former NFL player Terry Crews speaking onstage at the 2018 Women in the World Summit.

“How did we get here?” asked Salbi. “Do you think we’re socialized to dehumanize women?”

Coles blames pornography, which she describes in her book as like chewing gum: all artificial flavor. “One of my great anxieties is the ubiquity of porn on digital devices, and it’s becoming the de facto sex education for an entire generation of young men and women,” she said. Young women often say that men expect them to behave like porn stars in bed, not understanding that “porn sex isn’t real sex—it’s made for camera angles that aren’t comfortable in real life.”

The current culture has become overly commoditized and overly transactional, but the solution, Duca said, “comes down to men having to shoulder more responsibility.” She rejected Coles’s stance, saying we shouldn’t draw a hard line across all pornography. “The bedroom is not an egalitarian space. I don’t have to live my feminist theory while I’m getting fucked, if that’s OK,” she said. “Sexuality is not a coin to be traded, and we can all get a better handle on consent and have better sex.”

Crews, who has described himself as a former “porn addict,” highlighted another confusion: “Love and sex have been thrown around as the same thing, and they’re not. You’ve got to understand how guys think. Guys know that if they keep talking about love to you, that will spark sex. They’re not talking about love. They don’t want love.”

When Crews was growing up, he said, friends told him to lie to the girls he liked and tell them that he loved them. Sex and love was all a game, but the truth, he said, is that “all men want intimacy. We want people to know us for who we are and know the good and bad and love us anyway. That’s true intimacy.”

How, then, can we navigate the line between self-imposed objectification and our own sexual freedom?

“That’s the impossible question,” said Duca. “We’re women living in a real world with practicalities, and we buy pretty dresses and blowouts and get ready and all these feminized gendered things are just another version of how we police our own sexuality.” Women need to spend time with themselves, she said, figuring out what feels good for them and finding a partner they can be comfortable with.

It’s almost impossible to have good sex regularly with strangers, said Coles. “The hookup culture is like eating French fries” –delicious when you’re eating them off someone else’s plate, but half an hour later you’re full of remorse. “There is nothing empowering and there is nothing fun about waking up in someone’s bed and not knowing if you’ve been sexually assaulted.”

Hearst magazines chief content officer Joanna Coles speaking onstage at the 2018 Women in the World Summit in New York City.

As the conversation about navigating consent progresses, Crews was asked how men can help. “Men tend to be manipulated by pride,” he said. “We speak two different languages and the way women tend to be manipulated is fear.” His own solution to toxic masculinity? “I had to kill my pride and then you can see things as they really are. I don’t speak for women, but when I talk about being manipulated by fear, you have to do the opposite. Be fearless. The antidote to fear is to own your power.”

“That’s beautiful, but there are physical realities to fear,” responded Duca, pointing out that for many women, just walking home alone at night is cause for fear.

With that, the conversation had to end, but no doubt the debate will rage on.

Additional reporting by Kristyn Martin.

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