Challenging the shame of #MeToo might just mean changing the dialogue of consent
By Sophie Hodge
Gender studies student and writer Ilias Balakka says he and his male friends felt ashamed to be male in the wake of the #MeToo movement.
“I felt a lot of shame come out of the #MeToo movement. A lot of shame for being male and hearing these disgusting stories and the behaviour becoming normalised,” he said.
Ilias followed the #MeToo campaign closely and admits that while it has been positive for female empowerment, young men are now confused as to what might be misconstrued as assault.
This comes following the report of comedian Aziz Ansari’s sexual encounter with ‘Grace’, which sparked discussions of the nature of consent. The article, published on babe.net, goes into detail of Ansari’s attempts to initiate sex and Grace’s inability to explicitly voice her discomfort and remove herself from the situation.
It was a catalyst for a global discussion on the ‘grey area’ of consent and has challenged the concept of ‘no means no’. What was once assumed to be just a black and white issue has evolved to question whether body language and smaller verbal cues should be prioritised.
“It definitely kind of shook me and made me think about my personal behaviour… I’ve become less flirty because I want to support this movement and I don’t know where the line is… I’ve thought twice about making any kind of moves, and holding back, trying not to be too leery or complimenting,” Ilias says.
“The #MeToo campaign did, on some level, damage my love life,” Ilias admits.
The darker side of this, however, is the confusion that has sprung in young adults over what constitutes consent. One study indicates that 61 per cent of men say they rely on non-verbal cues such as body language or touching to indicate whether a woman is consenting to sex. This contrasts the 10 per cent of women who say consent is given via body language, with 47 per cent consenting verbally only after being asked by the man. These differences beg the question of how to change the dialogue surrounding consent and erase the blurred lines.
The concept of a grey area offers an explanation for experiences which may not be classified as rape or assault, but where the issue of consent was distorted. Mira Johnson-Montesinos and Sara*, both university students from Sydney, have opened up about uncomfortable sexual encounters when, like Grace, they felt they didn’t have enough power to explicitly say no.
“There are many times when I felt as if I couldn’t say ‘no’ because I knew the person, or I liked [them] as opposed to actually wanting to go through with the sexual activity, or moments where I didn’t say ‘no’ but wasn’t comfortable with the situation,” Sara* said.
“I would try and slow things down through non-verbal cues such as moving their hands to another area; however, they would either not understand what I was trying to do, or just not respect my decision,” she added.
In Mira’s experience, it was the issue of implied consent which made for a confronting encounter.
“Recently I had sex with someone who I wouldn’t normally have had sex with. I had had intercourse with him previously, so I think the assumption of consent was clear. I in no way think it was not consensual, but I think that had I been in a clearer state of mind the situation wouldn’t have occurred.”
“I think in a way I felt quite obligated, if not pressured, to consent,” she said.
With young women conflicted as to how to assert their voice, and young men confused over what actions may be misconstrued as assault, how does one move forward?
A recent campaign, entitled ’50 shades of no’, attempts to address the misperception by “empowering women and educating men” on the grey area of consent. The campaign launched on International Women’s Day 2018 with celebrities and social media influencers wearing t-shirts printed with different phrases. Slogans such as “I have work tomorrow” or “I’m not really feeling it” were among 50 examples of what a woman might say in attempt to halter or slow a sexual encounter.
Like the #MeToo movement, the campaign has been both criticised and praised, but both responses have one thing in common: the need for communication. Moving forward in the #MeToo movement, Illias says, involves addressing the confusion and including both genders in the discussion.
“#MeToo definitely shook guys awake to how their behaviour and assertiveness of particularly masculine traits were really damaging for a lot of women. I think on the flip side men have a lot to learn from this #metoo campaign, but I think there can be a mild lesson for women to learn in clear communication and to not be afraid to put your foot down. That’s secondary to the lessons that men should learn; but moving forward it has to be a two-way thing.
“You can’t just expect one side to completely reform and not have some reciprocal change in the other gender, that’s just the nature of moving forward,” he said.
For Sara, moving forward means reigniting the importance of consent and coming to terms with what her past encounters meant.
“Just because someone consents to one particular act does not mean they consent to others… [we should] stop abiding by ‘no means no’ but rather ‘yes means yes’ and to not escalate sexual encounters unless they are sure that consent has been obtained,” she said.
Mira said that the fact that this ‘grey area’ is becoming a discussion is an important step forward in itself.
“It empowers people of all genders to stand up for themselves and their sexual lives,” she said.
“I think the exploration of grey areas needs way more discourse and the #MeToo movement invites people to share their opinions and stories in an open way, where in the past they may have felt ashamed or shunned by society for doing so… this I think is vital to law reform, societal reform and education.”
Gender studies student Ilias says that the biological nature of males and females has been excluded from discussion and is important when dealing with such sensitive issues. He says that by understanding these innate differences, society has a chance to find a solution.
“It’s just taught to us that there’s no evolutionary differences between men and women – and I think there totally are, and they come into it. How much so, I don’t know, but they’re definitely factors we should consider… and they have to be accommodated for,” he said.
Educating men on the quieter ways women express themselves, and empowering women to use their voice when males don’t pick up non-verbal cues is just the start of a path to erase the shame clouding sex, years after the #MeToo movement began.
*This name has been changed in order to protect the identity of the person