A college student carefully considers which fraternity houses to avoid when she’s going out with her roommates. An engaged 30-something grapples with behavior she might have brushed off previously — even from her fiancé. A divorced man calls every woman he's ever had romantic or sexual contact with to ask whether he's ever crossed a line.
A new sense of hyper-awareness has infiltrated sex, dating, and hookup culture since #MeToo took off on social media last fall — and from college campuses to divorced singles, it’s changing the game.
It’s a sort of “once you see something, you can’t un-see it” attitude, says Mark Krassner, a 34-year-old entrepreneur. “All of a sudden it was like this very stark truth that was sort of in the background before.”
Ayla Bussel, 19, says she now dates “very cautiously” and is generally more alert when she’s out with her college friends. “We never leave our drinks unattended. We know the shortcut on our phones to call 911.”
Alison Kinney, 43, a writer in Brooklyn, says she’s never been shy about confronting men on their harassment, but what’s different now is that “men know that they’re going to be held accountable.”
Since last October, when a wave of Hollywood actresses began coming forward with sexual assault allegations against film mogul Harvey Weinstein, more and more women have shared their own accounts of sexual mistreatment at the hands of men in various industries. According to an October poll by NBC News and The Wall Street Journal, this public reckoning has changed the way both men and women view these issues — nearly half of the women surveyed said they felt more encouraged to speak out about their own experiences. And 49 percent of men surveyed claimed that women’s MeToo stories had caused them to rethink their own behaviors around sex and dating.
To get a firmer grasp on what it’s like to date and have sex in this fraught new era, we checked in with women and men of various ages and locations about their experiences. We learned that though more and more people are talking about these issues, sex today seems more complicated than ever, regardless of whether you’re having it as a cautious college freshman or a recently separated 40-something.
Here are the perspectives of six people on how the #MeToo momentum has played out in their dating lives as they attempt to navigate the cloudy waters of consent.
Ayla Bussel, 19, Oregon State University undergrad
A political science major, Ayla Bussel is well-versed in the evolving conversation around #MeToo. “It is long overdue,” she writes via email. Bussel identifies as a “strong feminist” who regularly dissects her dating life, as well as issues like campus assault and sexual harassment, with her three roommates.
Yet she doesn’t sense a commensurate commitment to women’s welfare from the men she dates. “They don’t seem to understand the importance of consent,” she explains. Most of the men she discusses these issues with are “unreceptive,” she says. On campus, Bussel sees this as “an extreme lack of respect for women and their choices.”
Ayla Bussel Leah Nash / for NBC News
Like many women, Bussel says she and her friends have experienced various forms of sexual violence. “I have numerous friends who have been harassed, sexually assaulted and raped.” Despite increased awareness of sexual assault in the wake of #MeToo, Bussel says she’s become less trusting of men: “I have had some pretty scary experiences with men in college … and I have been coerced and pressured numerous times.”
But with a renewed personal dedication to activism, Bussel is hopeful about the future, provided that men — on-campus and off — start involving themselves more tenaciously in these conversations. Karen B.K. Chan, a sex educator in Toronto, shares Bussel’s hope, saying: “To move forward we need conversations in which men say, ‘I wonder what I’ve done in my life that may have put someone in danger.’ I want to recruit men to be part of the change.”
Bussel believes said change will require men in positions of power (such as “actors, rappers and athletes that younger men look up to”) to start speaking up for high school and college-age men to start truly getting it.
Daniel Boscaljon, 41, adjunct professor in Iowa City
Currently dating after his marriage ended three years ago, Daniel Boscaljon says he’s long considered respect to be the crux of his relationships: “Women would look at me strangely because I would be very communicative each step of the way, asking for permission for any kiss or touch: ’Is it OK if I hold your hand? Would you like me to do this?’”
“When women react to it like I'm doing something special, that scares me. I'm not trying to pat myself on the back,” he says. He clarifies that he considers these overtures “bottom-drawer respect.”
Daniel Boscaljon Scott Morgan / for NBC News
Living in a college town among friends who tend to share his views, Boscaljon, a humanities instructor in the Iowa City area, admits he’s rather insulated. “The people that are part of my life presuppose dignity and respect as foundational in every one of their relationships. I'd never really seen somebody groped or harassed,” he says. For this reason, he was shocked when #MeToo escalated as it did. “It wasn't until I started reading all of the stories that I realized how awful most men are. It [took] me out of that bubble, exposed how raw and horrifying it was.”
The MeToo dialogue encouraged Boscaljon to review his own sexual history and reach out to everyone he’d been with in the past. “I did an exhaustive list of everybody that I'd ever had romantic or sexual contact with,” he says. He recalls asking them, "Hey, if I did something wrong, let me know.” No one called him out on anything, he claims.
While he welcomes the heightened cultural dialogue around these issues, Boscaljon is “incredibly pessimistic” about the MeToo momentum prompting long-term change. “It's a problem that goes way deeper than dating, or gender, or power dynamics,” he says. “Fewer and fewer people know how to even ask questions of each other, much less listen, much less give. There's no feel-good example anywhere of what authentic, loving, caring, dating situations should even be like.”
Melanie Breault, 29, nonprofit communications professional
Melanie Breault, who lives in Brooklyn, is currently dating a few men and doesn’t consider herself completely heterosexual. “I’ve always been frustrated with the [male] entitlement piece,” she says. “There are moments where you get so goddamned tired of saying the same things to dudes who are never going to get it.”
Breault still considers herself somewhat lucky when it comes to her experiences with men. “I’ve had a lot of more ‘aware’ men in my life who I have been able to have good, fun, exciting sexual experiences with that don’t make me feel uncomfortable,” she says. She remembers one man who communicated about consent in a way that felt especially healthy. The first time they slept together, “he took off his belt and went to put it around my hands, but first he asked, ‘Is this OK?’”
Melanie Breault Christopher Gregory / for NBC News
Still, she acknowledges that in casual dating situations, it can be tough to figure out “what you're both comfortable with, and [navigate] the power dynamics that exist in heterosexual relationships.” For example, she recalls one “borderline assault” with a “liberal bro type” who relentlessly pressured her into having sex with him: “It was one of those grey areas; I told him I didn't want to do anything, but I was staying over at his place and he kept pushing me until I just said yes."
One of the challenges, as the MeToo movement’s founder, Tarana Burke, noted in a January interview, is that many American women have been conditioned to be people-pleasers.
“Socially we’re trained out of knowing our own sexual desires,” said Chan, the sex educator, who says she regularly works with groups of young people who aren’t setting clear boundaries because they “don’t want to hurt someone's feelings.”
Part of the problem, Breault said, is what she grew up learning from peers in her rural Connecticut town. “My peers — not my parents — taught me all kinds of bull----, like that if you don't want to have sex with [a guy,] you still have to get him off.” Until early adulthood, “I thought I had to do that to protect myself,” she says. “Why is the responsibility always on the woman?”
Alea Adigweme, 33, writer and graduate student at the University of Iowa
Alea Adigweme, of Iowa City, identifies as a “cis queer woman engaged to a man” and says she’s still trying to parse the ways that the revelations around MeToo have affected her relationship with her fiancé.
“As somebody who's in graduate school in a media studies program, who thinks a lot about gender, race and sexuality, it's always been a part of [our] conversations,” she acknowledges. But she notes that, especially given her history of trauma — she was drugged and raped in 2013 — having a male partner in today’s climate bears its challenges. “I can't fault him for being socialized as a man in the United States,” she says. But “it’s impossible not to feel the reverberations in one's personal relationship, especially if one is in a personal relationship with a man.”
Alea Adigweme Scott Morgan / for NBC News
The current cultural spotlight on these issues has also caused Adigweme to “re-contextualize” behavior that she might have brushed off previously, both in and out of her relationship. “I have had varying types of negative experiences with men who’ve decided they deserved access to my body,” she says. “Having this conversation constantly in the news definitely brings up all of the old s--- that you think you’ve already dealt with.”
She and her fiancé discussed the Aziz Ansari story when it broke, which helped start a conversation about “nice guys” who may not be legally crossing the line into abuse, but “are still doing things that feel like violation.”
On a broader scale, perhaps nothing has provoked more heated debate about the gray areas of consent – and the line between sexual assault and so-called bad sex – than the reported conduct of Ansari, a comedian. In January, a 23-year-old female photographer claimed that, on a date, Ansari tried to pressure her into intercourse and ignored her “verbal and nonverbal cues” of distress. Ansari later described the encounter to NBC News as “completely consensual.”
Adigweme, who is black, said while her partner is “imperfect,” he is invested in their relationship. She remembers once having a “tense conversation” in which he said that sometimes, as a white man, he felt as if Adigweme hated him.
“I know all men are not trash. I know all white people are not awful monsters,” she recalls responding. “It's not about [him] as an individual white dude. It's about structures of white supremacy and misogyny and heterosexism.”
Alison Kinney, 43, writer
Alison Kinney, an author in Brooklyn, recently started internet dating after separating from her husband of 11 years. “There are some nice people, but there is also a cesspool of misogyny and violence,” she says.
Kinney says she was raped on one Tinder date and assaulted on another. “I screened so heavily,” she says. She knows her rapist’s name. “I know where he works, I have his address, and that didn't protect me.”
Alison Kinney Christopher Gregory / for NBC News
She also recalls a date with a man who appeared to “retaliate” after she told him she didn’t like the way he kissed. “I was like, ‘You've got to slow down, because this is not how I like it.’ He was just not getting [it]. So I quoted some stats that I'd read … about women putting up with subpar kissing, and he said, ‘Well, I’m not the kind of man who just shoves his tongue down women’s throats.’ I said, ‘Actually, you are!’ Then he grabbed me ... by the hair so I couldn't get away, and did it again.”
Describing herself as a longtime “confrontational feminist,” Kinney is no stranger to discussions about harassment, abuse and violence. “Women have always had these conversations,” she says. “What has changed is that men know that they're going to be held accountable.” For this reason, Kinney “dials up” her feminism on dates. “Part of this is defensive, and part of it is resentment,” she says, “that I have to think about [my] safety.” She also says she does it to help protect other women the men may be dating.
Like Bussel, Kinney believes that the onus is now on men to start reframing both their principles and their actions when it comes to consent. “The way that men are invested in the idea of themselves as good men, good lovers, good nonrapists — push them on it,” she says. “If they know someone in their circle is a serial abuser, are they doing something? What responsibility are they taking?”
Chan, the Canadian sex educator, said she hoped that in the future, people would be far more informed and comfortable when it comes to the parameters of consent. “In popular culture, a lot of what we call ‘game,’ or being good at hitting on people, is actually coercion,” she says. “I think in 10 or 20 years when we look back ... what we see as normal now will be seen as archaic and stupid.”
Mark Krassner, 34, entrepreneur
Mark Krassner met his girlfriend in the gym pre-#MeToo — he walked up and asked for her number after admiring her impromptu dance moves — but says he might not have been so brazen if he encountered her there more recently.
“I don't know if I would've approached her in the gym now, knowing that there's this new hyper-awareness around different boundaries,” Krasser says. “I think that it's created a space where I might not [feel as] comfortable doing things that I would've done.”
Mark Krassner Christopher Gregory / for NBC News
Krasser realizes that sexual harassment and assault are nothing new, but still found himself shocked to learn that most of the women he’s spoken with about MeToo have experienced some sort of sexual trauma themselves. “I've actually had more conversations with my female friends about the topic. It wasn't something that we spoke about before much,” he says.
“When #MeToo came out, it was almost sickening to be like, ‘Whoa. This is the world that I live in and I didn't even really conceptualize’ … All of a sudden it was like this very stark truth that was sort of in the background before.”
Another issue that’s surprised Krassner was the divisiveness of the gray areas when it comes to consent. He calls the Aziz Ansari scandal “not so cut-and-dry.”
“There's so many nuances ... and layers to that story, and everybody's trying to put it into one box or another, and that's what makes it so challenging,” he says.
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