Welcome to dating in the post-Harvey Weinstein era. Four months on from the Hollywood mogul’s downfall, the ripples are still spreading, moving out from sexual harassment at work towards more intimate relationships. Nights that might once have been grimly chalked up to experience, classed as bad dates or near misses, are being exhumed and re-evaluated. It is as if women are watching the film of their lives from a different vantage point, searching for something they missed at the time. Stop. Rewind. Look again.
It is in this climate that online magazine Babe’s infamous account of a date between the comedian Aziz Ansari and a young woman called Grace went viral last month – it catalogued in excruciating detail his allegedly relentless attempts to get her into bed and her apparent inability to extricate herself. It resonated with younger women precisely because of its ordinariness – because the feeling of being alone with a man who is all hands, feeling pressured and panicked, but unsure quite how to get out of it, is so instantly recognisable, even if women are divided over what to call it.
Unsurprisingly, this leaves many men looking nervously over their shoulders. After all, Ansari says he did not realise anything was wrong on the night. How many men might unknowingly be the bad guy in another story? Social media histories are being quietly edited and sometimes virtue-signalled. The dating site OkCupid saw significantly increased mentions in profiles of the words “respect”, “feminist” and “woke” in 2017.
Many older women, however, are left puzzled and uneasy by a world where even the 90s sitcom Friends is suddenly deemed “problematic” (Ross’s jealousy and Monica’s relationship with an older man, among other plotlines, offend some millennial sensibilities). Few might want to defend men’s “freedom to pester”, as an open letter signed by 100 women including the 74-year-old actor Catherine Deneuve put it, or agree with Germaine Greer that it is too late for actors to start “whingeing” about having felt compelled to sleep with someone for a part. But there is a generation gap opening up between older women – worried that focusing on microtransgressions gives men an excuse to ridicule the #MeToo movement, rather than reflect on their behaviour – and younger ones who think life cannot be compartmentalised so neatly. When the US TV host Ashleigh Banfield accused Grace of undermining a clear anti-harassment message with her story, she was attacked as a “burgundy-lipstick, bad-highlights, second-wave-feminist has-been” by the young reporter who published the original story.
In a piece for GQ, the writer Justin Myers said men need to take a long, hard look at their behaviour. “We tell ourselves it’s a ‘grey area’, the rules around it so murky and undefined that all we can do is go for it and hope nobody gets sued,” he wrote. “Consent is seen as something to be tangibly and forcibly withheld, not asked for – we pretend men don’t have to check themselves or read the room; it’s up to his partner to stop them, tell them no, move away from them, leave if possible … Don’t pretend you haven’t noticed their body language just because it’s inconvenient for you to do so right now.”
Alarmed by the use of her private details, Midwinter complained to JustEat; exasperated by its lacklustre response, she posted her exchange with the driver and the company on Twitter. Then the floodgates opened. She was deluged with stories from young women sick of being hassled for dates by men who got their numbers through work: taxi drivers, delivery guys, shop assistants, maintenance men who texted suggestively within minutes of leaving a single woman’s flat. What seems to have grated most is the assumption that women would be flattered by the attention, no matter what the situation; that they are always up for being propositioned.
The point is not that a man should never try to chat up a woman, she argues, but that barging in uninvited is presumptuous and scary. “Usually, you talk to somebody first, then you feel comfortable giving them your phone number. A man doesn’t just take it. People go: ‘Just say no,’ but the guy was quite persistent. I said something like: ‘Stop messaging me, you’re making me uncomfortable,’ and he just asked why. He didn’t seem to understand.”
And that, writ large, is the problem. The old idea of courtship as a pursuit – in which men do all the chasing while women coyly resist, at least until there is some commitment on the table – has its downsides. It fosters an assumption that reluctance is normal and pushing is required; if a woman suddenly retreats or freezes, that is par for the course. Keep pestering for long enough and eventually a no might turn into a yes.
Yet “no means no” is increasingly seen by younger women as an embarrassingly basic approach to consent. They argue it encourages men to assume that, so long as their partner did not audibly say “no”, they are covered, even if that partner was shrinking away, asking them to slow down or frozen with fear. Badgering someone into queasy submission might technically be within the law, but it is not the road to a happy sex life and it may no longer protect a man from public censure. What young men should look for, Tillman argues, is not the potentially ambiguous absence of “no”, but the enthusiastic presence of a “yes, yes, yes” or affirmative consent. “In 2018, ‘no means no’ is totally antiquated. It puts all the pressure on the person in the most vulnerable position, that if someone doesn’t have the capacity or the confidence to speak up, then they’re going to be violated,” she says. “If somebody isn’t an enthusiastic yes, if they’re hesitating, if they’re like: ‘Uh, I don’t know’ – at this point in time, that equals no.”
But it also requires women to get over any coyness about articulating their own desires and to stop expecting men to read their minds. For affirmative consent puts female pleasure unashamedly centre-stage.
Like generations of feminists before them, millennials have been accused of being puritanical killjoys or making it practically impossible to have sex at all. But, in some ways, the reverse is true: their whole point is that sex is meant to be fun, that being browbeaten into it is miserable and that more communication should mean better sex for everyone. That is the point where two halves of the millennial psyche – the #MeToo movement and a lusty, libidinous sex-positive movement seeking to reclaim the word “slut” as a joyful thing – come together.