Over the summer, Geoffrey Knight is in bed with a woman he is dating. He puts his hand on her breast, and she swats it away. "You need to ask before you touch me," he recalls her saying. Knight apologises, saying he had assumed it was okay because they had just had sex.
"You should never make that assumption," she retorts.
Flash-forward a few months, and Knight, a 25-year-old Washingtonian, is sleeping with someone new. He is asking "Can I touch you here?" "Can I do this?" every step of the way, and his partner wants to know what is with all the questions. She prefers a more proactive approach.
Knight is well-prepared to date in the #MeToo era. He has completed a two-month discussion class on how to reject toxic masculinity. He still has his "Consent is sexy" T-shirt from freshman year of college. He has thought so much about how men have the power in courtship, and with that, the ability to abuse it. So when he meets a woman while out at a bar, rather than ask for her number and potentially make her feel pressured to give it, he will give her his number and wait for her to text.
Yet he is still thoroughly confused. "It's tough for me to know where the line is," Knight says, "because it changes from woman to woman."
This is what it is like to date in 2018. Plenty of heterosexual men are confused about how to make the first move in a way that is confident and mindful of a woman's boundaries. Even the guys like Knight who are pretty sure they are not harassers are walking on eggshells.
Thomas Edwards, a professional wingman who coaches singles on how to approach people in bars, says his male clients are quite conflicted about how to be both romantic and respectful when making a first move, which was already tough before. "Now it's not just a fear of rejection, but a fear of being harassing," Edwards notes.
This uncertainty existed before the tidal wave of accusations of sexual misconduct, ranging from unwanted touches and kisses to rape, against powerful men in multiple industries. As much as the #MeToo moment has changed the workplace, it is changing the dating scene as well. Some single men are so worried about coming on too strong that they will not be the one to lean in for a first kiss. "If the woman doesn't make the first move, they're not going to," Francesca Hogi, a dating coach in Los Angeles, says of the single men she has spoken to recently. "They say: 'I'm going to take that as she's not interested, and I'm going to move on.'" Hogi said she thinks this is a lot to ask, especially when so many single women do not even want to send the first message online, much less make the first move sexually.
A 25-year-old single man in West Virginia, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of concern over his job security, used to frequently pick up women in bars. He is treading lightly these days. "I don't know what anyone's thinking nowadays," he says. "I don't know what could be considered harassment or what won't be."
He is still dating, but prefers to meet friends of friends rather than strangers at a bar or on an app. When he hooks up with someone, he wants to be extra-sure it is consensual, saying something like: "Hey, you're cool with this, right?" Asking for consent "can be a mood-killer," he says, "but it's the smart thing to do."
He has sent a few "If I ever did anything, I'm sorry" texts to exes, but there are some he has not spoken to and worries they might have a different take on their time together. "Those are the ones I worry about the most," he says, "the ones that don't want to talk to me."
So what if men are scared and confused? For ages, sex has held heavier consequences for women. Perhaps we are just getting closer to gender parity, to a place where women's desires in sex matter as much as men's. "Nothing is going to change with men until we hold them to a higher standard," says Jacklyn Friedman, a sex educator and author of Unscrewed: Women, Sex, Power and How to Stop Letting the System Screw Us All.
Getting there can be a little rocky. "I think they're overreacting," Hogi says of men who will not make a first move. "It's not that we don't ever want a man to kiss us or find us attractive. We just want to make sure he's being respectful of our feelings and not being presumptuous." Edwards adds if a man's intentions are pure, they should proceed as normal.
For Allison Carpio, a 29-year-old single woman in San Francisco, the conversation about sex and consent with someone new can start long before she has set foot in the bedroom. It might start at dinner, by talking about the recent controversy over Aziz Ansari's questionable first date or situations their friends have been through. "Simply because you're talking about it shows ... what their idea of consent is," Carpio says, adding she is not looking for a "right" or "wrong" answer in these conversations, simply a sense of openness and curiosity. "If a man will say something really short or deflect, that kind of turns me off. But if they dig in a little deeper and ask me questions about why I reacted that way, that's really what I look for."
The more she talks to the men in her life, the more Carpio realises a lot of men do not have "perfectly clean records," adding "that's not a bad thing. I've made mistakes myself."
For those who think asking for permission is not sexy, Carpio has an idea: Ask someone what they like. "Sometimes one of my partners asks: 'How do you want me?' ... It's not permission, but 'What do you prefer?'"
Knight would agree. "Consent should be defined as equal parts permission and desire," he says. How did he know a recent hookup of his was game? Before kissing her on their way to a party, he would asked: "Do you wanna make out?" By the time they were back at his place, "I didn't even turn the lights off before she started taking her pants off. I was like: 'okay, this seems consensual to me.' "