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Dating in the #MeToo era can mean more confusion over consent: experts

Global News with Anuradha Dugal 02 May 2018

It has been months since Aziz Ansari’s “bad date” incident, and experts say the narratives around dating in the #MeToo movement continue to change, but for some, it leads to more confusion.

While dating doesn’t seem to be slowing down, in fact, there are more ways to meet people online than ever. Experts say men and women have taken a step back to be a lot more aware of conversations around consent.

“I definitely think people are more aware, and this is certainly due to the explosive revelation and reactions to the systemic abuse occurring in [Hollywood],” says Toronto-based relationship therapist Natasha Sharma.

Even before that, the issue of consent — especially female consent — has been something people have been more aware of since women’s rights and freedoms advanced significantly in the mid-20th century.

“More importantly, I think people are becoming quite confused about consent nowadays, and this is certainly due in part to the recent media attention and at times, irrational conversations around abuse and assault.”

Breaking down consent

A 2015 study by the Canadian Women’s Foundation found two out of three Canadians didn’t know what sexual consent meant.

“Over the past year, sexual assault has been pushed into the spotlight, causing greater awareness about the importance of consent,” said Anuradha Dugal of Canadian Women’s Foundation in a statement in 2015.

“The fact that most Canadians agree sexual activity should be consensual is a positive sign that people understand the critical importance of consent. However, it’s alarming that so many people don’t understand what consent actually looks like. This gap can increase the risk of unwanted sexual activity and assault, and is a clear sign that Canadians desperately need more education on the meaning of consent.”

Sharma adds consent boils down to treating people with respect and dignity at all times and respecting their personal boundaries.

Why communication is important

“It’s hard for the best of us to the read non-verbal cues of others on our best days, so we cannot rely simply on that as a signal of consent or non-consent,” she continues. “When we are first initiating more physical intimacy in dating, and if non-verbal cues don’t appear to be clear, don’t hesitate to do a quick check.”

She says a simple “Is this OK for you?” can suffice and this should clear up any confusions about getting intimate.

“That said, we don’t want to move to a place where we feel so unsure, vulnerable, or that the threat of accusation is so real that we need to draw up a legal contract of what is and isn’t acceptable bedroom behaviour.”

Toronto LGBTQ+ matchmake Clare AH adds conversations on consent need to continue as relationships progress.

“It’s also about doing the work and learning about rape culture,” she tells Global News. “And having honest conversations about consent that are ongoing, making sure the lines of communication are still open.”

She says while it may be awkward to bring up consent, it is necessary to make sure you know what your partner does and doesn’t want. And if you don’t want to have sex within those first few dates (it is also fine if you do), tell your date you want to go slow. And if they are aggressive or don’t take boundaries seriously, this is not someone you want to date.

“This isn’t to be sex-negative, but if you’re in a position where that’s a boundary you don’t want to cross, don’t.”

Are people confused?

With so much discussion around boundaries, and frankly many stories about men and women questioning them, it may also lead to some confusion around what is assault, abuse or even consent.

Claire says while consent is important to set boundaries, it is also useful to understand what your partner likes and doesn’t like. Kissing for example, can boil down to asking your date at the end of the night if you can kiss them, the Guardian notes.

Sometimes it could be flirting, and Claire says on first dates, flirting should be light and not aggressive.

Sharma says she also sees why others, in particular men, may seem nervous to date in this climate.

“Many people have become confused, and I wouldn’t be surprised if men reported feeling more anxious and vulnerable to being unfairly accused and held accountable without investigation of facts,” she adds.

“And this is sad because it hurts the many women and even some men who legitimately do experience abuse, and their ability to come forward and also appear credible.”

She adds we need to be very conscientious and mindful of how we ourselves are interpreting the actions and advances of others. And sometimes, it just means taking control of your own decisions.

“As women, if we desire equality and freedom, then we also need to take the same control over our sexual lives as men do. And this includes being very clear in what one is — and is not — comfortable within relationships.”