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    Men, Ask Different Questions

    by Natasha Singh /

    1. Reframing

    Framing matters. The Babe story was not an anti-@AzizAnsari story. Such reductive framing reveals only reductive thinking. If we want to have more nuanced discussions and understandings of consent, sexual intimacy, and complaints of sexual assault, we need to do a better job of framing stories and asking the kind of questions that result in imaginative thinking. While more thoughtful perspectives on consent and sex are thankfully emerging (see:, the national conversation has been mired in: Did Ansari really rape Grace? Was Grace out to ruin Ansari’s career? Wasn’t Ansari a good guy? Was this sexual assault or just bad sex? As far as I can tell, such questions have led many down a swift path towards gridlock. And it would seem that all that’s left for us to do now is drill down on the conclusions we’ve already drawn. But the buck can’t stop there. We can’t let it.

    2. Stepping Out of Gridlock: What’s Required?

    Stepping out of gridlock requires a willingness to empathize—and a willingness to shift our gaze. It’s important for all of us to appreciate the anger and pain of many women who have long been held responsible for men’s sexual assault or men’s sexual harassment. What we just saw with the victims of Larry Nasser—and the judge who allowed Nasser’s 160 victims to have their day in court—was unprecedented, for it embodied restorative justice at its best. But it wasn’t that long ago when we saw the very public trial over Anita Hill’s sexual harassment allegations against Clarence Thomas. Back then it was Anita Hill herself who was tried and convicted in the court of public opinion for “putting up with” Clarence Thomas’s sexual harassment. She was called an attention-seeker. A liar with a political agenda. A bitch. Many seemed to breathe a sigh of relief when Clarence Thomas went on to keep his high profile job while Anita Hill retreated to teaching. The status quo was restored. In the numerous cases of sexual harassment and assault that came before or followed, reporters, policy makers, and members of the public repeatedly asked the same problematic questions: “What was she wearing? What was her sexual history? Why didn’t she fight back? Was she drinking? Why was she out so late? Was she flirting? Wasn’t she asking for it?” These deliberately myopic questions yielded sad and predictable results: victims of men’s predatory behavior were taught that they were somehow to blame, and the public was taught to stigmatize victims. Fear of public scrutiny, disbelief, and/or a legal system that consistently granted impunity to men left many victims feeling unsafe to come forward. Consequently, victims learned to live with not only the experience of violation, but also the feeling of being responsible and/or just plain resigned. None of this has been easy. None of this has been just. We even weaponized our language against victims. When headlines everywhere read: “A woman was raped last week” or “She faced sexual harassment”, victims were rendered passive objects who were acted upon by ... seemingly no one, for male perpetrators were vanished from our sentences altogether. And if we could vanish them from the very sentences we spoke and read, then we could vanish them from both the equation and, significantly, the solution. It seems that we’re finally at a point now where we can no longer deny that we have barely turned our gaze towards men’s behavior. And now that we are beginning to do so, it may seem to many that women are not merely gazing at men—but glaring.

    3. Squirming Under the Glare

    Recently, a former lover contacted me to ask whether he’d failed to get my consent when we were dating. He wasn’t the only one who has contacted me in recent days. Another wrote to thank me for what I’d taught him in our relationship (I hadn’t known I’d taught him anything). Another wrote to apologize. I was especially touched by the apology, for it was self-reflective and kind. But not everyone wants to hear from past partners, so it’s best to test the waters first. And not every one of these communications merits the same response. There are some things I don't want to revisit in my past, and not because I’m incapable of talking about such moments but because I don’t want to do the emotional labor for men if I believe they will grow from doing it themselves or with others. Being mired in confusion, guilt, and remorse can be invaluable, especially when those feelings are transformed into meaningful action or change. So, to the men who are squirming now: Don’t seek out reassurances if that’s all you’re seeking. Wrestle with yourselves and stay in the enquiry. The rewards, I believe, will be immense, for they can pave the way towards a different kind of masculinity. The kind that is comprised of humility, strength, and care. The kind that directs women not to attend to men’s needs but to their own. It's the kind that asks real questions: “Is there anything you need from me in order to heal?” It’s the kind that makes no assumptions: “I’ve been thinking about what happened between us and my role in it. Could it make a difference to you to have a conversation with me about it? If not, I totally understand. I’m here if and when you feel ready.” It’s the kind that gives space. It’s the kind that looks inward and begins to do the necessary work of examining the price that has actually been paid to live into the dominant ideal of masculinity. It's the kind that takes the initiative to have conversations not only with women, but also with men because it understands that men—more than women—can influence men’s behavior. And it’s the kind that is willing to unlearn, learn, and be accountable without being righteous or expecting applause for doing what’s just and, yes, long overdue.

    4. Yes, Men Really Do Have a Stake in This

    No boy willingly signs up for my classes. During the first fifteen minutes of the first day, they all sit there with their arms tightly folded across their chests or their legs sprawled out in front of them affecting cool indifference. A bored repose. This year, one of them could barely hold back his tears. He wanted to be in football practice—not in a yearlong course with a woman who was going to talk about the difference between mindful and toxic masculinity, porn consumption, sex, pleasure, and consent. These particular workshops are not offered through their school, which means they are not mandatory. They happen on weekends. So, as we go around the circle and I ask each boy why he’s here, the answer is usually the same: “My mom made me do this.” Once that’s established—and all the boys have let each other know in coded and obvious ways that there’s no way in hell they would choose to be here of their own accord—we can get started. It usually takes me no more than five minutes to cut through their defenses. How? You might ask. I resort to humor, and I resort to straight talk--the kind that recognizes in boys the potential for becoming stand-up men. It’s the kind that lets them know I care about them enough not to tolerate any bullshit from them, or from myself. Once we establish our “no bullshit” zone, we can commence. These boys—though they may not know it at first—have a vested interest in unlearning the scripts they’ve been taught. They have a vested interest in ending their performance of toughness, coolness, and strength. They have a vested interest in learning how to encourage each other to redefine masculinity on their own terms. When they begin developing tools and frameworks not only to decode the messages they’re bombarded with about what it means to be a man or a sexual partner, but also to become the kind of men they truly want to be, most seem to breathe a collective sigh of relief. I can actually hear it in the room.

    5. Men Don't (Have To) Know Everything

    The thing is, many boys feel like they have to know it all. They think they have to pretend they're in the know. If they don't, they fear being exposed for how much they don't actually know, and their worst critics are not girls but other boys and men. So learning about consent—and introducing boys to the idea and practice of asking meaningful questions—can be a source of relief for them, for there is no cookie cutter approach to dating, having sex, or being intimate with others. Sex is not about getting techniques right. It's about getting communication and connection right because each person--and each time--is different. I remind them that it’s important to ask real (rather than presumptive) questions of their partners and that it’s extremely important to listen. I remind them that culture has taught girls to please, perform, and privilege male pleasure--and that girls have their own work to do. I talk to them about how great intimacy can be if there's genuine communication and an insistence on equity in intimacy. I remind them that relationships can and should be co-creations, and that it's important to be able to distinguish between those who care about consent and those who don’t. Sometimes they see themselves in the examples I provide. Other times they recognize the partners they’ve had. Though many of the boys and girls I’ve worked with say they feel changed or that they see the world differently at the end of these workshops, I have no illusions about one woman’s impact.

    6. Showing Up

    I've always regarded teaching as a kind of gardening. One can only plant seeds of ideas or questions and hope they will grow. What’s needed now are far more seed planters—and multi-pronged approaches to not only planting seeds, but also to tending to their growth over time. Our media landscape--where young people spend considerable time--needs to be filled with movies and shows that model effective and honest communication. We need schools to implement comprehensive sex ed classes across the country that teach the value of communication and consent to all students. We need to ensure that kids learn media literacy so they have a fighting chance at talking back to a culture that continues to sell them toxic narratives about power, intimacy, sex, and gender. We need parents to place just as high a premium on meaningful sex education as they do on academics and athletics. And we need fathers--or other male role models--to step up to the plate. One of the homework assignments I give to boys is to ask their fathers or male mentors what their hopes are for their sons. Most of the boys complete this homework and return to class saying their fathers or mentors hope they will become kind, loving, considerate men. This is not surprising to me. Yet, I remain confounded by the gap between these hopes and how fathers are actually showing up. Let me explain: I’ve been able to do a lot of the specialized workshops I do because groups of mothers contact me. These mothers want more from their schools. They want more for their daughters, and they want more for their sons. What frequently strikes me in my workshops is that very few girls or boys say their fathers signed them up. In fact, in most of the workshops I offer to parents on how to talk to teens/pre-teens about sex, consent, and decision-making, it’s concerned mothers who fill the room. Fathers, for the most part, remain conspicuously absent. What I tell fathers when they do show up—and some do—is that men’s silence or absence from these conversations communicates volumes to their children, their partners, and their communities. Their silence or absence communicates (whether they intend it to or not) the persistent belief that sexism, sexual harassment, sexual assault, and "bad sex" are women's issues--and therefore women's problems. But these men--the ones who are actually showing up for these conversations--are not the ones who need to be hearing this because they're already in the room. But I tell them anyway in the hopes they’ll talk to other men and remind them that their sons need their support in order to live into the hopes they have for them. Their sons need them to model that this matters--and that they, too, have a stake in changing our world. Their sons need them to model that what's more important than having all the answers is having lots of great questions. After a recent workshop of mine, one of the fathers came up to me and asked, “So, Natasha, how do I get more men to show up?” I didn't have an answer for him. But I thought his question was a great place to start.