Tanya Pillay was looking forward to an evening walk on the beach. It was 1994, and she was at a friend’s cottage on Lake Erie, visiting from her home in Simcoe, Ontario. Pillay was nineteen and had just graduated high school. Mark, an acquaintance of hers from school who had already started university, was at the cottage party as well. “When he said, ‘Hey, would you like to have a walk?’ I was happy,” Pillay says. “I thought, ‘Oh cool, he’s really smart, he’s really successful.’”
The beach was dark when they arrived. It wasn’t long before Mark (whose name has been changed and who did not reply to multiple requests for comment) was trying to kiss her and pulling at her clothes. “He was a very popular, attractive guy,” Pillay recalls. “There was a part of me that thought I was supposed to like this and want this.” But she didn’t. Pillay was confused by how quickly he was moving and how little her reactions seemed to matter. It felt too soon—there was no sense of intimacy. Then, Mark somehow had her down on the ground. “He had a way of almost gently or lightly pushing me,” she says. “Like a gradual erosion of my balance.”
Pillay objected, saying they didn’t have a condom, that she didn’t want to do this there, on the sand, in the dark. Suddenly, Mark pushed her head down toward his lap, saying that it was okay if they didn’t have a condom, that she could just go down on him. She said no, but he kept pushing. She felt like she was in a trance. “He was so unrelenting,” she says. “I just kind of thought, ‘I’ll let this happen.’ I didn’t know how I could make it not happen.” She remembers the roughness of the motion injured the inside of her cheek. At some point, there was intercourse—a part she doesn’t remember well.
When it was over, they got up and got dressed. “We basically chatted like old acquaintances,” she says. “It was all casual and cool.” But the night changed her: she felt like something about her had been contaminated. Yet Pillay didn’t think of what had happened as a sexual assault—not until her best friend suggested it a few days later. Pillay had thought an incident could only be called an assault if it matched “the cliché—if you’re violently attacked and restrained.”
Sexual consent—the decision to take part in sexual activity, expressed via words and behaviour—was once largely taken for granted in heterosexual relationships. Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty in Bonnie and Clyde didn’t discuss whether to have sex; they just looked deeply into each other’s eyes and kissed as the camera panned away. If two people were alone together in a car’s back seat, or in a bedroom, it was generally assumed that sex could follow. A woman’s interest wasn’t necessarily part of this paradigm (“Close your eyes and think of England”), and if a woman did say no, her partner might treat it as a tease, an expected game of playing hard to get. Sexual assault was viewed as a rarity and an intrusion from outside—a violent attack by the stereotypical stranger in an alleyway. As the term “date rape” came into popular parlance in the 1970s, many people sat uncomfortably with the realization that sexual assault was more common than that Bonnie and Clyde scene suggested. Anita Hill’s 1991 testimony about United States Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas’s “sexual overtures” toward her gave voice to a related epidemic: workplace harassment.
This past fall, we reached another collective tipping point, a public acknowledgement of how thoroughly the texture of women’s experience is shaped by sexual harassment and sexual assault. (Women are the victims in 87 percent of self-reported sexual assaults, according to Statistics Canada.) A flood of revelations exposed the extent of attacks routinely perpetrated by powerful men—actors, journalists, restaurateurs, politicians. Dozens of women went public with long-standing allegations that they had been raped, sexually assaulted, and sexually harassed by Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein. Comedian Louis C. K. and television host Charlie Rose, among many other prominent media figures, were removed from their jobs after facing multiple allegations of sexual harassment or assault.
The #MeToo movement, which was initially developed more than a decade ago by American activist Tarana Burke, took on renewed energy soon after allegations about Weinstein broke in the news. The hashtag circulated rapidly on Facebook and Twitter, a way for people to publicly identify as having experienced sexual harassment or assault. #MeToo was tweeted more than 5 million times, by people in more than 200 countries, in 2017.
This latest watershed was about behaviour that, for the most part, our society readily defines and at least publicly agrees is wrong: A stranger exposing himself on the subway. A boss fondling an employee who is hoping for a promotion. A woman meeting a friend of a friend at a party who rapes her later that night. But what this conversation exposed, too, is a less discussed kind of assault—less discussed not because it is less bad but because it is found within the context of “normal” sexual dynamics. Violations by dates and spouses and boyfriends, in situations where some sort of sexual interaction is part of the relationship. To say no, only to have someone push for more. To agree to one act (protected sex) and have your date do another (unprotected sex). To play it cool after you’ve been assaulted, because you’re supposed to get along. To have a partner feel entitled to sex. To let sex happen because the persistence required to refuse, to get out of the room, to make him leave, is too great.
Enabling some of this murkiness is a long-standing cultural trope that sex is hotter in silence. Our romantic comedies, erotic thrillers, songs, and literature are steeped in the idea that explicitly asking someone what she wants—whether she wants—will mean sacrificing the mystery, the seductiveness, the sexiness of sex. Others maintain that such transparency simply isn’t feasible. Laura Kipnis, a Northwestern University cultural theorist, makes the argument in her 2017 book, Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus, that attempts to stamp out all unwanted sexual experiences from young women’s lives are doomed to fail because women “are often experimenting to find out what they do and don’t want or like.” (The 2015 essay on which the book is based sparked student protests after its publication.) Students’ sexual experiences are awkward, full of fumblings, ambivalent motivations, and unequal power dynamics, she writes; people don’t know whether they want sex or not, and they may change their minds about it afterwards. As a result, she argues, “this makes anyone who’s ever had sex a potential rapist.”
The notion that sex will always be fraught with ambiguity makes it more difficult for us to understand that sexual experiences that take place under pressure or duress are a form of assault. This is the type of sexual assault at the highest risk of being normalized—dismissed as “just a part of life”—and the type that rarely makes it to court. This is dangerous: when women can’t identify that what they’re experiencing is wrong, much less illegal, they find it harder to report it to authorities afterwards. A 2007 survey submitted to the US Department of Justice found that 35 percent of sexual-assault survivors who did not report their attacks did not do so because it was “unclear [to them that] a crime was committed or that harm was intended.”
The experience of front line workers bears this out. “I’ve had survivors say to me, ‘It was weird because I didn’t feel right—I don’t want to do this, but I still went along with it,’” says Yamikani Msosa, a specialist at Ryerson University’s Office of Sexual Violence Support and Education in Toronto and an executive member of the Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres. “There are a lot of times survivors are like, ‘I didn’t have the language….I had no idea that this was sexual violence….’ It can be so confusing and overwhelming sometimes, especially when [the perpetrator] is…someone that you care about.”
Many of these less visible assaults are known to sexual-assault researchers under the name coercion: being verbally, emotionally, or psychologically pressured into unwanted sexual contact. The category has been included in questionnaires given to sexual-assault survivors dating back to the 1980s, including those developed by University of Arizona professor of public health Mary P. Koss, which have been widely adopted. (“Have you given in to [sexual contact] when you didn’t want to because you were overwhelmed by a man’s continual arguments and pressure?” went a 1982 version of the question.)
There is no recent national randomized study of coercion rates in Canada. A 2015 survey conducted by Charlene Senn, a professor in the University of Windsor’s psychology department and women’s studies program and an expert on sexual violence, and several colleagues, found that at least 25 percent of 442 first-year female university students had been coerced or faced attempted coercion into penetrative sex by men, through tactics including manipulation and threatening to end a relationship, in a twelve-month study period. The US National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey published in 2017 found that 13 percent of American women were victims of coerced penetration, which it defined as unwanted penetration after non-physical pressure, such as being lied to or “being worn down by someone who repeatedly asked for sex or showed they were unhappy.” It also found that perpetrators of coercion were more likely to be current or former intimate partners of their victims and that 6 percent of men had experienced coercion. (Neither study addressed rates of coercion for types of sexual contact other than penetration, such as groping.)
Bordering on coercion is a category of experience that researchers call compliance: sex that you don’t particularly want to have but aren’t being directly pressured to accept. Sex researchers recognize that there are many situations in which (primarily) women agree to sex even if they’re not particularly turned on—expecting that they might become aroused in the process, wanting to emotionally connect with a partner, or because they know their partner wants to—and generally consider these instances consensual. There’s a difference between desire and willingness, and the latter can be present even if the former is not. (Women aren’t the only ones who do this; research has shown that men also have sex when they don’t feel like it, says Senn. This is often because they feel that desiring sex is expected of them, as men.) The line between consensual compliance and non-consensual coercion gets fuzzy when women agree to things they wouldn’t have if they had felt more empowered to decline—for example, if a woman has sex with her husband because she knows he’ll be in a bad mood otherwise. He hasn’t directly pressured her; she’s decided, based on previous experience, that not having sex is worse than the alternative.
“Most sexual-violence researchers embrace the idea that this is a continuum of sexual behaviour,” says Senn. Mapped out by experts and theorists such as Liz Kelly, a sociologist and director of the Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit at London Metropolitan University, this continuum is not a ranking of the severity of assaults—a frequent misinterpretation that Kelly is quick to correct—but instead shows how common, and how well-recognized, different forms of assault are. On the more common end of the spectrum are acts (street harassment, for example) that are the least recognized; at the other end are more widely understood and condemned acts (gang rape, stranger rape) that occur much less often. Coercion falls toward the more common and less recognized end of the spectrum.
Coercion has been rendered as murky as it is in part by our culture of silence about sex. Pornography and sexual imagery are ubiquitous; frank discussions about our actual desires, fears, and experiences are not. The way sex is depicted in popular media is “very different from having real communication about desire,” says Senn. These cultural norms mean society is more likely to tolerate male behaviour that is manipulative or aggressive and to interpret female behaviour as compliant, because these interpretations fit traditional assumptions about each gender. (It’s James Bond holding down and forcibly kissing Pussy Galore in Goldfinger, or it’s the lyrics “Tell me more, tell me more, did she put up a fight?” which are played for laughs in the Grease hit “Summer Nights.”) These norms make it easier for men who want to take advantage to do so, because they can argue later that some level of pressure in heterosexual sex is acceptable. It also means that existing law about sexual assault is sometimes misapplied, because lawyers, judges, and jurors fall prey to these assumptions as well.
Canada’s Criminal Code defines consent as a voluntary agreement to engage in a sexual activity. It also clarifies what falls outside this definition, by offering five examples of conditions under which sexual situations do not qualify as consensual: if you communicate, through language or action, that you are unwilling to engage in sexual activity; if someone else consents for you; if you are incapacitated; if consent has been induced through an abuse of power, authority, or trust; if you withdraw consent partway through. In other words, both your words and your body language must be positive—must affirmatively signal that you are assenting to sex. You can’t be falling-down drunk. And you can change your mind at any time.
The definition of consent, spelled out in section 273.1, was added to the Criminal Code in 1992 after lobbying by experts who had spent years working with survivors at sexual-assault centres. Section 273.2, added the same year, limits an assailant’s ability to invoke a common defence: that they had simply misunderstood and believed a victim was consenting. The law stipulates that such a belief cannot arise from “recklessness or willful blindness”: one can’t ignore signs that someone isn’t consenting and then argue afterwards that they didn’t realize the person was unwilling. An accused attacker must also demonstrate that they took “reasonable steps to ascertain” that someone was consenting.
By providing examples of conditions under which interactions do not qualify as consensual, the law explicitly addresses some common situations in which the appearance of consent can be manufactured, including many instances of coercion. “The Criminal Code states that you don’t need to say no and punch someone in the face for that no to be heard,” says Julie Lalonde, an Ottawa-based sexual-assault educator. “Silence means no. Someone pushing you away means no.”
Experts say the 1992 changes put Canada among the leaders in sexual-assault law internationally. “It requires active consent, as opposed to an absence of a lack of consent,” says Ontario lawyer Pamela Cross, who specializes in cases of violence against women. “Shifting the onus from the potential victim to the person who wants to have the sexual contact [is] an important step.” Many states in the US, for example, do not require that consent be affirmative.
By embedding consent in the definition of sexual assault, Canada’s law makes the crime less about weighing acts than weighing intentions: it’s not bruises that show you were assaulted; it’s that your wishes were ignored. This is a big change from how rape was originally conceived in the English laws that shaped Canadian jurisprudence: as a crime against another man’s property. (The word “rape” comes from the Latin rapere, which means “to seize.”) In older laws, feminist historians point out, it wasn’t a woman’s preferences that were pivotal to the definition but the assessment that she had been stolen from her family or rightful husband. The rape of men was not recognized in law under this conception. In Canada, marital rape was not illegal until 1983.
For all that it was hailed at the time, the law has not fully taken hold. Many Canadians don’t know that the Criminal Code includes a robust definition of consent, nor is that definition reliably driving judicial decisions. Nova Scotia provincial court judge Gregory Lenehan infamously commented that “clearly, a drunk can consent” in the 2017 case of a woman found unconscious and partially undressed in the back of a taxi, her clothes wet with urine; her taxi driver was acquitted of sexually assaulting her. (Nova Scotia’s chief justice ordered an investigation into the decision in September.)
The willful ignorance about the difference between consensual sex and coercion is something that many experts say can be reduced. Doing so will take a revolution in our sexual education—something Senn and others call “emancipatory sex ed.” Constance Backhouse, a professor of law at the University of Ottawa and an expert on the legal history of sexual assault, says this kind of remedial education would ideally happen at all ages and levels of society. “Crown attorneys need training,” she says. “Police need this kind of training. We need sexual-assault 101 courses in universities. We need education in high schools, in middle schools, in primary schools. It has to run really deep.”
On its surface, consent education has evolved along with the law. In the 1990s, there were “No Means No” campaigns: posters, pamphlets, and buttons with that slogan were distributed on college and university campuses, exhorting (mainly male) students to listen to no rather than treat it as a challenge to overcome. Now, the posters on dorm walls display an inverted, more action-oriented, version of consent: Yes Means Yes. But the definition of consent now widely espoused by sex educators—generally termed enthusiastic consent—is far from universally accepted.
Enthusiastic consent means that agreement should be communicated clearly and consistently throughout a sexual encounter. Although it’s often caricatured as a sort of legalese, a requirement that someone stop and ask, “Can I do this?” before every new kiss or touch, it simply means that consent should be expressed in both words (“yes,” “more,” “I want this”) and body language (turning toward someone, kissing back, touching them, undressing yourself, initiating activities). This is why silence, or the absence of a no, does not indicate consent.
According to a 2015 survey of men and women by the Canadian Women’s Foundation, 96 percent of Canadians believe consent is important, but there isn’t agreement about what it means. Thirty-four percent of respondents did not think it was necessary for consent to be ongoing (demonstrated throughout a sexual encounter), and 39 percent did not think consent needed to be enthusiastic (shown through participatory behaviour in addition to words).
We also often get drunk beforehand—a bad state in which to read someone’s subtle cues. Half of all sexual assaults in Canada among college and university students, Lalonde points out, involve alcohol. Yet young men frequently push back when she suggests they shouldn’t have sex with very drunk people. Lalonde holds workshops for university students and, she says, “the second we say there’s such a thing as a girl being too drunk to have sex with her, a switch gets flipped.” Men say, “‘No no no. Now you’ve lost me. You’ve gone too far.’” (She believes this reaction reveals an underlying insecurity about their ability to find sexual partners without alcohol.)
A healthy consent culture doesn’t just empower people to articulate what they don’t want. It helps them articulate what they do want. Charlene Senn has designed a sexual-assault resistance education program for female-identifying first-year students called Flip the Script. It has four three-hour modules; one of them helps participants identify and resist coercive language and another helps them imagine what sexual activities they are interested in. “What many young women tell us is this was the first time they had considered their own desires outside of a context of someone asking them to do something,” she says.
Clarity about what kind of touch attracts you and feels good helps people be more unequivocal about the acts that feel wrong. In a randomized, controlled trial, the results of which were published by Senn and her co-authors in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2015, participants in the course saw a 63 percent drop in the probability that they would experience an attempted rape and a 46 percent drop in the probability of a completed rape, compared with a control group that only received standard campus brochures about sexual assault. (The researchers found indications that resistance programs “may increase a woman’s ability to detect and interrupt men’s [threatening or coercive] behaviour at an early stage.”)
It’s important for people to identify their own desires before they have sex with someone else, Senn says, in order to provide an anchor—something for them to hold on to in the midst of other people’s expectations. In interviews she’s conducted with women about their sexual experiences, Senn says, “Where someone is pressuring them to engage in behaviour, such as anal sex, they’re pretty sure they don’t want to, but they’re being told other women do it, that they’re a prude.”
Sexual-assault resistance and self-defence programs for women have been proven to be the most effective ways to reduce assaults, despite decades-long attempts to design programs that teach men not to commit assault. “Many of our good ideas failed,” says Senn. “Especially the work on how to stop men from perpetrating. There have been many, many studies starting in the 1970s and 1980s trying to make a difference and they don’t.”
Programs for women raise a concern that we’re still largely leaving the task of sexual-assault prevention to them—that it remains the responsibility of potential victims to defend themselves rather than of perpetrators to control their own behaviour. But instead of placing the onus on women to prevent rape, Senn says, programs like hers reduce self-blame among the women who have taken them. “We make it clear in the program that there is no risk of sexual assault if there is no one present who is willing to commit it,” she says. Her program is also meant to be one part of a multi-faceted effort against sexual assault.
One initiative that has proven to be effective is bystander education: programs that teach people of all genders to step in when they see their friends crossing a line. It sets out to train people to challenge abusive behaviour they see among their peers—to interrupt if they see a man at a bar who is pressuring a woman for sex or groping her, for example. Together with Anne Forrest, the director of women’s studies at the University of Windsor, Senn has done research on such efforts at that university and found students who took a bystander course said they were more willing and prepared to intervene when they identified a situation that could lead to sexual assault. Beginning in 2018, the Bringing in the Bystander program will be offered to all first-year students at the University of Windsor.
When educators do speak to young men about what clear and enthusiastic consent is, the responses can be powerful. Lalonde, the Ottawa-based educator, works with as many as 5,000 young people a year, and says she sees the realization dawn on men when she speaks. “You see it in people’s faces, that they’re rethinking experiences that they’ve had and saying, ‘Oh shit.’”
If our trouble with consent is in part due to our discomfort with speaking sex out loud, that is also where growth can occur. In her work on campuses, Lalonde frequently battles misperceptions that conversations about consent are “unsexy,” she says. “There is at least one person in a room at every presentation I give who makes some comment about [consent rules] being impossible to follow.” She often tries to convince participants with a joke, saying, “What woman in this room would be turned off if a guy was like, ‘I just really wanna kiss you right now?’…And the women laugh. Like, no, that would be amazing.” She takes on a flirtatious verve as she explains: “It’s not about, ‘Ma’am, may I please hold your hand now?’ You can be cute about it. You can be suave about it.”
Carly Boyce runs consent workshops across Ontario and encourages people to flirt while purposefully leaving space open to hear no. While most experts say that consent education should start in childhood, beginning with basic concepts such as bodily autonomy (teaching a child she doesn’t need to hug family members if she doesn’t want to is one common way of introducing consent), Boyce says that workshops, including hers and Lalonde’s, can offer remedial epiphanies. Our society “imagines sex as a transactional experience rather than as something you’re creating together,” she says. But “if you imagine sex as something you’re creating with another human, you don’t just need them to acquiesce.” Even “I don’t know” can play a key role in flirting and seduction, Boyce says—addressing criticisms that demands for explicit consent leave no room for people who feel ambivalent or who are trying something new.
The proof that other models for consent can exist is that they already do—often outside the conventions of traditional heterosexual sex. Fae Johnstone is an Ottawa-based educator who teaches other educators and service providers how to work with queer and trans youth, and says that consent is more frequently, and openly, discussed in LGBTQ communities. In part, this is because so many LGBTQ people are survivors of sexual assault and don’t take consent for granted, she says—those identifying as gay, lesbian, or bisexual are assaulted at a rate six times higher than those who identify as heterosexual, according to Statistics Canada. (Though Canadian data is limited, the 2015 US Transgender Survey reported nearly half of transgender people in that country were sexually assaulted in their lifetimes.)
There’s also less of a culturally ordained script that dictates what sex is supposed to look like among LGBTQ people, says Johnstone. “There’s the assumption [in conversations about heterosexual sex] that it’s the man who would ask consent, and that’s not the reality that a lot of queer and non-binary folks experience, where consent is negotiated between partners.” Traditional models of heterosexuality have a built-in narrative for how sex is supposed to go: first kissing, then touching and undressing, then oral sex, then vaginal intercourse. (It’s why someone knows what you mean if you talk about “going all the way.”) In a culture that takes that script for granted, it may be easy to assume that one act will lead to another and that when someone consents to one part, they are agreeing to that whole sequence. Absent these presumptions about who will do what to whom, says Johnstone, partners talk more about what will happen, before it happens and throughout a sexual encounter. “It’s not just about saying yes or no,” she says. “It’s yes to what? No to what?”
Many kink and polyamorous communities, by their very nature, also have more nuanced and clearly articulated practices for consent. Parties in which explicit sex takes place often have detailed consent guidelines—especially ones at which bondage takes place, where no doesn’t always mean no, but consent is still paramount. (Some hosts distribute consent menus for guests to fill out, asking them to circle the names of sex acts they’re open to that evening.) It is common at such gatherings to hear that “consent is sexy” and that whips-and-leather bondage in which consent is explicit is safer than “vanilla” sex in which it is assumed.
Those accused of sexual assault, especially coercive assaults, often defend themselves on the grounds that it was all a big misunderstanding—that they believed the victim was consenting or that an initial reluctance ultimately gave way to agreement. The hitch in this theory of crossed wires is that it’s not supported by studies. The majority of sexual assaults are not the result of misunderstandings, says Senn. “We know most women who experience a rape actually [give] strong verbal cues,” including saying no or stop. A majority of women “make those strong verbal statements and the men proceeded anyway,” she says. “We also have research on perpetrators that shows there’s good reason to suspect that their claims of not understanding that there wasn’t consent are actually self-serving. In other words, the most coercive men are the ones who are making those claims.”
Melanie Beres, a sociologist from Edmonton who teaches at the University of Otago in New Zealand, has found that even if we don’t have nuanced language for consent, people often do understand when a partner doesn’t want to have sex. Beres’s research shows that both men and women have a genuine understanding of sexual cues, including non-verbal indications that someone isn’t consenting. In interviews she conducted with men and women between the ages of nineteen and thirty in Jasper, Alberta, she found people had nuanced views of ways partners could communicate non-consent, including physically tensing up, pulling away slightly, or stopping kissing for a moment. At the same time, she saw evidence that women and girls are socialized to protect men’s feelings from a very young age, no matter their own desires—to be nice, to smooth things over. One female respondent quoted in Beres’s paper said as much: “I think a lot of girls—a lot of times it has happened to me, too, I didn’t really want to have sex, but I didn’t know what else to do. So you just end up having sex.”
The problem, says Beres, often isn’t with interpreting consent but with cultural norms that encourage men to go ahead in its absence. There is a difference between not understanding someone’s no and understanding it but feeling entitled to a yes anyway.
These dynamics are often magnified when power imbalances are greater. When #MeToo erupted last fall, some black women pointed out that the allegations getting the most attention were ones made by white women and that the allegations Weinstein pushed back hardest against were those coming from actor Lupita Nyong’o.
Women of colour are hypersexualized, says Ryerson University’s Msosa. “There’s a claim to their body,” she says. “There’s an assumption that [if] she’s black, she must be easy.” A US study published last year, for instance, found that white female college students were less likely to intervene in a situation where another woman seemed at risk of sexual assault if she had a stereotypically black name, such as LaToya, rather than a more generic name, such as Laura. Women of colour, more broadly,“are exoticized and eroticized through colonial ownership and intrigue,” says Pillay, who is of Tamil ancestry. Indigenous women are often stereotyped as well; in Canada, they are sexually assaulted at rates three times higher than the general population, according to a 2014 survey by Statistics Canada. (Race-based data on sexual assault is scant in Canada.)
To reduce assaults, we don’t just need education about enthusiastic consent; we need to revise the norms that render consent unimportant to perpetrators. “It’s not [just] ‘This is how you understand yes and this is how you understand no,’” says Beres. “It’s about undoing some of the assumptions we have around masculinity, femininity, and relationships.” As Backhouse, the University of Ottawa legal professor, puts it, “I think we could imagine getting to a culture in which nobody wanted to have sex with somebody who didn’t want to have sex with them.”
Even as #MeToo was shifting public awareness about just how pervasive sexual harassment and sexual assault are, many women lamented that they were now, in addition to being the targets of assault, bearing the burden of speaking out about it and, in the process, being the ones charged with making things better. To many, this was no different than what had always been asked of women: taking the responsibility for preventing sexual assault—whether by being more chaste in 1918 or by sharing their pain on social media a century later. In response, the hashtag #ItWasMe emerged to share admissions of culpability. “There are too many times to count when I have made my hunger more important than her feelings or boundaries,” wrote one man on Facebook in a post that was shared more than 200 times, and in which he described how he had tried to sexually penetrate a woman who was asleep after she had declined his advances. “#Itwasme and I was a piece of shit,” another man tweeted. “I can’t take it back, and no apology is enough. I can only work to be a better human.”
The notion of perpetrators sharing their stories is controversial. Some survivors feel that assailants should not be given a voice in this discussion, because they’ve dominated it for so long with their denials and dismissals. Others feel that public confrontations are key to inspiring change. The 2017 National Film Board documentary A Better Man follows co-director Attiya Khan as she has a series of conversations with an abusive former partner. She made the film, after years of discussions with her ex, to show the ways that abusers can change and take responsibility.
When coming forward, men must tread carefully to help, rather than reinjure, the people they’ve hurt, says Steph Guthrie, the film’s impact producer. “I think that hearing a person take responsibility for the harm they caused to you—it can be very healing if you do get the sense that it is truly for you and your well-being,” Guthrie says.
In the course of my research, I posted a message on Facebook asking if any men who had been confronting their own behaviour since the start of #MeToo might be willing to talk. Within a few days, I heard confessions from men in their thirties to their sixties. Some seemed unable to stop once they started; others were halting, hampered by shame or fear. Some had committed assaults that they had already tried to apologize to their victims for. Some were unsure if they had crossed a line or not and wanted to figure it out. Some seemed bent on unburdening themselves or getting outside confirmation that what they had done wasn’t that bad after all—they were trying to use me, and this story, to get absolution.
Guthrie, who often encounters this range of reactions in her work, says a good operating principle for perpetrators is not to persist in contacting anyone you’ve harmed unless they explicitly want you to. She also suggests that, before addressing behaviour publicly, perpetrators should consider the effect of doing so on anyone they have hurt. She and her colleagues “are big proponents of men creating vulnerable spaces to have these conversations with other men,” she says, “and not asking women and non-binary people to hold their shame and their guilt.” The creators of A Better Man created a home discussion guide for men who want to watch the documentary together and talk about it after. The guide includes a prompt for them to “think back to a time they hurt somebody,” she says. “We explicitly encourage them to think of an incident that makes them feel shame to remember.”
Pillay says her understanding of coercion has changed a lot since that day on the beach. “I had a strong desire for sexual relating and affection and intimacy from a young age,” she says. “I think in my head, because I had that desire, it was hard for me to disentangle transgressions from the fact that I did want sexual activity—I just didn’t want it with those people, in those ways.” She says that later on, “I came to understand that sexual appetite does not equate to deserving whatever anyone wants to do.” Her long-standing struggle with self-blame for her abuse (which also included another assault she experienced about a year after the attack on the beach) has lifted considerably in the wake of the public discussions of assault that followed Jian Ghomeshi’s trial.
She says people around her are shifting too. “I’m seeing a collective elevation, because there have been so many groups talking about how to handle these things” since #MeToo, she says. Late last year, a man at a house party she attended repeatedly tried to shift from cuddling with her to more overtly sexual touching. She said no, got up, and walked away. Two days later, she alerted the party’s hosts, who spoke to the man about his conduct. She says that, even when habits and power dynamics make it difficult, “I want everyone to know that we all have the right to speak up about any discomfort and to be well-heard. No one is entitled to access another’s body without permission. Affection is a birthright to be shared, not taken.”
This article is the cover story of the March 2018 issue of The Walrus, where it is published under the headline “Sexual Evolution.”