Reflections on #MeToo

A couple of months ago, in the midst of all the consternation over the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh and the arresting testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford before congress, Donald Trump of all people said something that caused me to think a great deal. (I know, I never thought I’d utter that phrase either!)

I could pick another Supreme Court judge, justice. I could pick another one, another one, another one. This could go on forever. Somebody could come and say 30 years ago, 25 years ago, 10 years ago, five years ago he did a horrible thing to me. He did this, he did that, he did this, he did that. And honestly, it’s a very dangerous period in our country. This is beyond Supreme Court. This is everything to do with our country. When you are guilty until proven innocent, it’s just not supposed to be that way. Always I’ve heard you’re innocent until proven guilty. I’ve heard this so long. It’s such a beautiful phrase. In this case, you’re guilty until proven innocent. I think that is a very dangerous standard for our country.

There’s a lot to unpack in those words, provided you can get past the baffling syntax of that statement. It’s like Donald Trump’s brain has an internal Siri that’s constantly mixing up his words, often leading to some incoherent press interactions. But once you move on from that, you find that Trump is speaking to fears shared by more than a few men in the post “Me Too” world.

Following a series of bombshell articles published in the New York Times and The New Yorker regarding Harvey Weinstein and the widespread allegations of sexual abuse and rape against him, dozens of prominent men in the entertainment, political and financial world have faced their own accusations of sexual assault, abuse and rape. It’s become a subject of almost morbid fascination, to see who will be named next. More importantly, thousands of women and men have taken courage from the movement and are now coming forward with their own stories of abuse and assault. While a vocal and ignorant minority continues to resist any change, for the majority of this country “Me Too” has permanently changed the relationship dynamics between men and women (as well as homosexual relationships). I would say with little reservation that this is for society’s betterment, and I hope the next generation will not have to endure the pain and stigma their fore-bearers did.

Some people will tell you the past is past and  it ought to be left there, because the only thing you get by digging it up is dirty. That’s some bullshit. The past is the place where we look back on our successes and mistakes, learn from them and try to become better moving forward. I’ve done a lot of soul searching in the age of Trump, though at least some of that can be attributed to aging out of my twenties. “Me Too” has certainly led me to reflect back upon my own dating past. My dating life has been messy and filled with mistakes. Looking back through my own history, there are moments I’ve found where, had they gone the other way, would’ve fit right in with so many of the horror stories coming out now. The thing that scares me the most is how many men did take a different path.

A person’s first sexual encounter is a subject that continues to be mythologized on film, in literature and in song (for an accurate portrayal on this subject, please see Netflix’s “Sex Education”). Some people are lucky enough to experience a beautiful moment with the person they love. I was not one of those people. Like most, my first experience was awkward and, in some ways, downright cringe worthy. However, it’s not the bedroom misadventure itself, but what lead up to it that I want to explore further. In the early days of 2010 I was working at Sears, broke as shit and still living with my parents. I was also dating for the first time in almost two years. Jamie and I met through online dating, which is the same of every adult relationship I’ve ever had. And our first date was… well different. At one point we stopped at Leunig’s in Burlington so she could demand her camera back from an ex-boyfriend who worked in the kitchen. She also shared the story of how, at just 23 years old, she had suffered a stroke which caused her to have to relearn everything, from how to walk to intensive speech therapy. It really was one of the more surreal nights of my life, and it wouldn’t be my last with her.

Over the course of getting to know one another Jamie revealed that she was still seeing a therapist, who had advised her against having sex for at least a month. I was disappointed by this, I won’t lie, but agreed that we would wait until whenever she was ready. The same day she told me that, we were having dinner at a Chili’s when she got a phone call. I could tell when she got off the phone that she was very upset. Jamie told me that it was a collections agency who was getting more and more aggressive. One of the consequences of her stroke was she incurred an enormous amount of debt due to medical expenses. She looked at me with sad eyes and said, “Don’t ever get sick.” Those words have been seared into my memory ever since and have only gotten more relevant with the passage of time. We didn’t talk for a few minutes after that, I was sitting there trying to figure out what I could say to make her feel better. What happened next, I’ve debated quite a bit in the years since. I was picking my way through a chicken caesar pita when Jamie said to me in a firm and clear voice, “Let’s have sex.” I thought she was kidding so, as I am apt to do, I sarcastically replied that we should go in the freezer right now so it could be called The Thriller In The Chiller. It turned out she was quite earnest though, even offering to get a hotel room if necessary. I asked if she was sure about this, what about the whole thing with the therapist and waiting? She told me to forget about that and anxiously asked me to flag down the waiter for the check.

You can imagine what came next, I was a twenty-two-year-old virgin so I choose not to press the issue further. On one hand, she was an adult who was not intoxicated and made a choice of her own free will. I was fully prepared to honor her request that we wait, then she changed the equation on me and I again went along with her. We had also been on several dates by that point so the timing wasn’t abnormal. On the other hand, I feel like I took advantage of Jamie when she was in an emotionally vulnerable position and ask myself, was she really in a place to give consent? I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know that Jamie was acutely aware I wanted to sleep with her.  It is entirely possible she felt pressured into doing so. Between the health and financial pressures she was under, Jamie could’ve felt that the additional lack of sex would cause me to cut my losses and leave, so she went against her better judgement. The terrible irony of it all is that I did leave her not long afterward. She was understandably angry, going so far as to accuse me of using her for sex and then throwing her away like she was trash. That was never my intent, but actions and intentions are two different things. The fact was I did have concerns, but instead of sitting down like an adult and talking them out I choose to get out, via text no less. In the end I will always feel guilty about this, and not just because of the stupid way I chose to end the relationship. I did not actively coerce her into having sex with me, but I can’t help but wonder if someone already had coerced her and if that experience affected her choices with me.

Some years later I was living in downtown Burlington and dating a woman named Ingrid. She and I hit it off over some blueberry cider on the roof of the now defunct Das Bierhaus. I fondly recall a misty evening when we walked down to the beach by Red Rocks Park and sat together in the sand. We looked at the distant lights dotting the shadowy landscape below the mountains on the New York side of Lake Champlain. I mused on about all the stories there must be in the world and how many would be lost to time. She playfully poked me with my umbrella and I said I was lucky she enjoyed my tangents. Things progressed and one evening we found ourselves in the bedroom of my cramped King Street apartment watching a movie (I believe the popular parlance nowadays for this is “Netflix & Chill”).

We were in the midst of what I assumed was foreplay when she said “You know we’re not having sex tonight, right?” I was taken aback but I said okay. All of the sudden there was serious tension in the room, she got incredibly anxious and covered her eyes. Unable to even look at me she just kept saying “I’m sorry” and curled into a ball. I reassured her that it was perfectly alright, eventually cutting the tension by recalling folksy and embarrassing stories from my childhood to make her laugh. Ingrid told me that she was just embarrassed, but I got the feeling it was something more. Afterwards I was confused, concerned and even a bit insulted by Ingrid’s reaction. Maybe a guy had assaulted her in the past, I didn’t know and didn’t feel it was my place to ask. What I could say with certainty was that I personally had never so much as raised my voice to a romantic partner in my life. I didn’t understand why she might equate that behavior with me, but I think I do now. Regardless of whether or not I was a “nice guy” Ingrid was acutely aware of certain facts. Firstly, we were on my home turf and she’d just had a couple of drinks so she wouldn’t be able to drive anytime soon. And while nobody would confuse me with a body builder, physically I still had six inches and fifty pounds on her.  What if I didn’t take no for an answer and forced myself on her, could she stop me? Or what if I was humiliated by the denial of sex and lashed out in anger? To Ingrid and thousands of other women out there, the danger of these things happening is all too real, I can see that now.

The last story I’ll share is a first date that didn’t exactly go according to plan. I met a woman named Angela at a bar called Drink in downtown Burlington. It’s a favorite spot for first dates, because even if things go sideways, I can still get in a couple of chocolate mint martini’s and a game of connect-4. It was 2016 and I was meeting a Republican… in a Presidential election year but still I was curious to see if I could hit it off with somebody whose political beliefs were so fundamentally different from my own. I felt the evening was going reasonably well, we stayed away from politics for the most part and even when we discussed politics we remained respectful of one another. I even managed to make her laugh some, mainly at my inability to best her at a single game of connect-4 (as anybody who’s ever played Call of Duty with me can attest, I am no master strategist). At some point a couple of hours in she mentioned that she had just gotten a text from a friend, who was staying at her apartment, who had been cooking and manage to lock herself out so now Angela had to go let her back in. This is the part where I should’ve gotten the message and gracefully taken my leave, but I didn’t.

We got to the corner of Pearl St and North Winooski Ave. She said she lived a few blocks down in the Old North End and was going to walk home. I offered to walk her home and she initially declined. I offered again, it was a Friday night and there were already drunken idiots about so I wanted to make sure she got home safe. She said she would be fine but I insisted so she relented and said I could accompany her. I really did want to make sure she made it home alright, but admittedly there was a part of me that wanted to be there when it was revealed that there was in fact no stranded friend waiting outside to be rescued, that she had made some lame ass excuse and now was caught in it. It was a pleasant enough walk, we talked the whole way and, sure enough when we arrived there was no friend. “She must’ve found her way back in,” Angela said sheepishly. “Must’ve” I said with a none too subtle grin on my face. Still I bade her a pleasant evening and was on my way, reveling in a sense of gotcha satisfaction.

To give you the reader some background, I have been subjected to some pretty lame “I have to go” excuses.  My gold medal goes to the woman I met for dinner who, while we still having pre-meal drinks said, “I have to go have dinner with my family”. I had within the past few months been ghosted by a girlfriend, have a date arrive, take one look at me and say “by the way I have to leave in 30 minutes” and been flatly stood up on another date. I was fed up, if Angela wasn’t interested she should just come out and say it. Why couldn’t she just be honest, instead of making up some cock & bull story about why you have to leave and then never answering any follow up text or e-mail I might send? Without realizing it, my actions had already answered that question. Angela likely made up that story because she had, at some point that evening, determined that she was not interested in me. But why the tall tale? Dating inherently carries more risk for women than it does for men.

According to statistics compiled by The National Domestic Violence Hotline, more than 1 in 3 women will experience physical violence, rape and/or stalking by a date or significant other in their lifetime. It’s a horrifying figure, and the more I think about it the more I understand what Angela was trying to do. When she concluded that we weren’t going to work out, Angela likely concocted that story for one of several reasons. Most likely,she didn’t want to hurt my feelings by coming right out and saying she didn’t find me attractive or that our personalities did not jive.  Also,it was likely a safety mechanism to extricate herself from a situation she wasn’t entirely comfortable with. Even if I didn’t necessarily buy that story, I should’ve accepted that she had her reasons and called it a night. Maybe she really didn’t mind if I walked with her, maybe she didn’t have any interest in me but also didn’t know how to say it, so letting me walk her home was just easier. Through her body language and indirect way though, Angela was telling me no, and I wasn’t hearing her. That is an issue I continue to work on to this day.

It’s a brave new world out there for men and women in the “Me Too” era, and I think a lot of people are still trying to figure out what that means to them. I’ve listened to some embittered guys say “things used to be better before #metoo and all this other politically correct bullshit. Whatever happened to the time when men could just be men and not fear having the Twitter mob sicked on them?”  My contention is this; was it really better or just better for you as a straight, white male? “Me Too”, “Time’s Up” and other associated movements aren’t just reckonings for past sins, they can’t be. No this is a watershed moment, a before and after moment in our social history. This is a time for men and women and those who chose not to identify a gender to come together and open a dialogue with one another, to help redefine what consent means, close disparities and change relationship dynamics for the better. For me personally, this is a time to look back on past mistakes and learn from them. This is a time to talk less and listen more. This is a time to continue reeducating myself and, ultimately to be better moving forward.