The #MeToo movement has jolted American sexuality politics in a radical way. The rules in place for centuries are being challenged, overturned and reexamined.
This is all a good thing.
As the mother of two daughters, ages 10 and 20, I’ve had to rethink much of what I’ve been taught when it comes to consent. Most importantly, while women are not responsible to keep their partners in line, I do speak to my daughters about the idea of enthusiastic consent. I don’t want them to play coy, the way I was taught to be. If they want to be intimate, I want them to be sure and then make it clear. If they don’t want to be intimate, be sure and make that clear too.
But a son would be a different story. How can I break down everything in our culture that tells him that a man is supposed to court and woo a woman, tell her he won’t tell anyone if she gives in, tell her baby it’s cold outside so she’ll stay the night. Men are supposed to pursue. He would have grown up knowing that. It would be my job to steer that ship in another direction.
And like with all things Black, my training would have to have a specifically Black boy slant. Do mothers of white boys train them on what to do when stopped by the police? Probably not. They don’t have to.
I would have to have a talk about consent and how to make sure you protect your partner—and yourself. And the story of Aziz Ansari would be a place to start.
Some believe that Aziz is being brought down because he is a man of color who is also a Muslim. I’m not sure that he’s being treated any differently than the scores of men outed over the past few months. I think celebrity often protects even the guilty and Aziz from Master of None would not be given the same treatment as Aziz from Newark, New Jersey or Compton, California.
If the reports against Aziz were levied at my son, there likely wouldn’t be a debate on whether or not it was assault. Regular black and brown men seldom get nuance or debate. They don’t get think pieces. They don’t get a megaphone to explain their mistakes and make a plea for understanding. My son would have to get it right, all the time, every time. And studying the case of Aziz Ansari is an example of why it would be difficult. There doesn’t seem to be a case so far as polarizing as Aziz Ansari’s and the way his behavior is being gauged.
And there are no easy answers. I would want to tell my son the same thing I would tell my daughters: it’s all about enthusiastic consent. But I have my issues with that. What is enthusiastic? Could one person see enthusiastic consent while the other doesn’t feel that way? How are we gauging enthusiasm? Cartwheels? A signature on a consent form? Unfortunately, it would probably come down to non-verbal cues, which are now rightfully seen as unreliable.
How we move forward and how we inform our children continues to develop. New rules are hard to implement. But for parents of Black boys, this journey will be infinitely more difficult.
It’s part of what used to be known as “being a credit to your race.” My grandparents would often say that young Black men and women needed to make sure they represented the entire race properly. Every move and decision could potentially cause whites to judge all Black kids. It was a damaging anchor to tie to young Black men and women but it remains for many. (I’ve absorbed it myself and find it difficult to let go of.)
My hypothetical son would also have that battle to fight. He would have to make the right decisions with his partner not just for himself but for those who judge all Black men together.
On that note, he’ll have to consider that for many people, he’s literally born into the image of a predator. As far as this country has come, it’s still far too easy for people to dive into dangerous presumptions before they get facts, particularly when it comes to sexual violence.
In 1989, when a group of young men of color were wrongly charged with beating and raping a white woman, the tension was raw and the case was narrowly divided on racial lines. The young men were exonerated, with DND evidence. And yet many people, including our president, refuse to believe they could possibly be innocent. Those young men too conveniently fit the profile. In 2017, the same lingering thoughts about black men and sexual assault remain.
It’s also an uncomfortable truth that race matters. The ethnicity of the woman accusing Aziz Ansari of assault is unknown. If and when it would ever be uncovered, it would matter. Whether she’s white or Indian-American, the narrative can change. The same would be true for any person of color. Through that lens, everything changes.
He would have to carry himself a certain way while driving. All different rules for him. He would have to carry himself a certain way while just walking in certain neighborhoods. All different rules for him. He would have to pay attention to what he wore. Where he walked. How he spoke.
And like all men in this brave new world, he’d have to carry himself a certain way in a sexual relationship with his partner. With all different rules for him.
I’d sit my son down and tell him this point blank. You’re not a celebrity. You’re not a man of means. You are Other. And as much as that will serve you and inspire you—there will be times when you must understand that you will constantly live in a state of wake-up calls. How you carry yourself in sexual relationships will be one of the many he may have to think on longer than others.
I wish I could say I would solely talk to my son about respecting his partner’s safety. But in all honesty, the conversations would be just as much about protecting his own.
(Photo: Taylor Hill/Getty Images)