Erin Tillman

What young men should look for is not the potentially ambiguous absence of “no”, but the enthusiastic presence of a “yes, yes, yes” or affirmative consent. In 2018, “no means no” is totally antiquated. It puts all the pressure on the person in the most vulnerable position, that if someone doesn’t have the capacity or the confidence to speak up, then they’re going to be violated. If somebody isn’t an enthusiastic yes, if they’re hesitating, if they’re like: “Uh, I don’t know” – at this point in time, that equals no.

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  1. shinichi Post author

    Carnality and consent: how to navigate sex in the modern world

    by Gaby Hinsliff

    The past four months has seen a reckoning. After frank discussion about casual hook-ups and uncomfortable encounters, a new understanding of dating is emerging

    Erin Tillman rarely dates men her own age any more.

    She is in her late 30s and it is younger men she goes for now, guys who are more relaxed about rapidly evolving sexual politics and about what she does for a living. For Tillman is a dating coach, who as well as helping clients find love runs relationship workshops and courses for college students on the nature of consent.

    “I tend to date younger guys, because it’s not a battle for them to understand this stuff. For older guys, it can be a problem,” she says. “People older than me are more: ‘The world is changing, this isn’t how it used to be.’” While she used to think heavy subjects such as politics were best avoided on a first date, these days her advice is that it is better to know early if one of you is a card-carrying liberal and the other considers men the victims of a feminist witch-hunt. “I’ve been on a few dates in the last few weeks with new people and on the first date I tell them I’m writing a book on the #MeToo movement. If that makes them nervous, well, that’s a good thing to know. It’s important in the current climate to be as upfront as possible.”

    Welcome to dating in the post-Harvey Weinstein era. Four months on from the Hollywood mogul’s downfall, the ripples are still spreading, moving out from sexual harassment at work towards more intimate relationships. Nights that might once have been grimly chalked up to experience, classed as bad dates or near misses, are being exhumed and re-evaluated. It is as if women are watching the film of their lives from a different vantage point, searching for something they missed at the time. Stop. Rewind. Look again.

    It is in this climate that online magazine Babe’s infamous account of a date between the comedian Aziz Ansari and a young woman called Grace went viral last month – it catalogued in excruciating detail his allegedly relentless attempts to get her into bed and her apparent inability to extricate herself. It resonated with younger women precisely because of its ordinariness – because the feeling of being alone with a man who is all hands, feeling pressured and panicked, but unsure quite how to get out of it, is so instantly recognisable, even if women are divided over what to call it.

    If sexual encounters can be divided into roughly three categories – happy and consensual; rape; and a hazy area of acts you did not want to do but to which you ended up giving in – then it is the third that now consumes attention. It is the things women go along with out of politeness, pity or embarrassment, or because, as Nigella Lawson put it recently, they were taught that, in rejecting any overture, “we mustn’t make a man feel bad about anything”.

    Address politics straight on – be as upfront as possible

    Unsurprisingly, this leaves many men looking nervously over their shoulders. After all, Ansari says he did not realise anything was wrong on the night. How many men might unknowingly be the bad guy in another story? Social media histories are being quietly edited and sometimes virtue-signalled. The dating site OkCupid saw significantly increased mentions in profiles of the words “respect”, “feminist” and “woke” in 2017.

    Tillman is based in Los Angeles and her clients are hyperaware of the Hollywood scandals breaking around them. She says that some of the men that come to her for dating coaching “are really nervous right now. They feel like women are on really high alert; they don’t want to be falsely accused of anything.”

    Even for men with no obvious reason to feel guilty, seeing just how many women identify strongly with the story of someone like Grace raises some awkward questions. As the activist, journalist and author of Bitch Doctrine, Laurie Penny, puts it, “a lot of guys are just realising how much sex has sucked for a lot of women” and wondering uneasily how that reflects on them.

    Many older women, however, are left puzzled and uneasy by a world where even the 90s sitcom Friends is suddenly deemed “problematic” (Ross’s jealousy and Monica’s relationship with an older man, among other plotlines, offend some millennial sensibilities). Few might want to defend men’s “freedom to pester”, as an open letter signed by 100 women including the 74-year-old actor Catherine Deneuve put it, or agree with Germaine Greer that it is too late for actors to start “whingeing” about having felt compelled to sleep with someone for a part. But there is a generation gap opening up between older women – worried that focusing on microtransgressions gives men an excuse to ridicule the #MeToo movement, rather than reflect on their behaviour – and younger ones who think life cannot be compartmentalised so neatly. When the US TV host Ashleigh Banfield accused Grace of undermining a clear anti-harassment message with her story, she was attacked as a “burgundy-lipstick, bad-highlights, second-wave-feminist has-been” by the young reporter who published the original story.

    What followed was a repeat of the argument over Damian Green allegedly brushing Kate Maltby’s knee with his hand. No, obviously it was not another Weinstein (and neither woman claimed it was). Yes, this stuff happens all the time. But the difference is that now younger women are asking why it does and how it can be stopped.


    If sex was invented in 1963, as Philip Larkin claimed, then dating followed in 1995. At least, that was when the first copies of Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider’s The Rules – with its strict instructions for women never to make the first move or to accept a date at the last minute – reached Britain. Together with Sex and the City, it brought the formalised rituals of US dating culture to the more vague British practice known as “going out”, or drunkenly copping off with someone and then spending weeks not knowing if they were officially now your boyfriend.

    But it did not change all that much. We still picked each other up in bars and clubs, at parties and weddings, scribbling phone numbers on the backs of hands because mobiles had not been invented. Lonely hearts pages existed, but mainly for middle-aged people. The now-defunct More magazine’s Position of the Fortnight was the chief source of new moves, since pornography lived mostly on the top shelf of WHSmith, and wolf-whistling was just what builders did.

    Ancient history now, obviously. Yet the surprise is how similar, in some ways, millennials’ sex lives are.

    Millennial trends such as hook-ups and polyamory are far from universal

    The average age for a first kiss is still 14; for sex, it is 16, as it was then. A survey that Sandra L Caron, professor of family relations and human sexuality at the University of Maine, has been administering to students there for a quarter of a century suggests that the number of sexual partners students have remains steady at an average of three to four. Alongside the hook-up horror stories, Reddit’s dating threads still contain endless plaintive variants of a question straight from the 50s: how do I know if this girl likes me?

    While other studies find young people today more likely than previous generations to have had casual encounters, YouGov research in Britain last year found that men under 24 were less likely than men in any age group barring the over-55s to want sex on a first date. (Younger women, conversely, were keener on it than older ones, although still less keen than men their own age.) It is likely that just as free love and acid were never the whole story in the 70s, with many couples leading quietly conventional lives, hook-up culture and polyamory and other supposedly hot millennial trends are far from universal.

    Yet there are signs that what Britons do in bed is changing. It is hard to know whether younger people are genuinely more adventurous or just happier admitting it, but, in the last National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles, one in five women said they had had anal sex, compared with one in 10 women in the 90s. Almost half of under-24s class themselves as “less than 100% heterosexual” – which does not necessarily mean they have had a same-sex experience, but indicates potential openness to one – compared with a quarter of Britons overall, according to YouGov. Dr Caron’s students are also less likely now than in the 90s to consider love an important ingredient of sex.

    Technology, as much as gender politics, has transformed dating. Apps such as Tinder have allowed people to pick through hundreds of strangers from the comfort of their sofas, but they have also reduced accountability. It was hard for the boy who sat next to you in lectures every day to vanish without explanation if an approach backfired, but Tinder matches can do just that. As such, breathtakingly blunt messages, aggressive responses to rejections and unsolicited “dick pics” – the virtual equivalent of a flasher in a mac – have become routine, driving the growth of more female-friendly apps such as Bumble, where women don’t see a man’s messages until they have approved contact.

    “When Tinder exploded on to the scene, it was all people talked about,” says the Huffington Post blogger and dating coach Joshua Pompey. “Now, I very rarely hear somebody talk about using it, especially women – it’s just so much lewd behaviour, so many people getting graphic and explicit and making it an uncomfortable place.”

    He argues that the Weinstein case should have been a wakeup call for men to clean up their dating act. But judging by what is sent to his female clients, many of whom ask him to monitor their online dating accounts for them, there is little evidence of behaviour changing.

    Almost half of under-24s class themselves as ‘less than 100% heterosexual’

    “Just this week I had a man who wrote a really nice email, a follow-up responding to her, saying basically: ‘I also love nature and hiking and we have so much in common.’ Then, at the end, he just said: ‘And I would love to jump your bones,’” sighs Pompey. “That’s the sort of thing women get all the time.” It is not just dating apps, either: unwarranted penises and crude propositions now crop up all over young women’s social media accounts, from Twitter to the job-hunting site LinkedIn.

    Of course, the seismic change in the background of this is the saturating influence of online pornography. More than a quarter of boys have been exposed to it by the first year of secondary school – and what they see is more aggressive and extreme than in the past. The #MeToo message of respect is fighting for boys’ attention with pornography’s portrayal of women as pliable dolls, constantly up for rough sex with minimal preamble. One of the most baffling elements of Grace’s story for older women was when she described Ansari sticking his fingers down her throat: how was that supposed to be seductive?

    Perhaps only he can explain, but in her book Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality, sociologist Gail Dines traces the spread of more violent sexual behaviour in ordinary relationships – gagging, hair-pulling, mock-throttling – back to porn tropes, filtering down through pop culture. Combined with traditional ideas of all-powerful masculinity, it is a recipe for trouble.

    In a piece for GQ, the writer Justin Myers said men need to take a long, hard look at their behaviour. “We tell ourselves it’s a ‘grey area’, the rules around it so murky and undefined that all we can do is go for it and hope nobody gets sued,” he wrote. “Consent is seen as something to be tangibly and forcibly withheld, not asked for – we pretend men don’t have to check themselves or read the room; it’s up to his partner to stop them, tell them no, move away from them, leave if possible … Don’t pretend you haven’t noticed their body language just because it’s inconvenient for you to do so right now.”

    The twist is that Myers approaches this issue as a gay man who has been pressured into sex in the past after changing his mind en route to a man’s flat. Several high-profile harassment allegations made against powerful men, from the actor Kevin Spacey to the photographer Mario Testino, have prompted a period of reflection in the gay community mirroring that among straight women. “People are going through their old tweets, past behaviour isn’t going unchecked, which is a good thing,” says Myers, who was surprised, but heartened, to experience little backlash from male readers.

    The idea that men cannot stop themselves is a convenient fiction, he argues. “I’ve been very conscious of not muscling in on this, because I feel women should have the floor, but I thought this was a useful thing for a man to write. When a man does something wrong, it’s interpreted as he forgot himself, he just couldn’t help his natural impulses, and I think that’s a load of shit. I think a man does know better.

    “He’s taught that this is the way he’s supposed to be, that we’re supposed to be virile. But, honestly, I can’t say that I’ve misread a signal for longer than a millisecond. You can tell yourself you’ve misread it, but really you just don’t want to believe the signal.” The idea that if a man persists for long enough he will succeed has much to answer for, Myers says.


    There was nothing obviously creepy about the man who delivered 33-year-old Michelle Midwinter’s takeaway. If anything, she says, he seemed unfriendly; he didn’t smile or answer when she spoke to him. Shortly afterwards, however, she got a message, on the phone she had registered with the delivery service JustEat, from someone calling himself “a fan”. It was her delivery driver, asking if she had a boyfriend, calling her “bby” (baby) and saying he would “see you next time” he got to deliver her dinner.

    ‘No means no’ is antiquated – people should look for an enthusiastic ‘yes’

    Alarmed by the use of her private details, Midwinter complained to JustEat; exasperated by its lacklustre response, she posted her exchange with the driver and the company on Twitter. Then the floodgates opened. She was deluged with stories from young women sick of being hassled for dates by men who got their numbers through work: taxi drivers, delivery guys, shop assistants, maintenance men who texted suggestively within minutes of leaving a single woman’s flat. What seems to have grated most is the assumption that women would be flattered by the attention, no matter what the situation; that they are always up for being propositioned.

    Midwinter compares it to the assumption that women who wear makeup must be wearing it to attract men, rather than for themselves. “For me, it was that entitlement, that they feel they have a right to just use my details,” she says. “You’ve just delivered my food, I’ve closed the door; as far as I’m concerned, the interaction is over.”

    The point is not that a man should never try to chat up a woman, she argues, but that barging in uninvited is presumptuous and scary. “Usually, you talk to somebody first, then you feel comfortable giving them your phone number. A man doesn’t just take it. People go: ‘Just say no,’ but the guy was quite persistent. I said something like: ‘Stop messaging me, you’re making me uncomfortable,’ and he just asked why. He didn’t seem to understand.”

    And that, writ large, is the problem. The old idea of courtship as a pursuit – in which men do all the chasing while women coyly resist, at least until there is some commitment on the table – has its downsides. It fosters an assumption that reluctance is normal and pushing is required; if a woman suddenly retreats or freezes, that is par for the course. Keep pestering for long enough and eventually a no might turn into a yes.

    No means no. For anyone over 40, that phrase still feels almost radical; a generation fought tooth and nail for the idea that, no matter what the victim wore or how she behaved, no still always means no. The law does not specify how consent should be expressed, with the Sexual Offences Act 2003 stating only that a person consents “if he agrees by choice, and has the freedom and capacity to make that choice” – for example, they are not underage, mentally incapacitated or so drunk as to be incapable. But juries still like to see evidence of complainants clearly saying “no” – and so does the court of public opinion.

    Yet “no means no” is increasingly seen by younger women as an embarrassingly basic approach to consent. They argue it encourages men to assume that, so long as their partner did not audibly say “no”, they are covered, even if that partner was shrinking away, asking them to slow down or frozen with fear. Badgering someone into queasy submission might technically be within the law, but it is not the road to a happy sex life and it may no longer protect a man from public censure. What young men should look for, Tillman argues, is not the potentially ambiguous absence of “no”, but the enthusiastic presence of a “yes, yes, yes” or affirmative consent. “In 2018, ‘no means no’ is totally antiquated. It puts all the pressure on the person in the most vulnerable position, that if someone doesn’t have the capacity or the confidence to speak up, then they’re going to be violated,” she says. “If somebody isn’t an enthusiastic yes, if they’re hesitating, if they’re like: ‘Uh, I don’t know’ – at this point in time, that equals no.”

    Dating like this requires men to focus much harder on what their partners are thinking and feeling and means more talking than some are comfortable with (although, as Myers puts it, it is better to kill the moment by asking if something is wrong than to make a mistake and ruin your life). It is undeniably challenging for men who are not good at reading emotions; as Pompey points out, some struggle even to gauge a first date accurately, never mind anything more. “They’ll say: ‘I just don’t get it, I did everything right and she was laughing and smiling and now I’m calling and she’s not answering.’ And you have to go through the date with them and say: ‘Well, sometimes people laugh out of politeness.’ Or sometimes when a date ends and a guy says: ‘Would you like to go out again some time?’ the woman will say: ‘Yeah, sure,’ but she doesn’t really mean it, she just doesn’t want to sound mean. You have to get more adept at reading the body language.”

    Affirmative consent puts female pleasure unashamedly centre-stage

    But it also requires women to get over any coyness about articulating their own desires and to stop expecting men to read their minds. For affirmative consent puts female pleasure unashamedly centre-stage.

    Like generations of feminists before them, millennials have been accused of being puritanical killjoys or making it practically impossible to have sex at all. But, in some ways, the reverse is true: their whole point is that sex is meant to be fun, that being browbeaten into it is miserable and that more communication should mean better sex for everyone. That is the point where two halves of the millennial psyche – the #MeToo movement and a lusty, libidinous sex-positive movement seeking to reclaim the word “slut” as a joyful thing – come together.

    “‘Slut’ is a great word. It just sounds perfect – so sharp and clear and beautiful,” writes Karley Sciortino in her book, Slutever: A Memoir and a Manifesto. A Vogue columnist, sex blogger and host of the explicit Vice show Slutever, Sciortino is hardly a prude. Yet she argues that both movements are about women claiming ownership of their bodies and their desire. If anything, the wilder sex gets, the more consent is taken seriously (think of the safe words agreed between dominants and submissives or the elaborate ground rules negotiated by couples in open marriages).

    Penny says she comes “from a queer, polyamorous community … where people have a lot of sex with a lot of different people; it’s not obligatory, but it’s possible, so people do. I’m used to the language of consent being involved in the sexual game. But if you’re with someone who doesn’t have that experience, I’ll still use the language – is this OK, checking people want something, checking they’re not too drunk – and I find it really freaks men out.”

    What #MeToo is doing, she thinks, is pushing this language of consent into the mainstream and prompting women everywhere to wonder why the most liberated generation in history still seems to be having so much terrible sex. “I really think it’s like a sexual revolution in its own right.”

    And what if older generations still look on young people’s increasingly complicated sex lives, with their baffling terms and outrageous practices and alien moral codes, in despair? Well, plus ça change. Once upon a time, it was how the previous generation felt about theirs.


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