I’d like to think men have higher standards for themselves in relationships than avoiding a prison sentence.
In electronic artist Moby’s recent memoir, Then It Fell Apart, he claims to have dated actor Natalie Portman when she was 20 years old and he was 33. Portman, who clarified that she was actually 18 during their brief acquaintance, spoke with Harper’s Bazaar about the surprising and upsetting experience of seeing their relationship described as “dating.” “We only hung out a handful of times before I realized that this was an older man who was interested in me in a way that felt inappropriate,” she said.
In a bafflingly counterproductive move, Moby responded by doubling down on his claim, posting an old photo on Instagram as “corroborating evidence” (his phrase). The picture does look like it could be considered evidence, although not of anything the musician, now 53, should be proud of. A shirtless Moby grins maniacally, his arm around Portman’s shoulders, while her smile looks forced and uncomfortable.
Public responses to this disagreement have, predictably, been split. Many women and quite a few men have spoken up for Portman, saying that if a woman says an older man made her uncomfortable, he probably did. Moby’s defenders, in contrast, seem to be mostly male, and their argument is less about whether Portman returned his romantic intentions than about whether it’s creepy for a man in his 30s to have romantic intentions toward a teenager in the first place. This side of the debate argues that it isn’t weird for a 33-year-old to pursue a woman 15 years his junior, because 18 is the legal age of consent. And if it isn’t a crime, in these people’s minds, it isn’t a problem.
I remember this from last year, when Aziz Ansari was alleged to have pressured a woman for sex until she fled a date with him and cried in the car on the way home. Then, too, the case for the defense was that people were overreacting, and nothing illegal had happened. What I thought then and think now was the same: I wish more men understood that just because it’s legal, it doesn’t mean it’s OK.
The legality of a man’s sexual or romantic conduct is often used by his apologists to ward off any discussion of wrongdoing. When women, survivors, and allies try to critique male entitlement and obliviousness to boundaries, we’re often met with straw man arguments like “Well, what do you want to do? Raise the age of consent to 42? Throw every guy who hits on you in jail? Don’t be ridiculous.” In fact, I’ve never seen anyone seriously suggest draconian criminal penalties as a solution to the low-level sexual discomfort women are expected to navigate on a daily basis. But invoking those penalties as a threat is an excellent, time-tested strategy for derailing any conversation about men behaving better.
Women (and people of all genders) frequently experience harassment, coercion, fear, and shame at the hands of sexually and romantically aggressive men. When we bring this up, our goal is not to round up and arrest every man we’ve ever had a shitty date with, but rather to illustrate how draining and depressing these accumulated microaggressions can become. We’re not asking for men to be punished. We’re asking for men to understand, and to care. To think about how they might, inadvertently, be scaring us, and how they could help us feel safe instead.
From the reactions of some men every time there’s a public discussion of sexual misconduct, I can only conclude that many of them don’t want to understand. Perhaps it’s easier to invent, and then evade, ludicrously over-the-top consequences than to acknowledge that your behavior was harmful. If you imagine you’re on trial, it makes sense to defend yourself rather than trying to empathize and make amends. But it’s not going to make anyone want to date you.
Yes, it’s legal—and should remain legal—for a 33-year-old man to date an 18-year-old girl. That doesn’t mean there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s legal to ask your date for sex over and over ad nauseum. That doesn’t mean you should. As a teenager, I had several “boyfriends” in their 20s. In retrospect, I can see that those men were manipulative and toxic, that they chased after high-school girls because they lacked the interpersonal skills to sustain relationships with women their own age. I don’t think those men should go to jail, but I definitely think they should go to therapy.
Many men have at one point or another made a woman feel unsafe. I say this not to berate them, but to encourage them to do better. I want men to be more considerate, more empathetic, to value their partners’ enjoyment and satisfaction. I’d like to think men want that too. I’d like to think men have higher standards for themselves in relationships than avoiding a prison sentence.
Although you can pry my ironic misandry out of my cold, dead hands, I don’t actually want to quarantine all men in a space colony. Instead, I want men to build stronger, more affirming, more equitable relationships with women, and that can only come through listening to and caring about our experiences. When women say “I was uncomfortable,” stop arguing with them and start trying to understand why. And when in doubt, keep your damn shirt on.
Lindsay King-Miller is a queer femme who does not have an indoor voice. Her writing has appeared in Bitch Magazine, Cosmopolitan.com, Buzzfeed, The Hairpin, and numerous other publications. She lives in Denver with her partner, two really cute kids, and two very spoiled cats. She is the author of Ask A Queer Chick (Plume, 2016).