Attention all problematic dudes: Would you like to distance yourself from any sleazy behavior toward women in the past and proudly attach the adjective “former” to your problematic-dude status? The New York Times has the means. Sign an online “affirmative consent pledge.” Swear to the following: “I’m a Man, and I Commit to Making Sure All My Sexual Encounters Are Fully Consensual.”
The man behind this nonbinding, meaningless, and superfluous consent pledge is author Michael Ellsberg, whom the Times is promoting in a splashy, fawning feature, complete with animated graphics (“#MeToo” is transformed into “#MenToo” when a friendly-looking anthropomorphic “N” saunters into the headline, waving at readers) and one of those dramatic portraits that features Ellsberg gazing courageously into a more honest and better future. Presumably Ellsberg’s future will be more gentlemanly than his past, because in the interview he admits to Aziz Ansari–like behavior and acting like the guy in the New Yorker short story “Cat Person” — which is to say, being a major jerk.
“I had to reckon with myself,” he says. “And realize, ‘I’ve been that guy, more than once.’ I’ve been that guy who’s pressured, pestered, begged or badgered a woman for sex while on a date.” And not only on a date, sometimes just on a train. Hitting on women while riding the New York City subway, he “definitely invaded their space,” he says, understanding that “they’re definitely a captive audience and can’t get away.”
It would appear that Ellsberg, like many other media figures, has some apologizing to do. But he is a lot more interested in lecturing others, or as he puts it, ‘educating other men.’
It would appear that Ellsberg, like many other media figures, has some apologizing to do. But he is a lot more interested in lecturing others, or as he puts it, “educating other men.” Do men really need Ellsbergian tutelage, though? Here’s his pitch:
The essence of affirmative consent is making sure that your partner is totally good about what’s happening and there’s no reservation. You can make sure in lots of different ways. You don’t have to ask at every juncture. . . . If you’re really committed to looking for the nonverbal signals, you’re just going slowly and making sure from your partner’s body language and eye contact that she’s clearly into it. If you can’t tell, then you stop and ask with words.
Is there any man who needs Michael Ellsberg to tell him how consensual sex works?
Ellsberg, a 40-year-old writer in Berkeley, Calif., is said to be steeped in courage and taking a stand and fighting entrenched, pernicious systems: His father, Daniel Ellsberg, was the one who leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times, which yielded both a historic Supreme Court fight and a not particularly historic Tom Hanks movie. But starting an online petition isn’t exactly putting your neck on the line. It’s just a public proclamation of your virtue that counts for little when you’re alone in a bedroom with a woman. No woman is going to feel any safer with Ellsberg, or any other man, just because he signed a petition declaring his sexual wokeitude. No man who is inclined to take sexual advantage of a woman is going to stop at the crucial moment and say, “Wait a minute, I can’t do this — I signed a pledge!”
After all, Ansari himself — an outspoken Hillary Clinton–supporting male feminist and certified “woke bae” — had already declared his pro-woman bona fides in a variety of ways, and yet such declarations of respect went out the window as soon as he and “Grace” (the woman who wrote anonymously about their bad date) had some wine and went back to his apartment. What matters is not the words but the behavior. Based on the number of ardently progressive men who have been unmasked as sexual predators in the past four months, why would we think that signing a “consent pledge” is any more likely to make men behave appropriately than campaigning for Hillary Clinton or publicly supporting the Women’s March?
There is a mechanism already in place for ensuring that sexual encounters are consensual: It’s called the law. Take liberties with another person without her consent, and you are liable to prosecution, conviction, and jail time. Rape and sexual assault are serious crimes. It’s nice that Ellsberg apparently has regrets about being a jerk, and that he has publicly sworn not to commit a sex crime, but he ought not to risk spraining his elbow patting himself on the back. Nor should anyone who signs his silly petition.