Mike LeSage of East Boston is 34, single, and on the dating scene. Dating has always been a somewhat fraught experience for LeSage, but lately, he — like many men — finds himself particularly at sea.
In encounters with women, how does he ensure he doesn’t step over a line?
He hastens to note that he knows no man should ever force himself on a woman, but far short of that, how should he act?
“You could argue that a lot of girls don’t like passive men,” LeSage said. “So if you aren’t a little forward you lose. It’s almost a leap of faith either way.”
In this time of upheaval, with the news supplying a steady diet of new accusations of sexual misconduct, and with social media aflame with differing beliefs about the appropriate response to those accusations, those in the dating world find themselves navigating especially perilous terrain.
The anxiety emerges in the offices of therapists and in bars, where singles find themselves confused about what’s OK and what isn’t, especially in the days since the Internet blew up over a woman’s anonymous accusations of sexual misconduct against comedian Aziz Ansari.
The woman called the date “the worst night of my life.” Ansari said in a statement he thought the encounter was consensual.
At a watering hole on State Street where LeSage was hanging out one recent evening, Tito’s vodka and Bud Lights flowed and vivacious singles with good hair and on-trend outfits smiled and flirted. But beneath the surface, it was all tension.
“You can offend anyone by saying anything,” said Angela Sodano, 37, a financial services worker, summing up the wariness surrounding the topic.
On another night, in another bar, this one in Coolidge Corner, Angelina, 34, sat with friends and graphically described how a significant way people meet now — via online dating — leads to seriously mismatched expectations.
When she posts a profile picture of herself wearing a low-cut dress that shows her cleavage, many men message her, she said.
“They think she’s easy,” a pal called out.
“It’s like I’m saying, ‘I’m wearing a dress, let’s have sex,’ ” Angelina said.
But when she takes down the picture and posts only photos of herself covered up, she hears from no one.
Reflecting on her perception that she loses either way, and that men have it much easier, she mentioned her resolution for 2018: “To have the confidence of an average white male on a dating app.”
But in an age when an anonymous woman’s accusation — accurate or not — can derail a career, men don’t feel they have it so good.
Sitting with friends a few tables away from Angelina, Adam, 24, a graduate student at Boston University, said these are scary times to be dating.
“With social media, everything is in the public eye,” he said.
Adam — described by his female companions as “one of the good guys” — said he likes to ask for consent for any sexual activity, but then his friends burst into an animated discussion about the real-world challenges.
“If you go home with a guy at 3 a.m.” from a bar where you’ve been drinking, the guy’s probably not going ask, “Is it OK if I . . . ?” said Michelle, another BU graduate student.
She, and every woman interviewed, said that drinking can lead a woman into a bad situation she would have known to avoid if she were sober.
The Ansari story exploded on a site called babe.net, with a headline that read: “I went on a date with Aziz Ansari. It turned into the worst night of my life.”
With that piece, the #MeToo movement’s intense focus on sexual issues in the workplace expanded ever deeper into the dating world.
The Ansari story detailed a September date, on a warm evening, that started with wine at his TriBeCa apartment in Manhattan, moved to an oyster bar, and back to his place, where, she said, she felt pressured to go along as he became sexually aggressive. They did not have intercourse.
The encounter left her feeling “violated.”
“I cried the whole ride home,” the woman told Babe.
Ansari has denied sexual misconduct. “[W]e ended up engaging in sexual activity, which by all indications was completely consensual,” he said in a statement in response to the story.
“The next day, I got a text from her saying that although ‘it may have seemed okay,’ upon further reflection, she felt uncomfortable,” Ansari wrote. “It was true that everything did seem okay to me, so when I heard that it was not the case for her, I was surprised and concerned.”
Until the article was published, Ansari was considered one of the woke men, and it seems his public support for the movement against sexual harassment — he wore a Time’s Up pin at the Jan. 7 Golden Globes — may have triggered the aggrieved woman to tell her story publicly.
“I think that started a new fire,” the woman, called Grace by the reporter, told the website, “and it kind of made it more real.”
The accusation against Ansari has not only put him in the crosshairs, it has further divided feminists.
Writing in the Atlantic, in a story headlined, “The Humiliation of Aziz Ansari,” Caitlin Flanagan calls Babe’s 3,000-word story “revenge porn.”
“The clinical detail in which the story is told is intended not to validate her account as much as it is to hurt and humiliate Ansari,” Flanagan wrote. “Together, the two women may have destroyed Ansari’s career, which is now the punishment for every kind of male sexual misconduct, from the grotesque to the disappointing.”
In Boston, Rich Domenico, a clinical social worker who specializes in relationship issues and sex therapy, sees the fear in his single male clients, men in their 20s, 30s and 40s, who are afraid they’ll be next.
He relayed an almost direct quote from a client: “She hasn’t called or texted me since our date three nights ago and I’m freaking out that she wasn’t as into it as she seemed at the time.”
The other side of that fear — the fear of being sexually assaulted — can be seen on Her Campus, a Boston-based website for women who are college age or slightly older. Last week, as the Ansari story was dominating headlines, Gina Escandon, an associate editor who focuses on sex and relationship issues, sent an e-mail blast to 2,000 women asking for essays on the topic and giving prompts:
“The Aziz Ansari encounter is too familiar for many women & that’s unacceptable.” “Why we need a discussion surrounding the nuanced, less clear-cut cases of sexual assault.” “Just because he labels himself as a woke feminist ally, doesn’t mean he is.”
Escandon noted that the anonymous Brooklyn photographer who accused Ansari was 22 at the time of their date, an age right in her site’s demographic. “It really hit home,” she said.