Describe a bad breakup, professor Jooyoung Lee instructed his students during a lecture in February.
As the students typed furiously, their answers materialized on a large screen at the front of the class at the University of Toronto’s Sidney Smith Hall.
The breakup anecdotes were highly personal – intel that parents would kill for. One student remembered friends who split from serially cheating partners – in Grade 7. Another described a friend stalked by an ex-boyfriend who’d text her 40 times in a row. A third talked about having to leave the boyfriend she was most happy with because he wasn’t Muslim, a sticking point for her family.
The exercise was part of a compelling new sociology course that scans the state of modern relationships. Launched in January, the class heads straight into the eye of #MeToo, delving into potent, timely issues such as consent and sexual harassment, taking students’ pulse on everything from hookup culture to male entitlement to what comes next from the #MeToo movement.
The students are shrewd, offering nuanced reads of modern social realities. On consent, they look past the empty slogans of “No Means No” and “Yes Means Yes.” On hookup culture, they acknowledge that Tinder is often emotionally vapid, but question whether it revolves solely around male sexual gratification or whether women benefit, too. On #MeToo, they go beyond the fanfare to examine the movement’s blind spots: In among all the hashtag sharing, the students warn, we are not doing the heavy lifting needed to change institutions long term.
Lee’s students are on the ball, no doubt. They are coming of age at a pivotal moment, as conversations about sexual violence, consent and mutual pleasure are ever-present. The question remains: Will theirs will be the generation to advance lasting gender equity? Some of the answer rests with their mentors.
“This class is making me ask real questions about real relationships that people have,” said Julia Kim, a 20-year-old sociology major.
Raised in a conservative family, Kim said the class has enlightened her on how different people love differently. It’s also crystallized her thinking on today’s online-dating terrain.
There are two camps in her peer group: those who love Tinder because it allows women and men to be direct about hooking up and those who feel alienated by its superficiality. Kim, who plays piano, minors in French and Spanish and helms an anti-child-exploitation organization at the university, worries that Tinder is eradicating spontaneous, natural connections and prioritizing looks over more meaningful human traits.
For her research study in Lee’s class, Kim is interviewing “friends with benefits.” Many of them are telling her they feel shortchanged by the non-committal arrangements that define hookup culture.
“People are reluctant to show emotional vulnerability because they are never sure when the other person will back out of the relationship. That’s emotionally burdening for people,” Kim observed. “It’s essential that we find networks of people we can connect to and build trust with.”
She adds: “It’s all become too rational – too much about cost-benefit analysis.”
Kim, who has not dated yet, also feels unsettled by a culture of toxic masculinity that has some men treating sexual partners who say “no” as a challenge to conquer.
It was during a class on hookup culture in January that the class analyzed the explosive Aziz Ansari story. A young woman, Grace, had accused the American comedian of being sexually coercive on a date. Feminists read the story as bleak proof that mutual pleasure is often absent from modern sex. Grace’s critics saw no crime, but a run-of-the-mill sexual encounter that strained the ideological limits of #MeToo. The case became a barometer for society’s views on consent.
Students debated whether the more mercenary scripts of hookup culture that drove Ansari and Grace here – scripts that suggest women who’ve been drinking with men should “put out” – need serious overhauling.
It also became clear to the students that consent is neither contractual nor simply a “yes” or “no.” Instead, consent unfolds as two people decide what they want to do together.
Just as the Ansari story had deeply confused observers, Soli Dubash, a fourth-year sociology specialist, says affirmative consent is also stumping his cohort.
“Men don’t know how to approach women and open consent. There’s this whole thing of, ‘Oh, it just happened,’” Dubash, 26, said.
“A lot of the men that I know don’t know. What do you do? Do you stop? Do you ask, ‘Can I kiss you?’ ‘Can I touch you?’ And a lot of the women I know don’t know how to negotiate consent either. They might want something, they might hint at something, but they’re not direct.”
Dubash says we have poor sex education to thank for this mess. Kim agrees, saying she can recall just one scene from her Grade 9 sex-ed class: students tittering at gory, clinical pictures of gonorrhea. Healthy relationships weren’t on the radar.
Lee’s students say the exchanges happening in their sociology class are valuable. They only wish they’d been jump-started years before university.
Lee, who met his wife, Vanessa, on the dating website OkCupid, felt compelled to create the class because he saw a dearth of sociological study into technologies that people now use to navigate the world – Instagram, Snapchat and Tinder among them. Dubbed “Sex in the 6ix,” Lee’s second-year course mines how hookup culture, working in tandem with social media, has altered the ways people interact with each other. Students dissect modern dating mores – flirting via gifs and emojis, dumping via text message, ghosting, plus the anatomy of “meat market” bars.
The advent of #MeToo last fall made the course far more urgent. Invariably, when the class talks about dating, women share stories of harassment, such as the time 80 per cent of them raised their hands to say, yes, men had sent them unsolicited photos of their genitals via text and through dating websites.
“It hammers home this idea that people who experience this are not alone,” Lee said of the #MeToo movement. “It forces men to interrogate themselves about how they are possibly complicit.”
As students took their seats before a lecture in February, Lee enlivened the bland, concrete room at Sid Smith, cuing up Khalid and Kendrick Lamar. Hip hop is one of the associate professor’s research interests. With his good haircut and crisp sneakers, Lee is almost indiscernible from his students. In class, he’s relatable, telling personal stories and sharing photos of his dog.
With his young charges, Lee probes topics most adults would rather avoid at a dinner party. He also curates up-to-date multimedia for his lectures. This is crucial with millennials, who tune out when pop-cultural references are stale. For a recent class titled #MeToo and its discontents, Lee screened a Business Insider profile of Tarana Burke, the originator of the #MeToo movement; a Teen Vogue interview with actor Ashley Judd, who was the first to publicly accuse producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment; and the now infamous Kill Bill fight scene in which Uma Thurman is choked by director Quentin Tarantino.
For all the hyper-current, thought-provoking debates, Sex in the 6ix has one serious flaw. Of the approximately 70 students here, I count just five men. “It’s unfortunate,” Lee said.
The deep gender imbalance suggests these issues are still seen as women’s work, said Paige McMaster, who’s in her third year in sociology and women and gender studies. McMaster, 25, believes the people who would benefit most from this course are those who’ve not experienced sexual violence. For the most part, that means men.
“They don’t see what’s happening because it doesn’t affect them,” McMaster said. “This would be a good class to open people’s eyes.”
It’s even more dismaying, then, that of the handful of guys here, some have checked out. While the class discussed #MeToo, one male student tinkered with a face-morphing app that turned him into a bumblebee, his laptop screen glowing yellow and black.
Other guys appear more engaged. Dubash, who sits at the front of the class, took an undergraduate seminar on men and masculinity last summer. He also hosts French-style salons with school friends; they deliberate issues such as gender and consent often.
Dubash wishes the other men in his sociology class would have piped up during the Ansari sexual-assault discussion. “I find that men don’t speak enough about consent,” he said. “I try to do my best to speak about consent to my partners. I think consent is sexy.”
Does he export the conversations from his sociology class to his guy friends, as Lee hopes his male students will? Dubash doesn’t proselytize, but when friends come to him for advice, he is there.
“You can’t force somebody to learn how to be vulnerable or share consent,” he said, “but you can definitely open the door and they can let themselves through.”