Watch The Conversation to have the consent conversation
Actor/activist Michael Cory Davis wrote, produced, directed and starred in the 16-minute film The Conversation, funded through his organisation Artists United For Social Justice, to start conversations about sexual assault and consent. These issues have become even more topical in light of the tragic case of Sarah Everard, the Everyone’s Invited movement started by 22-year-old Soma Sara to eradicate rape culture and the Teach Us Consent petition started by student Chanel Contos – all of which, like the film, speak to the need to educate boys and men. Through flashbacks, texts and a heart-to-heart talk, The Conversation shows two people’s perspectives on a date gone wrong and highlights the need for young people and parents to think about consent, coerciveness and communication.
Here Michael Cory Davis talks to us about locker-room talk, his first encounters with porn and why parents should 100% watch The Conversation
Gina: I seriously don’t want to have sex
Damon: Did I do something?
Gina: It’s not you, it’s me. I don’t want to do it
Damon: So you get me all worked up and now you’re saying you don’t want to have sex?
– From The Conversation starring Michael Cory Davis and Ashely A Williams (2/7/2020)
ON THE BACKSTORY TO THE FILM
Social justice has always been in my heart. Growing up in New York I saw so much racism and poverty. I would write poems about homelessness and make films about it when I was 13.
When I talked to female friends of different socioeconomic backgrounds, every woman had this story around consent, these experiences. That bothered me.
During the MeToo movement, reading blog posts and social media made me think: “I have to create something in which people hear differing opinions – so women hear what men are thinking and so men see what verbal and non-verbal communication is, because a lot of men really don’t understand.”
If you are a conscious enough man and you’re selfless rather than selfish, you’re going to know when someone doesn’t want to kiss you or touch you and you’ll back off. Some men lean into that, and that’s the problem. You shouldn’t have to persuade someone to sleep with you. That’s what I wanted the movie to show.
The men I’ve watched this movie with, and the boys, you see them cringing during those scenes, because we inherently know what’s right or wrong even if we’re conditioned to forget it. But we know when someone’s invading our space, therefore we know when we’re invading someone’s space.
I’m speaking about dating but issues of consent also happen at work, at home. I’ve listened to girls talk about a relative or family friend. We have to be in a position where a kid can say: “I don’t want to be with Uncle Johnny.” “Why not?” “I don’t like the way he looks at me.” We have to respect our children when they say that.
I was raised by a very loving family. Immigrants have a lot of pressure on them, and we’re Jamaican. I had an unemotional dad – typical story of many men – and even though he was supportive financially he was not going to be the dad that was going to say: “I love you.”
So where did I get male validation and respect? On the streets of New York in the 1980s and 90s it was an extremely violent time. I got that respect from my guy friends because we protected each other on our way home. And what kind of conversations did we have? “Did you mess with that girl?” The more you said you did that, you got positive reinforcement: “When I’m doing this with girls, I’m valuable.” Boys are searching for respect and value from their peers and father. If a boy is not being told: “You’re valuable because you’re honest, compassionate, courageous and you honour your sister and girls like her, and I love you, son, for these good traits” he’ll get his sense of value through violence, gangs or sports – which is still very misogynistic. I don’t care if you’re a white wealthy man or an inner-city Hispanic kid or whatever – society promotes the same dynamic: you are a man of value if you have money, cars, good clothes and this type of woman. And women and girls on Instagram are playing the same unhealthy game because in their mind: “I’m of value if I can get the guy who has those things.”
With this movie I wanted to speak to fact that not all men are perpetrators. A lot of times men are operating with testosterone and adrenalin raging, egos on fire and the unhealthy conditioning that makes us feel we have to get to some goal, a home run. If you don’t get there you think: “What did I do wrong? Is it me?”
So I wanted to show it is possible for a conscious enough man to reflect. I wanted to show that though this guy was defensive, which is normal and natural, then he reflected, saw what he did, compared that to what she’d said he did and thought: “Ah, that is what I missed.”
I wanted to end it a little raw, vague and abstract, and let the quote do the job and say: “We are all doomed, basically, if we don’t listen to one another.” Men who don’t listen to women who say “stop” or “no” – they’re the problem. I wanted to show that this man listened after the fact, and he learned.
Damon: I know what it’s like. There’s a double standard for women. It’s not fair. So I was encouraging you to let go, be free. I wanted you to know there was no judgement from me. In fact I think it’s empowering when women say: “Screw the labels” and just do what they want
Gina: But you’re totally missing the point. I’m OK with having sex on the first date – if I want to. But that’s just it. I didn’t want to. But you tried so hard to wear me down and that was so uncool. You can’t really think that it was OK to have to convince me to sleep with you. Like I can’t make that decision for myself. Do you even get that you were trying to force me?
Damon: I didn’t force you to do anything. We messed around. That was consensual.
Gina: What about it was consensual? ’Cause I was giving you non-verbal cues all night. I even told you that I didn’t want to do it
ON THE DREAM FOR THE FILM
The bulk of the men who speak about sexual assault and consent are white men, if any. There’s not a lot of black and brown actors, filmmakers, artists like myself who speak to this issue.
The movie, which had a soft release in July 2020, is part of a planned two-part campaign with educational resources – first #HaveTheConversation, about sexual assault and consent, and then #DefineYourManhood, about healthy masculinity and why we even have to have this conversation. With masculinity we’re moving away from the idea that we have to conquer, control and compete as if we’re Vikings or Neanderthals and we’re going into a much higher-conscious frequency of compassion, consideration and compromise.
The movie is being used in a sex ed class in a New York school where it’s been a useful way to create conversations, spotlight verbal and non-verbal cues and so forth. There is room for it in junior high schools, high schools, college fraternities, churches, men’s groups and youth groups. This is how I think we can reach young men. That’s the dream.
I’d love to get a platform like Tinder to sponsor a free, global 2-hour town-hall conversation about sexual assault and consent using the film as a reference point. People would pre-watch the movie, there would be a panel with sex ed experts and celebrity influencers, and then men, women, boys and girls could type in questions and feedback.
If a boy wrote: “I don’t understand what he did wrong. She kissed him. What’s the non-verbal communication?” we’d say: “Let’s go back to the movie. Right here she kisses him but she also says: ‘I don’t want to have sex.’ He continues…” A lot of guys are going to say: “That’s what he’s supposed to do. He’s a guy; he’s trying to have sex.” It could be really dynamic in explaining misconceptions and creating conversations.
Damon: If you were so bothered why didn’t you just leave?
Gina: I thought that you would get it. It’s crazy, right? I thought that you would get it and I thought that you would stop. Why couldn’t we just Netflix and chill all night?
Damon: ’Cause I was in the moment. I thought you were too
Gina: I was. With kissing and fooling around. But not sex
Damon: But that leads to sex
Gina: If both people want it to. I didn’t want it to
Damon: But then you’re teasing me…
ON THE INFLUENCE OF PORN
We live in a society that’s highly duplicitous. We promote sexuality in advertising soda, food, music, everything – but when it comes to having a healthy conversation about masturbation, it’s: “Oh no, we can’t do that; it’s against our rules and ethics.”
Kids are learning through social media, porn and pop culture, which is highly sexualised, highly sexually charged.
Words matter. Locker-room talk can become part of your subconscious and you start speaking it on a normal basis. In saying: “I’m going to smash that” – “that” is a human being, so how can I respect a woman by calling her “that”? Look, I’m a writer. I love those words; they’re great words. It’s one thing to consciously use them because I’m going to tell this story to my friend and I’m aware that it’s unhealthy, but we shouldn’t allow that language to seep into kids’ psyches at a young age without a balance of education and understanding first. When you write a screenplay they say: “Learn the foundation, then you’ll know how you can veer off.” If kids don’t know the foundation of healthy sexuality, sensuality or intimacy and all they know is the other side, it’s very hard to go from the other side to the foundation.
At age 9 I had my first encounter with pornography. I was hanging out with friends and there was a ripped-up porn magazine being blown away by the wind, and we literally ran around Prospect Park trying to find all these random torn pieces and put them together. That was how hard it was to get access to pornography in the 1980s. Now you go onto Google, type “penis” or “vagina” and you get a billion images – and that’s the soft stuff.
To me if you’re going to allow porn to exist and be this multibillion-dollar business and not police it, you’d better put the same amount of energy into making sure that people are healthy and understand the unhealthiness about what can happen if you become addicted to it. There need to be classroom sessions about the downsides of pornography and just sex ed conversations in general so that boys don’t look at porn and go: “That’s what women must like because in the video she’s moaning and she looks happy.”
Due to pornography you have all these young women who are having anal sex and saying: “It’s OK, I’m not breaking my virginity” but they don’t really want to have it. It’s become this huge trend. As we saw that trend happening and we could attribute it to pornography, where was the conversation about it globally, in schools and in homes?
We live in a society where we can’t hide the facts any more. We can’t keep trying to exist like racism, sexism and assault aren’t here. Technology has grown far beyond us, and if we don’t level up to where it is, we’re doomed. We don’t have the emotional and spiritual bandwidth to handle what technology has made available to us.
My mom knew that I was sexual as a young boy, and she acknowledged that. One time at the video store when I was 10 or 11, I was in the pornography section, and instead of making me feel ashamed she said: “Do you want to see that?” I said: “Yeah, kind of.” So we took it home, I watched it and my father had a conversation with me about it. Then my mother gave me a book about women’s and men’s body parts, sex, chemicals in the body, baby-making and all that and we had a conversation about that. And I’ll tell you the truth: that’s what kept me safe. By the time I started having sex at 16 I had an understanding about condoms and diseases, and I’ve been careful my whole life because of that, because I had a foundation of knowledge of the realities.
As a parent you know your children. My mom didn’t have that conversation with my brother but she did with me – that’s probably because she didn’t want a grandchild when I was 14.
Gina: Maybe we should stop
Damon: Why? I can tell you want to…
Gina: Just because I want to doesn’t mean I have to
ON WATCHING THE FILM
I think, 100%, that parents need to watch The Conversation by the time their child is going into junior high school. As a parent you know your child and where they are emotionally and you determine when is the right time to start having those conversations. You can’t talk about the birds and the bees now with kids who have access to the real nitty-gritty. Parents need to be fully versed with what’s going on. Imagine what kids are doing with their cellphones. Let’s just be real.
Parents need to watch the movie 1) for themselves and 2) if their kids see it, it gives parents an out, because they don’t have to say: “Are you doing this?” They can say: “What do you think about what this guy is doing?” It’s about him, not about their kid – it’s not personal. Then their kid won’t get defensive.
You could ask your child: “Did this film make you uncomfortable? Why?” You might be surprised – it could be an opportunity for reticent kids to say things you don’t expect about what they’ve experienced with friends or whatever.
If The Conversation was explicit, then a parent would have reason to say: “I’m not going to watch this.” But it doesn’t show anything besides kissing.
The truth of the matter is that most adults are not comfortable discussing sex and relationships issues. Parents need to become a lot more gritty and more willing to have real conversations with their kids. They need to understand that everything they think their kids aren’t aware of they’ve either heard about, seen or laughed about in school.
Parents also have to understand that their kids are confused about sex and relationships. No matter how much parents think their kids don’t want to listen to them, they do want to. Because inherently children know that their parents are there to protect them. That’s how we are hard wired. So even if the kid is saying: “I don’t want to hear it” they do, and it’s your responsibility to push through the noise.
That will live with your child. Even though I was talking or acting a certain way with my friends, I knew what was right and wrong because I had a foundation of love, because of how my parents talked to me.
Being honest and candid with your children is super-important, especially in today’s society. In 2021 everything is on the table – you can’t hide it from your kids.