05/30/2019 18:20 EDT

What We Can Learn From The Time Moby Thought He Dated Natalie Portman

It's probably a good idea not to date a teenager if you're not also a teenager.

Moby posted this photo of himself and Natalie Portman to Instagram as "proof" they dated, to refute her account that she was uncomfortable about the situation. He later deleted it and apologized.

Moby, an electronic artist who was threatened by Eminem at the MTV VMAs in the early 2000s and who once described himself as “Taoist–Christian–agnostic quantum mechanic” may seem like an unlikely source for lessons in healthy romantic and sexual relationships.

But, experts say his Natalie Portman-related debacle last week can actually teach us a lot about good dating practices, informed consent and masculinity.

A quick refresher: in his new memoir, Moby describes dating Natalie Portman when he was 33 and she was 20. When Harper’s Bazaar asked Portman about it, she said she was surprised Moby had characterized their time together as a relationship, “because my recollection is a much older man being creepy with me when I just had graduated high school.” She added that she was 18, not 20, when it happened.

Moby’s initial response was one of defensiveness, accusing her of “actively misrepresenting” him, before he finally apologized.

“It was truly inconsiderate of me to not let her know about her inclusion in the book beforehand, and equally inconsiderate for me to not fully respect her reaction,” he wrote on Instagram.

“Also I accept that given the dynamic of our almost 14 year age difference I absolutely should’ve acted more responsibly and respectfully when Natalie and I first met almost 20 years ago.”

Tony Barson via Getty Images
Natalie Portman with her husband Benjamin Millepied at the 2019 Vanity Fair Oscar Party.

This happens more than you’d think: expert

Situations where two people remember romantic or sexual encounters in wildly different ways are more common than you might think, said Dillon Black, a prevention coordinator at the Ottawa Coalition to End Violence Against Women who uses they/them pronouns.

“This is a case that we see a lot in the work that we do,” Black told HuffPost Canada. It speaks to the “lack of conversation around informed consent, as well as gendered power dynamics.”

One of the most striking parts of the story for Black was the way Moby framed the power dynamic. “The way he describes it, he gives [Portman] a lot of power in the situation,” they say. “But in actual reality, he’s the person who has more power and clout.”

Moby’s book describes Portman as a beautiful celebrity who deigned to spend time with him, failing to account for the fact that she was also a teenage fan of a much older, internationally-renowned male artist.

Black says it sounds like Moby is relying on outdated myths about what kind of person is capable of crossing someone else’s boundaries.

“Moby is kind of nerdy, and he seems like a nice guy,” they said. “Oftentimes, we think of people [who are capable of this] as monsters. We don’t talk about how it’s just everyday people that can have the capacity to do this sort of stuff, to cross boundaries, to not have consent.”

NBC via Getty Images
Aziz Ansari at the "Parks and Recreation" Reunion Panel at PaleyFest in March.

Another important part of the conversation, Black said, is the recognition that your intention is separate from the impact of your behaviour.

In a similar high-profile case in 2018, a young woman wrote about an uncomfortable sexual encounter she said she had with comedian Aziz Ansari. She wasn’t describing a rape, but an experience that she felt was in some ways coercive. Many news outlets dismissed the story as an example of “Me Too gone too far,” rather than one about ways women can feel pressured into sex even when men don’t intend to pressure them.

More and more men are starting to reckon with their behaviour, past and present, as we all collectively start to realize how disturbingly prevalent sexual misconduct is, whether intended or not. But as Moby’s initial defensiveness demonstrates, that process is often not an easy one, said Michael Kehler, a research chair in Masculinities Studies at the University of Calgary.

“Part of what Moby’s illustrating is this inability to be critically reflective on past experiences,” Kehler told HuffPost Canada. “In some ways, it’s partially connected to masculinity ... to certain understandings of what it means to be a man.”

It’s just everyday people that can have the capacity to do this sort of stuff, to cross boundaries, to not have consent.Dillon Black

To re-evaluate what you experienced as consensual, and to understand that maybe the other person didn’t feel that way, is to make yourself vulnerable, Kehler said — and some men aren’t willing to do that.

“Some men become very defensive in terms of, ‘I don’t know what the rules are anymore.’ ’How can I go forward? ‘How can I ever have a relationship?’” he said. “And that’s just a plain, flat-out defence.”

How can individuals start changing their behaviour?

Critical reflection on past mistakes is a worthwhile project for people of all genders, said Corey Turnbull, a Toronto-based therapist who runs a practice for men called Guys Resolve. “It’s a human project,” he told HuffPost Canada.

Building successful relationships starts internally, he explained. “If a guy doesn’t know who he is, or if he doesn’t accept or like who he is, then he may feel insecure, anxious, or isolated. Compensating for these things is where thoughts, feelings, and behaviours can start to become unhealthy.”

One of the first concrete steps Turnbull would encourage men in this kind of situation to take is to take pen to paper. Write down your core values and strengths as a way to really know yourself, he said.

After you’ve determined who you are, look at how you act: “We can spend time looking at all areas of our lives and challenge ourselves by asking if we respect our core values in all areas.”

The ability to be self-reflective and to interrogate our conduct, our attitude, our behaviour, actually is very empowering.Prof. Michael Kehler

The next step is to identify times “where we could have been truer to our values,” he said. Without defensiveness, reflect on what could have been done differently. He recommends taking a positive approach: “find ways to use our strengths to bridge the gap.”

Turnbull also recommends talking about all of this, as hard as it may seem, and as much as our own defence mechanisms try to prevent us from doing it. “We may have blind spots that a good friend or therapist can point out,” he said. “Talk about what we’re thinking, questioning, and yes, feeling.”

And again, framing it in a positive way is often a helpful approach, he says. “Men’s responses to the rise of this topic should not be a defensive one, but rather one of rising to the occasion.”

For some men, looking critically at how their own behaviour may have been informed by destructive ideas may feel “disempowering,” like you’re being told what not to do, Kehler said. But, communicating openly with your partner about your limitations or blind spots is actually the opposite, he says. “The ability to be self-reflective and to interrogate our conduct, our attitude, our behaviour, actually is very empowering.”

For a long time, men who strayed from their traditional gender role in any ways have been punished, and while that’s started to change, the road ahead is long, Kehler said.

“Going forward is not easy, because the narrative is much longer in the years past,” he said. “What we’re inviting boys and men to do is to be other than what they have known for so long.”

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