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VICE on HBO's 'Consent' Examines the Ripple Effect of #MeToo

HBO Correspondent Isobel Yeung shares the process for how the VICE on HBO special report "Consent" came about, and how we can continue to push conversations around consent and accountability forward.
Image via HBO.

On Friday, VICE on HBO released “Consent,” a special report that discusses how people, both public and private, are grappling with issues of consent and sexual assault in the year since the first allegations against Harvey Weinstein. In the episode, HBO Correspondent Isobel Yeung leads us through a conversation about how the #MeToo movement has affected everyday people, and focuses specifically on the gray areas around consent.


The issue is extremely personal, and has had huge, rippling effects on both individuals and our society at large, as everyone figures out what accountability looks like, and where we go from here. To help better understand how this episode came about, what the process was in filming, and why accountability and communication played key roles in this piece, VICE Executive Editor Dory Carr-Harris and Broadly Editor-in-Chief Lindsay Schrupp sat down with Yeung for an episode of the VICE Guide to Right Now podcast.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Dory Carr-Harris: Isabelle, can you can tell me a little bit about what the thought process was in terms of how you decided to cover this issue now and little bit about how that story or pitch meeting went.

Isobel Yeung: It's been, obviously, a crazy couple of days. But it's also been a crazy year or so. And it's almost a full year since the initial allegations against Harvey Weinstein came about. And so, we were actually intending for this piece to come out next week as the kind of anniversary of that. It just so happened that the events of the last few days kind of turned that on its head. But, I think that there's been so many conversations around the MeToo movement obviously. And, it seemed like there was a real riff between the conversations that were happening in public and that were happening between our friends or in private and stuff. And we kind of just wanted to attempt to fix that rift and to try and have those conversations in a visual documentary style, which turned out to be incredibly difficult to actually do. We wanted to discuss some of the more nuanced parts of this conversation: How does the MeToo movement affect our sex lives? How does the MeToo movement affect our dating lives? Is there such a thing as nonconsensual sex, which shouldn't be legally prosecuted?


Given that so many of these cases have come out over the last year or so. The conversations that were happening behind closed doors were more nuanced than the ones were are having in public. So we kind of wanted to address that in our piece.

And what did you think, if you can sort of sum it up for us, that rift really was? And what was the key difference you felt between the way we were talking about this in public and the private conversations that you and your peers were having with friends and colleagues?

Yeung: I mean it is such a polarizing conversation, as we have seen in the last few days. And I think that in general it has been one of those things where there is "the rapist" or "the abuser" and then there is "the victim." And often the conversations that we've been having are not that simple. They're more nuanced. For me particularly, it was when the Aziz Ansari case came out. And, in fact, I wouldn't call it a case. When the Aziz Ansari story came out that we started, this just led to an explosion of conversations for me and my mates at dinners or drinks or whatever. And, it's not that simple in reality. And kind of what we want to address is that gray area of consent. That's the situation that I myself and so many of my friends have found ourselves in on multiple occasions. And, how do we have such a rift of communication in terms of one person thinking this is completely normal consensual sex and one person thinking that it is not. So that is the kind of rift that we wanted to address in this piece.


Lindsay, I know on Broadly you and the editors and writers who work with you have taken this issue up as well. I think it is one that is incredible complex, and I think one thing that we've talked about on this podcast before is: How we can do justice to the nuances and the particularities of all of the different allegations and instances and stories that have come forward and not make sweeping generalizations? How have you guys sort of tried to approach that on the site?

Lindsay Schrupp: I think it's taken many, many different forms. I think that a lot of it, too, is sort of really trying to look at why there is such a gray area and where that disconnect is happening. And what this piece really digs into also is that it's happening in so many places. So it is happening in communication, it's happening in sex education. It's also when you look at the political landscape of the US, half the states in the US don't even have a legal definition of consent. If we are not even talking about consent in the same ways, how can we start to have these conversations?

Isabelle, obviously you do talk to a variety of experts in the special. But as well you highlight individual personal stories and have people talking about their experiences with these gray areas and with this nuance. And you are one of those people. I'm wondering if you can tell us a little about the decision to put yourself on the other side of the camera and participate as someone being interviewed or sharing your own experience rather than the person asking the questions?


Yeung: It was one of those decisions that was kind of made on the fly to be honest because we had a whole two days of women and men coming in to tell their stories or situations where they'd been in that gray area. And in some cases the gray areas are very gray and dark and in some cases it's all murky. I'd been listening to these stories, asking women to share these very private moments of their lives. And to speak with real bravery. And it's really intimidating having to speak directly to camera knowing that millions of people on HBO are going to be watching this to share a story that for maybe awhile they haven't spoken about. Maybe is a source of shame. Maybe brings up very traumatic feelings for a lot of people. And it was a decision to talk about my own experiences, or one of my experiences.

It kind of felt undeniably personal. It was a difficult decision because you want to retain that journalistic credibility and often that means keeping some distance from the story itself and from the subjects. But in this particular story, it just felt like that was unavoidable. And that for so many of us, including myself, it is very personal. And so it kind of only felt fair, and it only felt like I was able to do the story justice if I also put myself in that seat.

I think, especially in light of what is happening now, and the testimony that Dr. Blasey Ford gave yesterday, I think that what's been difficult and what's been flowing through the news cycle too is a feeling that this is personal. And that this does represent more than simple allegations of events, but rather that this confirmation hearing has an increased significance in regards to how we treat allegations of sexual misconduct, assault, harassment, and the MeToo movement in general. And whether or not we believe women. Lindsay, I know that this is something that you've talked about on Broadly too. How do you, in your coverage, try to maintain that unbiased reporting while also making sure that we are giving voice to and valuing the stories that we're telling?


Schrupp: Something that's come up recently just in conversation with some of my colleagues, is somebody was reporting in for jury duty and was dismissed because it was a sexual assault case. And they couldn't be allowed because they had an experience with sexual assault. And it was so interesting because when you think about how many people in the US, or how many people in the world, have experienced something related to assault or harassment or abuse in some way or have themselves participated in some sort of murky, nonconsensual sex experience; how are we supposed to divorce ourselves from those conversations? Or take a step back and say, 'I'm not the one who should be reporting this.' And I think what we've found is that we really can't. And so I think it's about figuring out how to acknowledge that in our reporting, and in the work that we do. But also make sure that are still allowing for nuance and allowing for all voices in that sense to be heard.

I think in the last year there's been this fervor to really stand up and kind of shout. And this sort of solidarity among so many survivors to shift the blame that they felt - not to make a sweeping generalization - but that many have felt in that silence. And now it's sort in this place where, well okay, where do we put that? If we actually want to be able to move forward in a meaningful way, then what are the next steps of these kinds of conversations that we should be having?


In addition to the sort of nuance that you want to bring forward, Isabel, and the need to make it a personal story and contribute that story to a multiplicity of different ways, what were some of the other points that you guys felt, you and your producers, were really necessary to hit on in this episode? That you really wanted to bring to the forefront of the conversation because you didn't feel like it had been there previously?

Yeung: I think that one area that we really need to elevate this conversation to is the topic of accountability. And we can see that, given what's been happening the last couple of days. There's one question about whether this happened to Dr. Blasey Ford. There's a whole new question about what accountability looks like. Should that have happen. That's a conversation that's been difficult to address because, I mean, should someone come forward and say that they were sexually assaulted or sexually harassed. We have very few options for what happens to that person. Most cases go unreported. Of those that do I think it's only six out of 1000 rapists end up in prison. So, if we want to move forward with this we have to kind of think about what we want accountability to look like. That's kind of what we were pushing for in this piece. And where this piece ends up is, it actually goes to a man and a woman who had sex back in college, which was 10 years ago for them. One of them, the guy calls this a drunken incident. The woman in the piece calls this rape. And they actually sit down and have a conversation and hash out those differences.


On the front of it is a very simple formula for trying to come to some kind of resolution and solution. In actuality it's incredible difficult to have those conversations. They're so uncomfortable and so awkward. And it really means having a lot of bravery and having a lot of honesty and having a lot of humanity. I think that's kind of where we wanted the piece to go: We wanted to kind of poke at what accountability really looks like.

Schrupp: Watching that part of the episode I was really thinking about that yesterday in watching the Kavanaugh hearings. Because it really struck me that, I think this last year since, especially since Weinstein, and all these powerful men were starting to be held accountable. And especially at the beginning of it, men could make a statement and then disappear from the limelight. And this was the first time for me really that I could think of when you're actually watching the accused come to terms with and have to speak directly to the allegations in such a very public way. To me it was also really shocking. And I know it was to so many people who felt extremely triggered, or called into the RAINN hotline. Also, it made me think about: is this the next step of the MeToo movement? And are we really prepared for that? And how do we have these sorts of conversations? How do we bring the accused into them in a way that doesn't sensationalize and that doesn't use edge examples. But also how can we help to bring in a little bit more nuance and help, again, move that conversation forward?

Yeung: Yeah, and I think that communication is key for that. Seeing, I keep harping on the end of this piece the restorative justice scene in which they sit down and have that conversation. And I think that it's not a solution for all these cases. And obviously in some cases people deserve to go to prison. And to sit and think about what they've been doing. But, in reality, most cases are not going to be taken to court. And often the cases that do most of them will not be prosecuted successfully. So we do need to have that conversation about what happens to the majority of these cases and how we can come to some kind of healing.

And just to back track a little bit for our audience who may not be familiar with the term restorative justice. Can you define what restorative justice is and how traditionally how that process works?

Yeung: Essentially it's a conversation between the offender and the victim. And that's obviously massively over simplifying things because often those lines are not as simple as the offender and the victim. But, they are made to come to the table and to sit down and to have a conversation. And in the case of these two people that we witnessed, recite their version of events and try and understand how there's so much miscommunication and how they're version of events were so very different. The impact that that has had on both of their lives and how they can move forward from that.

It is in some senses a slightly controversial process because it does work outside of the traditional justice system. But I do think to your point previously there is benefit for those who are either not able, because of circumstances to bring formal allegations or charges into that system, or because they don't feel safe in that system. Which I think is a valid concern because we know the stats on, as we've discussed, how many reported cases of sexual assault go to trial and or end in a conviction. So when you were sort of making the decision to highlight this process as part of the episode, what are some of the factors that went into that and why did you think it was really important to show this specific method of resolution?

Yeung: I think it was from talking to so many survivors about their experiences and what they wanted. What accountability looked like for them. And how they could possibly come to some kind of healing? And for a lot of them it wasn't as simple as having their abuser sit in prison for the rest of their lives? And I'm definitely not an advocate for a whole lot and I'm not an advocate for this process. But I would say that for certain cases I think that it does allow the survivor to be in the driver seat. It allows them to really feel heard, to feel listened to, to be able to express the impact that it's had on their lives. To be able to tell that person, look that person in the eyes and tell them, why this has hurt them so much.

The woman that we featured in this, you know, it had a profound impact on her life. She had been suffering from PTSD for the last 10 years. At one point she tried committing suicide. And she felt like for so long, for the last nine and a half years, until she reached out to this guy, he had just been living his life and didn't really understand at all the consequence that it had had on her. So, yeah, we wanted to highlight it as a potential alternative solution because let's face it. We don't really have a lot of solutions.