Editor’s note: This is part one of a two-part package. Read about how the #MeToo movement has led to a rise in libel lawsuits here.
She felt she had been hiding a secret for far too long.
And then an impromptu social movement started, where women across the country typed the same two words — Me Too — and shared their stories of being sexually assaulted or harassed.
On Oct. 20, 2017, Ashlee Conlin wrote on her Facebook page that she had shared her own story with several people as the social media movement gained momentum, but felt like she had been shot down by those she had confided in.
“What if they don’t believe me?” she wrote. “What if it was my fault? Did I ask for it? Did he hear me say no 100+ times? Should I tell my husband? Should I tell his wife? This is why people don’t tell. Telling makes me feel more crazy. More at fault. More like I deserve this.”
There’s a lot packed into that post, but there’s also a lot it didn’t say. It didn’t say she was referring to an acroyoga instructor she had met two years prior and that they had been having an affair. That there were times where they had consensual sexual contact — but many times when she said he forced himself on her, pressuring her into sexual acts that she often objected to.
But the instructor, Bryan Flanders, saw the post, knew it was about him and felt it had crossed the line.
Less than four months later, he slapped Conlin with a defamation lawsuit, alleging that her statements were false and malicious, and had harmed his yoga studio business.
And she wasn’t the only one. Flanders also named as defendants several in the local acroyoga community — a niche practice that involves one person acting as a “base” and another as a “flyer” melding acrobatics with yoga — who had also made general Facebook posts about sexual misconduct allegations lodged against him.
The targets of Flanders’ lawsuit call the legal action frivolous, saying it’s strained them financially and is seeking to silence women who have felt empowered by the #MeToo movement to share their stories. It also comes at a time when Utah is seeing a rise in defamation cases spurred by online posts.
But Flanders’ attorney, Michael Hepworth, said his client is supportive of the social movement and wants sexual abusers to be held accountable — but says he’s not one.
“In a society where false statements are circulated about someone,” Hepworth said, “especially within a niche, close-knit community — what other recourse exists but a civil suit to redress those wrongs?”
Conlin and Flanders met in 2015, when she began taking classes at his Farmington yoga studio. They began training together that March, and a month later, began a sexual affair. During that time, they traveled together and conducted acroyoga trainings together.
The acroyoga community is close-knit, centered around a practice that involves intense training and athleticism. Trust and communication are key as partners stretch into poses while lifting and leaning on one another. And understanding consent is also important, as partners often are touching sensitive areas while doing lifts.
But after their affair ended, Conlin began telling a handful of friends in their yoga community that Flanders had, at times, touched her without consent. She later wrote in statements to police that this ranged from Flanders violating her with his fingers while they were practicing yoga to having sex with her even after she said no.
“I feel that when I did give consent,” Conlin wrote, “it was done under duress. I was afraid of losing my job and family and a career as a teacher and performing acrobat.”
At the time of the affair, Conlin was a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Flanders was a bishop. She looked up to him, she said. And he had hired her to conduct trainings at his studio — so he was also her boss.
As Conlin began sharing her story, other women in their tight-knit community began to say they, too, had been the subject of unwanted sexual attention from Flanders.
One woman wrote in court papers that during a trip to Arizona in 2016, Flanders climbed into a bed she had been sharing with Conlin. After Conlin refused his advances and left, the woman wrote that Flanders turned to her and began to rub his hands on her body and up her shorts.
“This was uninvited and unwanted attention and touching,” she wrote. “I did not ask Bryan to touch me. I did not give Bryan verbal permission to touch me.”
A third woman told others that in mid-2016, Flanders sent her a photo of two people doing acroyoga naked, and asked if they could do a similar photo shoot. She felt uncomfortable, she wrote in a statement, and asked what his wife would think.
“At this point I knew it would be unsafe for me to remain involved with Bryan in any way,” she wrote. “This has affected me in such a way where I can no longer participate in acro comfortably because I now question each person’s intentions.”
The Salt Lake Tribune generally does not identify alleged victims of sexual abuse, but Conlin agreed to the use of her name.
Conlin eventually filed police reports accusing Flanders of sexual abuse in Farmington and Bountiful, along with reports she filed to law enforcement agencies in Arizona, Colorado and Oregon — places where they traveled and she says she was assaulted. Prosecutors declined to file charges.
As these allegations swirled, people began posts about it on acroyoga Facebook groups for Utahns.
Among those posting online were Matthew Talbert and Amber Moore-Barcus, a Kamas couple who had joined their local acroyoga community when they moved to Utah three years ago.
Talbert wrote that he had met with an unnamed person and others to discuss “an issue with misconduct, consent and safety in acro.” He wrote that he walked away from that meeting feeling like the accused person did not take responsibility or accountability.
“I will no longer support, train or teach at their studio until real changes are addressed with this person,” he wrote. “I will not recommend this person or their studio to anyone at this time.”
Moore-Barcus posted something similar, detailing a meeting that ended poorly with an accused person deciding to “continue to do acro in the way they see fit.”
Like Conlin, Talbert and Moore-Barcus did not identify Flanders by name in these social media posts. But months later, they were also part of Flanders’ defamation lawsuit.
In total, Flanders sued Conlin and six other acroyoga members. In his lawsuit, he claims their social media posts falsely accused him of sexual assault and harmed his business. He is seeking millions of dollars in damages.
Hepworth, Flanders’ attorney, argues in the suit that the accusations have “irreparably tarnished” his client’s reputation in the small acroyoga community. Conlin’s claims, the lawsuit says, is an exploitation of the #MeToo movement in order to get revenge on her ex-lover after the relationship ended badly.
“In order for the #MeToo movement to maintain credibility, it is crucial that the claims made under its banner are truthful claims,” Hepworth told The Tribune. “In this case, we believe there are very real problems with the credibility of the claims against Mr. Flanders. As a result, not only is Mr. Flanders’ reputation severely damaged, but so is the overall power of the #MeToo movement.”
‘I don’t regret standing by these women’
The allegations — and the lawsuit — ripped the local acroyoga community apart and forced many to feel like they needed to “choose sides.”
Conlin felt like the community “chose the side with more power” and turned their backs on her for fear of becoming targets of a defamation lawsuit themselves. Flanders believes some in the community feel unsafe expressing support or empathy for him.
And then there’s those like Talbert and Moore-Barcus, who say they didn’t do anything wrong and posted what they did to try to protect others.
“I feel proud to have stuck with my partner, Amber, and our friends who are not afraid to speak up for what is right,” Talbert said. “I don’t regret standing by these women.”
Some of the defendants have been successful in getting out of the lawsuit. Ryan Bell, an attorney who represents Conlin, Talbert and Moore-Barcus, asked a judge last week to dismiss Talbert and Moore-Barcus from the suit.
He argues in court papers that their posts are protected speech because they did not say anything that wasn’t true. And Bell argues his clients’ posts are protected because they were trying to make “reasonable warnings” to their community about a public safety issue.
A judge has yet to rule on that request.
Bell said in a statement that he and his clients’ are surprised that Flanders would file a lawsuit at all and publicly air such private matters.
“It is more surprising that he believes he can prove that his reputation was damaged by my clients rather than by his own actions,” Bell said. “This is a man who admits to having a nearly two-year adulterous affair with a workplace subordinate. We think it is highly unlikely that he can pin any damage to his reputation on anyone besides himself.”
While these three continue to enjoy this unique form of yoga, defending themselves in court for more than a year has been an emotional — and financial — nightmare.
Moore-Barcus said she’s gone into debt trying to defend herself, and the lawsuit has become akin to a full-time job.
“I shared my feelings online so that other people would be aware of the concerns for safety and consent and the disregard for boundaries that was being reported,” she said. “I hoped, and still hope, that speaking out will prompt everyone to educate themselves about what’s appropriate and what’s not.”
Conlin said most of her income goes to paying for her attorney. She finds herself skipping meals so her children don’t ask questions about the lack of food.
She says she initially told her story so other victims wouldn’t feel alone. But now, the legal action has tethered her — she hasn’t been able to share her side in court, and worries speaking publicly will bring on more defamation claims.
“Our efforts to resolve this dispute has fallen on deaf ears,” she said. “The only path forward is to continue to stand our ground and fight for our right to speak up.”