Last time I deconstructed the sexism (in both directions) inherent in our assumptions about violence, and how unempowering and damaging women’s advocacy can be in its defense of women against violence. This time I’m going to talk about sexuality, how it is demonized in even the most progressive circles, how modern feminism is and is not helping, and how these ideas are harmful to both men and women.
One thing I think we can all agree on is that the culture here in the US has its historical roots in a puritanical society, and those roots are apparent in the way we handle many things. We teach our children abstinence rather than safe sex, our people feel ashamed for masturbating, and we are judged by how we have sex and how many sexual partners we have had. We are so uncomfortable with sexuality that the body parts we use to express it are illegal to show in public or in the media. We are so afraid to talk about sex that many people reach adulthood oblivious as to how to go about it. We view sex as shameful and its pursuit as base and disgusting.
The sex positive parts of the feminism umbrella are doing a pretty decent job of trying to liberate women from the affects of this sexual shaming. We are at a point where people are defending women’s sexuality. We should not be shamed for trying to get the attention of potential partners. We should not be called sluts for having and enjoying sex, or for dressing however we want. We should not be condemned, legally or socially, for having bare chests in public, which men are allowed to do without stigma. We should be free to have, express, and act upon sexual desire. As a member of the poly community, obviously I count myself as very sex positive, so I think this effort and movement is wonderful. It emphasizes and promotes women’s sexual freedom, pleasure, and agency.
Unfortunately, many of the same people are advocating the exact reverse for men, and this harms everyone. We tell our women that we should be free to express sexuality and sexual attraction. Then we tell our men that when they do this, it is piggish, rude, and a violation. Calling a girl pretty or sexy in public is harassment. Flirting is creepy. Directly expressing attraction is threatening.
Take for example the men who send messages on dating sites propositioning women. Dating sites are made for people to meet, talk, and hook up. Some people want to find meaningful romantic relationships, others are looking for sex. Both are accommodated by these types of sites (on okcupid, for example, you can tick a box for what you are looking for: friendship, romantic relationships, casual hookups, etc.). There is nothing wrong with using the appropriate forum for pursuing sexual enjoyment (provided you are willing to take no for an answer), and yet many women still feel immediately uncomfortable and characterize such messages as disrespectful, inappropriate, and uncalled for. I have been warned against dating websites and similar social media by women who received these types of messages and found them so off-putting that they decided they disliked the whole environment. I have known women and seen profiles of women who go way out of their way to try to discourage these messages. What does that say about the average woman’s perception of male sexuality? Clearly it is seen as inherently predatory, even when no threat has been made. Women may be in the process of being freed to express their own sexuality, but we have done nothing to change the way they fear the sexuality of others. The puritanical sex-phobia is still alive and well.
As another example, consider the men who call women beautiful, sexy, or other similar adjectives as they pass on the sidewalk in a city. I know that I am in the extreme minority (among progressives) when I say that I see no harm in this, and that I take it as a compliment. Someone thinks I’m pretty? My ass is nice to look at? Cool, my day is brightened. This isn’t about me relying on the validation of others or needing to please men (especially because I’m not straight). It’s just a pleasant compliment, and I take it the same way I would if a woman had said “I like your dress” while walking by me. I have a likable dress and a likable ass. These are positive things all around. But most women I have talked to call this male behaviour demeaning and rude, characterizing it as sexual harassment and objectification, and implying that it somehow makes them feel unsafe.
I’d like to take a moment to consider the term objectification. I have a huge problem with this term. Objectification is looking at a person and thinking of them in terms of an object, either literally or grammatically. An object is something that is acted upon, that serves a utility, like a tool or piece of furniture. In the literal sense, Ted Bundy objectified people by skinning them and turning them into lampshades, because a lampshade is an object. In the grammatical sense, slave owners objectified slaves by viewing them as objects for use, demanding physical labour and considering it as that person’s primary purpose in existence, with no regard for that person’s desires or humanity, the way a carpenter views a hammer.
Now consider that we are attributing this level of malice or sociopathy to a person for expressing sexual attraction, as though it is not possible to simultaneously hold in your mind the belief that someone is attractive and you’d like to sleep with them, and also the understanding that they are a person with desires and free will of their own. You don’t lose your humanity, even in the eyes of the person who’s attracted, the moment someone decides it would be kind of nice if you touched their no-no bits (especially because most of us are exclusively attracted to fleshed-out actual human beings). Noticing that someone is physically attractive does not turn them into a fleshlight or a dildo in your head, and suggesting that it does is paranoid at best, overtly sexist at worst (after all, it takes a lot for a woman to be accused of objectification). And yet asking a woman on a dating site if she’d like to have sex or calling her sexy or beautiful on the street are often considered sexual harassment, placed in the same category of crime as molestation and rape. Women are so afraid and put off by an expression of sexual desire that we have come to associate it with a dismissal of our humanity and a precursor or risk factor for sexual violence.
Personally, I think the level of fear, in part, stems from the media fear mongering that I talked about in my last installation on unempowerment. But I think all that comes from a deeper issue: we as a culture are terrified of sex, especially when it comes from a male. Probably thanks to Abrahamic religion, we associate sexualization of another person (which is to say a person with sexuality is viewing someone else as a person with sexuality — super scary!) with the idea that the person has been demeaned or dehumanized, even though sex requires agency and intent of all parties, and is a desire and action inherent to humanity (otherwise we wouldn’t be here, would we?). We view a man who is interested sexually in a woman as a predator or potential predator, especially if he dares to express that interest. If he isn’t in love with her, he is a heathen overcome by lust. He has the Devil in him. In more modern terms, he has the Patriarchy in him, and that lust that has overcome him is an inherent violation of someone’s consent, making him dangerous and out of control.
But by claiming one needs consent in order to sexualize someone (something that happens inside one’s head only) or to ask for sex, we are criminalizing sexuality. Exactly how is anyone supposed to become involved sexually with anyone else, something we are beginning to acknowledge is an important part of life, if it is inappropriate, disrespectful, or harassment to initiate that process by expressing attraction or asking a question? Are we just supposed to accept the fact that this is only okay when women do it?
And make no mistake, this is certainly a gendered problem. Consider the way we place responsibility for sexual decisions on men and women. If a woman goes to a bar by herself, gets blind drunk, and goes home with a man she was drinking with, the general consensus is that she is a victim of sexual violence. She has been taken advantage of by that man. He date-raped her, and as a rapist, the onus and responsibility is on him. If a man goes to a bar by himself, gets blind drunk, and goes home with a woman he was drinking with, the assumption is that he is still a predator. He has still date-raped her. The onus is still on him, even though the two participants have made identical decisions. Clearly we view male sexuality as inherently harmful, and significantly moreso than female sexuality, or we would more evenly distribute the blame in these scenarios (either two people made poor choices in both cases, or one man raped a woman and another man was raped by a woman).
Obviously, this dichotomous bias is wildly unfair to men. Most of the men I know walk on eggshells around women they don’t know (some around women they do know). There is a pervasive fear among men of being thought of as creepy, perceived as predatory, or just a general awareness that it’s easy to accidentally make women tremendously uncomfortable. Not to mention the widespread awareness that if any sexual encounter is not mutually enjoyable, there is a risk of being labeled a rapist. Talk to any group of men. It doesn’t matter whether you are talking to MRAs, feminists, or anything in between. Men are aware of this, and much of their behaviour is driven by the fear of being perceived in this way. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to ensure that others are comfortable, indeed you should, but this should go both ways, and nobody should be expected to read minds or walk on eggshells. I’ve experienced the fear of coming off as creepy while trying to talk to a woman, or of doing the wrong thing and making her uncomfortable in the bedroom, but I can only imagine how much that fear escalates as a man.
I have met an alarming number of women who have consented to sex or sexual behaviours with a man, but either due to perceived pressure or an interest that changed partway through the process, they did not enjoy the encounter and now tell of the event as “the story of my rape”. This is so far from okay I don’t even know how it came to be acceptable (and for the record, men and women who actually HAVE been sexually assaulted find this patently offensive). If anyone in that guy’s social or professional circles catches wind that he’s being called a rapist, his life is over, all because he didn’t know someone was uncomfortable. Again, the sex suddenly becomes evil, motivated by malice, and the onus for the bad experience is placed entirely on the man. His sexuality is predatory and dangerous and hers is immaterial to the argument. Never mind that she made it that far having given consent for all that transpired. He’s still the bad guy. He is held responsible for his choices, and she is blameless for hers.
And then there are all the men who have internalized this mentality, who feel like monsters for being male and attracted to females. I can’t tell you how many male friends I’ve comforted who felt like they’d done something wrong because they were in the mood when their wife or girlfriend wasn’t and had the gall to ask about it in order to find that out. This is the effect of widespread sexual shaming, and it drives some men to self-loathing and self-harm. If it isn’t okay to tell someone they’re wrong for not being heterosexual, then it isn’t okay to tell someone they’re wrong for being heterosexual. As someone who has endured some very real hate for my sexual orientation, this is more than a little frustrating to see. Telling a straight man he is intimidating and dangerous by virtue of his sexuality is no different than telling me, a queer woman, that I am slutty and amoral by virtue of mine.
Because of these assumptions and prejudices, our anti-sexual cultural roots combined with rampant inflation of rape statistics, we are now starting to see changes in the way we legally deal with sexual assault cases. In some states and on some college campuses we have seen the advent of things like “affirmative consent”, in which a man must ask and obtain a “yes” from a woman before proceeding with sexual activity (as opposed to being permitted to initiate behaviour but required to stop at a “no”). You can bet nobody is asking women if they have obtained affirmative consent from a man. We are also starting to see preemptive suspension and other discipline of students accused of sexual assault. The erosion of due process is no joke, and the right of the accused to anonymity is just a discussion. With such cases, this is more than a little damaging. As in the Duke lacrosse case, the accused are rampantly demonized while the case is going on, people will protest outside court rooms urging all to “listen and believe” long after the accused party has been determined not guilty, people lose their jobs, and the social consequences of ever having been accused are damning. I know men who were not safe in their towns because of the social fallout of false accusations (in a couple cases, these accusations were made by violently abusive ex girlfriends out of revenge for breaking up with them). It’s no wonder men are afraid.
So by now you’re probably wondering how this isn’t empowering to women. Women have the legal and social upper hand in sexual encounters, with the power to destroy any man who so much as looks at her in a way she doesn’t like. If I decided to forgo all ethical principles and human empathy, I could have any man I work with fired or any man I sleep with (or claim to have slept with) ruined. It wouldn’t even be difficult to do. This, of course, is an appalling injustice that makes the veins in my temples throb and keeps me on my soap box long after my throat is tired (and please remember, I am no stranger to sexual assault). But even while it demonizes, damns, and ruins the lives of innocent men, while it keeps even the men who have not been accused on their toes and in fear (much the way pervasive beliefs about “rape culture” keep women in fear), this set of assumptions also says some pretty shitty things about women.
Let’s get back to that buzzword of mine: agency. Imagine that I am a woman who does not appreciate male compliments, advances, or sexuality. I am still a human being with agency. If I receive a sexual solicitation on a dating site, and I’m there to find love, I have a few options available to me. I can reply with “No thanks. I’m not interested. But best of luck to you out there.” I can click the “delete” button on the message and never think about that guy again. If I get a dick pic I don’t like, I can delete it. If I’m really that uncomfortable I can block the person and never see their face again. None of these actions takes more than ten seconds of my time. Most of them take less than a second. Those who imply that an entire online community should cater to my potential dislike of a given message are saying that I am so incapable of withstanding natural human interaction that my experience must be tailored by others to my preference, that asking me to go far enough into that message to click the “delete” button is asking too much of my delicate sensibilities. It implies that I’m helpless and useless. This is an ugly picture indeed to paint of women. We are so much better and stronger than this.
If I am disinterested in or uncomfortable with the comments or advances of a guy on the street or at a bar, I can say “Sorry, dude, you’re not my type”. I can ignore him. If he’s actually said something legitimately rude, I can tell him to go get hit by a bus. In one episode, Kimmy Schmidt had a great way of responding to this situation: she complimented him back. “I like your yellow hat!” It was cute, funny, changed the subject, and diffused the situation. These things are all within my power to do (though I usually just say “thanks”), and they aren’t difficult. Even if you subscribe to the belief that men do these things to control and intimidate women (though if you do, I will offer you this hat), you’ve got to realize that such efforts would be rendered completely ineffectual by the woman who is not afraid or intimidated and can brush those comments off. You’re not really being controlled if all you have to do to escape said control is to control yourself, are you?
In the bedroom, I can and do advocate for myself. Don’t want to have sex with someone? Tell them no. Your comfort is far more important that their desire to get laid. And I’d give a man the same advice. You have a mouth you were born with and words you were taught as a toddler. In fact, “no” is many people’s first word. You’ve been practicing saying it since you were two. If you don’t want to do something, especially something as personal as what you do with your body, you have a lifetime of practice telling that person so, and if you don’t then you’ve examined your options and chosen your fate. You literally just asked for it. This is called agency, in which your words and actions affect your reality, in which you have a choice in the things you do, and are responsible for that choice. It may be uncomfortable to turn someone down or stick up for yourself, but it’s a hell of a lot better than being a leaf on the wind at the mercy of everyone you interact with. Here’s another lesson for Being a Human Being 101: if a two-letter word is all that stands between you and a feeling of violation that causes you trauma and socially and possibly legally damns the other person for the foreseeable future, you’re pretty much just a terrible person for not using it.
When did merely asking for something become predatory? When did women become so weak and helpless that we decided we can’t handle a picture of a penis or a comment from a stranger? When did we lose our ability to say “no” like a goddamn adult? These socially enforced policies that condemn men for sending sexual solicitations or making sexual comments not only demonize men and sexuality, they make an overt statement about the inherent fragility of the average woman. If you want to be taken seriously as an emotionally stable, functional human being, someone who is equal to any man, you can’t reach for your smelling salts every time a guy calls you pretty. If you don’t like something, do what any man would be expected to do: say so. You don’t need to run and hide. You don’t need to ask for help. You don’t need to start a social campaign. Just calmly and honestly express disinterest. Use your words. It’s easy, simple, and quick.
And all this nonsense about affirmative consent not only paints men as mindless rape monsters, it also paints women as utterly devoid of sexual agency. It is based on a clear assumption that I am helpless to the desires of a man, that it is 100% in his hands whether or not I wind up undressing on his mattress. None of that is my choice, my action, or my responsibility. I am incapable of initiating a conversation about interests and intent. I am incapable of expressing disinterest unless I am asked. It sends the message that I can’t manage my own sexuality without the aid of the state and the man I’m sleeping with. Every feminist on the planet should be enraged by this notion, and yet it was a feminist initiative. I don’t like it when other women try to speak for me, but I’d really like to say, on behalf of women everywhere, what the HELL?
Sexuality is not evil. Expressing interest is not threatening. There’s nothing at all wrong with being attracted to someone or speaking about that feeling. The only time this becomes a problem is when somebody doesn’t take no for an answer, and the majority of people do. We are starting to acknowledge that women have the right to enjoy and pursue sex. We have the right to sexualize ourselves and others. We have the right to be safe. But with this comes the obligation to be emotionally mature, the obligation to express our interests and boundaries, and the obligation to advocate for ourselves. If you claim to want equality, you must also acknowledge that if women have the right and justification for acting upon their sexuality, for flirting, initiating advances, and taking pride in a very inherent aspect of their humanity, so do men. This stigma needs to stop. Otherwise, how are we any better than the uptight fundies insisting sex must be between a married man and woman for procreation? How is this better than slut shaming or homophobia? Equality means everyone has the right to peacefully pursue happiness, and someone else’s emotions on the subject do not trump that right. As long as it’s safe, sane, and consensual, sex is great and there’s nothing at all wrong with pursuing it, regardless of what you have in your trousers.
Since posting this article, I’ve heard the argument reinforced that women are uncomfortable with male advances because of the fear that it will lead to sexual violence. This is sort of what my entire article is about: how incredibly fallacious, bigoted, and harmful this line of thinking is. In my first unempowerment article, I broke down the flaws and downright lies in the public discourse on violence against women. I’ll summarize here: you are highly unlikely to be assaulted by a stranger, especially in public. The overwhelming majority of sexual assaults happen at the hands of someone you know in a familiar environment. The overwhelming majority of people have no desire to assault you. Humans of all genders experience rape at about the same 1.5% annual rate. What this means is that most likely, nobody will ever rape you, and you are even less likely to be raped by a stranger calling you sexy on the street. Assuming a guy is going to force himself on you just because he called you pretty is abject sexism, akin to the racism of assuming a black guy is going to steal your watch because he asked for the time.
I’ve also heard the argument that it’s inappropriate to be overtly sexual toward someone because some people have experienced sexual trauma. At face value, this is a reasonable argument. However, it’s basically an assertion that I should attempt to predict the traumas and triggers of total strangers. If I should avoid making sexual advances toward someone on the off chance that they’ve been sexually assaulted, then I should also avoid offering someone a beer on the off chance they’ve been date-raped, or avoid wearing a polo shirt in case someone was raped by a person in a polo shirt… any number of random and otherwise inconsequential things could be a trigger for a passing stranger. If I attempted to accommodate all of them, I would never interact with anyone, and some of them may even restrict my ability to leave the house. For example, my physical appearance could remind someone of trauma (this has happened to me, where a stranger looked like my ex and made me tremendously uncomfortable just by existing). This is why I, as someone with PTSD, assert that my mental illness is my problem to deal with, and expecting anybody (especially strangers) to accommodate me is both entitled and impractical. I know what bothers me and sets me off. I know how to avoid those things and what to do if they come up. I know these things because it is my responsibility as an adult to know and manage them. If someone came on to me who reminded me of my abusive ex, I would politely turn that person down and promptly deal with my emotional reaction accordingly, because it’s not that random guy’s fault that I was harmed by someone else years prior.