Friday, April 8, 2011

On Yes Means Yes

Feminists who postulate that boys must obtain a spelled-out "yes" before having sex are trying to establish rules, cut in stone, that will apply to any and every encounter and that every responsible person must obey. The new rule resembles the old good girl/bad girl rule not only because of its implicit suggestion that girls have to be protected but also because of its absolute nature, its iron-fisted denial of complexity and ambiguity. I bristle at such a rule and so do a lot of other people. - Mary Gaitskill, "On Not being a Victim"

A friend of mine sent me an article she said had made her think of me, and then casually mentioned it might be worthy of a blog post. It is, in many respects; but this is the one she's getting at the moment. I'm not sure if it's the one she expected. As some people know, I have a history of misinterpreting fairly clear-cut texts. I missed much of the conventional thought about Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead and libertarianism, taking out of it a doctrine of selfishness that I feel has served me and my liberal-pinko leanings well. I missed the environmental lesson of the film Ferngully, seeing it instead as a feminist screed about men not being trustworthy. I was 15 and 5, respectively, when I came to these conclusions. So I can see how I could possibly be off-base regarding the feminist thought known, now, as Yes Means Yes. But I don't think I am.

I'm not aware of which feminists, exactly, the author was pointing to in 1994 who wanted boys to obtain a spelled out yes before engaging in sexual acts with women. I was 8 in 1994, so I think I have some excuse as to this particular hole in my knowledge. And it is entirely possible that, like in the anti-porn movement of the decade earlier, the mainstream feminist thought was, well, sex adverse. But this is the same argument that crops up now regarding this particular philosophy of sex, and I think those people making the author's claim now are missing out on a few key details.

Firstly, I don't see Yes Means Yes as a way to make sex and sexual actions more puritanical, or even to adhere to rules carved in absolute. I see this particular campaign as an attempt to change how we think about sex, and about how women relate to sex, and how men relate to women in the pursuit of sex. I'm of the mind that how we handle sex in America right now to be fairly unhealthy. I'm of the mind that in many instances, we are following the old rule book, where men are supposed to be the actors and women are supposed to passively accept sexual contact, or actively reject it. And when something comes up - like rape - we as a general society are quick to point to a woman's (or girl's) supposed deviation from this norm as a reason for that particular crime (case in point: Cleveland, TX). I see Yes Means Yes as a way of muddying up those rules. As a way of making the advancement of sexual acts more complicated, but the sexual acts themselves more fulfilling. As a way of turning the general thinking about women and sex from passively acquiescing to actively participating and actively seeking. As a way of making sex into a conversation, rather than a silent action. And along with that thought is this one: it is important to change the very structure of how we think about sex. Not just how we think about sex with our significant others, or with our flings, or with our friends with benefits, but in general.

We need to start having frank discussions about sex and sexual pleasure from a young age. We need to start not only telling women and men that both women and men have sexual autonomy, but supplying the language and the thought process for that very autonomy. That means changing the nature of the conversation from speaking up when things have become uncomfortable to having ongoing conversations about sex, sexual wants, sexual needs, and what we expect from our sexual partners. We need to change the conversation from a "I don't want that" to a "I want that, I want to try this, and I never want to touch that thing over there". And getting to the point where you know and can speak about that thing over there that you don't ever even want to try.

One of the more interesting points of Gaitskill makes in this article is talking about how she didn't have the ability to stand up for herself at specific moments, to stop what was happening at specific times. I'm not going to try and explain why Gaitskill herself was unable to do so; she explains it quite well enough on her own. But I will say that I think at least part of the problem is the fact (a) the rules to sex are nebulous (even now), but exacting if a person (a woman person especially) is perceived to have not followed them, and (b) the language of sex is shrouded and couched in euphemistic terms. Yes means Yes, for me, is about changing both of those things. It is about being able to say the word "uterus" on the floor of the Florida House. It is about not having overarching rules regarding what you should or should not do sexually, but about having your own set of rules that you can converse with your partners about.

I've been told that talking frankly about sex takes the, for lack of a better word, sexiness out of the act. That somehow the very act of verbal affirmation deflates sexual desire. I don't doubt that for some people that's true. But I think that's because, in general, we have this idea about what sex is. Sex is supposed to be an action. Sex is supposed to be wild and passionate and taking place in a moment of wild abandonment, and it would suck to put that sort of thing on the backburner to figure out exactly how your partner wishes to go about this, if your partner wishes to go about this at all. For my part, talking about sex in detail, talking about likes and dislikes, taking the time to figure out how to make talking about not-wants and wants, and still getting on with business (or, you know, not) is a sign that a person is ready to have sex. Not wanting to talk about it for fear that talking about sex makes sexy time go bye-bye is, for me, a strange concept. I want to talk about sex with my partner. Talking about sex with my partner generally leads to better sex. Talking about sex with my partner allows those times when the sex isn't so great to be understood better, so we can change things up for next time. Talking about sex with my partner makes sex that much more fulfilling, and more of a journey than simply an act accomplished.

The thing about changing the conversation from a "No means No" to a "Yes means Yes" one is that it has the ability to change the functionality about how we think about sex. If we change the model from a "Paradise by the Dashboard Lights" experience where we want to see how much we can do and how far we can go before our partner shuts us down to one where find out where our partner's boundaries are beforehand, we are less likely to violate those boundaries even accidentally. That's the place I want to get to.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Kohlberg, Morality, and Rape

Two girls were raped in and around my home town a couple months back. I'm not going to link to the articles, because although almost no one who doesn't actually know me reads this I'm a little leery of being completely out based on what happened to various people who commented positively on Lena Chen's articles and also what happened to Sady Doyle and to some poeople who tried to defend her. But also because at least one of the victims is underage and easily identified as well. It it what it is, but apparently you can't get your face hit a bunch of times and then smashed into a sidewalk, raped, and then report it without being completely outed at your local high school. And, frankly, that girl (and the other girl I don't personally know of) has to deal with enough crap without her story being linked on various blogs.

So. You're going to have to take my word for it that two girls were raped in and around my home town a couple of months back. You're going to have to take my word for it that the girl I know of was told in the high school after the fact that she deserved to be raped, and you're going to have to take my word for it the accused rapist is being defended with the same old lines about how girls lie, about how he could get any girl he wanted, about how these girls probably wanted a relationship and he said no so now they're getting revenge.

As if beating yourself up and putting yourself in a situation where someone will come up to you and tell you that you deserve to be raped is really worth it.

There's another part of this, too. This isn't the first time sexual violence has hit my town, obviously. It isn't the first time the kids in this age range have had to deal with this sort of thing. Another girl in my town, someone who is close to my sisters and whom I actually actively know, was sexually assaulted by her mom's boyfriend. And when she told her mom, when her mom believed her and pressed charges, people at the school told her she must have liked it.

All of this rattles around in my head, and what comes out is how similar these reactions are to every other rape or sexual assault case. Those two girls above? They were violently assaulted. There is DNA evidence. The girl I know of was in the hospital, had black eyes, had choke marks on her neck, had the blood vessels burst in her eye. And you know what people wrote on the news reports? "What was she doing out there at 11 at night?" "I know him, and he wouldn't do that." "Those girls are ugly, and he could get any girl he wanted so why rape them?" "They're stories are too similar. They probably got together to ruin him." All of these, by the way, are paraphrased, because although any one of these remarks are probably present on any news story dealing with rape anywhere in the nation right now, I really am serious about keeping these particular girls as anonymous as I possibly can.

There were other people who pointed out that rape isn't exactly about sex, not always, but oftentimes about power. There were people who pointed out that these girls were minors, that the guy in question is not, that girls generally don't give themselves black eyes and get semen in them just as a way to secure a false rape conviction.

But the reactions from the deniers are exactly the same, if less prevalent, as the deniers in, say, the Julian Assange case. There is this same thread of "women lie, repeatedly", "women conspire with one another to screw over men", "women aren't to be trusted", "women are raped, but these women clearly weren't", "men may rape, but these men, men that we like, do not and have not". "Don't ruin this man's life just because these women said that this thing happened against their will".

Where did we get the idea that all women lie about rape? Where did we get the idea that innocent until proven guilty meant that it was okay to shame the victim, to call them sluts, to call them liars, to question their moral integrity?

I think it stems from two seemingly polar opposite places: (1) the idea that women are the moral arbiters of sexual action, and (2) that women are less than men, both as moral actors and as people. These two ideas come together in really weird ways.

There's the idea that a man's sexual attraction and sexual action is somehow based on a woman's presentation: her looks, her attire, her attitude. This is the "How could she not want it? Look at what she wears/how she looks/what she was doing with that lollipop!" defense. In line with this point is the idea that women should act in accordance with what will bring men the least amount of sexual attraction. These would be arguments for women wearing more clothing, being more modest, throwing away their sexy underwear and their mini skirts. The realm of sexual morality is, in this philosophical vein, the woman's purview, even if what women are and are not allowed to pursue, in the interests of not arousing men's attractions, are not wholly their own decision.

And that's where number (2) really comes in. Women are in charge of preventing men's sexual interests, but they aren't really in charge of deciding what is or isn't responsible for exciting that interest. That is the job for others.

Number (2) is also, I think, influenced by what we see as objective decisions regarding morality. I remember, freshman year of college I took a class in sociology - because my experience with a psychology class was so bad in high school. In that sociology class, I learned about Kohlberg's theory of the stages of moral development. In Kohlberg's five stages, women consistently only reached level 3, whereas men generally would reach levels 4 or 5, the more theoretical moral levels. Men, under Kohlberg's stages, are more advanced moral actors than women. And although Kohlberg's theories have been critiqued by the likes of Carol Gilligan and others, I do believe that there is this odd bit of thought that runs throughout our culture about women: how the ideal is that they are better moral actors than men because they, as an ideal, are self-sacrificing and the "fairer" sex; but in practice we see women as less reliable narrators of their own experiences, as less moral, as more likely to manipulate interpersonal situations for their own personal gain.

Add that with a propensity to grant more weight to men's opinions, thoughts, and ideas, and there is a volatile mix that leaves women being seen as untrustworthy. As liars. As manipulators trying to pull one over on the rest of society. By hurting a really nice guy. A guy who could go on to do great things. Or who has people who love him. As if those girls are automatically not nice, could not go on to do great things, and don't have people who love them.

As an ending, I can't think of a better one than this post by Sady Doyle, whom I typically quote from too much, on rape and rape accusations.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

News Flash: I Don't Care What You Think About My Fashion

So, you know those articles on Yahoo!, the ones that are forever promising to tell you how to get a date, how to keep your guy happy, the things your guy isn't telling you, is your relationship on the rocks, etc., etc., ad nauseum? Well, yeah, I read those. Like they're going out of style. Which, actually, would be a good thing, because then there would be less of them to read and my life would probably be a little better. I'm not saying it would vastly improve the quality of my life, but I'm sure there's something else I could do with those five minutes.

These articles always rub me the wrong way, even if they don't piss me off. Before we lived together, I'd call The Boy and quiz him about the validity of any number of points the articles made. Looking back, I asked many leading questions so he knew to support my outrage, but still. Now that we live together, I'd actually have to wake him up to do that. Which means I'll blog about it on my poor, neglected corner of the web. The latest one is titled, "What the guys think of your fashion"; and appropriately enough for the title, there are four guys who offer pithy critiques to certain articles of clothing (and, in one case, accessories). Funnily enough, I tend to agree with the boys on which items are horrible and which can stay. Except on the giant sunglasses point. Because I love (and wish I looked good in) those giant sunglasses.

So what's the problem?

Well, my main problem stems from the idea that men are the ultimate authority on women's fashion. This is directly tied to the line of thought that goes something like, "You wouldn't dress like that if you didn't want me to hit on you". (A) That's not why I'm dressing like this. (B) Even if I wanted guys to hit on me, I still have the right to reject you specifically. My mini skirt? Doesn't give you carte blanche access to my person.

So! Men as the ultimate authority on women's fashion. It rubs me the wrong way! Partially because of the point above, but also partially because this article stems from the premise that if these four guys don't like, say, Ugg boots, then you as a woman who do like Ugg boots should automatically trash them. Because these four guys - whom you in all reality probably don't know - say so. Because if these four guys hate your Ugg boots, that means every guy will hate your Ugg boots, and what's more, not date you because you wear your Uggs, potentially with skirts. SO! You like your (insert fashion item here). X, guy down at the end of the bar, does not. If he were to say, "Hey, honey, I'd give you the time of day if only you weren't wearing (fashion item), but that makes you look like a slag and not worth it", would you get rid of (fashion item) in an effort to please X? I hope not. I would think that kind of baseless attack on something you like, along with an arrogant notion of him hitting on you is somehow paramount to your emotional well-being, would be met with a drink over the head. Or into the face. I'm not picky.

Listen, I hate Ugg boots too! And shirts that have writing on them that have witty sayings about how hot the girl wearing said tee shirt is! And sweats that have words on them! You know what I do? I don't buy any of those items. I have friends who like that stuff. I have friends who wear that stuff. And I manage to not go into rants about the sociological and gender problems inherent with things like tee shirts that talk about boyfriend stealing when I am around them. Mostly. But I respect the fact that my friends have their likes, their dislikes, and their ehs when it comes to what they will put in their closet. And if Ugg boots make them happy, then Ugg boots make them happy. And I'm not going to judge that. Because if Ugg boots fulfill a little slice of making them feel good about themselves and their day, then that is enough. And if a guy won't hit on them directly because of the Ugg boots, (a) unless he lets her know, we'll never know, and (catch-22!!) (b) if he does let her know that's why he's not hitting on her, he'll be that asshole X from earlier in this post and not worth her time anyway.