Consent Is Not Magical

So my post yesterday got some negative feedback (as I somewhat expected), with people saying that it was horrible and wrong of me to butt into other people’s sex lives and that as long as people are agreeing to do something then it’s fine and unproblematic.

 

Now I want to be clear: I am in no way suggesting that any individual should have control over another person’s sex life. What I am suggesting is that sex should not be a magical pass that keeps any consensual act from criticism. I am suggesting that we should be able to discuss how sex plays into political and patriarchal questions, ask whether certain sex acts might have negative consequences, and explore some of the complexities of consent in a world where women’s choices are necessarily constrained. I also want to be clear that I encourage people to not feel ashamed of their sex lives, sex desires, and choice to have sex because in general shame is an incredibly unhelpful and unnecessary emotion.

 

It was pointed out to me yesterday that sex-negativity is a misleading name for the position I’m taking, which is a point well taken. That said, I feel comfortable with the ID and want to keep it personally.

 

But back to choice. This seems to be something that people mistake all the time: because they chose something, because it’s their opinion or their desire, that means it must be right. If all the parties involved in an action consented to it, then it cannot be criticized and it’s fine.

 

This is just patently false. Choice is not a magical thing that changes all of your actions into positive ones. The moral worth of an action is complicated, and it involves things like choice, consequence, motive, and symbolism. Choice is one element of a variety of intertwining pieces that determine whether your action was positive or negative overall.

 

But sex is incredibly charged and personal, and it can be a hard place to look to understand the intricacies of choice and criticism. Let’s look at some less charged actions that were freely chosen and yet still really horrible. There are lots of examples of this, but first I’d like to focus on one close to my heart that also happens to terrify the vast majority of the population: self-harm. Self harm is something that is freely chosen and consented to by everyone involved. But it causes harm and negative consequences. Very few people would argue that it is a positive action (and when I’ve tried to point out that it might have some useful or positive elements, people tend to freak out a little bit so don’t suddenly change your mind and say it’s great).

 

We can see clearly that despite the fact that this is something incredibly personal, something that directly affects only one person, and something that is freely chosen, it is not a positive action and it’s one that we would want to criticize or change. It may impact others indirectly. We want to talk about the things that drive a person to do it and ask them if they might have a different way of dealing with those urges.

 

Now this example might not do it for all of you as it’s a fairly controversial example (and I’m really not trying to suggest that sex is like BDSM, it was just the clearest example of a negative but freely chosen action I could find). But there are TONS of other examples. Someone brought up organ donation to me recently. Very often, when people say that their choice not to donate their organs is beyond criticism because it’s their choice, I get confused. Yes, we all have bodily autonomy. And no, no one is going to steal your organs out of you because you haven’t consented. But that doesn’t mean that there are no negative consequences to your action or that you couldn’t have made a more positive choice. Simply because you have bodily autonomy doesn’t mean that others can’t ask you to explain your actions or try to convince you that a different action might be better. They’re free to discuss the ramifications of not donating organs, or explain to you why they choose to donate their organs. Sometimes one freely chosen action is better than another.

 

Again, none of these are supposed to be direct parallels to sexual choices, they are simply illustrations that things we choose to do with our bodies that don’t involve violating another person’s bodily autonomy or consent may still have negative ramifications or be a negative decision.

 

A final example is one that’s close to home and illustrates how gently we have to move around these kinds of criticisms: veganism. Many people realize that veganism is probably the most ethical life choice in terms of eating: it is best for the planet and respects animal life the best. However many other people choose not to be vegan. Oftentimes non-vegans pretty much ignore all vegan arguments because they think that their right to choose what to do with their body means their food choices should not be open to any criticism. They get incredibly pissed when a vegan suggests that maybe they shouldn’t eat hamburgers filled with bacon for every meal. Now food is a very emotionally fraught topic, and in many ways they might be right: each of us has the right to eat what we choose. However the larger impacts of an individual’s diet mean that the choice to eat meat has larger implications that might make it a negative choice. So while they do have the right to eat as they choose, others may ask them to consider how that action affects the planet as a whole.

 

Pointing this out is not an attack, nor does it remove the bodily autonomy of an individual to continue eating meat. It begins a conversation and asks them to consider alternative perspectives. Respectful vegans will understand that the situations of other individuals must be taken into account and that no one should be forced to be vegan or insulted or shamed for their choices, however they are still willing to discuss the ramifications of meat-eating. We have seen how quickly this can get ugly, but I have had productive conversations about my own choice to be non-vegan with vegans who adamantly believe that veganism is the best choice.

 

But somehow when we bring sex into the mix the ability to discuss these larger ramifications is suddenly considered negative, invasive, and shaming. Why is it that when sex is in the mix, choice becomes the magic card that shields all actions from any criticism or questioning? Discussing, criticizing, or questioning does not take away another person’s freedoms, nor does it necessarily shame them (although it can and thus we need to be careful with it). It asks for more, and it asks them to consider if their actions could be more positive. That’s all. Just as free speech does not free you from criticism, neither does bodily autonomy, particularly when your actions have ramifications like reifying patriarchal structures that create negative impacts throughout society.

I’m Coming Out As Sex Negative

When I first came across this article explaining why the author is a sex negative feminist and how the reactions to that are oftentimes ridiculous, I found myself with the sort of feeling that someone who realizes they’re gay for the first time might have (perhaps I’m exaggerating a tad. I don’t want to steal that experience from anyone). But I did feel like I had finally found an understanding of the way I approached and felt about sex and a word for it and a reason why I had always felt out of synch with the people around me and their attitudes towards sex. It was a little bit like coming home: I wasn’t dirty or bad for having some negative thoughts about sex. I wasn’t a prude. There may actually be legitimate reasons to criticize sex from a feminist perspective!

 

You see I’ve always considered myself a sex positive feminist. What else would I be? I don’t think that people should be ashamed for having sex, and I myself have felt so negative around sex for so long that it only made sense to me that I should try to encourage attitudes that would make sex more positive and enjoyable for everyone around me. Sex is a good thing, everyone knows that! Consent is great. Not shaming people is great. Obvious. Self-explanatory.

 

Until I read this article. And I realized that maybe some of the reasons that I felt negatively about sex weren’t just that I’d had bad experiences with consent, but that the very nature of sexuality in a patriarchal culture is one that is political. There is a good reason that I had felt like sex was always a battlefield and that I was barely getting out alive and that’s because in many ways it is. The author does a better job of explaining why sex negativity is a worthwhile position than I can, as I’m just getting introduced to the term, but there is something I want to respond to in her article. She asks why it’s considered taboo or prudish to label oneself sex negative, or why sex positivity has become ubiquitous with mainstream feminism. I suspect I have a few answers.

 

The first and biggest answer is that sex has been used to shame and control people for a very, very long time. Not enjoying sex (especially as a woman) has been the status quo…pretty much always. Of course it feels like a radical act to suggest that women should enjoy sex, and it feels liberating and wonderful. When someone says they’re sex negative, people automatically jump to the idea that people should feel ashamed, people should not enjoy themselves, or people should not strive for positive and open sexual experiences. Because of all the shit in the past of sex, people are terrified of going back. Understandably. Sex positivity feels like the strongest barrier against shitty sex.

 

Unfortunately what this doesn’t take into account is the fact that even if you’re enjoying sex, there might still be negative aspects to it (such as continuation of patriarchal power structures). We can give people choices and still ask them to make responsible choices or hold them to higher standards. This response to sex negativity misses that sex negativity is TRYING to make sex better for everyone and trying to make society as a whole better for everyone by criticizing the things that make it fraught with patriarchal meaning.

 

And hand in hand with this fear of going back to the shame that we used to feel is the fact that when you have good sex you want EVERYONE to have good sex. Let’s use a different example. Let’s say you’ve been eating shitty Hershey’s chocolate all your life. You kinda know it’s shitty and that it comes from bad labor practices and then you finally get some nice free trade chocolate and it’s delicious and you feel AMAZING. You start telling your friends about this new chocolate. You start promoting your new chocolate. YOU LOVE THIS CHOCOLATE BECAUSE IT’S DELICIOUS AND TASTES AWESOME AND WHO DOESN’T WANT CHOCOLATE? It’s a fact of human nature that when something makes you happy you don’t really like other people criticizing it. Have you seen Steven Moffat fans when someone tells them he’s sexist? Point in case.

 

So anyway, you’re going around loving this chocolate and stuffing it in the face of everyone who mentions they might want chocolate and then someone comes up to you and says they don’t like chocolate because it made them puke once. Also even if it’s fair trade it might still be part of a bad labor market. Maybe they should give some of the money for that expensive chocolate to charity instead. And also chocolate is maybe more of a sometimes food.

 

This is not the best parallel in the world, but I think you all see where I’m going. Telling someone they should reexamine their sex life when they think their sex life is awesome and fun really feels like raining on their parade. You don’t really want to hear about it because you’re too excited and you don’t know why someone would want to criticize you for sharing joy. Even if the criticism is for the best possible reasons and completely valid, it still can feel really invalidating. Particularly when you’re enjoying something and someone else comes along and asks you to consider WHY you are enjoying it and whether or not your desires are really your own, it can feel as if they’re questioning your experiences and telling you that your enjoyment isn’t valid or real.

 

In addition, sex negativity questions an arena that many people think of as essential to human nature. I have heard many people say that everyone is sexual or that everyone should embrace their sexuality or they will not be happy. Sex negativity questions these assumptions, which are closely held for many people. It says that there might be people who are completely capable of getting turned on who choose not to because they don’t enjoy it. This is mind blasting for people who enjoy sex. Seriously. Many people cannot fathom the idea of someone who is asexual or even anti-sex. It’s like suggesting that someone might be anti-food. Because sex is so integral to personal identity, people who like it have a hard time understanding those who don’t (also vice versa, but liking sex is much more the default in our society). Questioning whether sex is a necessary part of human life is a really deep and personal philosophical question. It’s scary. Many people don’t want to get into it, and they feel as if their choice to be sexual is being attacked or shamed when others try to bring up other options.

 

And finally, many people don’t want to think of themselves as constrained by society or of their choices as shaped by society. People want to imagine themselves as autonomous, with free will. They want to think that their desires and preferences are their own. In many ways, that’s true, but desires and preferences don’t appear out of thin air. You may have some natural predilictions (no matter how hard I try I will never enjoy black coffee), but many of your preferences are shaped by the messages around you. That’s hard to hear. It feels like it takes something away from you. And perhaps it does, but in the end it gives you back the power to begin actively deciding what you want to do with the desires that you may not have chosen.

 

Overall, the immediate impression of sex negativity is that it wants to take away something really fun, take away your self-identity, and take away your choices. Many people have an immediate disgust reaction to this. I think we’d all be better served if we looked past the label and understood how sex negativity wants to give you back these things at the deepest level. It is not satisfied with simply saying that if something feels good you can do it. It wants to go a step further and give you more tools to explore and identify how you can make your choices positive not only for yourself, but for others in society and for future generations. Mind. Blasting.

BDSM: A Feminist Pursuit, But Not Taken Lightly

So there’s a lovely little post up at The Pervocracy about BDSM and feminism and how you can do both at the same time, which I a.want to promote and b.want to add to. Now I am going to add the caveat that I do not personally practice BDSM and so if I get things wrong I am HIGHLY sorry and I don’t want to be stepping on any toes for talking about things that I don’t know about. Anywho, I think this post got a lot of things right. I think it’s right that feminism shouldn’t want to “save women from themselves”, I think it’s right that in general the BDSM community pays a lot more attention to consent and safety than other people who have sex, I think that feminism has no place telling women what makes them feel good, and I think that BDSM is a whole lot more complicated than “submissive female, dominant male”. So back off people who are all anti-BDSM.

Now that being said I have worries about all kinds of sex as a feminist and that extends to BDSM. Again, I think everyone has the right to pursue whatever kind of sex they want as long as it’s consensual and doesn’t harm anyone (more than they want to be harmed). But in situations of BDSM where there is a submissive women and a dominant man, I worry that it confirms certain scripts that are all too common in our communities. While it’s true that that might be your personal kink and it might make you feel strong and powerful, we all have to be aware of the fact that our desires are shaped by the community that we come from. I often have the desire to just roll over like a rug and let people walk all over me in my relationships. That’s certainly societally conditioned. It’s not good for me, and the more I do it, the more I confirm that that’s what women do: I set a bad example for any women around me.

This is not to say that I should feel guilty for these urges. It is not to say that there’s something wrong with me for wanting to be submissive sometimes. And it’s not to say that I might not naturally be a quiet person (hint: I’m really really not). What it DOES mean is that I should be aware of the times when I want to act out the script that’s been given to me and consciously choose whether I want to follow it or not.

I think that in many ways these same considerations apply to BDSM scenes. Even if we are acting out violence towards women in a fully consensual way that makes a woman feel powerful, it is still repeating the same script of violence against women. And that has the potential to be far more dangerous than we may expect it to be. Even if our intentions in acting a certain way are to please ourselves, to make ourselves feel powerful or connected to another human being, we should also be aware that what we’re doing is part of a context: the context in which violence against women is normalized and we are continuing to create that image.

Now BDSM is slightly different from my desire to let my partner make all the decisions in my life because it is in fact a role-play, and because it is usually very private. For these reasons, I think that it may not in fact be as worrisome as some other examples of unexamined desire. But that doesn’t mean that it’s entirely unproblematic. I think that when people choose to engage in BDSM, they should be aware of the potential for their actions to be misinterpreted as upholding the status quo, they should be ready to vehemently argue against that (as the article cited above did), and they should be ready to act very differently in their lives when they are not roleplaying.

I’m really not entirely sure how we can follow what we desire and want while still criticizing the status quo. If I desperately want to be a housewife, should I give up that dream because it gives a certain impression of women? Probably not, but I should be aware that my choice might have been shaped by other pressures, and talk about it with my daughters/sisters/friends/women around me. How do you think we should deal with it when what we want may not be entirely up to us? I think that again we might find ourselves caught between our responsibility to follow our own desires and do what makes us feel good, and our responsibility to act in a way that promotes the well-being of others. Our desires don’t exist in a vacuum, so how do we follow them while also challenging the things that might have shaped our desires?

Social Justice 101: Rape Culture

Rape culture is a fairly loaded term. It upsets a lot of people, and many don’t want to accept that it exists. It’s a scary topic of others. But I think it’s important for everyone to have some concept of what rape culture is and how it exists in our culture, especially for men to have those understandings so that when a woman talks about her experiences he can put it in the context of rape culture. Rape culture, according to wikipedia, is “a concept used to describe a culture in which rape and sexual violence are common and in which prevalent attitudesnorms, practices, and media normalize, excuse, tolerate, or even condone rape.” There’s a lot to unpack in that statement.

So let’s start with what rape culture ISN’T: rape culture is not the assertion that every man is a rapist. It is not an attempt to scare people. It is not an expression of what anyone should or shouldn’t do, it is simply a description of the way things ARE right now. Rape culture is not blaming anyone for how things are. It simply asks us to look at the culture that we live in and understand that there are certain norms which promote rape.

The statistics support the idea that we live in a culture where rape is accepted. Almost 1 in 6 (the statistics on this are somewhat controversial, but this is a slightly more conservative estimate than the 1 in 4 that many organizations put out) women will be raped or sexually assaulted in her lifetime. Rapes are woefully underreported and by most accounts less than 3% of all rapists ever spend any time in jail. At this point, the estimates for male rape are that 1 in 10 men are raped, although men are even less likely to report their rape. These crimes are SO prevalent in our society and very often are not reported, prosecuted, or punished.

In addition, there are many myths about rape that are common in our society. One of the biggest one of these is the “stranger danger” myth, which suggests that rape is something that happens out in the street, and a random stranger grabs you. It suggests you can protect yourself from this kind of danger by traveling with others or by having mace. In reality, the vast majority of rapes are committed by someone the victim knows, often a significant other. Another rape that contributes hugely to rape culture is the idea that a woman can be “asking” for rape, or that women can protect themselves from rape if they dress or behave in certain ways. Rape is any sex without consent. If a person is unconscious or drunk or high, they cannot consent. That is part of the law. So women are not “asking for it” if they are drunk, if they are wearing skimpy clothing, if they have slept with someone before, if they are married to you, or if they have slept with you before. None of these things are equivalent to consent. However when someone is accused of rape, the first questions are often about the victim: where was she, what was she doing, how was she dressed?

The problem with this myth is that it assumes that women are responsible for men’s behavior and that men cannot control themselves around women. However rape is not a crime of sex, it is a crime of power. There are women who are raped in burqas or in sweatpants. Rape is not caused by clothing. The person who should be on trial is the perpetrator, not the victim.

Another myth is the idea that there is a superabundance of false rape claims. In reality, false reporting for rape is approximately the same as it is for any other crime.

In addition to these myths about women, there is the overpowering myth that men can’t get raped, that if a man has an erection it is automatically consent. That’s bullshit. When you’re getting tickled you might laugh but that doesn’t mean you like it or want it. Our bodies have natural reactions to certain stimuli, but we don’t necessarily consent to whatever is happening to us.

There are all kinds of attitudes that suggest that men should keep pushing past a woman’s comfort zone, that hurting a woman is sexy, that forcing yourself on someone is powerful and manly. We see in many recent cases that young men feel that there’s no way they will be caught, as in the Steuvenville case or the more recent Rehtaeh Parsons case, in which the perpetrators texted about, emailed, took photographs of and publicly posted their crimes on the internet. There is the attitude that cat-calling someone is a compliment, when in reality it makes many women incredibly uncomfortable and used. There is the tendency of advertising to include graphically violent sexual images in their campaigns. All of these things are rape culture.

Rape culture is the fact that women are taught from the time that they are young that they are likely to be raped, that there’s nothing they can do to stop it, but they should be afraid and try to anyway. It’s the fact that of the close female friends I can think of off the top of my head, every single one of them has been a victim of sexual assault and not a single one has felt comfortable going to the police because the police rarely help. It’s the fact that when my friend confronted her rapist he laughed and told her she was making it up. It’s the casual dismissal of rape in relationships, date rape, or rape of people under the influence. Rape culture is men who answer “yes” on okcupid to the question “Do you think there are circumstances in which a woman owes you sex?”. All of these things contribute to the idea that sometimes people can take sex without consent and there will not be consequences. THAT is rape culture, and its consequences are the huge numbers of people who are raped and traumatized every year.