Shifting The Blame For Sexual Harassment (Or, Damn Those Mysterious Women And Their Weird Mystery Feelings)

I’ve written before about how it’s actually not very difficult to tell the difference between flirting and sexual harassment. I’d like to get at this issue from a slightly different perspective by talking about the purposeful obfuscation of women’s* desires and boundaries that I often hear as a defense of those accused of sexual harassment.

What am I talking about? Things like this:

  • “Well, you know, you can never know when she’s gonna suddenly cry harassment.”
  • “Oh, women, they call guys ‘creepy’ only if they’re not attracted to them.”
  • “Oh, it’s only ‘harassment’ if they’re not trying to get laid right now, know what I mean?”

Often this is served with a large side of “Wow Women Are So Mysterious I Mean Wow Who Can Even Understand Those Women Their Emotions Just Change So Quickly Wow.”

The implication is that if a guy finds himself accused of sexual harassment or of being creepy, the problem isn’t with the guy’s behavior, it’s that the woman found him unattractive or she isn’t looking for sex or dating right now or she was just having one of those Female Mood-Swingy Things. The responsibility is shifted from the man who’s initiating to the woman who’s interpreting–from the man’s choice of words or actions to the woman’s supposedly unknowable and mysterious moods, desires, and preferences.

I can see how this is a convenient narrative. A guy who hits on a woman inappropriately and makes her upset or angry can just throw up his hands and be like, “Whoa, no idea what just happened there.” Or, worse, he can go post on an MRA forum about how women discriminate against unattractive men by calling them creeps.

Often even terrible ideas have a grain of truth, so here’s the grain of truth in this one. Sometimes people excuse bad behavior in those they really like (or who are skillful enough at manipulation to convince them it’s okay). The halo effect is a thing. That means that, in theory, a really attractive man could hit on a woman in ways that she’d consider creepy and off-putting if anyone else did it, but she reacts positively because she’s so attracted to the man. Maybe.

But in this case, it’s bad behavior being excused because the person’s attractive, not good behavior being problematized because the person’s unattractive. (I’m tempted to call this the Don Draper Effect, but I’ve been watching too much Mad Men lately.) Needless to say, it’s really creepy to hear someone essentially say, “I wish I were more attractive so I could get away with harassing and abusing people more easily.”

To use another example, sometimes men catcall women on the street and those women are flattered. (Before you dismiss this, women have actually told me that they find it flattering. It’s rare, but it happens.) That doesn’t mean that catcalling them is ethically okay. It just means that sometimes unethical behavior gets excused. Oftentimes, really.

More often, though, women appear not to be weirded out by the inappropriate come-ons of a guy they may or may not find attractive, but are too scared to tell him so or just don’t know how to react. (We aren’t raised to react at all, remember, except perhaps a polite smile and a “Thank you,” followed by burning whichever clothes we were wearing at the time because clearly that’s what caused it.) Another guy may witness this as a bystander and think, “Seeshe didn’t get pissed off when he did it!” Right, probably because she’s too intimidated to.

While there’s some degree of uncertainty in all human interactions, even ones that are very obviously inappropriate, that doesn’t mean there’s much mystery. Sometimes women don’t get creeped out by creepy men because they feel very confident in their ability to escape the situation, or because they weren’t raised by parents who inculcated in them a fear of men who act creepy, or any combination of factors. Often they do get creeped out, because it’s uncomfortable to feel like a piece of meat on a serving platter.

Women have been trying to explain to men how this fear and discomfort works for a while now in the form of the “Schrodinger’s Rapist” argument. Many men have resisted this explanation relentlessly because they get stuck in WAIT SO YOU’RE TRYING TO SAY THAT YOU JUST ASSUME I MIGHT BE A RAPIST I AM A GOOD PERSON HOW DARE YOU mode. They miss the part that basically explains this: if you send me the signal that you don’t care about my preferences and boundaries, then I’m going to assume that you don’t care about my preferences and boundaries.

There is no great mystery to this. If you make sexual comments to women you don’t know or persistently pester a female coworker to go on a date with you, those women are going to assume that you’re treating them like an object to be fucked and not like a human being, and they’re going to have opinions of you and your behavior in accordance with that.

Sometimes people misinterpret innocent behavior as malicious, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re “irrational” or “wrong” in doing so. Suppose that 90% of the time a man I don’t know has asked me what I’m reading, it has turned into him hitting on me or refusing to leave me alone when I was clearly sending “please leave me alone” signals or calling me names when I politely asked to be left alone so I could return to my reading. One day I’m sitting in Central Park reading a book and a guy comes up and asks me what I’m reading. I shoot him an angry look and ignore him. He walks off, confused and embarrassed. He had simply thought the cover looked like the cover of his favorite book about social psychology and wanted to know what I thought of it.

Maybe we could’ve had a great conversation. Maybe we could’ve made friends. But, unfortunately, his behavior just looked too much like the behavior of the men in 90% of these situations, who ruin a quiet and thoughtful moment by using my reading as an excuse to hit on me in public. And if he thinks about this, and reads this blog post or the Schrodinger’s Rapist one, he’ll realize that it makes complete sense that I reacted the way I did, given what I have to deal with 90% of the time. It was no mystery. It was unfortunate and disappointing, but at the same time, entirely rational**.

(If you think I should cheerfully engage all of these men and tolerate the 90% who are awful in order to “just give a chance” to the 10% who are not, you don’t understand cost-benefit analyses.)

As I noted in my post about women not actually being “mysterious,” acting as though they are mysterious keeps men from really trying to understand them and puts the onus on women to stop being so damn mysterious, not on men to try a little harder to listen and understand.

If you’re a man and you often find women responding with confusion, discomfort, or even disgust when you interact with them, it might be time to ask yourself why this pattern exists***.

~~~

*I’m using a male harasser/female victim dynamic here because that’s what the conversations I’m responding to are about. Obviously, anyone of any gender can harass anyone of any gender.

**These discussions always devolve into this, but for the moment, I’m not interested in answering any questions to the tune of “Wait so then how DO I approach a woman I don’t know in public and get her to talk to me?” You don’t. Meet women at places where people gather to meet each other, or through friends, or through online dating.

***I do want to note, however, that there are cases in which intersecting identities influence how someone is perceived. For instance, thanks to ableism, a woman may respond with disgust at (totally appropriate) flirtation from a man with a disability. This, I think, is the sort of dynamic that able-bodied cis white men are appropriating when they go on MRA forums and claim that women react with disgust to anyone who doesn’t significantly resemble George Clooney. In my experience, men who are actually impacted by bigotries like ableism or transphobia tend to know that that’s what’s really going on. They’re not being rejected because they’re men; they’re being rejected because they have stigmatized identities or conditions. We can–in fact, we must–fight the fact that some people are automatically perceived as disgusting because of the prejudice that others have against them.

Learning Sexuality: Children, Marketing, and Sexualized Products

[Content note: sex, child sexualization, child molestation and rape]

I’ve been depressed lately so writing has been difficult. (Here’s more about that if you’re curious.) Hopefully this isn’t the only thing I’ll be able to produce for the next few weeks.

~~~

Children and teens should be able to express their developing sexuality (safely and appropriately) without being shamed for it.

Adults are marketing sexual ideas and behaviors to children at very young ages, and this isn’t a good thing.

Both of these things may be true, but I’ve noticed that many people of a progressive persuasion often have trouble entertaining both of these ideas at the same time.

That is, whenever someone is claiming one of these, someone always appears to argue the other one as though they disprove each other. If someone says, “You know, it’s really sketchy that they sell pole dancing kits for little girls,” someone will inevitably counter, “So you’re saying there’s something wrong with girls expressing their sexuality? You’re slut-shaming.” If someone says, “We shouldn’t prevent children from exploring sexuality safely,” someone will respond, “Yeah well they only want to explore it because the mainstream media is teaching them inappropriate things.”

Much has already been written and researched about the sexualization of childhood (particularly girlhood). One study suggests that almost a third of girls’ clothing may be sexualized. The American Psychological Association released a report on it in 2007 and discussed some of the negative effects of sexualization. And, of course, commentary abounds and you can easily find it online.

Are some of the critical responses to sexualized children’s toys and clothing prompted by, as counter-critics love to allege, “prudishness”? Probably some of them. But that’s not all there is to it.

First of all, as the APA report suggests, increased sexualization of girls can have negative consequences for individuals and for society. But beyond that, I think there’s something to be said for discovering one’s sexuality through experimentation and exploration rather than by looking at commercials and magazines to see what other people (supposedly) do. Many of us grow up with images of what sexiness and sexuality is that later turn out to have absolutely no resonance for us. It’s a particular facial expression, a particular way of dressing, a particular procedure for hooking up and getting off, a particular move or strategy or “trick” to get a potential partner interested.

Eventually, some people unlearn some of these things and decide which of them really feel sexy and which don’t. For instance, some of the things I think are sexy are pretty “normative,” such as high heels and PIV intercourse. Other things that have been presented to me as sexy by my surrounding culture, though, I do not still think are sexy, such as men who ignore my boundaries, falling into bed together without having to say a word, and long straight hair. Some things that I think are sexy are things that have generally been presented to me as decidedly unsexy, such as asking for consent before kissing, having upper body muscles, and women who are dominant rather than submissive.

But some people don’t really question what they find sexy and why, and end up having a sexuality that’s pretty close to what they’ve seen advertised. And some of them are totally happy with that. But others are not, and they never really realize that they have other options.

Cliff Pervocracy once wrote about the experience of realizing that a particular pornographic image with which we’re all familiar isn’t necessarily how everyone likes to do it:

Rowdy and I watched porn together last night.  Because Rowdy is a gentle soul in ways I am not, I tend to watch hardcore kinky porn and he tends to watch porn of real couples having sweet lovey sex.  We were watching his porn.

The woman in the video had sex the way I do.  When she was on top, she didn’t pump her whole body up and down, she just moved her hips rhythmically.  And she didn’t stay on top forever going poundpoundpound like a champ; she did it for a few minutes and then switched positions.  I think that’s the first time I’ve seen a woman in porn do that.

The part that blew my mind: the guy in the video was way into that.  And Rowdy was way into that. And it was in porn, which gave it the official stamp of People Think This Is A Sexy Thing.  I was astonished, because I always thought wiggling my hips on top meant I was incompetent at sex.  I thought you were supposed to bounce full-length on a guy until he came, and since my thigh muscles can’t do that, I thought I was too weak to do me-on-top sex correctly.  It was amazing to see people accepting a less athletic method as a totally valid, hot way to have sex.  Hell, it was amazing just to find out that I wasn’t the only person on Earth who has sex that way.

Kids are probably not going to be exposed to hardcore pornography, of course, but they get exposed to other messages about what normative sexuality is, such as high heels and makeup, female passivity, and, apparently, pole dancing.

Aggressively marketing particular sexualized products or behaviors to little kids means that they are that much more likely to grow up with the idea that that’s how you do sexuality. It gives them that much less room to discover for themselves what’s fun and pleasurable as they become old enough to try it.

But the problem with this whole situation goes beyond people growing up forced into little boxes of sexual expression. Namely, there is a terrible and dangerous hypocrisy here. Adults create ads and marketing campaigns that persuade little girls to want pole dancing kits and t-shirts with sexy messages on them, and adults make horrible assumptions about the girls on whom this marketing works. It’s a rare case of molestation or statutory rape in which some source doesn’t claim that the female victim dressed “older than her age” or “seemed very sexually mature.”

Every bit of me just rages and rages when I read these things. We have people who are paid more money than most working adults will ever see to manipulate girls and their parents into wanting and buying these things, and then we blame these girls for being preyed on by adults who ascribe to them an awareness that they probably cannot have yet.

First of all (not that this needs to be said), statutory rape is wrong no matter how sexually mature a child is. (I’m not talking about those “grey areas” where one person is 17 and the other is 19 or whatever. I’m talking about those cases where the victim is 10 and the predator is 45, for instance.) But regardless, when little girls wear “revealing” clothes or put on lots of makeup or dance in a “suggestive” way (whatever that even means), they’re almost definitely not doing it because they literally want to have sex with someone. They’re probably doing it more because it’s been presented to them as a fun and exciting thing to do, something older girls do, something that just you’re supposed to do as a girl. It’s adults who interpret children’s exploration as necessarily sexual, or as a sign of sexual maturity. Just as adults freak out when they catch little kids playing with their genitals (or with a friend’s). They assume that just because it’s an expression of sexual desire when they do it, it must mean the same thing when children do it.

Of course, there’s nothing anyone, even an adult, can say or do that guarantees sexual interest, short of clearly saying so or initiating sexual activity. Little girls in miniskirts aren’t “asking for it” and neither are adult women in miniskirts. Or boys or men or gender-nonconforming folks in miniskirts, for that matter.

If we’re going to relentlessly market these types of clothing and toys to children, we need to stop making gross assumptions about “what it means” when a child wears those clothes or plays with those toys. It means nothing. It means that marketers know what they’re doing. It means that dressing up or dancing and shaking your butt can be fun. It means that kids enjoy exploring their bodies and what they can do or look like. It means nothing.

I’ve spent most of this post critiquing the marketing of sexualized stuff to children, but it’s also worth talking more about the other half of the false dichotomy I presented at the beginning. I think a lot of the panic about children doing “sexual” things is caused by what I just mentioned–adults’ (mis)interpretations of what that means. It’s also caused by general prudery and “but I don’t want my kid to grow up and do grown-up things!” Incidentally, very little of the panic about childhood sexuality seems to focus on the fact that children sometimes do (and are encouraged to do, particularly if they’re male) nonconsensual things, but sometimes that does happen and sometimes adults do (justifiably) worry about it.

Being neither a developmental psychologist nor a parent, I can’t tell you what is and is not appropriate for a child in terms of sexuality. In fact, I don’t think any developmental psychologist or parent could give you a definitive answer to that, either, and don’t believe them if they say they can. Things like this will always have to be decided on a case-by-case basis, because children develop at different rates and have different levels of understanding and awareness of their own urges and desires. But I want to legitimize the idea of letting children discover their own sexuality without being shamed or punished for it.

Further, the fact that children’s expressions of sexuality may be strongly influenced by what they see in the media does not mean those expressions are Wrong or Bad, or should be curtailed (necessarily). First of all, they will probably feel very “real” to the child, just as passivity and silence used to genuinely feel sexy to me. Second, you can’t strong-arm someone into discovering what feels authentic and what doesn’t. Telling a little girl that thongs are bad and she should never wear one or want one isn’t going to get her to think, “Hm, I probably only wanted the thong because I saw it in a Victoria’s Secret commercial and I really want to be pretty like the lady in the commercial.”

It’s impossible to avoid being influenced by one’s sociocultural context. Everyone changes and adapts to that context. (Yes, even you, hypothetical person who thinks you’re above all this.) So kids will always pick up on cues in their environment about how they should act. The problem is that, right now, sexualized images and products are being purposefully marketed to kids who are probably too young to even have the desires we associate with those images and products. Case in point: we think of pole dancing as something women do to arouse straight men, and even though it’s something that people now often do for fun or exercise, that’s still often going to be the meaning we ascribe to it. Do you really think a four-year-old has any understanding of what it means to turn a man on, or any desire to do so?

The problem is also that the range of sexualities that kids will encounter in the media, and in marketing specifically, is extremely narrow. Since sexuality is something that develops partially in response to what the developing person sees around them, this gives them a very short menu to choose from. Some may not ever realize that there are tons of other, longer, more interesting menus out there.

~~~

Note: There are a bunch of issues that I’m aware of but didn’t have space to discuss in this post, such as the even greater sexualization of children of color, the invisibility of queer and asexual expressions in this whole marketing/advertising bullshit, the fact that boys and girls are both impacted by this but in different ways, and so on. Future posts?

[guest post] Japan’s Not Doing Sex! An Intersection of Racism and Sexism

Here’s a guest post from my friend Mike about the recent news stories on Japanese sexuality.

I remember as a kid laughing at the clownish stereotypes of characters like Long Duk Dong in “Sixteen Candles” and Toshiro Takashi in “Revenge of the Nerds”. What I didn’t realize at the time was how I, as a Korean-American boy, was internalizing a host of images desexualizing men of East Asian descent. Add to that, the hypersexualized imagery of Kim in “Miss Saigon” and Ling Woo in “Ally McBeal”, it came as no surprise to me last week when a story about “Why have young people in Japan stopped having sex?” became such a viral hit on the Internet and mainstream media. Shall we say, I had even expected it at least over a year ago.

Everyone from the Guardian to Bill Maher had their say about those nerdy Japanese men and apparently dissatisfied women. After the story spread for quite some time, there came the derisive counters to this obviously poorly conceived and factually dubious headline. Since the story was predicated on the declining birth rate in Japan (a reasonable story to look into) the critics of sensationalist media noted how quick those propagating this shoddy journalism were to jump to conclusions. Mostly lost in the backlash to this story was how much of what was happening fit not only a narrative of cultural insensitivity and racial stereotyping, but how that stereotyping fit a long historical narrative of desexualizing Asian men and hypersexualizing Asian women for the benefit of the white heterosexist image of power.

Where does this narrative come from?

Throughout Western contact with Asian cultures, there has been this need to assume the sexual proclivities of the inhabitants of these “mysterious” lands, establishing a moral superiority. For Asian men, it was the dichotomy of dangerous predator and effeminate asexual, and for Asian women, the Dragon Lady and the Lotus Flower.

In the 19th century, Chinese immigration became something to fear and despise to the mostly white settlers in the West of the United States. The addition of such cheap labor brought out the very worst of the insecurities in Americans, especially when faced with the emerging hype surrounding opium use. Diana L. Ahmad’s article “Opium Smoking, Anti-Chinese Attitudes, and the American Medical Community, 1850-1890” describes the belief that opium produced the “feminine” characteristics of “introspection, indifference, defeatism, and silence.” Yet, despite coupling opium use with the grotesque patriarchal notions of femininity, the moral panic around the drug and the scarcity of Chinese women in the early immigrant waves contributed to the ultimate of fears: interracial coupling! This ties in very nicely with Victorian religiously motivated sexual policing and temperance. Ahmad continues:

It was difficult enough for the elite classes to consider the idea of women having extra-marital relations or experiment with sex with Anglo-American men; however, Anglo-American women having intimate relations with unknown Chinese laborers and members of the underworld might have been considered unthinkable.

Despite this being specific to certain members of the Chinese diaspora, keep in mind that we live in a society where I’m routinely asked if I’m Chinese, Japanese or Korean (that last one only seems to have appeared on the list after the ’90s). In the U.S., Asian as an ethnicity basically includes a hugely diverse grouping from the Indian subcontinent to the Pacific islands. While lumping all of us together has its uses, it also means dealing with grossly pernicious generalizations.

As time marched on, Hollywood films depicted the outlandishly dressed, inscrutable male villains (usually white actors in yellow face) and the either deceitful social climbers or virginal damsels in the distress to the mostly white audiences in the cinema. Television shows, comic books, and now the news media seem intent on preserving at least some of these shameful notions even to this day. For every Glenn from “The Walking Dead” or Sun from “Lost”, both characters that address and escape from some of these sexist and racist tropes, there are a ton more of a Raj Koothrapali, a character who LITERALLY couldn’t speak around women for six seasons unless drinking and consistently made the butt of gay jokes, on “The Big Bang Theory”, or a Veronica, an Asian girlfriend cajoled into wearing a schoolgirl outfit to “impress” an Asian businessman, on “Dads”.

What is the harm?

In terms of sexuality, there’s a term that covers the problem for both Asian men and women: “yellow fever”, or Asian fetish. The colloquialism is exclusionary to some South Asian, Central Asian and Pacific Islander ethnicities, but it’s an unfortunately popular bit of shorthand (a complicated issue when dealing with such a sweeping term as “Asian”). The concept regards non-Asian men fetishizing Asian women, and why this subject is so problematic has to do with the aforementioned history of racial stereotyping. While I certainly take no issue with aesthetic sexual preferences, this form of fetish takes on a dimension of sexism and racism that certainly sets off alarm bells, as Audrey Zao of Xojane states:

The definition of sexual fetishes tend to relate to situations or objects causing a person arousal. When an entire race of women have become fetishes, it’s an extreme case of objectification.

Basically, a good example of this is that horrific, so-called music video “Asian Girlz”. This form of white privilege also assumes, automatically, that Asian men aren’t in the picture at all when it comes to heterosexual partnering. It’s not a leap to suggest that the litany of stereotyping in media informs this type of objectification, as the fetish in turn reinforces the media’s desire to sensationalize it, making an interesting story about the political, economic and social realities of a declining birthrate into a ridiculing and lurid story about asexual “otaku” and women uninterested in their only partnering option (implying a lack of alternatives such as same-sex relationships or, I guess, no white guys being around).

Additionally, such stereotyping prevents people from actually addressing the damaging nature of patriarchy in both the West and the East. The story of Asian sexual activity is reduced to heteronormative relationships within the gender binary and based within the narrow definitions of monogamy and procreation (not enough babies!), while simultaneously ignoring the economic and social realities such relationships face in a country like Japan.

It demonizes asexuality itself by equating it to being abnormal and a symptom of prolonged pre-adolescence (see: Otaku).

It demonizes other women, particularly white women, for having the gall to take advantage of feminist advances, well described by Jonathan Guarana of Thought Catalog:

The impact of the crumbling hyper-masculine identity from a white man’s perspective is disheartening. Therefore, where can he turn to regain this hegemonic masculine identity of power, control, and dominance? First, by hating white women and then specifically transitioning to ethnic groups where women are seen to still be submissive, passive, and obedient to men: Asian women.

It internalizes racism in its victims to such an extent that some Asian women parrot the same damaging messages that promote bigotry, and some Asian men begin to believe the rhetoric within themselves. Worse than that, some Asian men become resentful, resorting to using this as an excuse to indulge in their own misogyny and racism.

It excuses the patriarchal norms in many Asian societies with the implicit support from some white men in their preference for “submissive” women, and when the privileged white West is called to the carpet about its own issues with misogyny, it’s all too easy for apologists to turn around and use Asian cultures as a comparative prop to deflect from their own pervasively misogynistic cultures as Jenny Lee at Hyphen Magazine writes regarding her own experience with a rape apologist’s reading of the UN’s eye-opening report about sexual assault in Asian countries:

So it’s contemptible and oh-so-hypocritical when some Americans misuse news like the UN report in order to blame “Other” men — lately, Asian men — to feel better about themselves while willfully refusing to take a long, hard look at our own backyard

And finally, the tropes also negatively affect interracial partners who pursue caring, mutually respectful relationships. Christine Tam at Diaspora @chinaSmack reveals:

When I started feeling attracted to the man who is now my boyfriend, I hesitated for a long time before acting on my feelings. He was a wonderful man who respected me and made me laugh, but I had reservations about joining the interracial relationship cliché. Another white guy with an Asian girl, I thought. No!

When the culture is so heavily saturated with this form of sexual/racial politics, it may be confusing to assess how many of your choices are really your own. Guilt and outside pressure, such as being labeled as someone who has “white fever”, makes dealing with it on a personal level a terrific mess. Or for the less acutely self-aware, it can lead to lashing out against critics of the current paradigm.

It would do well for those who call themselves journalists to take a beat or two and ACTUALLY THINK about the story they intend on posting when it comes to drawing wild conclusions about different cultures, especially in the implications of what it means historically. It’s also important for those of us saturated in an institutionally racist society to be self-aware when consuming media, to combat as many of these damage-dealing tropes and stereotypes as possible. As much as it’s fun to entertain the notion, K-Pop likely won’t fix the problem on its own.

Mike Nam is a writer, and editor from New Jersey, a volunteer with CFI-New York, and the organizer of the Secular Asian Community on Facebook. His biggest professional thrill is still the time he received fan letters for a video game cheats newsletter he wrote a decade-and-a-half ago. While an unabashed nerd, he’s been known to indulge in sports and outdoor activities from time to time. He also occasionally blogs at humanstellstories.wordpress.com.


The opinions in this piece are solely those of the author and do not represent the views of the Center for Inquiry or the Secular Asian Community.

Of Pranks and Playboy: The Pros and Cons of Online Hoaxes

Header for Playboy's fake party guide.

If you were online at all last week, you probably came across a Playboy article called “Top Ten Party Commandments.” The article was in Playboy’s usual style, but rather than emphasizing your typical dudebro disregard for women’s feelings, opinions, and preferences, it’s all about how you can’t truly have a good time without consent and it discusses the cool initiatives different campuses around the country are doing to promote consent.

So, obviously, the article wasn’t really written by Playboy. It was a prank by a group called FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture, which was also responsible for a similar hoax involving Victoria’s Secret last winter.

I really like hacktivism like this, but it does have some negative externalities. I’ll talk about some of the pros and then some of the cons.

First of all, it gets attention. Someone who might not click on a link to an article called “Why Consent is Important” might click on a link to an article called “Playboy’s Top Ten Party Commandments.” That person would then be exposed to information and opinions they might have never considered before.

Second, a hoax like this answers the question every activist is tired of hearing: “Yeah, well, if the way things are right now is so bad, what’s your idea, huh?” Although I reject the idea that in order for criticism to be legitimate, one must have a ready-made solution at their disposal, the fake party guide does a great job of giving an example of the type of content a consent-positive magazine might publish. It shows that, in a world free of rape culture, lingerie brands might replace phrases like “Sure Thing” with “Ask First,” and college party guides might rank campuses based on which are the best at promoting safe and healthy sex, not which have the drunkest women.

Third, these pranks provoke a strong positive reaction that sends a powerful message to the companies they mimic. That message is, you don’t have to promote rape culture to sell products. We’re often told that this is “just what sells.” Maybe it does, but consent can sell, too. After the Victoria’s Secret prank, social media filled up with people praising Victoria’s Secret and announcing that they plan to go out and buy the new (fake) products. Likewise, before people figured out it was fake, they congratulated Playboy on taking this new direction.

Part of the fake playboy party guide.A smart business will gauge the public responses to these hoaxes and act accordingly. Victoria’s Secret apparently said that they would “look into” creating a consent-positive lingerie line, although I haven’t heard anything else about that since December. Playboy, on the other hand, publicly stated that they had nothing to do with this hoax, and asked that it be taken down. Bad move.

The drawback of these pranks, though, is that many people will inevitably not hear the part about how it’s a prank; they’ll only hear the part about how X Company That Wasn’t That Good About This Stuff totally switched tacks and created some cool new product that doesn’t suck. I was still bursting people’s bubbles about the Victoria’s Secret months after it happened. Corrections aren’t as sticky as the original news story they’re correcting.

Furthermore, plenty of research confirms that it is really difficult to correct misinformation once it has been spread. From a guide in the Columbia Journalism Review:

Unfortunately, available research in this area paints a pessimistic picture: the most salient misperceptions are typically difficult to correct. This is because, in part, people’s evaluations of new information are shaped by their beliefs. When we encounter news that challenges our views, our brains may produce a variety of responses to compensate for this unwelcome information. As a result, corrections are sometimes ineffective andcan even backfire (PDF).

And even if people are not actively engaged in resisting unwelcome facts, the limitations of human cognition can hinder the correction of misperceptions. For example, once a piece of information is encoded in memory, it can be very difficult to undo its effects on subsequent attitudes and beliefs. Trying to correct a false claim with a negation (e.g., “John is not a criminal”) can also lead people to more easily remember the claim you are trying to negate (“John is a criminal”). Finally, people may use the familiarity of a claim as a heuristic for its accuracy. If corrections make a claim seem more familiar, we may be more likely to see the underlying—and incorrect—claim as true.

What this means is that, even if a media outlet prints a correction (which some had to do after misreporting the Playbox hoax as genuine) and even if people actually see it (which they’re probably not very likely to, since it won’t spread virally like the original news did), the correction is not very likely to “stick.” And, even more worryingly, reporting the Playbox hoax accurately the first time might still lead people to misremember it later as being not a hoax.

But so what if people keep thinking that Victoria’s Secret and Playboy really created these products? Well, it’s always unpleasant when someone gets credit that they don’t deserve. But also, it skews people’s perceptions of how far we’ve come and what is left to be done. Major corporations like these still don’t really take public stands for consent; rather, they create products that negate its importance or actively promote rapey stuff. If people develop the impression that this is changing when it really isn’t, they might be more skeptical of efforts to make it change.

Although it bothers me that these pranks likely end up spreading misinformation, I still think that the pros outweigh the cons. But you may disagree.

Flirting and Sexual Harassment: Not Actually the Same Thing

I could do a whole series on harmful and irrational responses to sexual harassment claims. First we had the “but it’s a learning opportunity!” defense, and now there’s this sort of thing: “But people are going to flirt. We’re all sexual beings*. We’re all adults here and should be able to deal with some harmless flirting. Grow up.”

Let’s be clear: flirting and sexual harassment are not the same thing. I have been flirted with many times. I have also been sexually harassed many times. The difference is whether or not the person is treating me like a human being with her own agency, with her own preferences and desires.

If you’re cornering me at a bar or party and leering about what a “dirty girl” I must be and we’ve never spoken before, you’re sexually harassing me. If we’re acquaintances and meet up for lunch and you smile in that particular way and say, “You know, you’re really pretty,” you’re flirting. If you’re my friend–just a friend–and I ask you to help me carry some boxes and afterward you say with a knowing smirk, “So, don’t I get a little something in return for this?,” you’re sexually harassing me.

Different people may have different boundaries. You may not know what those boundaries are. But that doesn’t mean they don’t exist, or that you have no responsibility to figure out what they are, or that the people you’re attracted to are required to be okay with any sexual comment or approach you choose to make because “we’re all adults here.”

In communities of geeks, nerds, gamers, atheists, and others who have probably been social outcasts at some point in their lives, accusations of sexual harassment often lead to defensive claims that it was “just flirting” and that the person being accused of harassment is actually just socially inept and didn’t realize they were doing anything wrong. It’s easy to use social awkwardness as a cover for predatory behavior. We’re just awkward! We didn’t really learn social skills as kids! We didn’t do this whole dating thing until our 20s! And so on.

First of all, it’s crucially important to understand that playing innocent is something sexual harassers do to hide their tracks. When caught in the act, they protest that they were “just flirting” and it was “all in good fun” and that they “have no idea what [target] is so upset about.” They pretend to be socially awkward and inept, and that they just “didn’t realize” that their actions would make others feel violated and uncomfortable. They claim that there was a “miscommunication,” although evidence suggests that people are quite good at communicating about boundaries, even if they do so using veiled language.

Accepting prima facie this idea that claims of sexual harassment result from one person being “awkward” and the other person not giving them the benefit of the doubt is harmful, because it allows predators to use awkwardness as an excuse.

But let’s for a moment grant that some people may genuinely not realize that what they’re doing constitutes sexual harassment. They just have bad social skills or learned all their flirting techniques from Mad Men or read a few too many PUA forums. What now?

Well, here are some ways to tell if your “flirting” is edging into sexual harassment territory. It’s not an exhaustive list, and answering “yes” to some of these questions doesn’t necessarily mean you’re harassing someone. It just means you need to be careful and self-reflective.

  • Is this person someone you’ve never interacted with before?
  • Is your “flirting” overtly sexual (i.e. making explicit comments about their appearance, talking about what you’d like to do with them sexually) even though this person has never expressed sexual interest in you?
  • Are you the one doing most of the talking? Is the other person turning away, looking around for other people, giving you monosyllabic answers?
  • Are you in a position of power or authority relative to the person you’re talking to? Are you a conference speaker or organizer, a well-known person in the community, a manager or supervisor at work?
  • Do you have the ability to create consequences for this person if they don’t return your interest? The question isn’t whether or not you will, because they can’t read your mind. The question is whether or not you can.

Primarily, sexual harassment is not about your intentions. It’s about how others perceive your intentions. Others may perceive your intentions as being creepy or dangerous either because they actually are creepy or dangerous, or because you’re not doing a good job of communicating your intentions. And that’s on you. If you’re concerned that people will misread you as being creepy, communicate! Say, “So, I find you really attractive. Want to come back to my room later? If not, no worries.” And then let them say no.

Good flirting requires being good at reading people–their tone, their body language, their word choice, their facial expression. Some people are not very good at reading people. That’s okay! Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. However, the fact that you have a particular weakness does not mean that it’s other people’s job to deal with and work around that weakness. If your social awkwardness makes people feel uncomfortable and violated, it is your responsibility to change your behavior, either by learning better social skills or by communicating more clearly so that people don’t get the wrong impression of you.

This is why it’s so infuriating to hear people making excuses for themselves or their friends that go like this: “But he’s just really socially awkward; it’s not his fault.” “Give her a break, she’s just kind of a weird person.” No. Give people more credit than that. People can change.

For instance, here are some great resources for people trying to develop their social skills, especially when it comes to flirting and dating:

(Feel free to leave more in the comments.)

It’s not always clear where the line between appropriate and inappropriate flirting lies, but that doesn’t mean the line doesn’t exist. If you’re trying to flirt with someone and you don’t know where that line lies, it’s your responsibility to find out. (“Hey, is it cool that I said you’re really pretty? I can totally stop if it’s weird for you.”) It’s not the other person’s responsibility to alert you once you’ve already crossed it, made them feel unsafe, and ruined their evening.

I think the most difficult thing for people to understand about this is that it’s not about intent. When someone with whom you’re not close starts hitting on you, you can’t possibly know how they will react if you ignore or rebuff their advances. You can’t possibly know if they’re just hitting on you for innocent fun or if they’re going to try to get you in bed by whatever means necessary.

Anyone who blames you for not knowing and refusing to assume good intent is being creepy. They’re saying that not hurting someone’s feelings matters more than keeping yourself safe. It does not.

In any case, consensual, mutually enjoyable flirting is a really fucking awesome thing. Let’s not devalue it by pretending that sexual harassment falls under its umbrella.

~~~

*We are not all, in fact, “sexual beings.”

There’s Nothing “Sad” About Online Sex

Many pearls have been clutched over the actions or inactions of the various women involved in Anthony Weiner’s latest fall from grace (pearls that could’ve really been spared for Weiner himself). Susan Jacoby, with whom I generally agree on things and whom I respect very much, wrote an article for the New York Times that focuses on the motivations that the recipients of Weiner’s photographic gifts had in engaging in these online flirtations with him:

People ask how Mr. Weiner’s wife, the soulfully beautiful and professionally accomplished Huma Abedin, can stay with him. My question is why hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of women apparently derive gratification from exchanging sexual talk and pictures with strangers.

[...]The morality of virtual sex, as long as no one is cheating on a real partner, is not what bothers me. What’s truly troubling about the whole business is that it resembles the substitution of texting for extended, face-to-face time with friends. Virtual sex is to sex as virtual food is to food: you can’t taste, touch or smell it, and you don’t have to do any preparation or work. Sex with strangers online amounts to a diminution, close to an absolute negation, of the context that gives human interaction genuine content. Erotic play without context becomes just a form of one-on-one pornography.

[...]As a feminist, I find it infinitely sad to imagine a vibrant young woman sitting alone at her computer and turning herself into a sex object for a man (or a dog) she does not know — even if she is also turning him into a sex object. Twentieth-century feminism always linked the social progress of women with an expanding sense of self-worth — in the sexual as well as intellectual and professional spheres. A willingness to engage in Internet sex with strangers, however, expresses not sexual empowerment but its opposite — a loneliness and low opinion of oneself that leads to the conclusion that any sexual contact is better than no contact at all.

As a feminist, I find it infinitely sad that many people are still unable to grasp this basic truth: what gets you off is not what gets others off, and vice versa, and that is okay. So Jacoby doesn’t get the appeal of online flirting/sexting. That’s totally fine. But she leaps to huge assumptions about the women who do get the appeal: that they’re turning themselves into sex objects, that they’re “lonely” and have a “low opinion” of themselves, that they’re settling for some substandard type of sexuality.

Actually, if you’ve read anything else by Jacoby, this should not be that surprising. I read her book The Age of American Unreason recently and, although I loved the book overall, learned a lot, and laughed out loud a few times, I was also shocked by how many of her arguments hinged on the notion that digital technology is…not bad, per se, but at the very least problematic in ways that non-digital technologies and mediums are not.

Interestingly, Jacoby also insists firmly that e-books are a failure, and notes that serious readers could never enjoy them. The book was published in 2008, before e-books really got off the ground. Nowadays I know nobody who can afford and access e-books but has chosen not to; although I (and many others) still prefer paper books, the e-book market has definitely exploded and Jacoby’s opposition to them looks a little silly 5 years later.

Anyway, I could write a whole post critiquing Jacoby’s views on technology, so I’ll just say that her take on online sex is not surprising at all. But it suggests a certain empathic blind spot, an inability to see that different folks like different strokes.

These two sentences are the ones I especially disagree with: “What’s truly troubling about the whole business is that it resembles the substitution of texting for extended, face-to-face time with friends. Virtual sex is to sex as virtual food is to food: you can’t taste, touch or smell it, and you don’t have to do any preparation or work.”

The view that online communication is a sad, pathetic attempt to “substitute” artificial interaction for genuine interaction is prevalent in many books and articles about digital technology. Cell phones, texting, iPods, tablets, instant messaging, online forums, blogging, and more have all been accused of being mere “substitutions” for “real” interaction, and virtual sex is clearly cut from the same cloth.

Here’s the thing, though. The several things:

  • Not everyone has access to a supportive, in-person community, including willing sexual partners who are into the things you are into. For most of my college years, I did not.
  • Anything, digital or not, can potentially be used to avoid meaningful human interaction: alcohol, drugs, books, schoolwork, work work, hobbies, exercise. The problem isn’t the medium; it’s the fact that a person feels so isolated from their community or so incapable of connecting to people that they turn to these things instead.
  • Although being physically with people, especially if sex is involved, obviously has huge advantages, interacting with people online also has huge advantages that Jacoby is ignoring, especially for people who are shy or picky. It’s a tradeoff and we should trust adults to be able to make their own decisions about whether those tradeoffs are worth it for them.

I’ll expand on each of those points. First of all, people who clutch pearls about digital technology “replacing” in-person interaction are all going off of the assumption that everyone has in-person interaction to replace to begin with. While it’s sort of a truism that Anyone Can Find Friends If They Just Try, that’s really not the case. The fewer privileges you have, the less you fit into the community you happen to be living in, the less likely it is that you’ll be able to find close, supportive friends and partners in meatspace.

Although I’m very privileged and lucky in many ways, I screwed up my choice of college and ended up somewhere I didn’t fit in at all. For many years, my most meaningful connections with people were online. Those friends kept me sane last summer when even the few friends I had at school were gone. Why should I assume that my fairly shallow-by-comparison meatspace friendships mean more than these close, loving, but far-away friends?

Second, technology can be used unhealthily and/or as a means of avoidance, but so can lots of other things. As a child, I was painfully shy and had a lot of trouble finding common ground with other kids. So I read a lot. And I didn’t even read novels, which might’ve helped me understand people; I read nonfiction about science, mostly. I literally took encyclopedias to birthday parties and read them instead of playing with other kids.

Was I using books to avoid people? Absolutely. Was anyone disturbed by this? Not really, because I wasn’t using the dreaded technology. On the other hand, though, my parents and teachers were probably right to let this fly. I got older, met kids who were as nerdy as I was, and made lots of friends and started dating and gradually became more comfortable with groups of people. Nowadays I’m still an introvert, but a very friendly one who’s fine with public speaking and code-switching and all sorts of other formerly scary things that adults have to do socially.

The point is that it’s not always easy to tell whether or not someone is using something as “avoidance,” but even if they are, that’s between them and their therapist. Jacoby simply leapt to the conclusion that the women who do sexual stuff online are avoiding “real” sex and that they’re “lonely” and have low self-esteem, but there isn’t any data to warrant these conclusions.

Third, Jacoby is only looking at the disadvantages of online sex, not the advantages. This gives her a skewed image of what it’s like. Everyone is, I’m sure, familiar with those disadvantages, so I’ll list some advantages I can think of:

  • It’s much less risky, especially for women who know they’ll get blamed if they’re assaulted while meeting with a partner.
  • It’s possible to interact with partners who don’t live near you.
  • You can try out different sexual personae and identities, which is especially useful for people who are unsure about their sexual orientation or gender identity.
  • You can have the thrill of doing something that’s taboo.
  • It’s easier to schedule than in-person dates.
  • There’s less pressure if you’re shy or unsure what you want.
  • You don’t have to worry about STI transmission or pregnancy.
  • For some people, showing sending nude photos of themselves or being naked in front of a webcam is simply hot, so the technology becomes the actual medium through which arousal happens.

That’s why I think the biggest flaw of this article is that Jacoby didn’t interview anyone. Yes, it’s an op-ed, not a story, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do your research. Had Jacoby asked at least a few people who have sex through technology why they do it, she probably would’ve yielded answers other than “Because I’m lonely” and “Because I have no self-esteem.”

But even if those were the answers, again, the problem isn’t the Internet. The problem is that we do, in fact, live in a society where many people are lonely and have low self-esteem. We should help them. And in the meantime, if meeting sexual partners through the Internet is helping them, why the hell not?

I’m sure, though, that most people who have virtual sex don’t do it because they have no self-esteem. They do it because it’s fun, because it turns them on, because they haven’t met anyone who lives in their area yet, because they don’t want to deal with risky situations, because it lets them be someone other than who they are in person, and any number of other reasons. Human behavior, especially when it comes to sex, is much more complex than Jacoby suggests that it is, especially when you consider that what seems pathetic and sad to one person may be empowering and life-altering to another.

~~~

Cautionary note: none of this is to suggest that all sex is automatically Good and Empowering and Problem-Free just because someone has chosen it. My point is only to push back against the idea that there’s something inherently wrong with/pathetic about online sex. Jacoby may be correct to worry about sexual objectification, but it seems patronizing to me to insist that women who are having a good time are actually objectifying themselves and this is therefore “sad.” A thorny issue, to be sure, that will probably warrant its own post.

The Importance of Centering Consent in Sexual Ethics

[Content note: sexual assault]

A week and a half ago I gave a talk about sex education at the Secular Student Alliance annual conference. In the section on creating a better sex education program, I mentioned that we need to center consent in the way we teach healthy sexuality to kids and teens. Rather than defining “right” and “wrong” in terms of what your religion accepts and what it does not, or what social norms approve and what they do not, we should define right and wrong in terms of what hurts other people and what does not, to put it simplistically. Sexual assault is wrong, then, because it means doing something sexual to someone else without their consent. By this definition, then, homosexuality or premarital sex or polyamory cannot be wrong by default (as long as they are consensual).

It’s become really apparent to me that when most people talk about the ethics of sex, they do not talk about consent.

For instance, premarital sex is wrong because sex is for marriage. Homosexuality is wrong because sex is for straight couples. Polyamory is wrong because sex and relationships should only involve two people.

Even things that are considered unethical from a consent-based point of view, such as pedophilia and bestiality, are often talked about as being wrong because people “shouldn’t” be attracted to children or animals, not because children or animals cannot give consent. The “sick” part of it is that someone could’ve wanted to do that, not that someone disregarded a child’s or an animal’s inability to consent.

To illustrate what I mean, consider one common argument against same-sex marriage: the slippery-slope fallacy that it’ll lead to people marrying and/or having sex with animals. Republican Senator Rand Paul, for instance, recently hinted at this. He claimed that if we start allowing same-sex marriage, then “marriage can be anything.”

No, it can’t.

People like Paul seem to think of sex as one person “taking” something else, that may or may not belong to them. A person of the opposite sex? Sure. A person of the same sex? No. An animal? Hell no. Laws concerning sex and relationships exist to prevent people from “taking” what they’re not supposed to have, based on moral standards we have set as a society.

If Paul switched to a consent-based sexual ethic, then he would realize that there’s absolutely no reason legalized homosexuality would lead to legalized bestiality. Another adult of the same sex is capable of consenting to sex; an animal is not. And that’s that.

Likewise, the conversation around Anthony Weiner’s sexting habits has largely revolved around whether or not it’s “appropriate” for someone in an elected position to be doing such things. Should a politician be sending dirty photos to women? Can we trust a man who cheats on his wife?

At least one of the times that Weiner sexted in the past, the woman did not solicit the photos. They were unsolicited. It was a nonconsensual encounter. That means that Weiner committed sexual harassment.

Accordingly, the problem with what Weiner did is not–or not primarily–that it’s “stupid” for a politician to send dirty photos or that what kind of a perv would even do that. It’s that he imposed himself sexually on someone else without their consent.

And while his latest dalliance appears to have been consensual, the fact that he sexually harassed someone in the past was not something for which he was ever truly held accountable.

Another example. Polyamorous people and/or people in open relationships or marriages are often accused of cheating despite the fact that what they’re doing is not defined as such under the parameters of their own relationships. Recently, the Frisky wrote a story about Brooklyn Nets player Andrei Kirilenko, who has an open marriage with his wife. However, the story framed this as “being allowed to cheat on his wife.”

First of all, that’s nonsensical. If you’re being allowed to cheat, then you’re by definition not cheating. Second, as long as Kirilenko is following the terms that he has set together with his wife and not keeping anything from her that she has requested to know, then he can’t be cheating.

The fact that people so often persist in viewing consensual non-monogamy as “cheating” suggests that they do not center consent. To them, certain things are verboten in relationships no matter what the people in the relationship have and have not consented to. The point, to them, is not that people in relationships should mutually agree on boundaries that work for them; it’s that people in relationships should just not do certain things because those things are wrong for people in relationships to do–such as sleeping with other people.

One final example: BDSM. Although BDSM can be used as a mechanism for abuse, and abusers obviously exist in the BDSM community as they do in any other, there are also plenty of practitioners of consensual, risk-aware BDSM who are happy and healthy through their choices. Yet some people, from sex-negative conservatives to certain feminists, insist on referring to all BDSM collectively as sexual assault, or at least as unhealthy, dangerous, and abusive.

They claim that because BDSM can resemble “real” violence, therefore it is violence and it must be ethically wrong, because hurting another person is wrong. But they divorce the content of a BDSM encounter from its context–a conversation about desires and boundaries, the setting of a safeword, the aftercare that takes place, well, after.

Interestingly, they often restrict this literal interpretation of things to sexual matters only; many people understand that while walking up to a stranger and tackling them is not okay, playing a game of football and tackling an opposing player is okay. They understand that while choking the crap out of a random person is wrong, practicing judo with a fellow judoka is not wrong. The difference is, of course, consent. A football player consents to being tackled; a judo student who shows up to class consents to practicing judo*.

But with sex, for some reason, this ethic falls apart, and many still believe that BDSM is, if not morally wrong, at least a sign of mental sickness or brokenness. (It’s not.) The fact that the participants consent to it, create mechanisms to withdraw consent if necessary, and make sure that everyone feels safe and satisfied afterward seems not to matter.

Failing to center consent in one’s own thinking about sexual ethics is a problem for several reasons. First of all, it conveniently allows for bias, stigma, and discrimination against queer, poly, kinky, and otherwise sexually non-conforming people. It allows people to dismiss others’ lived experiences by naming them something other than the participants themselves wanted it named. Consensual BDSM becomes sexual violence, consensual nonmonogamy becomes cheating, and so on, despite the protests of the people actually doing these things.

Second, painting any sex other than heterosexual monogamous (perhaps married) sex as Bad blurs the lines between consensual and nonconsensual sex and makes it easier for abusers and assaulters to get away with abusing and assaulting. For instance, if teens are taught that all sex before (heterosexual monogamous) marriage is wrong, they have little reason to be suspicious if their first partner manipulates or coerces them, because they know that Sex Before Marriage Is Bad and this must just be the price they have to pay. If people think that having sex with someone other than your spouse is Bad, they may not realize that it’s unreasonable and abusive for their partner to adamantly refuse to tell them anything their other partners, including their STI status.

There are, of course, issues with consent, too. Consent can be coerced or otherwise given non-freely. Viewing all consensual sex as Completely Good obscures the fact that even consensual sex can perpetuate systems of sexism, racism, and so on, no matter how much its participants enjoy it. Consensual sex can, of course, be risky health-wise, and while people are free to choose to contract STIs if that’s what they for whatever reason want to do, their other partners and their children do not always have that choice.

However, consent can be a great framework for sorting out what is definitely ethically wrong, and what is not. Consensual sex may not be flawless, but nonconsensual sex is absolutely not okay. The examples I provided–of bestiality, of sexting, of open marriages, and of BDSM–show that basing sexual ethics on consent works better than basing it on oughts and shoulds.

~~~

* The sports examples here are also good examples of the limitations of consent that I mentioned. A judo student who feels pressured to engage in exercises they’re not comfortable with isn’t really consenting. A football player who isn’t informed of the traumatic and permanent physical consequences that football can have on the body isn’t really consenting either. Sports, like sex, can promote racism, homophobia, and all sorts of other crappy things.

What We Write About When We Write About Hookups

Every few months the New York Times (or another similarly-positioned publication) prints an article about how Women These Days Are Having Casual Sex And It’s Ruining Things. The articles are often framed just progressively enough to get progressives to eagerly share them over social media because anything about casual sex that’s not from Fox News must be interesting, right?

No. It’s the same story over and over, and it misrepresents what casual sex is really like.

First of all, only a certain type of woman is ever interviewed. The newest offering from the NYT starts out: “At 11 on a weeknight earlier this year, her work finished, a slim, pretty junior–”

Stop right there. Why are they always “slim” and “pretty”? Why are they always middle-/upper-class? Why are they always white? In fact, why are these stories only ever written about women, and not about men? How do men feel about casual sex? (You might think the answer is obvious, but that’s just because you haven’t talked to enough men.)

In fact, interviewing a more diverse group of people might provide insights about hookups that are more profound than “sometimes skinny hot girls have casual sex.” For instance, Black and Latina women are sexualized–presumed to be “overly” sexual–based on their race. How do they view casual sex? Asian and Indian American women are desexualized–presumed to have little independent sexuality–based on their race. How do they view casual sex?

Poor women are sometimes sexualized, too, and they also face more challenges if their hookups lead to STIs, pregnancy, or sexual assault. How do they view casual sex?

Disabled women are presumed to have no sex drive, but they do. How do they view casual sex? How do they overcome the stereotypes that people have about them?

Fat women are stigmatized by many people, and also fetishized by some. They’re expected to be “grateful” for any sex they can get. How do they view casual sex?

Older women who still want casual sex are looked down upon because this is something that “kids these days” do. They’re expected to be married with children already. How do they view casual sex?

Queer women are often considered either promiscuous or sexless, depending on how people have categorized them. Asexual women, when they are even recognized to exist, are assumed not to want any sex ever for any reason. Do some of them have casual sex? How do they experience it? Trans* women face a unique set of challenges when it comes to finding partners. Do they feel pressure to out themselves to potential partners? Do their partners ever view them as not “really” women?

Polyamorous women may have only casual sex, but they may also have a committed partner, too. They may have several committed partners. They may have a committed partner and a few friends that they hook up with. What’s casual sex like when you get to come home to your spouse afterward?

Isn’t this all a lot more interesting, relevant, and important than interviewing the same types of women over and over?

One might argue that there are separate articles written about sex from the perspective of these types of women. But how come, when we talk about “hookups” in general, we’re always talking about straight/white/thin/attractive/well-off/able-bodied women? Why are women who don’t fit into these categories relegated to other articles, ones that don’t get published in places like the NYT and the Atlantic?

Furthermore, these articles generally present the same narrative about how and why people have casual sex. From the one linked above:

Ask her why she hasn’t had a relationship at Penn, and she won’t complain about the death of courtship or men who won’t commit. Instead, she’ll talk about “cost-benefit” analyses and the “low risk and low investment costs” of hooking up.

“I positioned myself in college in such a way that I can’t have a meaningful romantic relationship, because I’m always busy and the people that I am interested in are always busy, too,” she said.

“And I know everyone says, ‘Make time, make time,’ ” said the woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity but agreed to be identified by her middle initial, which is A. “But there are so many other things going on in my life that I find so important that I just, like, can’t make time, and I don’t want to make time.”

I absolutely do not doubt that some people, perhaps including this “A,” really do conduct a “cost-benefit analysis” to determine what types of relationships to have. However, based on everything I know about the way we make decisions, I’ll say that that’s not usually how it works. Usually, we make decisions based on emotions, and then we come up with post-hoc rationalizations for those decisions. Often this happens subconsciously.

A previous NYT trend piece on casual sex, meanwhile, blamed hookup culture on the fact that people just don’t know how to do anything different:

Many students today have never been on a traditional date, said Donna Freitas, who has taught religion and gender studies at Boston University and Hofstra and is the author of the forthcoming book, “The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused About Intimacy.”

Hookups may be fine for college students, but what about after, when they start to build an adult life? The problem is that “young people today don’t know how to get out of hookup culture,” Ms. Freitas said. In interviews with students, many graduating seniors did not know the first thing about the basic mechanics of a traditional date. “They’re wondering, ‘If you like someone, how would you walk up to them? What would you say? What words would you use?’ ” Ms. Freitas said.

Predictably, that piece also blames technology:

Online dating services, which have gained mainstream acceptance, reinforce the hyper-casual approach by greatly expanding the number of potential dates. Faced with a never-ending stream of singles to choose from, many feel a sense of “FOMO” (fear of missing out), so they opt for a speed-dating approach — cycle through lots of suitors quickly.

That also means that suitors need to keep dates cheap and casual. A fancy dinner? You’re lucky to get a drink.

So, young people have casual sex because their cost-benefit analyses have told them that it’s more optimal than relationships. Or because they don’t know how to not have casual sex. Or because the evil technology makes them.

What’s missing from this picture?

Many people have casual sex because that’s what they want to do.

This is a story you never seem to find in the NYT. You’ll have to go to blogs for it, probably because it wouldn’t play well to the NYT’s audience. One of my favorite pieces along this vein is from xoJane and it’s called “I Used To Give Out Sex Like Gold Star Stickers (And I’m Glad I Did).” While I’m a little weirded out by the metaphor of “giving” sex like some sort of reward (different strokes for different folks, though), I can really relate to the basic message of the piece. For instance:

Several years ago, on a long walk through the English countryside, Lucy and I were struggling to define our sexual standards. We weren’t wait-until-marriage types, or even wait-until-exclusivity. Yet neither of us would say we did much in the way of soulless jolly-grinding.

We were somewhere in between: we had sex with friends we liked and trusted, almost as a prize for being awesome. It was our seal of approval: “You’re an attractive and accomplished person, and I admire you. Congratulations! Gold star for you.”

Gold Star Sticker Sex is the opposite of no-strings-attached. It’s shared in the same way you might have shared a deep, dark secret in high school…or one of those BE FRI/ST ENDS necklaces in 2nd grade. It’s not a romantic commitment, but nevertheless, it comes from a loving place — a desire to enhance intimacy.

You will never find this type of sex in the NYT trend pieces. There, sex is of only two kinds: Meaningful and Committed, or Meaningless and Casual. But why can’t casual sex be meaningful, affectionate, intimate? Why does casual sex need to be with someone you don’t like “in person, sober,” as A says in the latest piece? Why can’t it be with someone you’re close with and adore, but just don’t want a serious relationship with for any number of reasons?

I think I know why these pieces always interview women. They think they’re reporting on some new and edgy phenomenon (they’re not) or writing about it in a new and edgy way (they’re not), but they’re actually repeating the same tired narrative about women and sex.

Namely, women don’t really want casual sex. They do it because those stupid shallow guys don’t want anything else. They do it because they don’t know what’s good for them. They do it because they’re too tragically busy for meaningful human connections. They do it because they have conducted a cost-benefit analysis, the results of which have determined that a relationship would not be optimal at this time; the marginal utility of casual sex is greater than the marginal utility of a relationship. They do it because they don’t know how to do anything different.

But they don’t really, really want it.

Casual sex is meaningless. Casual sex makes you feel empty inside. Casual sex makes you forget how to have a Real Relationship. Casual sex leads to rape. Casual sex is unfulfilling. Casual sex is cold and calculating (see: cost-benefit analysis). Casual sex is no way for a woman to live.

If you think this is an original idea, you’re quite wrong.

I’m not sure that these reporters deliberately set out to write this story over and over like so many Sisyphuses with their boulders. I’m not a professional journalist, but I spent a year studying to be one, and I remember what it’s like to try to collect interviews and assemble them into a coherent narrative. To be specific: the interviews that felt out of place, that couldn’t be woven into that narrative, were left out.

A college woman telling you that she’s had opportunities for relationships but turned them down because casual sex is just too fun and fulfilling would not “fit in.” A 40-year-old woman telling you that her loving husband doesn’t care if she’s out hooking up with someone else a few nights a week would not “fit in.” And, for that matter, a young man telling you that he’s having casual sex not because HORMONES but because he’d like to figure out what he’s looking for in a partner wouldn’t fit in either, because men are only supposed to have casual sex because their penishormones make them.

We need to change the way we talk about casual sex. It needs to be more inclusive, both of people and of narratives. Writing the exact same story again isn’t just boring; it’s bad journalism.

~~~

Further reading:

“Women Just Want Men To Take Control.”

[Content note: sex/BDSM]

One trope I often hear about women’s sexuality is that “women just want men to take control.”1 I encounter this everywhere–in pickup artist how-to’s, in pop psychology articles, in Cosmo magazines, in Sigmund Freud’s theories. At its best, it’s a harmless meme that simply reflects the gender roles that our society has. But at its worst, it’s rape apologetics.

In a rather old Newsweek piece, Katie Roiphe (she who claims that date rape is just bad sex that you regret) uses the 50 Shades of Grey series and the TV show Girls as evidence that, well, women just want men to take control. She also goes on to make a terrible argument that the reason women just want men to take control is that they have too much power in the workplace now, or something. (She also seems to think that the reason people are ashamed of these fantasies is because Feminism Has Gone Too Far, not because, newsflash: non-vanilla sexuality is really stigmatized, and so is all sexuality, actually.)

Anyway, I could write multiple articles about why this piece by Roiphe pissed me off so much a year ago and continues to piss me off, but for now I will focus on one reason: her implicit assertion that women ultimately just want to be dominated.

Some women want men to take control. Some women don’t want men to take control. Some women want men to take control, but only under certain circumstances. Some women want men to take control, but only in their fantasies. And some women aren’t interested in having sex with men at all. And that’s important to point out, because when you say things like “women want men to be X/do Y in bed,” you’re completely ignoring the fact that some women don’t give a single flying fuck about what men do in bed.

First of all, statements like “Women just want men to take control” are wrong because, well, plenty of women don’t. I don’t have the statistics on me, but any cursory conversation with women who trust you enough to talk about their sex lives will reveal plenty of these mythical women. And no, don’t say that they’re “not being honest with themselves” or “just don’t realize what they really want.”2 Yes, people are, at best, mediocre judges of their own selves. But they sure know themselves better than you do!

Second, now that we’ve established that some unspecified percentage of women don’t want to be dominated: even if there are many women who want men to be dominant in bed, that still doesn’t excuse not asking. Many women also like oral sex, but that doesn’t mean they want it ALL THE TIME AT EVERY MOMENT THEY’RE WITH YOU. Ask! And it doesn’t have to be something like “Do you grant me permission to forcibly hold you against the wall while I remove your clothing without your aid and perform acts of my own choosing upon your sexual organs?” It can be, “I really want to take control tonight. Is there anything you don’t want me to do? Just say [safeword] if you want me to stop.” Better yet, though, would be to talk about this beforehand, at some point when you’re not naked or about to be, and ask your partner if they’re interested in this and what boundaries they have about it.

The reason this is important, aside from the consent part, is that we use the words “dominant” or “take control” to mean many different things. For some people, “take control” may just mean initiating everything that happens that night, choosing what stuff you do, being on top, etc. For some people, “take control” may mean tying their partner up and shackling them to the bed and doing whatever they want to/with them unless and until they say the safeword. And for some people, “take control” means that your partner is your 24/7 slave who does absolutely anything, sexual or otherwise, that you demand. If you’re someone who uses the former definition while your partner uses one of the other definitions, you might find yourself having an unpleasant miscommunication unless you talk about these things.

And that brings me to my third point: even if you’re 100% sure that your partner wants you to “take control,” you don’t know what they want that to look like until you ask. If you don’t ask and just do and happen to do something they want, good for you. But most likely you’ll do something they don’t want, which means they’ll be bored, annoyed, or even upset and violated.

Fourth, even if your partner wants you to take control, and even if you do happen to be on the same page about what you want, getting explicit consent is still a really good idea. Why? Because it sends the message that you care about your partner’s comfort and agency.

As one of those infamous women who want their male partners to be dominant almost all of the time, I’ll tell you this: I would be appalled, disgusted, and turned off if a partner just assumed that I want them to be in control and started doing it without having asked me or heard from me that this is what I want. Of course, it’s different with long-term partners because they know each other’s quirks and desires, but if we’re just starting out, you’d fucking better ask first. If you don’t, I might enjoy it at the time, but I’ll be left with the really uncomfortable feeling that you actually didn’t really care whether I wanted to do that or not. These tend to be the people I do not see again, because I can’t trust them not to cross my boundaries in the future.

Sure, they got lucky: they didn’t get explicit consent, but it turns out I wanted to do that anyway. But what about when they fail to get explicit consent for something I don’t want to do? How are they going to know what I want to do and what I don’t? Why should it be my responsibility to stop them from doing things I don’t want once they start to do them, rather than their responsibility to ask first?

Fifth, what Katie Roiphe and others who try to understand Women’s Sexuality from romance stories fail to grasp is that sometimes fantasies are just fantasies. Many people think that if you fantasize and get off to something, that must mean that that is Who You Really Are Sexually and you must want to act out that fantasy ASAP. Actually, no. (Sometimes I hesitate to tell partners about fantasies because then they’re immediately like OH OKAY LET’S DO THAT I’LL GO TO THE SEX STORE AND BUY THAT THING when I might not actually want to.) But there are plenty of valid reasons you might choose not to do something no matter how hot it is to think about: it’s unsafe, you have physical limitations or disabilities that make it impossible, you’re worried about how it’ll make you feel, you can’t afford to buy something that you’d need for it, you don’t really want to do it with any of the partners you currently have, you don’t want to go through the hassle of negotiating it, you don’t think it would be as fun in real life and you’d rather just keep it as a nice thing to think about, and so on.

Finally, another thing that Katie Roiphe et al. don’t get is that women who have fantasies about submission aren’t necessarily having them for some reason like Men These Days Aren’t Aggressive Enough or Women Have Too Much Power In The Workplace And Feel Too Powerful. I can think of many reasons fantasies about submission might be fun. Submitting to someone requires a degree of trust that many find sexy. The idea of being so into someone that you’re willing to let them control you is a powerful idea to many people. Submitting means being vulnerable, exposing yourself, and some people find that hot. There’s also something about relinquishing control that’s comforting–especially, I might add, to women, who often find themselves stigmatized for being dominant and upfront about their sexuality. Being dominated is a way to enjoy sex without having to open yourself up to the possibility of being shamed for expressing your desires.

On that note, it’s important to recognize that the reason we’re seeing all these stories about female submission but not male submission is not an accident. It is extremely taboo for men to express a desire to submit to a female partner–perhaps even more taboo than it is for women to want to dominate. If someone wrote Fifty Shades of Grey with the gender roles reversed, would any man want to be caught reading that book?

But men who want to be submissive, sometimes or all of the time, are not rare. If you date men and you’re open-minded and supportive of your partners’ sexualities, you have probably met them. If you are Katie Roiphe and you spew outdated gender stereotypes like a broken toilet spews…you-know-what, then men are very unlikely to “come out” as submissive to you.

I think that the dismantling of gender roles would bring about an increase in the number of men who are openly submissive, and an increase in the number of women who are openly dominant. But dominant men and submissive women would obviously still exist, because playing with power can be fun.

The science of sexual desire is still quite nascent, so we don’t really know what actually causes people to like what they like in bed. But, honestly, I don’t know that we’ll ever be able to figure out, and that doesn’t really bother me. The most important thing is to not make assumptions about what someone likes based on their gender, or based on anything else. As humans, we have been gifted with the ability to communicate our desires clearly rather than relying on clumsy guesswork. Let’s use that ability.
~~~

1 When I typed this phrase into my phone at like 3 AM one night to remind myself to write this blog post, I initially typed “men just want women to take control” by accident. HMMM.

2 Remind me to write another piece about why people who claim that others are “not being honest with themselves” or “just don’t realize what they really want” really creep me out and raise a bunch of red flags.

Touching People Without Their Consent: Still A Problem Even If It’s Not Sexual

Since I’m always blathering on about consent, including consent in non-sexual situations, I’ve noticed a common belief that a lot of people have. It can basically be summed up like so:

  • If you’re interacting with someone sexually, you need their consent. (Duh.)
  • If you’re interacting with someone of the gender to which you’re generally attracted (i.e. you’re a straight man interacting with a woman), you should be careful and get their consent before you touch them.
  • BUT! If you’re interacting with someone of a gender to which you’re not attracted, or you’re interacting with a family member or a friend and so the situation is, in any case, “not sexual,” THEN you don’t need their consent and you should feel free to hug them, touch them on the shoulder, or even grope them “as a joke.”

The reason this is on my mind right now are two articles, and my life in general.

One article is by Ginny over on the Polyskeptic blog. She recounts a disturbing incident in which another woman wanted to get a better look at the tattoo on the back of Ginny’s shoulder and proceeded to lift up the strap of her tank top in order to do so–without consent. A man nearby told the woman off, but she responded that it’s “just the shoulder” and “I just really like tattoos.” And then:

But something the guy said, or maybe just the way I was sitting there rigidly instead of turning around to engage in friendly conversation made the woman realize she was maybe being a tad inappropriate, so she let go of my clothes and patted me soothingly on the arm and said some half-apologetic patter. To which I didn’t really respond because I was still in my “I am so weirded out right now and your soothing pat is STILL YOU TOUCHING ME” frozen zone. And I think by this point she got that I was really uncomfortable, so she broke out the magic words to make it all better: “It’s okay honey, I didn’t mean anything by it, I mean, I like men, ha ha.”

She didn’t realize that which gender(s) she happens to be attracted to is completely irrelevant.

The other piece is on Role/Reboot, and is written by a gay man who witnessed the following scene:

Last Thursday night as I was coming home from work, I noticed a fellow gay man who I have seen around Washington, D.C., at various nightclubs and bars. As we both entered onto the metro, we sat in seats relatively close to a young woman. The woman, who appeared tired, smiled at both of us and put headphones in her ears. In D.C., this is usually a plea to subtly ask someone to allow you to reach your destination in peace without being disturbed. Since I understood this unwritten transit rule, I respected it and pulled out an article to read. Unfortunately, my brethren took this as an invitation to engage in a one-way conversation.

Slowly moving into the seat next to her—despite no one else occupying his space—he began touching her clothing and body and commenting on the “fit” of her dress. Then he proceeded to touch her hair since he “loved how long her locks were” and “wished he had hair like hers.” Unamused by his male privilege and what he considered to be compliments, she politely said thank you and asked if he could quit touching her.

Obviously not appreciating this young’s woman rejection of his “compliments,” he immediately referred to her as a “bitch,” and told her “it’s not like I want to have sex with you—I’m gay.”

Of course, women are not the only victims of this. On the June 14 episode of Citizen Radio, Jamie Kilstein recounts a scene he witnessed on the subway in which two white women–clearly tourists–sat next to a Black man who had headphones on. They tried to talk to him, but he either didn’t hear or ignored them (reasonable in New York City). So one of the women put her hand on his knee and made a comment about it being a “tight squeeze” on the subway, and he immediately responded, “Don’t touch me.” There didn’t seem to be anything sexual about the situation, but that doesn’t make the woman’s behavior any less inappropriate. (While I don’t want to read too much into this, it definitely makes me think about the entitlement that many white people feel to touch Black people, especially their hair.)

A slightly different but similar thing happens with friends and family. People–especially children–are often shamed and guilt-tripped for choosing not to show physical affection for family members, even ones they do not know well or necessarily feel comfortable around. The assumption here is that being someone’s family member entitles you to physical affection from them, just like being someone’s partner entitles you to sex from them. While plenty of people hold one of these assumptions but not the other (generally the first but not the second), they are cut from the same cloth. And that cloth is the belief that social ties entail a duty to provide physical affection, and that if you do not provide it, you are being a bad friend/child/sibling/partner/etc.

How does this relate to the three stories I linked to? Well, many people apparently believe that once you take sexual attraction out of the equation, there’s absolutely no reason for someone to be uncomfortable with being touched (in nonsexual ways). If a gay man sits next to me on the train and starts touching me, I have to be okay with that because he’s not interested in me that way. If a straight woman starts lifting up my clothes to see parts of my body that I covered up, I have to be okay with that because she’s not interested in me that way. If a family member wants a hug and a kiss from me, I have to provide them because, well, obviously it’s not “like that.”

(False, by the way. While I am fortunate to never have experienced incest, plenty of people have.)

For starters, I’m really glad that some people have realized that you shouldn’t touch strangers without their consent if there’s a possibility that you’re sexually attracted to those strangers. But why can’t we expand that to people of all genders, whether you’re attracted to them or not?

There are plenty of reasons why someone might be uncomfortable with being touched, regardless of the sexual orientation of the person touching them. Some people have triggers as a result of past trauma. Some people just don’t know your intentions because they don’t know you or your sexual orientation, so they don’t know if you’re a friendly stranger expressing physical affection because…I don’t know, you like to do that? or if you’re someone who intends to harass and/or assault them. And, most importantly, some people–many people, I’m sure–just want to be left the hell alone by strangers. Sometimes being touched by someone you don’t know is just unpleasant, scary, and uncomfortable.

Furthermore, if we accept “but I’m not even into [your gender]” as an excuse for nonconsensual touching by well-meaning folks, that also leaves it open as an excuse for actual predators to use.

Your desire to touch someone sexually or nonsexually for whatever reason does not outweigh their desire not to be touched. It doesn’t matter why they don’t want to be touched; that’s their business. Just like you wouldn’t touch a bag or a purse that belongs to someone else, don’t touch a body that belongs to someone else–which, by definition, is every body except your own.