Victoria’s Secret Doesn’t Actually “Love Consent,” But It Should

What sex-positive underwear could look like. (source)

This morning I discovered that Victoria’s Secret has a new line of underwear. It’s called “Pink Loves Consent” and features slogans like “Let’s talk about sex,” “No means no,” “Ask first,” and “Consent is sexy.” The models on the website have all kinds of different body types and they’re not all white.

I immediately loved the new line but was skeptical. After all, this is Victoria’s Secret, which is known for its cultural appropriationegregious use of Photoshop, and portrayal of women as always willing and sexually available.

Of course, it was too good to be true. “Pink Loves Consent” is a hoax.

A feminist group called FORCE took credit for the hoax and wrote:

We are so sorry to tell young women that Victoria’s Secret is not using its voice to create the change you need to grow up safe and free from sexual violence. Victoria’s Secret is not using its brand to promote consent. They are not promoting consent to their 4.5 million “PINK nation” members, to the 500,000 facebook fans or the estimated 10 million viewers who will be watching tonight’s fashion show. But what a different world would it be if they did?  What if consent and communication showed up in the bedroom as much as push-up bras and seamless thongs?

Indeed, the website for the fake line is a vision for what a socially responsible business could look like, particularly when it’s targeted at women. Even though the focus is marketing the (fake) underwear, there’s a section about what consent is and how to talk about sex. The website cleverly embeds a serious message in a fun and youthful image, proving that feminism doesn’t have to always be super-serious and that you can create a compelling product without reinforcing problematic crap like rape culture. The models are glowing and happy and serve as a reminder that it’s not just skinny white women who need to buy underwear. It’s, you know, everyone.

The website also points out the ways in which Victoria Secret’s actual slogans promote rape culture, which is the section that should probably have immediately tipped me off that this is fake. Of VS’s “No Peeking” panty, the site notes that messages like that make “no” seem like a flirty thing to say–a mere step along the road to sex. And, in fact, how often do sexual scripts in movies, TV shows, and books fetishize a woman’s initial refusal and make it seem “sexy” when the man (always a man, obviously) eventually overcomes that refusal?

The other slogan it critiques is “Sure Thing,” printed over the front of a pair of underwear, as though access to what’s underneath it is a guarantee. Does it actually incite rape? I highly doubt it. But is it creepy and unsettling? Definitely. It’s a sign of how we think about women’s bodies and how sexually available they’re supposed to be.

One could argue that Victoria’s Secret is too easy or facile of a target. Perhaps. But it’d be so easy for it to actually create a line like this fake one, and, in fact, a spokesperson told Jezebel that the company is “looking into it.” Given how positive the response has been, they’d be silly not to.

In their Tumblr post, the organizers of the hoax write:

We’re not about taking Victoria’s Secret down.  We are about changing the conversation. The sexiness that is being sold to women by Victoria’s Secret is not actually about sex. It is not how to have sex, relationships or orgasms. It in an IMAGE of what it is to be sexy. So while we are sold cleavage, white teeth, clear skin and perfect hair no one is asking us how our bodies feel and what we desire. Victoria’s Secret owns the image of female sexuality, instead of women owning their own sexuality.

They also note that consent needs to become a “mainstream” idea, just like condoms did in response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. As a sex educator, I can attest to the fact that even condoms aren’t yet as mainstream as they should be (and perhaps they can’t be, given how inaccessible they are to certain groups of people). However, given how many people still don’t realize that consent does not merely mean the absence of a “no,” there’s still a long way to go.

(For the record, there’s a good criticism to be made of the whole “consent is sexy” concept, but that’s a topic for another post.)

Victoria’s Secret and its slogans are a ridiculously tiny slice of the rape culture pie, sure. But if a company as large and influential as VS were to make consent part of its product and part of the conversation, it would make a difference.

“Women just need to learn to say no.”

[Content note: sexual assault]

Every time people talk about coercive sex–you know, the kind where someone manipulates someone into having sex with them as opposed to physically forcing them–the concern trolls come out in droves.

“You can’t expect men* to only ask once!” they prattle. “Women* just need to learn how to keep saying no! It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there! If you don’t learn how to stand up for yourself you’ll get screwed over!”

The asterisks are there because these Very Concerned Individuals never seem to realize that sex doesn’t just happen between men and women. Neither do they realize that men aren’t the only ones who rape, and women aren’t the only ones who sometimes have trouble repeatedly saying no. But since these are the objections that they continually spew forth, these are the objections I will have to address.

Here’s an Imperfect Analogy™. If everyone were trained in self-defense, we would be able to prevent the majority of muggings and “stranger” rapes (except perhaps the ones involving weapons, but let’s ignore that for a moment). After all, just about anyone, regardless of body type and fitness level, can learn how to defend themselves with a trained instructor. Got a physical disability? Just get over it. Get panicky when you have to fight? You’re a pansy. There’s no need to discourage mugging and assault because people should just learn self-defense. And if you don’t learn self-defense, well, you’re not taking responsibility for yourself and it’s not our job to keep you from getting yourself mugged or assaulted.

It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, after all.

The ability to say “no” over and over despite wheedling, manipulation, and implied threat is not that different from the ability to disarm an attacker, target vulnerable body parts, or block a punch.

That is, the ability to defend yourself emotionally is not that different from the ability to defend yourself physically. We are not born knowing how to do either of those things.

Furthermore, just as some people have physical disabilities that prevent them from being able to fight off an attacker, some people–many people, in fact–have mental disorders that make it difficult for them to say “no” over and over. Just as some people panic and freeze rather than fighting back, some people are terrified by unceasing social pressure and do whatever they can to make the pressure stop–even if that means relenting to it.

This is not consent.

This. Is. Not. Consent.

Now, here’s where the analogy breaks down. Humans are psychologically wired to give in to social pressure. It makes sense, because acquiescing to the demands of others–especially others who are stronger than you–helps groups and societies run smoothly. The amount of research evidence for this is astounding, which is why I think everyone should be required to take a psychology 101 class. Stanley Milgram famously showed that most people are willing even to cause extreme pain to someone just because a person in a position of power is telling them to.

How is this relevant to (heterosexual) sexual encounters? Because men typically hold the reins. Men buy drinks and dinner, men invite women on dates, men initiate sex. Men are usually physically stronger. Women are likely to see their male partners as being in a position of power. And understand that this isn’t really a conscious thing–most women don’t think, “Gee, this guy has social and physical power over me, so I’d better do what he says.” It’s subtle. Subconscious. It sometimes makes “no” the hardest thing in the world to say.

And about buying drinks and dinner. This activates what psychologists call the norm of reciprocity. When someone does something nice for you–even if you didn’t ask for it–you may feel a strong urge to do something nice for them, especially if they’re asking you too. Lots of salespeople use this to their advantage, and it doesn’t surprise me at all that our dating system is set up this way.

Add to this a culture that claims, over and over, that a woman’s agency means little. Think of that “romantic” scene in The Amazing Spiderman, when Peter ropes Gwen in with his web and essentially forces her to kiss him. Think of the movie (500) Days of Summer, in which Tom uses a different type of coercion–he repeatedly badgers Summer for a relationship even though she’s told him many times that she’s not looking for one. Think of that Yale fraternity’s infamous chant, “No means yes, yes means anal.” Think of pickup artist (PUA) subculture, which literally teaches men how to coerce women into sex. Think of the expectation that a girl who’s asked to a high school prom by a guy sleeps with him afterwards.

Think of the irony of teaching women that they shouldn’t say no while demanding that they learn how to “take responsibility for themselves” by saying it.

And remember that many women–especially (and tragically) those who have already experienced sexual assault–make the assumption that “consenting” to sex is better than taking the risk of having it forced on you. If someone won’t take “no” for an answer, relenting may seem like the safer option. Remember that. Remember that this is not consent.

It’s absolutely true that women (and anyone else) can learn how to override their psychology and stand up to social pressure. But it’s true in the same way that it’s true that they can learn self-defense. It takes a long time–years, maybe–and lots of effort. It probably requires working with a professional or at least reading some useful books on the subject. You can’t just wake up one morning and “choose” to have a new personality.

And yet, that’s never what these concern trolls actually say. There is no advice about getting a therapist or improving your confidence. There is no acknowledgement that these things are difficult and take time. There is no compassion. There is only “Yeah well, she needs to learn how to say no. Not his fault she was such a pushover.”

That’s how I know that none of this is really about your supposed “concern” for these women. If you refuse to condemn people who use coercion and instead condemn people who allow themselves to be coerced, you are, to put it bluntly, on the wrong side.

In that case, here’s a challenge for you. Why is it so important to you that people be permitted by our social conventions to pressure, manipulate, and coerce each other into doing things–sometimes deeply personal and vulnerable things? Why do you insist that women can just magically “grow a backbone,” but that men can’t just stop coercing them?

And if the reason is that you think you’re being “realistic” and “pragmatic” because “things will never change anyway,” then I challenge you to direct fewer of your efforts at blaming victims of sexual assault, and more of them at actually fighting sexual assault.

Putting the burden on others to resist your attempts to get your way–rather than putting the burden on yourself to leave unwilling people alone–is deeply unethical. It is selfish. It prioritizes your desires over the needs of others.

No means no. A single no means no just as much as five of them do. We should only need to say it once.

Guess What: Rape’s Not Funny When the Victim is a Man, Either

[Content note: sexual assault]

I know Jezebel is low-hanging fruit, but I can’t resist picking apart their new “Sexytime Dilemmas” column and its endorsement of sexual assault, which apparently is okay when the target is a man.

One of the letter-writers wants to know how to get a guy to try anal play. Jezebel’s “sexpert” responds (TW for sexual assault):

If you want this to work you’re going to have to be very delicate, and take things slowly. No one wants a dry finger shoved up their butt at random. In my experience, guys are generally more open to new concepts, and trying out new things, when you have their dick in your mouth. (This is because fellatio slows their brain down to a point of temporary retardation, which means their guard is down.)

…So, while you’re sucking, start playing with his balls and then slowly move moving your fingers back in the desired direction. Be conscious of how he’s responding to your touch. If he flinches as soon as you start poking around in that area, that’s not a good sign, but don’t give up hope just yet. Wait a minute or so, then do something fancy with your tongue to distract him and try again, rubbing lightly around the outside of the hole, as not to scare it….Basically, never give up and remember that with a little perseverance you can do anything you put your mind to, Susie!

I’ll say it several times since apparently people still don’t get it:

This is sexual assault.

This is sexual assault.

This is sexual assault.

I’ll let the much-more-talented Rebecca Watson explain this further, along with the many other ways in which that Jezebel post is horrible. For now, I want to address the assertion–which I’ve seen a few self-identified feminists make–that this piece is somehow “funny” because “humor” and “satire” and “lol rape against men.”

First of all, blindly regurgitating problematic crap is not satire, and it’s not any other kind of humor, either. Just as it wasn’t funny when Daniel Tosh said, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, five guys right now?”, it’s not funny to be like, “LOLOL JUST STICK A FINGER UP HIS ASS WITHOUT CONSENT LOL.” And that’s basically what this piece is saying.

Now, if sexual assault of men were extremely rare, to the point of being unheard of, I can see how this might be funny. Sometimes, creating a satirical world–in which something that seems ludicrous in real life is commonplace–is humorous. That sort of role reversal inspired a play I saw recently, Venus Envy, which depicted a world in which men, not women, were the “weaker sex.” This type of satire points out problems in our society that are so entrenched that we take them for granted.

But this is not the case for sexual assault of men. Men are less likely than women to be raped, yes, but it’s not that rare. Men also face unique barriers in admitting and prosecuting sexual assault–from the perception that they “can’t” be raped to the victim-blamey belief that they ought to be able to defend themselves. Knowing that the hypothetical man in the article would receive very little support from others if he accused his female partner of violating him–knowing, in fact, that he may have internalized the “men can’t get raped” myth to the point that he wouldn’t even have the words to talk about what had happened–it’s just not funny to me.

As another (much better) Jezebel article once pointed out, it’s quite possible to joke about rape. Since the article was in response to the Tosh incident, it’s mostly talking about standup comedy, but it’s still relevant:

So, comics. This doesn’t mean that everyone is obligated to be the savior of mankind. You can be edgy and creepy and offensive and trivial and, yes, you can talk about rape. Doing comedy in front of a silent room is scary, and shocking people is a really easy way to get a reaction. But if you want people to not hate you (and wanting to not be hated is not the same thing as wanting to be liked), you should probably try and do it in a responsible, thoughtful way. Easy shortcut: DO NOT MAKE RAPE VICTIMS THE BUTT OF THE JOKE.

Do not make rape victims the butt of the joke.

It’s not funny when they’re female, and it’s equally not-funny when they’re male.

After I read the Sexytime Dilemmas article, I participated in a few online discussions about it and I found numerous (female) feminists who found it funny–and who openly admitted that they wouldn’t find it funny if the genders were flipped. And I felt sickened.

Yes, women are more likely than men to be sexually assaulted. But how on earth does that statistical fact make it any less tragic when a man is assaulted? Is the fact that it’s less likely supposed to make it more palatable somehow?

I don’t think so.

I am reminded of this wonderful post in which the author screams, “My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit!”

My feminism will concern itself with all rape victims or it will be bullshit.

My feminism will care about the ways in which men are harmed by patriarchy or it will be bullshit.

My feminism may not devote equal time to men’s issues as it does to women’s issues, but it will show compassion for all genders, or it will be bullshit.

Oh, and for heaven’s sake: if you want to try something sexual with someone, communicate and get consent.

How to Have Sex Like They Do in the Movies

My recent post on consent got me thinking about how open communication about sex isn’t just important because it establishes consent, but also because it’s what makes sex great.

A man meets a woman–it’s always a man and a woman.

He is tall and handsome–she, thin and beautiful.

He cracks a witty pickup line with a confident smile, and she laughs and moves in closer.

Some amount of time passes–the amount depends on the kind of movie this is–and finally they are alone, almost always in his apartment. Without much (or any) invitation on her part, and without any prior discussion of matters sexual, the man kisses the woman, who responds passionately as though she’d been waiting for this very moment the whole time. They have sex. Few if any words are ever exchanged. But the sex is awesome anyway. It’s like they’ve been searching for each other their whole lives.

Does this ever actually happen? I mean, really, does it?

…not really.

Seriously. Observe a moment of silence for that script. Give it a eulogy. Stop searching for it.

I mean, I guess you don’t have to. If you dedicate your whole life to the search, you may eventually come across a person with whom you fit like two adjacent puzzle pieces, just like that. A person who just happens to share your favorite sex positions, who gives head just the way you like to receive it, who loves to be tied up while you love to do the tying (or vice versa), who feels ready for increasing intimacy at the exact same pace you do, who doesn’t have any triggers or STIs that you might need to discuss first, who shares your fetishes, who comes the easiest from whatever it is you already love to do most. A person who can do and be all this, without ever having to talk about any of it with you.

You might come across a person like that, but I doubt it.

Besides, you could have that kind of sex without finding that person at all.

Say you’ve met someone you’re attracted to. Maybe you’ve known them for an hour, maybe a year. Doesn’t matter. You’ve flirted with each other, and that tension is definitely there. Maybe you’ve gone on “dates,” maybe you haven’t. Regardless, this is a person you absolutely want to fuck.

So tell them!

Ridiculous, right? Aren’t you supposed to “get” them drunk? Shouldn’t you send signals and make sexual innuendo or just grab them and make out with them?

That’s what our pop culture would have you think, but as it is about many other things, it’s wrong.

Here’s the thing: nobody who really wants to have sex with you will be turned off by you telling them you want to have sex with them. In fact, they’ll probably be turned on. They may be a bit shy and embarrassed at first, because this kind of genuine, open forwardness about sex isn’t something our culture encourages. But they’ll probably get over it if they really want you.

Likewise, nobody who really wants to have sex with you needs to be drunk to do it. Having a few drinks may loosen them up and put them at ease, but if that desire wasn’t there already, no amount of alcohol will put it there–at least, not genuinely. And also, sex with a drunk person is not actually legal, since a drunk person cannot consent.

So, hopefully your would-be hookup buddy agrees that sex with you would be an awesome thing. Hopefully they’re also open and comfortable with talking about sex, because, unlike the movies tell you, communication–more so than “chemistry” or “the moment”–is what makes sex great:

“So how do you like to come?”
“It’s easiest for me if I’m getting myself off…with a little help. You?”
“I like to get head.”
“Good! I like giving it.”
“How do you feel about doggy style?”
“I love it. Could I handcuff you while we do it?”
“Actually, handcuffs make me a bit uncomfortable. What if you tied me up with a scarf instead?”
“That works!”

This isn’t something that most people are used to, except perhaps in the context of an established and ongoing sexual relationship. First of all, despite our sexualized culture, sex is still considered dirty and “inappropriate” for casual conversation by many people. Since it’s such a supposedly private and shameful thing, many of us will never discuss it with anyone but the closest of friends (and partners). Someone that you haven’t even slept with yet probably doesn’t fit the bill.

What this means is that many people feel a reflexive discomfort with talking about sex, a discomfort that they assume is “natural.” But it’s not. It’s a consequence of us being taught from birth that sex and penises and vaginas and butts are shameful. And so we’re ashamed.

Second, our culture–for example, the sorts of movies that I mentioned–teaches us that you don’t need to communicate about sex in this way for it to be great. In fact, it says, too much talking about or during sex is just weird and a turn-off (remember that awkward scene in The Notebook where they nearly have sex for the first time? And also that awkward scene in the pilot episode of Girls?). Furthermore, someone who is Right For You will supposedly Just Magically Know what you like Because Chemistry, so talking about sex shouldn’t even be necessary.

But it is. Not only to prevent assault, but to make sure that the sex you’re having is truly cinematic.

Consent Does Not “Ruin the Moment”

People who oppose sensible things like anti-harassment policies at conferences keep bringing up the same tired myths about dating, sex, and romance: that it’s very important to have “mystery” and that making things clear and explicit “takes away the fun” and, worst of all, that asking for consent “would ruin the moment.”

I encounter this myth a lot in my work as a sexual health peer educator. When I talk to people about sex, I always emphasize the need to ask for consent whenever you’re doing Sexual Stuff with someone, and I am often asked, “But wouldn’t asking permission for stuff kill the mood?”

Sometimes I wonder what planet such people are living on, and whether or not they have, in fact, ever had sex. Because to me, there’s nothing hotter than asking someone if they want me to do [insert sexy thing here] to them and being answered with “Fuck yeah!” or “Yes please!” or, you know, just doing that thing.

For the vast majority of the people you will encounter sexually, there are two ways asking for consent could go. One is that you ask for consent and they say some equivalent of “Fuck yeah!” and you get to do that thing with them, knowing that they’re as into it as you are.

The other is that they tell you no, and then congratulations, you’ve just avoided assaulting someone. And with luck, you’ll find something else that you both want to do, or you’ll have a great conversation about your boundaries, or you’ll realize that this person isn’t into the things you are–or they’re not into you–and you get to move on before any feelings are hurt.

And if the person tells you no in a mean way or if they make fun of you for asking or tell you that it’s a turn-off, then guess what? The problem isn’t you, or the fact that you asked. The problem is them.

Of course, there are people who prefer not to be asked. A friend told me that she likes it when partners push the boundaries a bit without asking, and she tells them no once they’ve tried something she doesn’t want. But here’s the thing:

  1. People Are Different. My friend does not represent all people or all women, and anyone who assumes that she does is making a mistake. You can’t generalize from a single person you know, or even from all the people you’ve slept with in the past. There’s no such thing as What Women Want or What Men Want or What One-Night-Stands Want or What Spouses Want.
  2. If you are like my friend, you can negotiate this with a partner from the beginning–i.e. “I want you to do what you want to me without asking, and I’ll tell you if I want you to stop.”

Also, not all ways of asking for consent are equal for everybody. Personally, for instance, I find it really hot when someone is direct and confident–not aggressively confident, but assertively confident. For instance, “I really want to fuck you. Can I?” I find it much less appealing when someone clearly lacks confidence and stammers out something like “So um, do you think we could like, have sex now?” To me, that says that the person is asking not necessarily because they care about my consent, but because they don’t really believe that anyone would truly want to have sex with them.

But the beauty of this is, that’s just me. My desires are not everyone’s desires. My turn-ons are not everyone’s turn-ons.

You can ask for consent in a myriad of ways, many of which will be appealing to plenty of people. You could use my “I really want to fuck you” example. You could simply tell the person what you want to do and see how they respond. You could make a motion indicating what you want to do (such as reaching for their zipper) and ask, “Is this okay?” You could even take some of the pressure off yourself by asking them what they want (never a bad idea).

Some people protest that it’s ridiculous to explicitly ask for every single touch no matter how extensive a sexual history you have with someone. While most of them probably understand that you should ask for consent when it comes to penis-in-vagina intercourse (although, of course, there are quite a few people who still don’t get that), for some reason they don’t think that this same courtesy should be extended to other types of sexual contact. But there’s no reason intercourse should be categorically different. For many people, in fact, it’s not the most “intimate” possible act, and that’s not even to mention the fact that not everyone even does it (because, you know, non-heterosexual sex is a Real Thing). Furthermore, just because hugging or kissing someone who doesn’t want it isn’t “as bad” as penetrating someone who doesn’t want it does not mean that we shouldn’t try to prevent the former, too.

But regardless, these people are also misconstruing the argument. There are certain ways to consent nonverbally–for instance, if I move in close to someone and put my head on their shoulder, that probably means it’s okay for them to put their arm around me–and partners who have an established history can build up enough trust and knowledge of each other that they don’t need to ask about every single thing.

But many (if not most) sexual encounters are not like that. Unless you’re certain beyond a doubt what someone wants–and, honestly, it’s difficult for me to think of a situation like that except when explicit consent has been given–you should ask.

Consent doesn’t ruin the moment. Assault, however, definitely does.

Consent Does Not "Ruin the Moment"

People who oppose sensible things like anti-harassment policies at conferences keep bringing up the same tired myths about dating, sex, and romance: that it’s very important to have “mystery” and that making things clear and explicit “takes away the fun” and, worst of all, that asking for consent “would ruin the moment.”

I encounter this myth a lot in my work as a sexual health peer educator. When I talk to people about sex, I always emphasize the need to ask for consent whenever you’re doing Sexual Stuff with someone, and I am often asked, “But wouldn’t asking permission for stuff kill the mood?”

Sometimes I wonder what planet such people are living on, and whether or not they have, in fact, ever had sex. Because to me, there’s nothing hotter than asking someone if they want me to do [insert sexy thing here] to them and being answered with “Fuck yeah!” or “Yes please!” or, you know, just doing that thing.

For the vast majority of the people you will encounter sexually, there are two ways asking for consent could go. One is that you ask for consent and they say some equivalent of “Fuck yeah!” and you get to do that thing with them, knowing that they’re as into it as you are.

The other is that they tell you no, and then congratulations, you’ve just avoided assaulting someone. And with luck, you’ll find something else that you both want to do, or you’ll have a great conversation about your boundaries, or you’ll realize that this person isn’t into the things you are–or they’re not into you–and you get to move on before any feelings are hurt.

And if the person tells you no in a mean way or if they make fun of you for asking or tell you that it’s a turn-off, then guess what? The problem isn’t you, or the fact that you asked. The problem is them.

Of course, there are people who prefer not to be asked. A friend told me that she likes it when partners push the boundaries a bit without asking, and she tells them no once they’ve tried something she doesn’t want. But here’s the thing:

  1. People Are Different. My friend does not represent all people or all women, and anyone who assumes that she does is making a mistake. You can’t generalize from a single person you know, or even from all the people you’ve slept with in the past. There’s no such thing as What Women Want or What Men Want or What One-Night-Stands Want or What Spouses Want.
  2. If you are like my friend, you can negotiate this with a partner from the beginning–i.e. “I want you to do what you want to me without asking, and I’ll tell you if I want you to stop.”

Also, not all ways of asking for consent are equal for everybody. Personally, for instance, I find it really hot when someone is direct and confident–not aggressively confident, but assertively confident. For instance, “I really want to fuck you. Can I?” I find it much less appealing when someone clearly lacks confidence and stammers out something like “So um, do you think we could like, have sex now?” To me, that says that the person is asking not necessarily because they care about my consent, but because they don’t really believe that anyone would truly want to have sex with them.

But the beauty of this is, that’s just me. My desires are not everyone’s desires. My turn-ons are not everyone’s turn-ons.

You can ask for consent in a myriad of ways, many of which will be appealing to plenty of people. You could use my “I really want to fuck you” example. You could simply tell the person what you want to do and see how they respond. You could make a motion indicating what you want to do (such as reaching for their zipper) and ask, “Is this okay?” You could even take some of the pressure off yourself by asking them what they want (never a bad idea).

Some people protest that it’s ridiculous to explicitly ask for every single touch no matter how extensive a sexual history you have with someone. While most of them probably understand that you should ask for consent when it comes to penis-in-vagina intercourse (although, of course, there are quite a few people who still don’t get that), for some reason they don’t think that this same courtesy should be extended to other types of sexual contact. But there’s no reason intercourse should be categorically different. For many people, in fact, it’s not the most “intimate” possible act, and that’s not even to mention the fact that not everyone even does it (because, you know, non-heterosexual sex is a Real Thing). Furthermore, just because hugging or kissing someone who doesn’t want it isn’t “as bad” as penetrating someone who doesn’t want it does not mean that we shouldn’t try to prevent the former, too.

But regardless, these people are also misconstruing the argument. There are certain ways to consent nonverbally–for instance, if I move in close to someone and put my head on their shoulder, that probably means it’s okay for them to put their arm around me–and partners who have an established history can build up enough trust and knowledge of each other that they don’t need to ask about every single thing.

But many (if not most) sexual encounters are not like that. Unless you’re certain beyond a doubt what someone wants–and, honestly, it’s difficult for me to think of a situation like that except when explicit consent has been given–you should ask.

Consent doesn’t ruin the moment. Assault, however, definitely does.

“Traditional” Morality and Anti-Porn Arguments That Fail

So the Republicans have added a section to their official party platform that calls for a crackdown on pornography.

Whereas previously, the GOP platform had only addressed child pornography, the new language reads: “Current laws on all forms of pornography and obscenity need to be vigorously enforced.”

Although this sentence does not technically suggest a push for more regulation, the “anti-pornography activist” (I’m giggling) quoted in the Reuters piece I linked to claims that Romney has promised to somehow increase the use of blocking software to combat internet porn.

I have no idea how he would do this, and I doubt that a Republican-led White House would manage to crack down on porn given that most reasonable people agree this is a ridiculous thing to be spending time on right now.

However, I want to examine some of the ludicrous things that have been said by Patrick Trueman, the “anti-pornography activist” I mentioned. Trueman is president of Morality in Media, a religious nonprofit that seems intent on defining morality for the rest of us. About porn, Trueman says, “It’s a growing problem for men in their 20s….It’s changed the way their brain maps have developed. This is the way they get sexually excited.”

As usual, research appears not to be necessary here. I don’t even know what these “brain maps” are that Trueman is referring to; I doubt that he does, either. (To quote Hunter from the Daily Kos: “I think ‘brain maps’ is the most science-ish thing said by any Republican in at least a week, so there’s that. Now if we could just get them to believe in ‘climate maps’ we’d be getting somewhere.”) And it’s interesting how he thinks that porn is a bad thing because it’s supposedly harmful for men specifically. What about women? Do we even exist?

A press release from Morality in Media does seem to mention some actual research:

Research shows that children and adults are developing life-long addictions to pornography; there is a very substantial increase in demand for child pornography because many adult-porn users are finding that they are no longer excited by adult images; on average four out of five 16 year-olds now regularly access pornography online; 56% of divorces cite Internet pornography as a major factor in the breakup of the marriage; girls consuming pornography are several times more likely to engage in group sex than those who do not; significant and growing numbers of men in their twenties are developing “porn-induced sexual dysfunction.

No citations are provided, so I can’t vouch for any of this. I would be rather surprised if all of these findings came from research universities or other independent-ish sources, though.

It’s interesting that anti-porn crusaders always cite the fact that pornography can be addictive as proof that it’s Morally Wrong. Alcohol and nicotine are addictive, too, but they are legal–as they should be in a free society. They are also addictive in a much more physical and tenacious way than porn is.

I also wouldn’t be surprised if the bit about porn factoring into divorce is true. When romantic relationships break up, I’ve noticed, it seems pretty common to blame other things that are going on rather than the obvious: that the relationship itself just isn’t working. The couple just isn’t attracted to each other anymore. They’re not in love. Whatever. It’s not hard for me to imagine that in a failing marriage, at least one person might turn to porn for distraction or sexual release, and the other would be hurt and would cite that as a reason for the subsequent divorce.

Point is, causality is never easy to establish in cases like this.

I also find it interesting how the tone of this press release assumes that girls engaging in (safe, consensual) group sex is necessarily a bad thing, and how it likewise assumes that because people are getting bored of adult porn and are moving on to child porn (?!), the former should be cracked down upon as well.

In an interview, Trueman also said that men who watch porn for years before getting married end up being “dysfunctional sexually because their brain maps are changed. They enjoy what they’ve been doing for 10 to 12 years. Normal sex is not something that gets them excited.”

Again with the brain maps. It’s so difficult to debate these statements because they are never, ever backed up by research, so anyone who agrees with them can just trot out some anecdotal evidence and consider the argument won. So here’s some anecdotal evidence of my own: I know plenty of people who are fairly into watching porn, and they are not “dysfunctional sexually.”

I also wonder how many of pornography’s negative consequences are due to 1) its taboo nature; and 2) the dominance of exploitative, misogynistic, and otherwise oppressive forces within the porn industry, as opposed to the “immorality” of pornography itself.

Greta Christina wrote something wonderful about this over four years ago, and I will quote it here. Although she was referring to anti-porn arguments made by feminists, not Christian Republican men who want to run your sex life, what she said still applies:

I think anti-porn writers have a very bad habit of ignoring Sturgeon’s Law. They fail to recognize that, yes, 90% of porn is crap… but 90% of everything is crap. And in a sexist society, 90% of everything is sexist crap. I’ve seen some very good arguments on how most porn is sexist and patriarchal with rigid and misleading images of women… but I’ve never seen a good argument for why, in a world of sexist TV and movies and pop music and video games, porn should be singled out for special condemnation — to the point of trying to eliminate the genre altogether.

But I also think that pro-porn advocates — myself included — need to stop pretending that there isn’t a problem. We need to recognize that the overwhelming majority of porn — or rather, the overwhelming majority of video porn, which is the overwhelming majority of porn — is sexist, is patriarchal, does perpetuate body fascism, does create unrealistic sexual expectations for both women and men, does depict sex in ways that are not only overwhelmingly focused on male pleasure, but are rigid and formulaic and mind-numbingly tedious to boot. And we need to be trying to do something about it.

Read the rest of the post; it’s good.

I’ve seen porn made by the dominant industry forces, and it’s horrid in all the ways you would expect. But I’ve also seen porn made by individuals and by small, socially-conscious producers, and it can be really awesome.

One recent study shows that 70% of men and 30% of women watch Internet porn. Keeping in mind that these numbers are probably deflated because of the stigma that porn carries (some studies suggest up to 80% of women watch porn), that’s still a lot of people. It’s especially a lot of men. Are all of these people really addicted to porn and incapable of being aroused by their partners?

In general, I agree with the stance that Greta Christina outlines in her post that I linked to. That said, I’m much more receptive to anti-porn arguments when they’re coming from a feminist perspective than from a “traditionally moral” perspective. I have little interest in traditional morality. I think we should all have the ability to create our own morality, and that means allowing people to access and experiment with porn if that’s what they want.

"Traditional" Morality and Anti-Porn Arguments That Fail

So the Republicans have added a section to their official party platform that calls for a crackdown on pornography.

Whereas previously, the GOP platform had only addressed child pornography, the new language reads: “Current laws on all forms of pornography and obscenity need to be vigorously enforced.”

Although this sentence does not technically suggest a push for more regulation, the “anti-pornography activist” (I’m giggling) quoted in the Reuters piece I linked to claims that Romney has promised to somehow increase the use of blocking software to combat internet porn.

I have no idea how he would do this, and I doubt that a Republican-led White House would manage to crack down on porn given that most reasonable people agree this is a ridiculous thing to be spending time on right now.

However, I want to examine some of the ludicrous things that have been said by Patrick Trueman, the “anti-pornography activist” I mentioned. Trueman is president of Morality in Media, a religious nonprofit that seems intent on defining morality for the rest of us. About porn, Trueman says, “It’s a growing problem for men in their 20s….It’s changed the way their brain maps have developed. This is the way they get sexually excited.”

As usual, research appears not to be necessary here. I don’t even know what these “brain maps” are that Trueman is referring to; I doubt that he does, either. (To quote Hunter from the Daily Kos: “I think ‘brain maps’ is the most science-ish thing said by any Republican in at least a week, so there’s that. Now if we could just get them to believe in ‘climate maps’ we’d be getting somewhere.”) And it’s interesting how he thinks that porn is a bad thing because it’s supposedly harmful for men specifically. What about women? Do we even exist?

A press release from Morality in Media does seem to mention some actual research:

Research shows that children and adults are developing life-long addictions to pornography; there is a very substantial increase in demand for child pornography because many adult-porn users are finding that they are no longer excited by adult images; on average four out of five 16 year-olds now regularly access pornography online; 56% of divorces cite Internet pornography as a major factor in the breakup of the marriage; girls consuming pornography are several times more likely to engage in group sex than those who do not; significant and growing numbers of men in their twenties are developing “porn-induced sexual dysfunction.

No citations are provided, so I can’t vouch for any of this. I would be rather surprised if all of these findings came from research universities or other independent-ish sources, though.

It’s interesting that anti-porn crusaders always cite the fact that pornography can be addictive as proof that it’s Morally Wrong. Alcohol and nicotine are addictive, too, but they are legal–as they should be in a free society. They are also addictive in a much more physical and tenacious way than porn is.

I also wouldn’t be surprised if the bit about porn factoring into divorce is true. When romantic relationships break up, I’ve noticed, it seems pretty common to blame other things that are going on rather than the obvious: that the relationship itself just isn’t working. The couple just isn’t attracted to each other anymore. They’re not in love. Whatever. It’s not hard for me to imagine that in a failing marriage, at least one person might turn to porn for distraction or sexual release, and the other would be hurt and would cite that as a reason for the subsequent divorce.

Point is, causality is never easy to establish in cases like this.

I also find it interesting how the tone of this press release assumes that girls engaging in (safe, consensual) group sex is necessarily a bad thing, and how it likewise assumes that because people are getting bored of adult porn and are moving on to child porn (?!), the former should be cracked down upon as well.

In an interview, Trueman also said that men who watch porn for years before getting married end up being “dysfunctional sexually because their brain maps are changed. They enjoy what they’ve been doing for 10 to 12 years. Normal sex is not something that gets them excited.”

Again with the brain maps. It’s so difficult to debate these statements because they are never, ever backed up by research, so anyone who agrees with them can just trot out some anecdotal evidence and consider the argument won. So here’s some anecdotal evidence of my own: I know plenty of people who are fairly into watching porn, and they are not “dysfunctional sexually.”

I also wonder how many of pornography’s negative consequences are due to 1) its taboo nature; and 2) the dominance of exploitative, misogynistic, and otherwise oppressive forces within the porn industry, as opposed to the “immorality” of pornography itself.

Greta Christina wrote something wonderful about this over four years ago, and I will quote it here. Although she was referring to anti-porn arguments made by feminists, not Christian Republican men who want to run your sex life, what she said still applies:

I think anti-porn writers have a very bad habit of ignoring Sturgeon’s Law. They fail to recognize that, yes, 90% of porn is crap… but 90% of everything is crap. And in a sexist society, 90% of everything is sexist crap. I’ve seen some very good arguments on how most porn is sexist and patriarchal with rigid and misleading images of women… but I’ve never seen a good argument for why, in a world of sexist TV and movies and pop music and video games, porn should be singled out for special condemnation — to the point of trying to eliminate the genre altogether.

But I also think that pro-porn advocates — myself included — need to stop pretending that there isn’t a problem. We need to recognize that the overwhelming majority of porn — or rather, the overwhelming majority of video porn, which is the overwhelming majority of porn — is sexist, is patriarchal, does perpetuate body fascism, does create unrealistic sexual expectations for both women and men, does depict sex in ways that are not only overwhelmingly focused on male pleasure, but are rigid and formulaic and mind-numbingly tedious to boot. And we need to be trying to do something about it.

Read the rest of the post; it’s good.

I’ve seen porn made by the dominant industry forces, and it’s horrid in all the ways you would expect. But I’ve also seen porn made by individuals and by small, socially-conscious producers, and it can be really awesome.

One recent study shows that 70% of men and 30% of women watch Internet porn. Keeping in mind that these numbers are probably deflated because of the stigma that porn carries (some studies suggest up to 80% of women watch porn), that’s still a lot of people. It’s especially a lot of men. Are all of these people really addicted to porn and incapable of being aroused by their partners?

In general, I agree with the stance that Greta Christina outlines in her post that I linked to. That said, I’m much more receptive to anti-porn arguments when they’re coming from a feminist perspective than from a “traditionally moral” perspective. I have little interest in traditional morality. I think we should all have the ability to create our own morality, and that means allowing people to access and experiment with porn if that’s what they want.

Public Breastfeeding Should Not Be a Big Deal

Something’s wrong with our culture if this is appropriate in public, but breastfeeding is not.

Breastfeeding has been somewhat of a hot topic lately. On one hand, mothers’ decision to breastfeed or not has been subject to intense moralizing and even actual regulation, which is creepy.

On the other hand, public breastfeeding has been under attack, too. Facebook disables/deletes accounts of people who post photos of themselves breastfeeding. Mothers lose their jobs and get kicked out of public places because of it. This spring, people were actually debating whether or not mothers in the military should breastfeed while in uniform.

Every time, the justification is that breastfeeding constitutes “indecent exposure” (or even pedophilia, depending on who’s doing the breastfeeding). The protest “There are children here!” gets thrown around a lot, which is ironic given that what’s at stake is the fact that infants need to be fed, and pretty often at that. But no, what matters more is that women’s breasts are presumed to be sexual, whether women themselves see them that way or not.

This cartoon summarizes my thoughts on the issue:

The reality is that breasts are everywhere in our public spaces. They’re used to advertise not just bras, but vegetable oil, men’s cologne, french fries, and TV shows. Beaches and swimming pools, which are always full of children, are also full of women in bikinis. And no matter where you go in the U.S., aside from perhaps certain parts of Brooklyn, you’re going to see women in low-cut shirts.

And yet, breastfeeding in public remains controversial. Why?

First of all, it seems that our culture has decided–somewhat arbitrarily–that the only “indecent” parts of the breast are the areola and nipple. Although those are the most sensitive parts, this nevertheless seems strange to me. People who find breasts attractive and arousing aren’t just attracted to their areolas and nipples. To say that those are the only “indecent” parts would be like saying that women should be free to walk around with their labia showing, but not their clitoris or vagina. What?! (But of course, vaginas and clitorises are much easier to hide.)

Besides, when a mother nurses an infant, you can’t see anything that you don’t see in all those ads and at the beach, except for that brief moment when she’s first taking her breast out (or “whipping” it out, as the hand-wringers love to say, in total defiance of human anatomy). All this fuss for a few seconds during which someone might possibly see a nipple?

What’s perhaps more to the point is that our culture has decided that breasts are always inherently sexual, no matter what they’re being used for. They are always sexual, and in a different way than, say, a man’s beautifully toned pectoral muscles–which can be displayed in virtually any public setting even without cries of “There are children here!”–even though there’s no infant depending upon them for survival.

The reason I say that “our culture” has decided that breasts are sexual is because there are other cultures that haven’t. Even a cursory glance through a National Geographic magazine will show you that many people around the world think that naked breasts are no big deal. Women walk around topless and life goes on. Even in Europe, topless sunbathing is normal, and the children there grow up just fine, without being traumatized by the sight of boobs.

(And, on the flip side, some cultures sexualize things that we would never think of sexually, such as hair.)

But regardless, we’ve created a culture in which breasts are sexual. Now what?

Well, now we ask ourselves what’s more important–mothers’ need to feed their infants quickly and easily, or children growing up without ever seeing naked breasts. Since I’ve yet to see any evidence for the latter being harmful, I think we should prioritize the former.

What’s ironic is that when breasts are on display for the purpose of advertising or enhancing women’s sex appeal, that’s okay. But when they’re on display for a clearly nonsexual purpose, such as providing sustenance for an infant, then it’s suddenly “inappropriate,” and won’t anybody think of the children.

Right now, we have ourselves a dilemma. Women are being commanded by doctors and politicians to breastfeed rather than use formula. And yet, the United States is one of the only countries in the world that provides no guaranteed maternity leave. There’s no government-sponsored daycare, either, and funding for childcare subsidies is being cut left and right. This leaves many mothers with few options other than breastfeeding their babies, often in public.

But we wring our hands over how “indecent” and “sexual” this basic human act is.

Is Casual Sex Intrinsically Demeaning?

Many well-intentioned people decry casual sex (or hooking up, or what have you) and argue that there’s something inherently demeaning about it–that you’re just letting the other person use your body and then toss it aside, that you’re letting them disrespect you.

It’s worth noting that, to these people, it’s only the woman in the (always heterosexual) pairing who gets used, abused, demeaned, and disrespected. But that sexist double standard is a separate conversation from the one I want to have, which is this: is casual sex intrinsically disrespectful? And is committed sex, then, intrinsically respectful?

My views on this issue have been evolving a lot recently. Overall, I’ve had a very negative experience with casual sex. The times that I haven’t been outright pressured and/or forced into it, I’ve been manipulated, insulted, and lied to.

I’m not saying that to get advice or sympathy, by the way. I’m saying it to explain why I can never really view casual sex as an Intrinsically Good Thing–my experiences with it have mostly been awful, whereas my experiences with committed sex have mostly been pretty great.

And that’s not to say that I see it as morally wrong or inadvisable, or that I think it’s too “dangerous” for people to do (that would be victim-blaming!). I do criticize it. But I also criticize people who moralize about it.

tl;dr my views on it are complicated and I can’t boil them down into a convenient soundbite.

But anyway, as I’ve gotten involved with organizations and people outside of Northwestern, I’ve started to realize that my views may be skewed somewhat because I live in a bubble. The Northwestern bubble. I live in it, I work in it, and, well, I have sex in it, too.

I know I should be careful about criticizing Northwestern’s campus culture. It’s not a homogenous thing, first of all, and it shares a lot of similarities with other campus cultures. However, now that I’ve met so many folks who are going (or went) to school elsewhere, I’ve become more confident in the fact that there are some things about this school that are relatively unique.

All of us at Northwestern are very intelligent. Many of us were picked on in elementary and middle school and self-identified as nerds in high school. Everyone I’ve met here has plenty of stories about that.

Many of us didn’t have much sexual experience before college (and many still don’t–a survey done here shows that almost half of the students have not had sex within the past year). However, we are all, to some extent, products of a culture that values sexual experience and “coolness.” We are a Big Ten school located near a huge city, and, to a greater degree than many other elite universities, ours is full of students who are on a pre-professional track–not here just for knowledge and intellectual growth, but to prepare for a career. And we know that in the workplace, we will be judged not only by our abilities, but by our appearance and our level of social aptitude.

Combine that appearance-focused, results-oriented mindset with pressure–both internal and external–to have sex, and you will have our campus’ hookup culture. It can be a lot of fun if you find the right people, but it can also be alienating, dehumanizing, and painful. I know, because I’ve been there.

And until recently, I thought that that’s just the nature of the beast. I thought that most people who like to hook up have stories like mine–if not only stories like mine. But as I’ve been meeting more people who don’t go here, I’ve heard more and more stories of casual sex done right–with respect, enthusiasm, honesty, and consent.

Although I’d long suspected that you don’t have to treat someone like an object just because you’re only hooking up with them for one night, I had yet to hear of any actual evidence for that. I had yet to meet people who could tell me that they’d had a casual thing with someone and it was not only consensual and physically enjoyable, but respectful and affirming, too. But now I have.

I’ve also realized that there are so many situations in which committed sex can be just as demeaning and disrespectful as my experience with casual sex has been. For starters, people can rape each other even within relationships–something that conservatives who wring their hands over casual sex don’t seem to understand (in many countries, marital rape was not criminalized until the late 20th century). In some ways, rape within committed relationships can be even more difficult to address because of expectations that your partner be available to you sexually whenever you want, and/or that you should be sexually available to your partner whenever they want.

Even if consent is actually given, sex within relationships can still be disrespectful (as I’d perceive it, at least). People can still be focused on their own pleasure without regard for their partner’s. People can still take their partners for granted. People can still objectify their partners. A serious relationship–including marriage–does not automatically imply that people are enjoying a healthy, mutually respectful sex life.

Ultimately, I think that any sexual relationship–whether it lasts for an hour or a lifetime–can only be as respectful as the people involved in it. The partners I had were not respectful, and they would not have been any more respectful if I’d been in a serious relationship with them. I felt disrespected and demeaned not because I chose to have casual sex with them, but because I chose to interact with them, period.

I believe that sex is ultimately value-free, as long as it is consensual. No “type” of sex–casual, committed, kinky, vanilla, straight, gay, solo–is intrinsically anything. Sex of any kind with someone who respects you and treats you well can be wonderful, and sex of any kind with someone who does not will probably be terrible.

Unfortunately, fixing the latter problem is much more difficult than shaming and scaring young people out of hooking up. We’d first have to create a culture in which people don’t view each other as a means to an end.

And, I’ll be honest, I have no idea how to do that.