Did Lena Dunham Sexually Abuse Her Sister?

[Content note: child sexual abuse]*

My Daily Dot piece about Lena Dunham went up yesterday, but I was out walking 14 miles of Manhattan so I didn’t have time to link it here. This was published before Dunham released her statement, which partially (but not nearly entirely) addresses some of my concerns.

Lena Dunham’s recently released memoir, Not That Kind of Girl, has stirred up a lot of controversy, and probably not the controversy that Dunham hoped to stir up.

Several passages in the book detail the Girls creator and actress’ childhood sexual experimentation with her sister, Grace, who is six years younger. After a conservative writer quoted the passages and accused Dunham of sexual abuse, the internet exploded.

The passages describe Lena Dunham playing with her sister’s vagina when Dunham was seven and her sister was one year old. She also writes about bribing her sister with candy so that she could kiss her on the lips and masturbating in bed next to her. Their mother was aware of at least some of the behavior, but apparently didn’t think much of it. “My mother didn’t bother asking why I had opened Grace’s vagina,” she writes. “This was within the spectrum of things I did.”

Not all of Dunham’s critics have been conservative columnists, however. Many women, especially women of color, have been active on Twitter, discussing the passages and how they exemplify the abuse that others have faced in childhood. These critics have started a hashtag called #DropDunham, calling on Planned Parenthood to end its partnership with her:

Meanwhile, others think there’s nothing wrong with Dunham’s actions:

 

[…]Did Lena Dunham abuse her sister? That depends on a lot of things, some of which we may not know without getting more information. However, there are a number of things about Dunham’s behavior as she describes it herself that bring up red flags.

Read the rest here.

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*Although I personally avoided definitively labeling Lena Dunham’s actions as child sexual abuse, I included this content note out of respect for those who consider it such and find it triggering.

Feminism Can Make You Better At Sex

At the Daily Dot, I wrote about sex and feminism. (What else is new.)

Does feminism make women bad at sex? Some “sexperts” would say yes, if being bad at sex means expecting to get pleasure out of it. In a blog for Yahoo’s lifestyle section, Dr. Pam Spurr, author ofSensational Sex, warns of the dangers of equality in the bedroom. “In the past few decades, women have learnt that orgasms, like voting and equal pay, are their right,” says Spurr. “This tide of female emancipation has led to a ‘princess-and-the-pea syndrome': her ‘pea’ gets all the attention, while everything else gets sidelined… The pea’s demands will eclipse those of your penis.”

Like Dr. Spurr, maybe some feel horrified and intimidated at the prospect of empowered women seeking out and expecting sexual pleasure from their partners, but in reality, feminism and good sex are not at all mutually exclusive. One can even lead to the other, if you use feminism to examine your own sexual ideas and interests.

To be clear, having feminist views does not automatically make you “good at sex,” whatever being good at sex means to you or your partners. You can be bad at sex and also be [insert literally any descriptor here]. You can be good at sex without identifying as a feminist, although I’d argue that you cannot be good at sex if you are unable to respect others’ boundaries.

However, feminism can inspire us to challenge myths and stereotypes that can make sex scary, stressful, or boring. Thinking critically about gender allows us to abandon tired and outdated ideas about What Men Want and What Women Want and what they “should” do with each other in bed. Here’s what feminism can teach us about sex.

1) Consent.

For decades now, feminists have been challenging dominant views of sex as something men must try to “get” from women, who can agree to “give” it by lying back and thinking of England. Feminism also challenges the idea that anyone of any gender ever “owes” anyone of any gender sex (though, usually, it’s women who are presumed to owe it to men, perhaps in return for a paid restaurant bill or a committed relationship).

Moreover, thanks to feminism, more and more people are starting to understand that consent is not just about “no means no,” but also about “yes means yes.” Being good in bed isn’t just about knowing the right things to do, but also about knowing when not to do anything at all. If you choose “YES, PLEASE” rather than “Ok, that’s fine” as the standard for consent, you’ll be a better partner, not to mention a better person.

Read the rest here.

Sexually Assaulting Someone As A “Prank” Is Still Sexual Assault

[Content note: sexual assault, sexist & ableist slurs]

A British YouTube personality named Sam Pepper recently posted a video of a “prank” in which he walks around grabbing random women’s butts as a joke and films their reactions.

Or, to rephrase: A British YouTube personality named Sam Pepper recently made a video of himself sexually assaulting multiple women, and then posted that video online, presumably without the permission of the women being assaulted in it.

To its credit, YouTube has taken the video down after a large outcry from (former) fans, various well-known YouTubers, and many Tumblr and Twitter users. In its place is now an odd notice: “This video has been removed as a violation of YouTube’s policy on nudity or sexual content.” As though the problem were “sexual content,” rather than sexual assault.

I’ll skip over all the tired rehashing of how this sort of thing seems to be Pepper’s M.O. as a YouTuber and as a human being, how Pepper’s boringly regressive ideas about women are easy to glean from the videos, how there’s now a backlash calling his detractors “butthurt little pussies” and “tumblr cunts,” how folks are claiming, as they always do, that this is somehow okay because some of the women laughed or smiled (because that’s what we’re taught to do to survive, and besides, other women literally said “I don’t like that”). Because all of this happens every single time and it’s a cycle with which many of us are now resignedly familiar. So I’ll jump straight to the analysis.

Sexual assault is not (just) a prank. A prank is putting rubber insects or plastic poop in your friend’s bed. A prank is coming home from school with a fake note from the principal to your mom. A prank is, in one slightly extreme case that I heard of, a bunch of friends getting together and having tons flowers and cards saying “Sorry for your loss” delivered to another friend at work, forcing him to explain to his concerned coworkers who he “lost.”

Pranks can run the gamut from wonderfully hilarious for everyone involved to scary, spiteful, and cruel. Pranks can cross the line. Even if we are to believe that Pepper did this because he thought it would be “funny” rather than because he wanted to make women feel violated and creeped-out, then this is a very unambiguous example of a prank that crosses the line. Specifically, it crosses the line into sexual violence and criminal activity.

Of course, this isn’t uncommon. Daniel Tosh made a video about touching women’s stomachs (specifically, their belly fat) and also encouraged his fans to make their own (which they did). YouTubers LAHWF and Stuart Edge made videos of themselves kissing random women on the lips without their consent and of themselves picking women up off the ground and trying to carry them away. All of this is assault. Not a joke. Not a prank. Assault against women.

Sam Pepper and Daniel Tosh and their sympathizers appear to believe that there are two mutually exclusive categories of human speech and behavior: “just a joke” and “not a joke.” Moreover, these categories are so painfully clear and obvious that anyone who mischaracterizes “just a joke” as “not a joke” is “an idiot,” “a r****d,” “a stupid feminist bitch,” etc. The only dimension on which items in the “just a joke” category can be judged is funniness. They cannot be judged on, for instance, ethics. So if you try to judge those items based on how ethically acceptable they are, then you’ve clearly placed them into the “not a joke” category and are therefore “an idiot,” “a r***d,” and so on.

Obviously, a joke can be funny or not funny to a given person. But it can also be experienced by a given person as not a joke at all, especially since many types of humor seem to rely on “saying a commonly-believed/-endorsed thing and then acting like you don’t really believe/endorse that thing” as their main mechanism. A joke can also be hurtful or unethical, even if everyone understands that it is a joke.

I hate to keep trotting out that “intent isn’t magic,” but it really isn’t. When I am being sexually assaulted, I don’t care what the person assaulting me truly deeply believes about this encounter and what it means to them and how they feel about it in their heart of hearts. I am being sexually assaulted. I would like them to stop sexually assaulting me now.

Now, if someone stumbles on the train and accidentally touches my breasts or butt, I might be momentarily startled, but I’m usually okay because I understand that they did not intend to touch me. Sam Pepper intended to grab the asses of the women whose asses he grabbed; he just didn’t intend–or pretends he didn’t intend–for them to feel uncomfortable or disgusted by this. Well, unfortunately, you can’t will people’s feelings in or out of existence.

Pepper later claimed that the video was a “social experiment”–the last resort of those who can no longer even claim a botched attempt at humor. If you unpack this a little bit, “social experiment” usually just means “doing something wrong/weird/unusual/inappropriate to see how people will respond.” You know, like a baby who discovers the ability to throw toys out of the crib to see what will happen.

There is no need to conduct an experiment to see how women will respond to being sexually assaulted by a stranger. It happens all the time, and has been happening all the time for centuries. If you’re curious, you could try speaking to a woman.

This also seems to be contradicted by another of Pepper’s claims, which is that everyone in the video gave “prior consent.” If the women knew exactly what was going to happen, how is it an “experiment” or a “prank”? And even if they did, how are viewers–some of whom may be survivors of sexual assault–meant to understand the original video?

On Twitter, Laci Green responded to Pepper’s defense of the video:

Nevertheless, it is entirely possible–and I am even willing to briefly entertain the idea–that Sam Pepper absolutely got the consent of everyone involved (for the touching and for the placement of the video online for the perusal of 2 million fans), that nobody was uncomfortable, that everybody involved had a great time (and the women who appeared uncomfortable in the video were just acting [why?]), but what concerns me is, as always, that others will see in Pepper’s defenses a get-out-of-assault-free card. “It was just a joke!” “She’s only pretending to be creeped out as part of a social experiment!”

Of course, this sort of thing already happens all the time. Rapists say that they were absolutely certain that they had the person’s consent and were totally not raping them on purpose, of course not, what kind of person do you think they are?

But believing that you have someone’s consent and totally not intending to assault them isn’t the same thing as actually having their consent and actually not assaulting them.

And I’m not so sure how many of them actually believe it.

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Related/relevant:

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Addendum: Despite the title of the post I linked to just above, and the views I’ve expressed here in general, I no longer stand by the claim, “sexual assault isn’t funny.” The reason I don’t stand by it is because it’s false. Sexual assault is funny. To certain people. “Sexual assault isn’t funny” is more a statement that I wish were true than one that is actually true at the moment.

Handle Rejection Better With These Four Weird Tricks!

My new piece for the Daily Dot is about handling rejection on online dating/hookup sites. Note that, despite TDD’s headline, the piece is gender-neutral.

Tinder user and couch-based futures contract trader Tom isn’t the first guy whose explosively childish response to being rejected politely by a woman has gone viral—just the latest. Tom called the woman “fucking stupid,” insisted that she’s “not hot enough” to reject someone as high-earning as him, went through her Facebook photos and critiqued her appearance, and told her to “recognize superiority” and “know your place.”

Sure makes a girl want to come running back, doesn’t it?

The problem with Tom and guys like him isn’t (just) that they don’t know how to handle rejection but that they have disgustingly regressive and dehumanizing views about women. Changing their minds is probably beyond my ability.

But most people who have trouble dealing with rejection on dating sites aren’t like Tom; they don’t start bragging about how much money they’ve earned in the last few months or hurling invective. Rejection stinks and can make the best of us show sides of ourselves that aren’t exactly our best, but here’s how to make it suck a little less for everyone involved.

1. Once someone makes it clear that they’re not interested in talking to you, stop talking to them.

This is Consent 101, and many people still don’t understand it. When you continue to interact with someone who has said they don’t want to interact with you—and on dating sites, as with sex, silence should be taken as a “no”—you’re implying that your desires are more important than their boundaries. Even if you just want to know why they’re not interested, or make casual conversation about something else, it’s still wrong to keep pestering someone.

If you want to vent about how upset you are that the person rejected you, that’s totally understandable. But vent to someone else. Vent to a friend. If you don’t think you can vent to any of your friends, vent in a journal or on a secret Tumblr. If you have that kind of relationship, vent to your mom. (Moms are sometimes great for this.) Regardless, it is not the responsibility of the person who rejected you to make you feel better about having been rejected, even though they’re right there and typing that next message probably feels so easy and natural.

It always confuses me when I say I’m not interested and someone keeps trying to persuade me to be interested. Do these people really want a partner who’s only with them because they got tired of arguing about it? Sometimes when you’re really lonely and dejected about the whole dating thing, that can actually start to seem like a better deal than what you’ve got now. But it isn’t. Not only is coercion ethically wrong, but relationships based on it are not healthy, happy, or fulfilling. And they rarely last.

Read the rest here.

Force vs. Nonconsent: The Fight to Redefine Sexual Assault

[Content note: sexual assault]

My piece at the Daily Dot today is about efforts to legally define sexual assault.

Like all laws, the legal definitions of crimes have changed throughout history in response to social, cultural, scientific, and political forces.Sexual assault especially is a crime that depends on social consensus for its definition. After all, while killing another person isn’t always considered “murder,” most of us at least agree on what it means to kill a person. Not so with sexual assault.

Feminist activists have been fighting for decades to expand and improve that definition, from including marital rape to deemphasizing vaginal penetration as a criterion. (Yes, people without vaginas can be raped.) They have also urged state legislatures to rewrite laws so that rape does not have to be “forceful” to count. After all, what matters isn’t whether or not force was used, but whether or not consent was given.

Yale law professor Jed Rubenfeld, however, wants definitions of rape to re-emphasize force. The reason, he claims, is that using consent (or lack thereof) as the basis upon which rape is defined leaves room for all sorts of ethical quandaries.

For instance, if someone falsifies their identity in some way to convince someone to have sex with them, then that person did not technically give informed consent, and could consider the act rape even though they appeared to fully consent to it. If we criminalize non-consensual sex, how could we not also criminalize sex under false pretenses?

Rubenfeld does include the caveat that the definition of force should be broadened. He says, “I’m in favor of an expanded force requirement, an understanding that sees force in threats, in drugging, in physical restraint (holding the victim down, locking the victim up), and so on.”

But even then, many (if not most) sexual assaults do not involve any of these things. Nor should they have to in order to be considered sexual assault.

Read the rest here.

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On Shaming People Online “For Their Own Good”

[Content note: online harassment and bullying]

Online vigilantism in general is nothing new, but lately I’ve been noticing a disturbing trend of people trying to teach others that they “should’ve known better” by posting “embarrassing” photos of them online, and/or doxing them based on photos of them that were already online.

Two examples I’ve come across:

1. A dude went to a Magic: The Gathering tournament, found as many players as he could whose butt cracks were exposed, and posed for photos next to them. And then put them online. Apparently this is “part funny, part social commentary, and part PSA.” From the Daily Dot:

Showing your ass in a convention of 4,000 people is “unacceptable,” he says. “There is no way (barring some sort of handicap) that they didn’t notice this. Not doing anything about it is lazy, gross and bad for the community. Some people won’t get into magic because of this type of stuff.

“I hope that people will see this and think ‘maybe I SHOULD pull my pants up.’”

2. A bunch of Reddit and 4chan dudes have apparently made it their personal mission to dox women whose photos end up online, whether intentionally or not, to, once again, “teach them a lesson.” Sometimes this means doxing women who purposefully upload sexy photos of themselves to subreddits like r/gonewild, and sometimes this means doxing women whose email accounts get hacked or who get photographed without their knowledge or consent.

The reason all this stuff has caught my attention isn’t just the sexism and body-shaming it often entails, but the circular reasoning of it–something I’ve noted about these types before. We’ll punish you for putting photos of yourself online because it’s a stupid thing to do. Putting photos of yourself online is a stupid thing to do because we’ll punish you for it. You shouldn’t wear ill-fitting clothing that exposes parts of your body that shouldn’t be exposed because then people have to look at it. People have to look at you wearing ill-fitting clothing that exposes parts of your body that shouldn’t be exposed because we just took a photo of you and put it on the internet. Women who put sexy photos online have no self-respect because putting sexy photos of yourself online is a bad thing to do because it shows you have no self-respect because putting sexy photos online is a bad thing to do because–at this point my ability to write words breaks down and I have nothing to say but WHAAAaaaaAAAAT A;LSDKFASLKDF;ASDFAJ;D?!

Whenever you find a silly self-justifying spiral like this, you know there’s something going on that people either can’t or won’t acknowledge.

I have some questions for these brave heroes. First, to Redditor OB1FBM, who posted the butt crack photos:

  • If this is really about making a “public service announcement,” why’d you post it to r/funny?
  • If you’re really worried that “some people won’t get into magic because of this type of stuff [butt cracks],” why aren’t you worried that people won’t get into Magic because the community apparently has creeps who go around taking photos of people’s asses?
  • If you really wanted to “spare the person the shame of being confronted in front of other people” (say, by tapping them on the shoulder and warning them that they need to pull their pants up), why the fuck did you post this on the internet?
  • If you really want to make MtG tournaments more comfortable for those who likewise find butt cracks “unacceptable,” why didn’t you talk to the organizers about implementing a dress code?
  • If you really want to make people change their behavior, why haven’t you considered the evidence that shaming isn’t an effective way to do that?

Next, for the men who think it’s their sacred mission to shame and terrify women for existing in photographic form:

  • WTF?
  • If you like looking at attractive women (and I know you do, or else why the fuck are you on r/gonewild), why are you making that astronomically less likely to happen by making them afraid for their lives?
  • WTF?
  • If your entire worthless thesis is that women shouldn’t let photos of themselves get online because look what can happen, why do you have to actually make that happen in order to make your argument? That’s like robbing someone’s apartment to “helpfully” point out that they need to keep their apartment locked so that shitheads like you don’t rob it.
  • WTF?
  • If these women are, as you claim, “looking for the attention” of having their full names, phone numbers, addresses, and social media accounts posted online and spread widely, why wouldn’t they do that themselves? It’s not difficult to post your own full name, phone number, address, and photos online. Shockingly, I don’t think they need your assistance with this task.
  • WTF?
  • Supposing posting a sexy photo of yourself online (or storing one in a private account that gets hacked, as it were) is really such a bad thing, is being threatened with rape and death, having one’s family threatened with rape and death, and never being able to get a legit job ever again really a reasonable punishment? Hell, even rapists don’t usually face such a strict penalty.
  • WTF?
  • Why are people who dox people on Reddit literally Hitler unless they’re doxing semi-naked women?
  • WTF?

And on and on it goes. I have more questions than answers here, really.

These two seemingly unrelated phenomena might not seem to have much in common at first: one involves “hot” women and the other involves “ugly” (or, at least, “gross” or “disgusting”) men, one involves doxing and the other does not, one involves shaming people for committing what most consider at least a faux pas and the other involves people simply existing and having bodies.

But there are a lot of similar themes, too: the self-righteous vigilantism, the use of shaming as a disciplinary tactic, the insistence that the targets “deserved” or “asked for” what they got, the creepy obsession with people’s bodies and what they do with those bodies, the indignation at something that’s frankly none of anyone’s business.

I’m sure someone’s going to comment here about how yeah well you shouldn’t have your butt crack showing. Yeah, I guess you shouldn’t, at least by our local norms of what should and should not be shown in public (remember that this is neither a universal nor a natural truth, but a social construction). There are a lot of things you generally should not do, such as speak rudely to strangers without provocation, take up more seats on the subway than you need, or leave too small a tip at a restaurant. Are we prepared, then, to publicly shame people who do these things as well? Where do we stop? Are we prepared to take photos of parts of strangers’ bodies that we know that would not want photographed and put those photos on public forums frequented by thousands of people? Is the sight of a human body that offensive?

OB1FBM claims rather unpersuasively that “it’s not about being fat,” but it is, in fact, exactly about that. In order to talk about why lots of people are so gosh-darn rude as to have their butt cracks visible when they’re sitting, you have to talk about the fact that mass-produced clothing fits very few body types well, and denim especially is not a fabric that’s great at molding to bodies as they move. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, denim is the normative fabric for pants in Western society.

Brian Kibler writes:

Here’s the thing. I was a fat kid growing up. I know the kind of treatment that many overweight people deal with. I was mercilessly mocked by other kids in school. My own brother told me that I would never get a girlfriend. Even to this day, I habitually tug on my shirts to keep them from hanging unflatteringly over my body. That feeling is something that never goes away – the sense that everything just fits wrong on you, and feeling like you’re never truly comfortable in your own skin. Public shaming was hardly a new and novel experience. It was often just what I felt from *being* in public. It certainly wasn’t going to be the catalyst for some sort of change in my behavior. And I’m sure my ass hung out of my pants from time to time.

Want to change the way people dress at Magic tournaments? Be a good example. I’ve made a point since I started playing again to always dress up for tournaments, and you know what? I’ve seen people emulating that. “Be the change you want to see in the world”, as they saying goes – not “Be the asshole who makes fun of other people because they aren’t how you want them to be.”

OB1FBM might not be trying to make it about being fat, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t. It’s about that, and it’s about people being engaged in a gaming competition and forgetting for a moment that they need to pull their pants up or their shirts down and thus committing what can at worst be considered a small and common faux pas.

I’m a little bewildered that I had so much trouble finding critical responses to this stunt when I googled it that I realized how necessary this blog post was. I am, and yet I’m not. The devaluation of consent, autonomy, and dignity in our society extends far beyond the usual culprits of sexual assault and harassment.

And speaking of that, while I’m stating the obvious. There is nothing a person can do that justifies having their personal information found out and posted to thousands of people online*. Taking naked photos of themselves and giving them to a partner doesn’t justify it. Taking naked photos of themselves and putting them in a password-protected online account doesn’t justify it. Taking naked photos of themselves and putting them on a forum meant for that purpose, without the personal information attached, doesn’t justify it. Existing in public where they can be photographed looking “sexy” doesn’t justify it. Being a sex worker doesn’t justify it. Making you uncomfortable because someone’s owning their body and sexuality who shouldn’t be doesn’t justify it. Being a woman doesn’t justify it.

If you knowingly, purposefully violate people’s privacy and consent in order to “teach them a lesson,” you are not offering up a “public service announcement” or doing your community some sort of act of kindness. You are a bully. You are every schoolyard bully who has ever beat up a kid to “teach them a lesson,” you are every workplace bully who has ever ostracized a coworker and sabotaged their work to “teach them a lesson,” you are every online bully who has sent anonymous violent threats to people you don’t like to “teach them a lesson.” You are every person who has committed violence and abuse against their partner to “teach them a lesson.”

What a proud tradition you carry on.

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*As usual, a caveat! This blog post is discussing shaming people for behaviors that do not directly harm anyone. In a follow-up (hopefully), I’m going to talk about the murkier ethics of shaming people for behaviors that do directly harm others.

Thanks to this blog post for alerting me to the MtG thing.

Surprise Weddings are Nonconsensual and Icky

Okay, I promise I’ll actually write something for this blog soon, but for now I have another Daily Dot piece, this time about “surprise weddings.” (It’s as icky as it sounds.) Here’s an excerpt:

It’s incredibly ironic that an event meant to celebrate the joining of two people in marriage would be so one-sided, and that consent would be deemed so irrelevant. Relationships aren’t—or shouldn’t be—about one person deciding and creating things for another. They should be about two people building a life together.

In case my reference to “consent” doesn’t make sense, consider this: expressing a desire to have sex with someone doesn’t mean they get to decide unilaterally when and where and how the sex will happen. Agreeing to marry someone doesn’t mean they get to decide unilaterally when and where and how you’ll get married and who the guests will be and what music you’ll have and what types of hors d’oevres will be served. Unless, of course, you tell your partner that you don’t really care about these details and they’re free to do whatever they want with the wedding planning.

Weddings, like the marriages they are meant to celebrate, should be collaborative. That collaboration can mean “We make all the decisions together,” or it can mean “I don’t care, it’s all up to you!”, or it can mean anything in between. Personally, if someone sprung a wedding on me like that, I’d have to have a serious conversation with them about why they don’t think my own wedding preferences matter enough to be taken into account.

You can read the rest here.

One thing I didn’t really have space to get into in the article was the romanticization of surprise itself, and why it is that people find surprises so romantic. I think part of it is just how many people find it fun to be surprised, so it’s nice when a partner surprises them. It also implies a certain amount of effort; secrecy can be hard, and doing things without your partner’s suggestions can be especially hard (such as planning a birthday party they’d like with the friends they’d want to see or buying them a gift they’ll love without asking them what they want).

On the other hand, surprising your partner also means–you guessed it–not having to communicate with them about their desires and preferences. It means being let off the hook if they don’t like it so much because, well, how were you supposed to know! Communication can be fun and exciting, but it can also be difficult and not very exciting. Especially communication about wedding planning.

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.

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.

“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.