I had a discussion with James at Facebook, but we fundamentally disagree. I don’t think more discussion (on this subject) would be productive.
(What we disagreed about is that his view is: men have the right to ask women [politely] for sex, even if they are total strangers and it’s out of the blue, and it’s akin to racism to make a social or moral rule saying they shouldn’t do that. My view is: women’s right not to be pestered in that way trumps men’s right to invite stranger women to have sex.)
That was that, but I saw this morning that James had flagged up his recent FK post on the subject on Abbie Smith’s thread (the one full of “cunt” and “fucking bitch” and all the rest of the thoughtful, non-sexist vocabulary), so I read/skimmed it. The core claim that I disagree with is there, so…I’ll say why I disagree with it. (Facebook is a crappy venue for a complicated discussion, which is another reason I didn’t pursue the one with James there.)
James starts with something PZ said back in July:
There is an odd attitude in our culture that it’s acceptable for men to proposition women in curious ways — Rebecca Watson recently experienced this in an elevator in Dublin, and I think this encounter Ophelia Benson had reflects the same attitude: women are lower status persons, and we men, as superior beings, get to ask things of them. Also as liberal, enlightened people, of course, we will graciously accede to their desires, and if they ask us to stop hassling them, we will back off, politely. Isn’t that nice of us?
It’s not enough. Maybe we should also recognize that applying unwanted pressure, no matter how politely phrased, is inappropriate behavior.
Unwanted pressure? Unwanted?
Here is where the problem lies: a man generally cannot know until after attempting the proposition that it was unwanted. Not only that – it is, after all, also possible for a proposition to be unwanted at first but for the recipient of the proposition to change her mind after persuasion.
This basically means you can’t really tell if your advance is unwanted unless you actually make your move first, and even when the person seems initially reluctant, she can still be persuaded to take you up on it and can later find herself having fun. That said, there is an interesting debate to be had here about what degree of persuasion one might say is acceptable.
Yes, it is at least formally true that you can never tell if an advance is unwanted unless you make it. However it is also true that requests for friendship or conversation or sex or similar levels of intimacy from total strangers are not generally wanted, for fairly obvious reasons: we don’t know you. Friendship and conversation and sex are for people we know at least a little. In some situations this can mean just 5 minutes of chat, but it means that. It doesn’t mean a man walking up to a woman and making an invitation. This rule that James calls “arbitrary” makes it possible to walk around in the world without being constantly subject to interference from strangers. The end of that rule would mean women would not have that freedom until they hit age 40 or so.
Human interaction is complicated thing. I would be curious to see how feminists would propose to delineate between scenarios like these, and those in which the offer was completely rejected despite attempts at persuasion – in such a way that the determination that the advances were completely unwanted can be made prior to actually making the advance. Can it be done? Is it possible to establish a meaningful and consistent default position on the matter? I highly doubt it – there is simply too much ambiguity.
I wouldn’t propose to delineate between them. I would say I don’t care about delineating between them, because I don’t want strangers “persuading” me to do what they want in the first place. Here’s what you do: if it’s a situation where you can flirt with the person first, then there’s your opportunity for persuasion. Seize it. If it’s not – then that’s just too bad. That’s one person you’re not in a position to invite to have sex with you. You can, of course, and as James says you have a “right” to – it’s not illegal. But you shouldn’t. It’s rude, it’s vulgar, it’s intrusive, it’s self-absorbed, it’s obnoxious…and it’s sexist.
The solution to such ambiguity is simple – as a way forward, women who attend atheist-skeptic conferences that are absolutely certain they don’t want to be hit on should wear a clearly visible “do not proposition me” sign on their backs. If not, maybe a colour-code can be designated for such women by the event organisers – let’s say, red – and then it could be announced that all women wearing red clothes should not be propositioned or approached by strangers. But will they do this? Most probably not. They will, in all likelihood, protest that it should not be incumbent upon them to make clear to others not to hit on them – yet at the same time they want to be in a public conference where human beings, the highly sexual creatures they are, are freely interacting.
I don’t think they can’t have it both ways. Feminists need to take responsibility for the things they are asking for. Either visibly label yourself as unapproachable, or expect that during the course of a conference a person who takes an interest in you might proposition you, as it is their right to do so. It is also your right to decline such an offer. If you have a problem with this, then just don’t attend these conferences. And its as simple as that.
Just stay at home, in purdah, in other words. “Simple” indeed.
Now…maybe there is some room for maneuver here. Maybe James is thinking of a conference as the equivalent of 5 minutes chatting – as a kind of introduction in itself. I’ve been thinking about the street (or it might be a bus, or the supermarket) in what I’ve said. But even with a conference-as-introduction – as I’ve said before, an invitation for coffee in the afternoon is one thing, while the same in an elevator going up at 4 in the morning is quite another. Given that that’s the invitation in dispute, there’s still probably not much room for maneuver.