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Apr 09 2014

That’s a progressive sexual politics?

Comment is Free has a supremely stupid piece saying that it ought to be fine to make “a direct, unambiguous sexual advance” to a total stranger, and it’s a terrible thing that this pesky feminism shit is saying otherwise.

David Foster, the author of the supremely stupid piece, is worried that the Everyday Sexism project is making the world unfriendly for people who want to make direct sexual advances to strangers.

The campaign against everyday sexism has shown that a deeply unpleasant vein of misogyny still runs through our society. But in highlighting the antisocial, misguided behaviour of some unreconstructed individuals, it is important to be aware that such behaviour is not representative of most men’s attitudes. More worryingly, from the perspective of a progressive sexual politics there is a danger that the campaign is promulgating a view that any direct sexual advance is tantamount to harassment. If directly propositioning somebody for sex is automatically condemned as misogynist, as the campaign appears to assert, then the movement risks being highly counterproductive to the feminist cause and playing into the hands of the sexually repressive, patriarchal ideology that feminism strives to counter.

One of the ways the piece is supremely stupid is that he doesn’t spell out what he means by “directly propositioning somebody for sex” until near the end. That’s supremely stupid because it makes a difference, obviously. Who is “somebody”? Is it somebody you’ve been flirting with for an hour? Or is it somebody approaching you on the sidewalk, whom you’ve never seen before? It makes a difference. Toward the end he clarifies that he means the second. He’s speaking up for the endangered right to ask a stranger for sex.

Most of the behaviour reported to Laura Bates’s Everyday Sexism project does indeed sound reprehensible, but by lumping together sexual assaults and genuinely threatening behaviour with casual propositions, the campaign risks conflating deplorable and even criminal acts with sexually liberated expression. More to the point, there is a risk of comparing offensive and clumsy sexual remarks with respectful, courteous sexual advances.

A respectful, courteous sexual advance from a complete stranger in a public place is an oxymoron. Going up to a woman you don’t know and asking her very nicely if she wants to fuck you is not respectful and courteous.

Foster draws the line in the wrong place. It’s not sexual assault and genuinely threatening behaviour on the one hand and all courteous, respectful, direct, unambiguous sexual advances on the other. That’s not where the line goes. Yes, I understand why a lot of men would like it to, but the whole issue here is the notion that their desire to make direct sexual advances whenever they want to should not trump other people’s desire not to be the object of direct sexual advances at all times and places.

Feminists quite rightly espouse that both women and men should have the right to pursue sexual pleasure purely for its own sake, outside of a monogamous relationship, and independent of the patriarchal strictures of consumer capitalism. As such, there is nothing inherently sexist, or threatening or harassing, about making a direct, unambiguous sexual advance to another person. We are conditioned to find such propositions taboo because an expression of straightforward, unencumbered desire transgresses prevailing ideology.

Again – that’s true in the right context and circumstances. It’s not true in the context David Foster has in mind but doesn’t spell out until nearly the end of the piece. He occludes what he means by “another person” until after he’s done all this self-righteous generalizing. Cheap trick.

Then we get some Marcuse and Freud. Capitalism, restraints, civilized society, money, spending and consumption, ding ding toot toot. Therefore, hey, baby, wanna fuck?

Sexual gratification pursued for its own sake is an activity that need take little or no account of such concerns, and so behaviour that might give rise to such pleasure is thereby tabooed. This is why, despite our natural instincts towards seeking sexual pleasure, direct sexual advances remain extremely uncommon and why such an approach should not be condemned as harassment, but on the contrary should be recognised as a liberated approach to sexual etiquette and thus be welcomed by feminists, sexual progressives and anti-capitalists alike.

No, that is not why, you dolt. Think of it this way. Would you like it if strangers kept approaching you to ask you to make dinner for the two of you? Or go to a concert with them? Or fly with them to Disney World?

Maybe you would, but I doubt it. Lots of things are fun to do with friends and intimates that are nevertheless not things you want strangers asking you to do. And that’s without even getting into the intimidation and threat aspect. (I can tell you, spending time in a place where you really are subject to constant relentless direct sexual advances is massively intimidating. It’s not oh lalalala freedom joy liberation hooray, it’s a hell of unfreedom and feeling pursued and under pressure. It’s feeling like a person who has no right to be left alone – like an object, an underling, a captive, a hunted animal. It’s vile.)

The behavioural codes of contemporary society already make it extremely difficult for both men and women to approach strangers with a view towards making sexual advances. This should be a source of regret to us all. There is no shame in feeling and expressing sexual attraction, and we should be promoting conditions that give rise to as much mutual sexual pleasure as possible. After all, it’s one of the greatest pleasures life offers. And it’s free! Of course, this very freedom exemplifies why unencumbered sexual pleasure presents such a problem for those who would support the sexually repressive ideologies that still prevail today.

The supreme stupidity is just too much at this point. That’s the bit where he finally reveals that he is indeed talking about abrupt sexual advances from strangers, and where he betrays that he has all the empathy of a sofa cushion. It’s apparently never even crossed his mind that a lot of people just don’t want to be accosted by strangers at all, let alone with a request to fuck.

We can all agree that aggressive, lewd behaviour is deplorable. But what lies behind some of the crude and boorish conduct catalogued by the Everyday Sexism project is repressed sexuality. It is only by becoming more sexually liberated that those energies might come to be expressed in a respectful way. To promote the outright condemnation of any and all direct sexual propositions* would be a disastrously regressive step for the feminist movement. It is a clear indication of how much ground the left has ceded in recent decades that any of this needs restating at all. Whatever happened to the sexual revolution?

*by strangers. He left that bit out again. Nobody is promoting the outright condemnation of any and all direct sexual propositions. The issue is not direct sexual propositions as such, it’s direct sexual propositions by strangers. He’s not only supremely stupid, he’s also chickenshit. He takes this bold liberationist stance but at the same time he only once explicitly says he’s talking about advances from strangers. So, pretty much an everyday sexist then.

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  1. 1
    Kausik Datta

    “Supremely stupid” is le mot juste. Sexual activity is a participatory activity between consenting partners. Why is it so difficult for these idiots to comprehend the concept of consent?

  2. 2
    Ibis3, Let's burn some bridges

    Even direct propositions by strangers could be okay, say, in a nightclub or on a hookup site, but are *not* okay on a street (especially a deserted one, or one at night), a workplace, an elevator (yes, I went there) or other enclosed space (including public transit), or at the daycare when picking up the kids. Why is this so hard to understand?

  3. 3
    Jean

    I’m sure he would say that he would love to receive those propositions but I think he’d change his mind if he was receiving them 20 times a day from big menacing looking men. Even if they were very polite about it.

  4. 4
    Menyambal

    Generally speaking, the kind of people who will have sex with total strangers just for the asking, are the kind of people you don’t want to have sex with.

    Generally speaking, the kind of people who have to ask total strangers for sex, are the kind of people you don’t want to have sex with.

    Look, if you want to have sex with total strangers, just for the asking, go to an orgy. The streets and public places are not orgies.

    Does this guy have no social skills at all?

    Look, dude, you can make eye contact, smile, approach, flirt and suggest, all pretty damn fast, IF the other person is reciprocating at each step.

    You can even, if the stars are right, get to the sex without words at all.

    But you cannot ask total strangers for sex when they are not interested in you.

  5. 5
    besomyka

    @3 And every 21st one ends up with an explicit death threat, which is why those other 20 *feel* so menacing in the first place.

  6. 6
    Blanche Quizno

    “We can all agree that aggressive, lewd behaviour is deplorable. ”

    Propositioning a stranger is, thus, deplorable.

  7. 7
    Giliell, professional cynic -Ilk-

    I object.
    I’m pretty sure my sofa cushions have way more empathy.
    Dude, being propositioned by a total stranger for sex is damn threatening because all women know enough stories about what happened to women who politely said “no”.
    If he actually read the “Everyday Sexism” entries he’d know how often and quickly those “polite propositions” escalate.

  8. 8
    opposablethumbs

    I hope his frozen peaches shrivel up and drop off the twig. Self-satisfied disingenuous empathy-free fuckwit that he is.

  9. 9
    A. Noyd
    More to the point, there is a risk of comparing offensive and clumsy sexual remarks with respectful, courteous sexual advances.

    A respectful, courteous sexual advance from a complete stranger in a public place is an oxymoron.

    No kidding. What the hell is this guy on? There is not any such risk because I don’t have an obligation to consider the intentions of the person propositioning me. I get to set my own boundaries and determine when people are being respectful and courteous towards me.

    And the stupid fucker seems to want women to do all the work of changing culture for him so he can ask strangers to fuck. But here’s the thing: propositioning strangers requires ignoring (or starting out in ignorance of) their individual preferences and reducing them to bodies to be fucked. Some people might want the kind of sex that’s just about bodies and not much about the person, which is fine in theory. But patriarchy constantly reduces women to fuckable (or unfuckable) bodies whose personhood is irrelevant, so we really don’t need more of that.

  10. 10
    quixote

    It seems valid to assume that Mr. Whatshisname would like to live in a world where he’s propositioned by strange women. So his article should have been a plea for men to stop bothering women, for men to wear a rose in their hair or some damn thing when they want to announce availability, and then for women to start accosting strangers for sex. Then all he’d have to do is wait.

    He should make himself comfortable. It might be a while.

  11. 11
    kagekiri

    Fun little tidbit: Foster’s Twitter is protected, probably because he doesn’t want to deal with un-invited comments from strangers when in a public forum like Twitter, or deal with the fallout from the drippingly condescending shit he writes. Fair enough, that’s his prerogative.

    Yet he struggles to imagine why women would like to be free of dealing with un-invited comments from strangers when in public meatspace, with actual physical intimidation becoming a factor, and somehow claims it must be because women are sexually repressed.

    What a fucking hypocritical shit-heap.

  12. 12
    tigtog

    kagekiri, that’s priceless. I bet he hates spammers too, and fails to see the parallels there either.

  13. 13
    iknklast

    My years as a young woman were a mine field. People honestly believe they have the right to say anything to you if you’re young, female, and pretty. In some ways, it was good to get older and put on a little weight, except now I am totally a non-person. You go from being an object to being nothing at all. All the years of education and experience that have sharpened my mind are ignored, because I am no longer young enough to be interesting to the horny.

  14. 14
    funknjunk

    @4 “Look, dude, you can make eye contact, smile, approach, flirt and suggest, all pretty damn fast, IF the other person is reciprocating at each step. ” EXACTLY. I was thinking while reading this post that it was all about picking nits with the perfectly normal sexual social dance. And people like this guy actually have a problem with WHAT exactly? Having to spend 5-10 minutes chatting up someone who they think just might be in the same venue looking for the same thing they are (eg. Casual sex)? Because with two people on the same page, that can happen damn near instantaneously. Uh, not in MY experience, but I’ve seen it ….. :—-)

  15. 15
    BrainyOne

    He actually has a point – many restrictions on sexuality actually are the result of patriarchal culture. His logic fail is assuming all are. Some are the result of rape culture – and they will unfortunately need to stay until and unless rape culture can be done away with. One can, however, in theory, imagine a world without rape culture and the resulting fear in women. Some are however just the result of plain old common sense and decent human behavior. Even in a feminist paradise we’re not going to have people doing it in the hallway at work.

  16. 16
    Ophelia Benson

    Well, plus, even in a feminist paradise we’re not going to have everybody wanting to fuck everybody, or even everybody inviting everybody. What this bullshit of Foster’s really means is he wants men to be totally free to hit on every woman they consider hot. He doesn’t mean he wants ugly old fat women hitting on him and he doesn’t mean he wants to be free to hit on them.

  17. 17
    scyllacat

    So VERY important that we shouldn’t tar all men with the same brush. So VERY important that we not risk Alienating them by making them think they’re going to be accused of misogyny when they casually hit on us any time they feel like it… sometimes as the basis of all contact. Yes, a terrible risk that men afraid of the awesome power of feminine scorn will not be ABLE to randomly proposition any hot young thing they see…. and then water will become dry, shit will roll uphill, and the powerful will be persecuted. Right, buddy. Sorry, I have to go bang my head on something until I can’t remember this.

  18. 18
    A. Noyd

    BrainyOne (#14)

    He actually has a point – many restrictions on sexuality actually are the result of patriarchal culture.

    Which is hardly a point feminists are ignorant of, since feminists came up with it. So maybe instead of acting like he needs to teach us feminism, he should be asking what he himself is missing that would reasonably keep feminists (and women in general) from jumping on board with his sex-begging free-for-all vision of the world.

  19. 19
    Feminace, formerly Qurikythrope

    …what definition of “progressive” is this guy working with?

  20. 20
    Bjarte Foshaug

    Why should the sex-card always be on the table anyway? The very fact that somebody else is thinking of you in that way can be uncomfortable and awkward enough when the interest is not mutual. Propositioning somebody without even making a minimal effort to find out if they’re interested, basically means you don’t care how uncomfortable you are making others if it might help you get laid. One of the main points of the Schrödinger’s Rapist article was that that in itself says a lot about you, and it’s not flattering. Why should women trust you to respect their boundaries in any area, if you have already made it clear that you don’t care about their feelings (at least not enough to prevent you from seeking personal gratification on their expense)?

    Call me “sex negative”*, but I don’t even think there’s an unproblematic way to establish whether or not the other person is interested in the first place, which is why no one should ever have to opt out of the sex-market. The burden should be on those who want to be hit on to opt in. It is never acceptable to proposition somebody unless you know they’re interested, and – at least in an opt out system – you can never know they’re interested unless you’ve already propositioned them, by which time the damage may already be done. As long as the sex-card is always on the table, you are always going to have some harassment going on, which is why there’s an irreducible tension between “sex positivity” and “harassment negativity”.

    But what lies behind some of the crude and boorish conduct catalogued by the Everyday Sexism project is repressed sexuality.

    There are definitely men who would benefit from a healthy dose of sexual repression (The more the better, I say). If you can behave like that and live with yourself, sexual repression is the least of your problems. The real problem is that you’re not sexually repressed enough. The kind of behavior documented by ES should be too embarrassing and humiliating for anyone to even think about, let alone engage in. Abolishing shame and embarrassment altogether was never a worthwhile goal to begin with.
    ______________________________________________________________________________
    *There’s a certain irony to the fact that “sex negative” always reminds me of “angry atheist”.

  21. 21
    Tauriq Moosa

    I’ll be doing a fisking later, but I left a comment: http://discussion.theguardian.com/comment-permalink/34150155

    Thanks for this, Ophelia.

  22. 22
    Giliell, professional cynic -Ilk-

    iknklast
    Yep, ten years and 30kg less were definitely worse in terms of harassment and assault.
    Still now there are guys who think that “fat woman” means
    A) I should be grateful for every bit of male attention I can get
    B) they can hide perfectly behind “who would harass such a woman”

    As for the patriarchal sexual norms that have to go:
    The most effective thing against harassment was to have a legitimate “owner”.
    One night at a club I was so sick and tired of all the dudes who thought they could just grope me that I asked my partner to stand on the dancefloor so I could dance around him (he does not dance). The fact that I didn’t want to be groped and touched was totally irrelevant. The fact that there was a guy having a monopoply on touching me, well that mattered.

    +++
    BTW, I can think of about three ways to get casual sex at the top of my head and I’m not even interested in casual sex. Really, how incompetent at life do you have to be if you’re not able to find those places where it’s OK to ask for casual sex because that’s why people are there?

  23. 23
    Amy Clare

    What a horrible article, and as usual for CiF many of the comments add insult to injury. While trying to argue that men are not all a bunch of narcissistic predators, the author and his fans come off as narcissistic and predatory. *slow clap*

  24. 24
    mildlymagnificent

    …what definition of “progressive” is this guy working with?

    I suspect that it’s a Rip Van Winkle moment coming from a “progressive” male someone who went into a deeeep sleep some time early in the 70s and woke up yesterday.

    This shit is exactly the kind of crap that too many “progressive” men of the various protest and social activist movements of the time used to loudly proclaim after having taken barely a breath from a previous statement of “support” for women’s equality. Many of these clowns claimed to be feminist. What they actually said to the activist women standing beside them amounted to a demand for sex backed up by ‘splaining that the pill meant that they didn’t have to worry about pregnancy. We’re all free sexual beings and “we” don’t believe in all that old-fashioned marriage stuff, do “we”. So what’s your problem?

  25. 25
    Amy Clare

    Laura Bates from Everyday Sexism has written a rebuttal:

    http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/womens-blog/2014/apr/10/sexual-harassment-flirting-six-differences

    But again many commenters are pretending not to get it. I don’t think I’d realised how entrenched the sense of entitlement and correspondent lack of empathy is among some guys. They really do seem to think that ‘How am I supposed to get sex?’ is the most important question in this discussion, and that when walking from A to B women’s thought processes ought to consist of ‘I hope a strange man will hit on me today’ and not ‘I hope that presentation went ok’ or ‘I’d better call the hospital and check on my grandmother’, etc. Disturbing.

  26. 26
    Jackie

    Giliell,
    Yes to all of that. Being fat is no protection from harassment. I’ve had a gay male friend pretend to be “with me” so that I could be left alone. One guy even apologized TO HIM for hitting on me.

  27. 27
    BrainyOne

    @20:

    Bullshit.

    Believe it or not, sex sometimes happens without the man acting like a creep – in fact, it happens quite a lot without the man acting like a creep. And believe it or not, it is actually possible for a man to show sexual interest in a woman without being a creep – and (gasp) women actually sometimes like it and respond to it.

    If you can’t distinguish between healthy and unhealthy sexuality, then you’ve got a big problem you need to address, but it won’t be solved by “repressing” sexuality.

  28. 28
    Rebecca Griffin

    Supremely stupid is right. If you can’t tell the difference between sexual harassment and sexual liberation, you’re doing something wrong. Foster obviously completely misunderstands sex-positive feminism. I wrote more about that on my blog as well: http://ow.ly/vEh88

  29. 29
    Marius

    And of course Richard Dawkins liked the article. What a piece of shit.

  30. 30
    =8)-DX

    Dawkins once more putting his foot in this one – another of his tweets further down the thread basically says that public requests for sex are ok, because one of his professor pals was asked for a fuck while merrily strolling along the bridge and he felt great.

  1. 31
    Men cry foul cos evil feminism makes hitting on women more difficult » The Indelible Stamp

    […] Ophelia also has some important insight, as […]

  2. 32
    The Reading List, 4/16/2014 » Almost Diamonds

    […] That’s a progressive sexual politics?–”He’s speaking up for the endangered right to ask a stranger for sex.” […]

  3. 33
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    […] Ayaan Hirsi Ali and CAIR–”Our choice shouldn’t be English Defence League or George Galloway. Our choice cannot be outright xenophobia and racism or rolling over and giving up.” […]

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