The Heterodox Liberal

Thursday, January 12, 2006

The Question to Hugo, Revised.

Hugo's latest, extremely thoughtful post on this issue is here. I also urge everyone to read the first comment, from zuzu, which captures my basic position on the issue and is concise to boot. (Incidentally, speaking of pro-feminist perspectives on copious sex, I encourage everyone to read Suzie Bright's blog, religiously.)

If you want non-concise, read on.

There are two interlocking points in Hugo's post. I'll address them in turn.

1. The inconsistency of Nookie and Freedom.

The crux of Hugo's post is the following:

From my perspective -- and this is only my own, not some edict from the pro-feminist high command -- a man who wishes to be an authentic pro-feminist while getting laid regularly by different women outside of the context of a committed relationship is living out a contradiction where his language and his life don't match.

I recognize within me a temptation to make pro-feminist principles easier for young men to embrace. I'd like to say something shallow and simple like "Hey, dude, as long as you are honest and sincere about your intentions, you can fuck around all you like -- just make sure to say nice things about respecting the humanity of your sexual partner, take equal responsibility for contraception, and be good in bed." It's tempting to give young men a free pass, the sort that allows them to indulge their sexuality with a clean pro-feminist conscience. But as far as I'm concerned, that amounts to giving men a license to objectify and use women as long they cloak their selfishness in pro-feminist rhetoric!

I can't agree with this, even though it is a position that deserves quite a lot of respect. At the basic root level, it buys straight into the claim (so often used by the right as a strawman against the left) that all sex is oppression. No matter how equal the individual sexual relationship (as measured by "[being] honest and sincere about your intentions" and by "tak[ing] equal responsibilty for contraception" and by "be[ing] good in bed," and even by actually (as opposed to just paying lip service to) "respecting the humanity of your sexual partner," the relationship apparently is inherently about "objectify[ing] and us[ing] [the] wom[a]n," unless it falls within some kind of strict category of "the context of a committed relationship."

In all honesty, that claim has a certain intellectual appeal. It is true, for example, that the horrible prevalance of rape taints all male-female sexual relationships. If I get into a relationship with a woman, or talk to one at a bar, she experiences the fear of rape. I do not. This is manifestly oppressive, and it manifestly affects every single heterosexual sexual relationship.

However, the conclusion that "committed relationship" is the only option does not follow. That just replaces one oppression with another. It amounts to something analagous to "letting the terrorists [rapists] win.*" Because, again, it not only denies women's sexual agency, it denies women and men sex, period. This isn't about focusing patronizing advice on young women, or witnessing to brothers and calling them to account. It's about not injuring both women and men in the guise of helping.

Hugo also says:
At its best, pro-feminism is about more than paying lip service to the idea of gender equality. It's about seeing all human beings -- including those human beings whom we find incredibly desirable -- as extraordinarily precious.
Yes, of course that's true. However, I don't see what's inconsistent about a nice roll in the hay between two extraordinarily precious people.

I regret, now, my choice of dramatic phrasing for the end question. I had not intended to focus the whole discussion on men who want sex but can't get it. (Although, see previous post, I think there is a discussion to be had on that issue.) I was trying for the broader question: "why on earth should we constrain the options of either gender, for sex or committed relationships?"

I revise my question at the end of this post. But first:

2. Making feminism more palatable to men.

Hugo rightly notes that a feminist man should first address his criticism to male behavior, and also notes that compromise on feminist principles for men would be a violation of integrity. True, in both cases. While there's certaintly a principles/victory tradeoff (does one compromise to serve the interests of one's allies, and thus recruit them for the cause?), I can't criticize his position on that question.

However, there's an important counterpoint, and it goes back to the controversial Good Older Guy/Bad Older Guy scenario from three posts ago. Briefly: is it fair to make the people with good intentions suffer to prevent a harm, when the people with bad intentions will cause the harm anyway?

For example, suppose you believe that pornography is inherently oppressive. (As my pitching of Suzie Bright's blog suggests, I disagree with that -- but that's beside the point.) You are in the minority (assuming arguendo) in this belief. However, you get pleasure from pornography. Do you buy the porn or not buy the porn?

The "principled" position would be to not buy the porn. However, there's something about that position that seems, well, irrational. There's a whole lot of people who don't care, who will buy the porn. So the porn company will still be happy and profitable. The harms from the production of the porn will continue. Your non-buying of the porn will do absolutely nothing except deprive you of the porn that gives you pleasure. I say buy the porn.

A similar calculus goes into play with something like giving physical compliments. If the small minority of conscious, aware men stops paying physical compliments, it will do absolutely nothing to end the practice, or to reduce the pervasive objectification of women. All it will do is ensure that that group of men (who by definition are the good guys, who care enough to modify their behavior in aid of equality) will have objectively less-good lives, because they can't make the normal move "pay a physical compliment" in the mating game. This is the sense in which I referred to "punishment" earlier. The good guys get worse lives with not contribution to overall justice. ("If compliments are outlawed, only outlaws will pay compliments.")

And now, for the Question, revised, and in two parts.

1. How do we institute the ideals Hugo discusses about committed relationships without injuring both men and women by depriving them of the opportunities for mutually pleasurable sex?


2. How do feminist men compete with non-feminist men in the marketplace for either sex or committed relationships, when non-feminist men do things like hand out physical compliments and date younger women?

* Frankly, I think the solution to rape culture is to harshly enforce the rape laws. If there were a reasonable certainty that rape = 25 years behind bars, a lot of things would be improved.


  • The "principled" position would be to not buy the porn. However, there's something about that position that seems, well, irrational. There's a whole lot of people who don't care, who will buy the porn. So the porn company will still be happy and profitable.

    The response of the typical opposer of porn (a category in which I'd tentatively place myself, although I'm enough of a traditional liberal to oppose legal bans with great vigor) would have to do with a "care of the self/development of healthy sensibilities" kind of answer. I deny myself all sorts of things that would deny me pleasure, because I believe, rightly or wrongly, that those denials will lead to a better me. I'd like to eat about six donuts a day, but I don't because I value my health. It's a more subjective form of health, and a theory you might not buy into, but that would probably be the argument. I think it's a bit naive to think opposition to porn is all about frustation with the profits (or very existence) of the porn industry. I think it's much more about the role porn use plays in the constructions of sexual identity and so on. I'm not sure how much of that I buy, but I'm willing to take the arguments seriously.

    My views of sexual morality are certainly closer to yours than Hugo's, but for some reason your posts put me off a bit more. I think it might be to the sort of Benthamite flavor I sense in your discussions of pleasure and pain.

    By Blogger djw, at 1:46 PM  

  • I must say I'm closer to you philosophically than Hugo as well, (although I respect his position), but I am also somewhat put off by the tone of your posts.

    The "buy the porn" position is inherently incomplete. There are lots of ways to be an active consumer who makes a difference: What about finding porn that's more ethical? What about writing to porn manufacturers about what you'd like to see? What about exploring other ways of satisfying the porn urge? What about only patronizing unionized talent? What about chosing only internet porn where the woman is receiving all of your funds? What about written or drawn erotica? What about activist-burlesque? Simple "everyone else is doing it even though I recognize it's bad I'll just dive in" is distasteful to me because it sounds like a statement that your enjoyment trumps pain that you see and recognize. This is probably more distasteful to me than not seeing the pain in the first place. It's sitting on the laurels of privilege. Don't have to think about it: won't.

    I take actions like I'm suggesting regarding food and clothing choices. Obviously, everything doesn't change overnight; but if we all just tried a *little*, the marketplace would change a lot. They'll sell fair trade if we'll buy fair trade. Look at the explosion of organic foods: people made that happen one request, one slightly different purchase, at a time.

    As for older men/younger women: even outside of feminist discussion, both wolves and cougars get looked at askance. I'm not against this sort of sexual pairing happening, but for younger folks pre-late-twenties, there's a lot of exploration going on regardless of how mature or intelligent the younger person is. In that exploration there's a lot of false starts, a lot of oops-not-that's. An older person with more experience tends to be more sure of themselves. So May-December in whatever direction gender-wise often works out in a power imbalance, and the whole money-for-young-nubile-body comes into play. With both adults consenting, its none of anybody else's business; if I were to be the December, though, I'd be aware of that kind of dynamic.

    I suppose the thing I want for in a partner or friend is not someone who necessarily sees where I'm coming from, but rather someone who cares enough to negotiate with me a way to execute our relationship that respects us both.

    I'm unlikely to go into a relationship with someone who thinks he "gets" me because he "gets" women's issues: I'm unlikely to go into a relationship with someone who won't negotiate changes in his behaviour (which is probably why I find your porn argument offputting): I'm unlikely to get into a relationship with someone who thinks all feminists are the same or all women need the same sort of treatment. So if I were giving you a "get laid" plan, I'd say for pro-feminists it's pretty much like anyone; don't assume, listen, respond with an attitude of mutual negotiation, don't push around, don't get pushed around.

    By Anonymous Arwen, at 3:53 PM  

  • Oh; and the choices for the younger woman are not just Bad Older Guy/Good Older Guy. It's not just a competition between you and the Pope.

    This whole argument is pretty close to the "nice guys can't get laid" argument.

    Here runs the argument (in oversimplified terms):

    Let's say for a second that the *only* way to sleep with a woman is to compliment her on her looks.

    And further, a jerk is someone who compliments a woman on her looks.

    Therefore, the only way to sleep with a woman is to be a jerk.


    This is a false argument to a lot of women because they become the reward for not being a jerk. But as someone said on some board:

    "The Reward For Not Being A Jerk IS NOT BEING A JERK."

    You shouldn't need the reward of sex to prevent you from being "a bad guy". If that's the case, you're probably just a bad guy with some spit shine on 'im.

    Getting laid is another issue entirely.

    All that said, I'm not decided that complimenting a woman on her appearance makes you a jerk; I'm just saying that if you DO think that's the case, then this particular line of reasoning does the woman no favours.

    By Anonymous Arwen, at 4:04 PM  

  • "The Reward For Not Being A Jerk IS NOT BEING A JERK."

    Arwen, I love you. This cuts to chase of why these arguments are so off-putting to me.

    The fact that I may have missed out on some good sex at some point because I erred on the side of caution and respect bothers me about as much as the fact that I don't have a nice stereo system because I passed up an opportunity to steal one once.

    By Blogger djw, at 7:33 PM  

  • Very interesting blog. I will have to come back and read more when I have more time. (Your posts are full of stuff that I want to respond to more fully.)

    By Blogger Will, at 6:10 AM  

  • This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    By Blogger Cattygurl, at 6:15 PM  

  • Re: Rape

    I believe that it's not simply about enforcing rape laws, but having a system of education where root causes of rape, such as sexism, self-entitlement, violence, exploitation, communication and sexual education are discussed.

    It's been proven that punitive systems are not as effective as it would logically seem (look at the drug culture in this country, for example). Also, punitive solutions only work when the fear/blame of victims as a general society and within the law enforcement community
    is no longer an overwhelming issue. This cannot be done through punitive punishments alone- it needs be done through education and understanding of the majority of both genders about issues that are at the root cause of rape (and other societal issues).

    By Blogger Cattygurl, at 6:16 PM  

  • I left a comment on Hugo's post, and would like to leave one here.

    I think the idea of "sex only within a socially standard idea of commitment" and "sex as long as one is responsible" are both somewhat incomplete.

    I think the base ideal of anyone that is interested in social justice (including feminism) is not just about one's responsibility to themselves- i.e. I've covered my ass so you're on your own. It's about responsibility and your effect on others.

    For example, A may tell B that they're interested in noncommital sex, period, and they both mutally agree at the time. However, as time gones by, the situation changes, and A continues to engage in sex with B even when B has expressed desire for more, and tries to evade the discussion... is questionable. While B has a degree of responsibility to his/her own well-being, that does not excuse A from exploiting the situation for A's own benefit. If A is a truly ethical person, A would stop the sexual activity, communicate clearly about his/her intention, and discuss the topic, and move onto a more appropriate partner rather than saying, "I told B wassup. I'll milk the situation as long as I want 'cause it's working for me."

    I personally believe that a mutually respectful, sexual relationship can occur outside of a marriage or long-term, monogamous relationship.
    I believe the key to ethical and/or feminist person's general guide to sex is to respect the partner as a human being with needs, consider their interest as well as yours, have an interest in a situation that is mutually agreed upon and open to communication (and termination for both parties without repurcussion), and be actively willing to extract oneself from an exploitative/one-sided relationship.

    It doesn't matter if a person practices safe sex, uses and/or willing to pay for contraceptives, and/or is clear about his or her intentions when they have no qualms about picking a partner or staying in a situation where they are at an obvious advantage.

    People often confuse "respecting the humanity of their partner" as covering my ass. Respecting the humanity of others mean being morally and ethically vigilant of one's own actions and the effect on their partners.

    By Blogger Cattygurl, at 6:43 PM  


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