Friday, February 16, 2018

When even yes isn't yes.

In the beginning, there was “No means No.” Simple, direct. Which, of course, meant that it couldn't stand. Thus did it beget “Yes means Yes.” And now the noisy, inefficient engine of sexual politics has spewed into the dating environment a pair of new doctrines that further pollute the meaning of consent: "the enthusiastic Yes" and "sex after Yes." Taken together, they represent something like sex as Rube Goldberg might design it. [See below "fold."]

The two ideologies have long percolated in online feminist forums and academia's Women’s Studies wing (which sometimes seems to exist solely to make men out as criminals and make women feel guilty about bothering with us at all). They were brought to the fore by the controversy over what did or did not occur on an ill-fated date between actor Aziz Ansari and a pseudonymous woman, “Grace.” By now you almost surely know what Grace says: that Ansari repeatedly misread signals, pressuring her into unwanted sexual activity. Worse, feminists have painted him as an archetype for men as a class. As Emily Reynolds writes in the Guardian, “Ansari’s behavior was normal—and therein lies its true horror.” Reynolds and others insist that Grace's nonverbal cues should have alerted Ansari to her unease. In his defense, he might have been misled by the fact that Grace, by her own admission, accepted oral sex within minutes of arriving at his apartment after dinner and then reciprocated minutes later; perhaps Ansari interpreted those activities as nonverbal cues. Be that as it may, feminist theorists claim that such contretemps could be avoided by the requirement for men to receive the sort of ecstatic, unambiguous Yes that Grace never spoke.

One has trouble seeing how. Suppose a man intuits that a woman’s Yes is sufficiently forthright; are we to infer that if he honestly overestimates her ardor, he has become guilty of assault? It seems bizarre to put men in the position of having to decode the enthusiasm of a Yes rather than instructing women to bellow forth with an enthusiastic, unambiguous No.

But let's say the man does indeed think he detects a note of ambivalence in his partner's Yes. Is he obliged to function as human chastity belt and moral overseer for an adult woman who has indicated, however subtly, her agreement to sex? Even in healthy marriages, if both partners had to swear to giddy anticipation before each bedroom episode, conjugal intimacy would likely cease forevermore. For that matter, any given bride and groom will feel a surge of trepidation on their wedding day itself, after years of a well-considered relationship that presumably led them to this halcyon moment. Are those ad hoc qualms to be perceived as a talisman of doom that warrants more debate and procrastination?

Women will retort that men need to understand the nurturing, conciliatory nature of the female psyche: Here's the Washington Post's Molly Roberts on the Ansari controversy: “We know how it happens. A man wants sex after an evening out, and a woman feels obligated to comply... Even when she’s not enjoying herself, she thinks she should be, and she tries hard to convince herself nothing is wrong until—maybe that night, maybe the next morning—it becomes too clear to ignore.”

So there you have it. A woman acquiesces to the most intimate act between two humans—with a human she's not that into, no less—and it's still the guy's fault.

But that's not even the full extent of male culpability. Reynolds' emphasis on the woman's lack of enjoyment hints at the second postmodern wrinkle in the bed-sheets: sex after Yes. This paradigm, championed by leading feminist writer Linda Traister and a cadre of other young female voices, indicts the so-called “orgasm gap,” edging us ever closer to a definition of consensual sex wherein a woman's Yes is conditioned on the man's commitment to providing a quality sexual experience. 

A man who falls short has, in failing to satisfy the woman, also failed to satisfy the terms on which the sex was premised. He is guilty of, retroactively, nonconsenual sex. Canadian writer Tamar Dina further argues that consensual sex in which the woman does not thoroughly enjoy herself is dehumanizing and akin to assault, because it reduces her to little more than a “gatekeeper to men's desires.” Or As Sady Doyle puts it in Elle, genuinely consensual sex “requires all parties to be visibly happy, turned on, and vocally expressing enthusiasm throughout the encounter.” 

Without a doubt, millions of women commit to sex during which they are never visibly happy or vocally expressing enthusiasm, then wake up hating themselves for going along with a man's seduction. But they went along. Lukewarm or not, they agreed to sex. Moreover, buyer's remorse is hardly unique to the bedroom. Many of us experience transient misgivings over virtually every meaningful decision or discretionary purchase. And lest you think it unseemly to compare sex to buying a new car or big-screen TV, consider: It wasn't so long ago that leading feminist voices were exhorting women to indulge their physical desires sans strings or regrets: “It's just sex!” Today some of those same figures would lard the sexual experience with a veritable manifesto of caveats and assurances that not only require men to be psychic but, for sheer sobriety, rival the vows exchanged before couples say “I do.” 

All of which could be avoided by exhorting unwilling women to state, unequivocally, “I won't.”


Jenny said...

Another thought-provoking one, Steve. Do you think we should raise or lower our expectations about sexual experiences, generally? Most of us want sex to be good and yet when it isn’t, disappointment can lead to blaming... someone, often the partner because surely the problem’s not you. ;) It’s a tough subject to talk about, though, because each experience has its own features. One thing I can say with certainty is after being with the same man (and no other) for thirty years, and still “doing it” once in a blue moon, my search for meaning in life, such as it may be, tends to happen more often outside than inside the bedroom, while clothed rather than unclothed. Nothing against nudity, mind you. And I’m genuinely sad for people who have been sexually abused, especially when the abuse happened in childhood. You cover a lot of ground here. I wasn’t aware of the situation with the actor you mention, but will look it up now.

Steve Salerno said...

You know, Jenny, my introduction to sex was such that I grew up thinking that a man's job was to please a woman. His pleasure was secondary. It was a bizarre experience that took shape when I was just 13, and lasted till I was 15, and set the pattern for who I am as a sexual being. It never occurred to me that there were men who simply didn't care whether or not it was good for the woman. It never occurred to me that there were men who could enjoy sex with an ambivalent (or even unwilling) partner. In my sexual world, every woman climaxed every time. (If I sound hopelessly out of touch, consider that this girl was my whole world, and I was a loner, not the type of guy who ever had "buddies," so I wasn't in the loop. As I think I've said on this blog, I've never had a friend as an adult.) Then I grew up and became aware of the "orgasm gap" and also how many men were selfish, even brutish about sex. So I agree with some of these latter-day feminists in theory: A man does owe it to a woman to make it good for her. To try his damnedest, anyway. But is bad sex (or bad faith sex) rape? Sorry, no way.

Jenny said...

Hi again, Steve. I cannot understand how anyone, male or female, could possibly enjoy sex with an ambivalent or unwilling partner. Where’s the joy in that? The experience ought to be reciprocal. We all deserve respect and we all need love, whether sexual or platonic. Consent isn’t some ambiguous concept; it’s people willing to explore each other physically, emotionally, and intellectually in a way that benefits each person. Why are we here if not to get to really know one another? As friends or as lovers, depending on circumstance. Chemistry is certainly a factor, too. There is also the matter of consent as “defined by when it is taken away, rather than when it is given; consent is taken away under circumstances including coercion, intoxication and abuse of power.” (The quote is from What is consent?)

Just my .02. I hope others will comment, too.

Rodg said...

Hi Steve and Jenny this is old Rodg again. I hate to sound like a cranky old chauvinist but I mourn for the old days when male-female relationships simply worked, and we didn't have to negotiate every single deal point like we were putting together one of the mergers I used to do. There were unwritten rules and both genders abided by them and simple misunderstandings did not result in allegations of rape, as they do now. Men didn't lose their careers because they tried for a kiss too aggressively or patted a woman's behind; which they shouldn't do we all agree but does that deserve the penalty of professional death?

I have to believe that it's a TRULY SMALL minority of men who would force themselves on a woman in the true sense of the phrase. And if there's no physical force involved how can you hold a man accountable for a seduction? They're trying to rewrite all the rules of dating and courtship and sexual etiquette and it's insane.

I'm so glad I was born back when I was so I didn't have to deal with all this garbage.

Anonymous said...

I could tell just by the image you used with this post that you're a pig and you proved me right. On twitter and elsewhere you demean the idea of the patriarchy and all that though you are a perfectly awful living example. Just wait till your granddaughters get harassed then talk to me Steve

Steve Salerno said...

It's good to know that men can post well-reasoned opinions on meaningful topics without being attacked on a personal basis FOR BEING MEN.

Henriette said...

Hey Steve, a little bit on, a little bit off topic, but I thought of you when I read about the whole Big Foot Robbins/#MeToo Movement scandal. You always knew and said he was a big lug, but now the public knows he is a big misogynistic lug.

Steve Salerno said...

Thank you for reappearing, Henriette. We've missed you.

Far be it for me to defend Robbins, but I think you know what I'm going to say. We've reached the point in our culture where if your'e a man and you have anything to say about #MeToo that isn't gloriously supportive in all respects, you're gonna get tarred and feathered. As poor Matt Damon discovered. I think I know what Tony meant; you have to realize, his whole shtick is about personal power and avoiding victimhood, and so you can't expect him to get behind a movement that encourages women--as I really think #MeToo does--to regard themselves as totally lacking in agency and forever under the spell of sex-hungry men.

I may actually write a piece about this. Thank you again for adding this clip.

Henriette said...

I knew what you were going to say, but you must see the irony and humor in Jolly Green Giant Robbins meeting a burp with a movement like #MeToo. I mean he is on his fourth stripper bride, not that there is anything wrong with that, isn't he? He must at least understand something of the culture he has partaken in. It would be hard for him to "strengthen your way to the good life" against the "MeToo Movement without looking like what he is, a lying lug. I just thought it was a very funny cosmic joke that couldn't have happened to a better swindler. It's like the saying about the murderer who went to prison for the wrong murder, does it really matter if the murderer is in prison?
It would be a great subject to write about, because how do the pushers of #MeToo deal with the goody tidings of the universe that the Big O believes in? These are radically different ideas with the Big O front and center. We live in strange times.

Steve Salerno said...

You make excellent points, Henriette, but I do have one major quibble:

Strange times? I think not. Authentically bizarre times.

RevRon's Rants said...

Hi Steve,
Another long-truant old timer here. I grew up in those supposedly idyllic, "simpler" times. Like all objects that inspire nostalgia, those "simpler" times are the product of selective memory, stripped of the flaws that would render them less idyllic.

In "simpler" times, the man was understood to be the dominant figure in the majority of all manner of relationships - romantic, professional, social, political... the list goes on. The Rule of Thumb, while not generally overtly promoted, was still in place. Many women and children were abused by the patriarchs in their lives, but knew better than to discuss such treatment, much less to report it. As a result, many girls grew into womanhood accepting that what a man wanted, they were tacitly expected to provide. Although violence was not always evident, inappropriate expectations were. Children were expected to be subservient and silent, and learned at an early age that should they tell anyone about the treatment they endured, they wouldn't be believed, anyway. Silence and acquiescence became the sides of the primary directive coin.

Only recently have women and children spoken up about inappropriate behavior, but we still have a long way to go, as their most impassioned pleas for justice have too often been met with derision and threats. The few who level false accusations only serve to further set back the cause of fairness, and public responses seem to be based more upon some unrelated aspect of the complainants' ideology or experiences.

On a lighter note, I see that you're still besieged by the angry anonymi, to whom I would likely respond with something like, "I got your innuendo right here!" Life must be so frustrating from the cheap seats, and the hunger for and terror of actually setting public foot on the field must be ironically so compelling. I'll pretend to feel their pain. :-)