Monday, July 20, 2009

Modesty, Rape, Frankness and Consent, by Paul Spencer

[image is from here]

What follows is a piece submitted for publication to this blog by someone I know.

Modesty, Rape, Frankness and Consent
by Paul Spencer

I’m reading a book at the moment called Pornography: Men Possessing Women by Andrea Dworkin. (Unfortunately, it’s not because I’m really healthy and comfortably pro-feminist but as part of a project at the request of others to challenge my dodgy, sexist behaviours and attitudes.) It led me to a series of thoughts about the way romance and sexual relationships work in our society.

Part of Dworkin’s thinking is that the accepted understanding of romance is a formalised and civilised veneer for an underlying conquest in which men are empowered and women are used as objects through which men experience their power. A woman’s romantic role is to flirt and be desired, to resist and be chased, to be caught, to give in and be conquered. And to love the experience. A man’s role on the other hand is to be pro-active, choose his woman, pursue her, seduce her and be the active agent in making love to her.

While I can intellectually find gaps in the story and bring up examples of how it isn’t so, it rings very soundly true and I know unmistakably that that is the teaching I’ve had all my life about what romance is. The relationship is so commonplace that it’s hard to notice how horrible it is. When the best a woman can expect is to be seduced by a man who is civilised enough to take his time and buy her wine, but the background power relationship stays the same, the step from there to rape is a very short one: just a momentary loss of civilised values on a par with drunken fights or stealing someone’s property.

My thinking is that the practice of romance as currently conceived depends on a certain shyness and reluctance to talk about sexual issues. For the romance to proceed properly, the relationship must be developed by feel, with both parties aware of the tension that comes ultimately from playing a power game and a game of predator and prey. A woman’s coyness is attractive in this game because it signals her submission in the first place to the rules of the game. Similarly a man is not permitted to spoil the sense of the hunt by launching straight into discussion about sex.

The alternative to romance is openly discussed, consenting sexual relationships. It rests on the presumption that both men and women have final rights over our own bodies. It also props up the view that sex is an expression of love and that love is about being good to one another.

While these views seem self-evident and are routinely spoken as the values of an advanced society, they have yet to filter through to our society’s internal workings. Sex as an expression of power is seen in its raw state in even soft-core pornography and typical male pub banter. Rights over our bodies are limited in law and practice, as shown by society’s reluctance to defend a woman’s right to refuse sex with her husband, for example. And our teaching is still not sure whether love is about being good to one another, desiring each other and having sex, or maybe about owning one another.

As an example of society’s reluctance to confront and challenge the norm of men subjugating women, Dworkin cites a study by the Institute of Sex Research, in which the authors wrote: “If we labeled all punishable sexual behaviour as a sex offense, we would find ourselves in the ridiculous situation of having all our male histories consist almost entirely of sex offenders” and then went on to say that in an everyday case such as that of a man kissing an unwilling woman, “to solemnly label him as a sex offender would be to reduce our study to a ludicrous level.”

It is hard to imagine a real step forward in sexual equality without that recognition though. Our male histories do consist almost entirely of sex offenders; so do our contemporary male peer groups. Acknowledging that situation is a basic first step towards equality, in the same way that reconciliation between races in Australia is not possible without first understanding that the European occupation of the land is founded on and synonymous with racism, denial of the humanity and sovereignty of Indigenous people and the violent suppression of their efforts to exist outside that model of themselves.

There is a future, yet to be built, in which all people are the active players in their own lives and in decisions about their own bodies. It’s a grown up future where our childish habits of selfishness, helplessness and petulant demands for others to indulge our weaknesses are treated with healthy adult intolerance, and where sex and other emotional entanglements are discussed from a position of sovereignty. Two things that stand between the present and this future are the economic position of women, which remains unequal to that of men and creates power imbalances in all other areas of life, and the direct refusal of men to accept the existence of women as complete, independent people who may adopt purposes in life that are unrelated to the service and pleasure of men.

This kind of stuff really brings out the vitriolic anti-feminist in comfortably sexist men and their apologists but let them spit and curse. If I’m forced to take responsibility for my attitudes and behaviour, then by christ I’m going to take yez all with me!

Masculinist men and Feminist women: truths about each

[the above image is from here]

The above image is titled "Henry VIIIs manhood is safe". What does this title and image tell us about how men understand "manhood"? And who, if choosing from the two most popular genders, do you suppose this suit of armor is designed to protect him from: women or men?

A collection of systems of belief, made real through practice and institutionalised policies, laws, and customs, that holds that men ought to have power over women, and ought to have unimpeded sexual access to women.

A collection of systems of belief, varying greatly, that generally agree that men ought not have power over women interpersonally or institutionally. Efforts on private and public fronts to hold men accountable to the abuses we perpetrate against women, because we are men who have come to believe we have the right to do so, are opposed by all of the feminists I have ever known.

Another truism: Masculinists are in charge of society. Feminists are not.

It is men themselves, masculinist men, who define and decide what sex and manhood are. This is not done primarily done in the abstract. It is done primarily in the course of men having sex with others and also engaging with others in their social world. But how heterosexual men treat women during sexual acts is one of the significant ways "sex" gets understood and registered in the bodies of men as such, by those men. How men treat images of women is part of this process. How men understand "womanness" while using pornography is one central factor, along with religious and secular dictates. That men, as procurers, as prostitutors, as bullies, as harassers, as batterers, as slave-holders, behave in those ways condones and reinforces social meanings, and behaviors, of men and women are, do, and can be.

So if a man uses heterosexual pornography, or exploits women directly in systems of prostitution as his primary or secondary means of obtaining sexual satisfaction, that use and abuse is then registered and reinforced in his body as "sex". It therefore comes to be commonly misperceived, if looking at this from a humanitarian/pro-woman point of view, that men see efforts to criminalise "johns" (prosititutors/procurers) or to take civil legal action against misogynistic, racist pornographers and the consumers of the materials they mass produce as "limiting men's right to have sex [with women]". Why aren't these feminist efforts seen as potentially liberating women and men from masculinst sexual paradigms?

As common practice, many straight men brag to one another homosocially about their conquests, their violations and intrusions into women's lives both sexually and otherwise. Clearly a significant population of men believe at least one of two things: women exist for men to use and abuse, and men exists to use and abuse women.

When men speak out against abusive actions by men towards women they are often and commonly considered to be "not manly". They are called misogynistic-homophobic names by masculinist heterosexual men who prefer to abuse their entitlements and privileges than examine and challenge them. It is men who reinforce other men's misogynist actions, through such put-downs and ridicule of anti-masculinist men.

Masculinist men, not feminist women, make the argument that men will always be rapists.

Masculinist men, not feminist women, hold out little to no hope of men becoming humane citizens in a patriarchal society, capable of radically transforming that society into one that is no longer patriarchal.

Masculinist men hate and show disdain for women in theory and in practice systematically, in part through imbuing whole instituions with anti-woman values. Feminist women in theory and in practice seek justice and social transformation such that men no longer find meaning, value, and pleasure in exploiting and otherwise harming women and girls.

The "opposition" to viewing men as "people capable of ending rape" is masculinist men, not feminist women. And masculinist men hold positions of power, structurally and institutionally, as well as culturally, that women do not hold.

That there are a handful of men who side with feminists and womanists, not masculinists and Men's Rights Activists, is not, for me, a source of great hope. It is a source of shame. Why aren't all men fighting against masculism? Why aren't all men fighting to support feminist and womanist agendas?

Just as any man who does significant and humane primary care for children, as a parent or guardian, should not be held up as "special", so too should men who fight for women's liberation from men's tyrannies over them be seen as "exceptional".

Being humane, when male, ought not be portrayed socially as "exceptional" to the rule of men behaving badly. We should be seen as simply doing what we should have been doing all along.