Tuesday, September 1, 2009

What does Consent Mean in a Society that Manufactures Contempt for Women?

[the above image, of two white men, one with a camera, one with a gun, each of which is designed to shoot and capture women in various ways, is from here, where "Stockholm Syndrome" is discussed]

Let's begin with one basic observations about how things work in dominant Western societies:

Misogyny is not only corporately manufactured, but is also promulgated, promoted, heralded, and honored as "sacred" in a society that continually finds new ways to violate and degrade women as a gendered class.

What is held as sacred in society is often that which degrades women. Notions of "Femininity" and "masculinity" as well as the idea and practice of heterosexuality, the rightness of whiteness and lightness, and the glory of fame and material gross wealth are held as sacred in this society. Murder is sacrilised as is suffering. What I am saying is nothing new. Radical feminists have been saying this, in their own ways and words, for decades. But we don't listen to women, do we? It sure seems that way.

Not questioned is this: does this woman hating have to exist at all? Why? How can it be abolished, eradicated, along with race-as-power-abused, heterosexism, and ecocidal practices.

We live in a society that tends to move into a "covering the ears with hands while humming a song loudly" mode every time a woman speaks out against white male supremacy, and that same society structures and enforces woman-man relationships such that men have the rights of exploitation and access to women's work and bodies.

In this context, we like to talk about how heterosexual and queer couples give consent to what we do, in and out of bed. In and out of the home. And, especially, we like to believe that agency, however compromised by oppression, and consent, however coerced, are fully available to everyone, hence the U.S.'s obsession with "pulling yourself up by your bootstraps". Never mind that capitalist patriarchy requires poverty and the exploitation of workers in order to run "properly". Never mind that "what work is" and "what the means of production are" are seen through masculinist eyes. And never mind that power is expressed, in some way, with every act one makes, however compromised that expression of power is.

I am thinking at the moment of a radical feminist observation, I believe Andrea Dworkin's but perhaps not hers alone. That observation is that silence is often what girls and women have to use in order to express themselves and their objections to being used and abused in overly misogynistic ways.

I am thinking of my own struggles, when younger, to have a voice. To find a voice that spoke something that I needed to say. I regularly reread Audre Lorde's speech and essay "The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action" as a reminder of what one Black lesbian feminist poet warrior had to say to other women sitting before her. About how that essay has become what so many people need to marinate in, to figure out how to move forward with fear, to speak what is often apparently easier to be silent about.

And I think about how men need to listen to women, to their spoken words, yes, and also their non-verbal expressions of how they are feeling and what they are thinking.

I went over to a the home of some friends recently. The trip was made to speak with the only man raised as a boy who lives there with three other people. He is heterosexual and white; two of the other roommates are also white. One of the roommates is Brown but passes sometimes as white. She is predominantly heterosexual, and is planning a future with this man I went to speak to, about marriage and values while his romantic partner was at work.

But the two roommates I first encountered when going over there recently were a lesbian woman and a trans person who struggles to be seen as the person he is. I have known three of the four people living together for a few months, but we have bonded quickly, due primarily to the shared recognition that this society we live in has not respect for women, for trans people, for people who are not white, for disabled people, and for those who are materially poor. We are, collectively, injured people: injured by misogyny and masculinism, homophobia, and heterosexism, by anti-Semitism and racism. It is not the fact of our collective survival that bonds us exactly, but rather the recognition that surviving with dignity and a decent sense of self is an on-going struggle.

The trans roomie was struggling with issues having to do with work. A white male-man was disrespecting him routinely. Transphobia? At least that. This roommate was really struggling, deeply, with how to deal with this. The details, if given, would make it clear that "he can't just be fired" or otherwise eliminated, or beamed to some other part of the universe. (Besides, which part of the universe would deserve to deal with his gross insensitivies and heartlessness?)

We spoke, we felt, we hugged. And then I went off with the white male-man to talk about relationships and the institutions that structure them in many awful ways.

The day before he had wanted to know something that the mostly heterosexual woman raised as a girl was reluctant to tell him. He persisted in asking. I overheard this and asked him: "What need isn't getting met, such that you need to keep asking for the same information over and over again?" I invited him to check in with his humanity instead of behaving like a man who will not take a woman's no as an adequate answer. I was probably more triggered by his persistent dishonoring of her than she was. She has much more experience dealing with him in a self-empowering way than I do. And also she is vulnerable to him, not in a good way. She is empowered, one of the most empowered women, self-aware people I know. And she is vulnerable to him because he is a man and she is a woman and she grew up in a world where men rule women, in many awful ways. Where men disgrace and disrespect women without knowing they are doing so, sometimes.

In this instance, I don't think he was aware of what a male supremacist he was being. Had I called his behavior "male supremacist" (and I will, the next time I see him), he probably would have been shocked. He's quite anti-sexist and doesn't value being "a man" in relationship to a woman.

Other things were going on for him. He was feeling excluded, left out of some informational secret shared by her and me. He wanted "in" to the club of knowledge. And when I found out he'd been bullied and harassed rather viciously much earlier on in his life, this need to not feel excluded made more sense to me. It didn't make his strategy for getting "in" any less male supremacist. Men learn they have a right to get in. And being kept out is an affront, a response to his entitlement that is not socially acceptable. But, given that she knew this history of his and (at the time) I didn't, she was waiting to see if he'd figure out what he was actually doing and why. She re-asked the question I asked him: "What are you trying to get met by doing this?" But she wouldn't name his behavior as male supremacist exactly, although she might name it as oppressive and understand that oppression as rooted in gendered power dynamics.

At this point in writing this I become angry. I think of how much energy and patience women give men. I think about the extraordinary level of patience and praise Victoria Prater gave Garry Prater in Love and Pornography. Now I will note that these two men do give the women they love and live with great support, astounding support; support they have never experienced from any other man. And, their support becomes sort of magical, wondrous, amazing, awesome. It can be commented on with delight and gratitude. Meanwhile, the women who do this ALL THE TIME with men, with boys and with men, including with men who behave as boys, are not seen as wondrous, magical, awesome. They are seen as doing what women are supposed to do. When women do things they are, by an anti-virtue of misogynist stigma, those women and their actions are seen as less significant, taken for granted, assumed to exist the way air exists.

If we trace all this into how men engage with women, with how many women are disproportionately survivors of many forms of men's violence, usually starting early in life, we must ask: to what extend is "Stockholm Syndrome" woven into the fabric of how women behave around one another. I credit Judith Herman, Dee Graham, and Sheila Jeffreys with placing that thought in my head.

The flip side of this question is how and to what extent do men become possessors of people, terrorists and dominators of women, such that women develop any degree of Stockholm Syndrome? And, what can men do about this, collectively? How can we stop being terrorists and possessors, dominators and procurers?

How do we stop one another from pimping women, from sexually violating girls and women, from battering women, from raping women, from dominating women in ways not considered in the least bit criminal?

If we are a society of survivors and perpetrators, with those two camps overlapping, of course, how do we manage to accept a notion of "meaningful consent"? When dissociation and the desire to control both rule our psyches, often unconsciously, how is it that we come to perceive obedience as acquiescence, and acquiescence as "an empowered choice"?

If girls are taught that white men have the most power in society, the most status, and the most access to resources, how does her being approached by a pimp not become an act of abuse?

I can say this: I do not consent to do many of the things I do. I do them because they are asked of me, expected of me. There's no overt, visible force "making" me do them, exactly. The force has been internalised through the experience of men's violence against me, and the knowledge that it is better to be unabused, at any given time, than abused by others. This used to shape a lot of my behavior around and with men, including sexually. I stopped having sex when I realised I couldn't possibly know whether or not I was giving consent. And I am a man. And white. And have economic and class privileges. This means I am positioned as the perp, often, and it is incumbent upon me to know how my actions may trigger "complicity" in other people.

When I hear of trans and non-trans people struggling to find a voice, to just take care of themselves/ourselves without being mistreated and abused, I realize that it is indeed a struggle. Self-care is fought for over years. Learning how to set necessary boundaries with men can take a lifetime of work against the forces of male supremacy that keep bashing up against those boundaries. I am single because I don't want to spend my life learning how to defend and define boundaries on the most intimate levels.

I'd rather be blogging.


factcheckme of femonade said...

i am very interested in the idea of consent as well. feminist notions of "consent" both within sex and outside of it are "consent freely given + enthusiastic participation." thats certainly a preferable definition to the male-centric (legal) definition of consent. legally, within sex and outside of it, what passes for consent is "NOT saying NO." of course, the legal defintion of consent is the male definition of it: its written into our laws to protect men, and to keep men out of jail for rape (and other horrible crimes against the personhood of women, children, and minorities).

although it "sounds" much better, and in fact describes my own experiences with sex (well most of them anyway)the feminist definition of consent rather ignores the problem: can women truly have agency within a culture that oppresss them? i dont think that issue has been satisfactorily resolved, but i think the radfem perspective is the most honest one: the answer seems to be "no, they cannot."

the issue of female agency within a patriarchal, misogynist context is a difficult one. frankly, your decision to remain "single" (celibate?) having not seen a resolution to this issue fascinates me. do you want to talk about that more here?

Julian Real said...

Probably the most intriguing writing on this subject that I've come across is MacKinnon's essay in Women's Lives, Men's Laws, chapter 19: A Sex Equality Approach to Sexual Assault

I think she gets at a lot, that the legal system must, one hopes, contend with on this whole matter of "consent".

I don't think "consent" should be the measure of assault, for every reason we'd probably agree upon: it doesn't deal with people allowing sex to happen out of fear of worse if they resist, it doesn't deal with marital rape as a regular practice, enforced religiously, it doesn't deal with dissociation and PTS states. It doesn't deal with the whole matter of women being approached by men in a context where men are the terrorist, as in cultural Stockholm Syndrome. The stuff that Mackenzie Phillips is sharing is so in this discussion. Such a tragically horrible truthful example of what's wrong with "the consent test".

As I may have noted elsewhere, of the sex I've had with men, very little has been what I would call "genuinely consensual" even while none of it has been rape or sexual assault. How convenient for men that we live in a world that won't take other experiences seriously as harmful and subordinating.

Julian Real said...

As for the celibacy thing.

I'll speak some about it here, and more with you in email.

When I realised that due to PTSD I was not really capable of what's called "consent", I realised there was only one choice that would be self-caring, and that was to be celibate.

I've often encouraged heterosexual men who think that various forms of sexual use, misuse, and abuse are "hot", to "be celibate" arguing, of course, that their rights to the kind of sexual pleasure they want at women's expense doesn't, or, rather ought not, supercede her rights to not be used, misused, and abused.

Mostly the men scratch their heads and wonder what language I'm speaking. I call those men "Fuckers" at least.

Julian Real said...

I maintain that men can live without sex, but women cannot live well with sexual abuse from men.

So for me, the loving choice is obvious. The caring choice is obvious. The ethical choice, the woman-respecting choice, is obvious.

Boys, take matters into your own hands and leave women out of it. And keep the computer off while you're taking care of yourself.

To all heterosexual men:
Being horny, contrary to patriarcally popular belief, doesn't require access to women's bodies, in two or three dimensions. It requires you to either breathe and move on into another feeling state, or masturbating without using anyone.

It can be done. Remember adolescence?

factcheckme of femonade said...

"I don't think "consent" should be the measure of assault"

neither do i, because it lets too many legitimate rapists off the hook, not to mention giving all men permission to be lousy lovers, and allowing all of us to not address womens actual desire and sexual pleasure at all.

but even as male-centric as this standard is, many men think that the accepted, legal definitions of consent (and therefore rape) are too woman-friendly. essentially, men never want to think about consent, and whether what they are doing to/with women is consensual from her perspective, or not. more pointedly, men never want to go to jail for rape, even when they have, in fact raped. and the ways that the laws are written ensures that as few men will be held accountable for their crimes against personhood as possible.

frankly, i think the problems and "gray-areas" with legal consent and rape are indicative of some intellectual dishonesty around the issue. in other words, they are confusing because they literally dont make sense. theres a deliberate and delicate balancing act being performed (again favoring and considering only men) between condoning aggressive, entitled male sexual styles that even cross over into rape-behaviors, and maintaining mens property rights over women. men benefit from both, and its mens interests that we are discussing, when clearly, legal notions of "consent" and "rape" really have nothing whatsoever to with what the woman wanted. (thats clearly the case when saying NOTHING indicates consent for legal purposes...same thing with the "reasonable man" standard, where if the reasonable man would have believed there was consent, then the act was not rape...even if it was in fact unwanted, even forced).

if she was damaged enough and so aggregiously that her OWNER's rights were violated, then we might be willing to call it rape. like...she was in the parking lot at the supermarket buying groceries for his dinner, completely sober, fully clothed...and she fought really, really hard. or think of another scenario where the rape is so "eggregious" (as opposed to sickeningly banal) that it becomes a violation some man's property rights, as a husband, or perhaps a father. the ones where she wasnt already humiliating him by acing like a whore, in public. those are the ones we are more likely to call rape.

Julian Real said...


What you wrote makes me think of a couple of things right away:

How any law organised around what "a reasonable white middle class heterosexual man" would do, is TOTALLY fucked up, as such a group is so completely unrepresentative of the whole of the population (having the standard be poor women of color would at least make the population part of the global majority!), AND, as has been so often shown, if most white middle class heterosexual men DON'T see accessing women's pimped and raped bodies off the Internet, with 24/7 on demand service as SERIOUSLY fucked up and not ok, well... yes, we live in a rapist culture that will condone rape in every way it can, in every way men can and do rape, systematically, with nothing at all happening to them except, grossly, orgasm and that ol' cultural feeling, passed down as "tales of glory" of having conquored and invaded once again. Oh, and often terrorised too. And violated. And sujugated. And injured the soul and often the body of someone who has likely already been traumatised by men.

And, what you wrote about men's property makes so much more sense out of the need dominant culture has with "the missing midde class blond girl" phenomenon being in the news almost every week. Daddy's little girl (property) is being harmed. Fuck her humanity.

And the point is, of course: any girl or women who is missing, of any color, of any age, of any level of ability, deserves to have their rapers and abductors be tracked down just as systematically as are the white men who commit these crimes. And the white men are tracked only because another white man's property was damaged, and hold on to your seatbelts if a man of color abducted a white girl: that's a crime against all white men! And if he's not from this country... well, white male military will exploit that as one more reason to bomb the shit out of "foreign" lands where white men rape women and girls of color all the time, and get honored when they return.