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!

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