Monday, January 15, 2018

Pushing back against the claim that ending harassment will end romance

I've been thinking, over the last few days, about this piece – "Ending Harassment Won't End Romance" by Sarah Jaffe.

It challenges the absurd claim that keeps popping up in the mainstream that #MeToo and the current wave of challenge to sexual harassment and sexual abuse "will, somehow, end flirting, fun, and romance." Jaffe links several pieces that make such claims. Or there's the more recent statement from 100 prominent French women making similarly ridiculous claims about how the post #MeToo moment threatens sexual freedoms.

Jaffe's piece points out that this concern and its variants seem to be premised on the idea that "men are incapable of interpreting signals from other people about sexual interest." This incapacity is assumed to be inherent and just how things are. Flowing from this (incorrect) premise is the (incorrect) idea that men plunging forward with advances, innuendo, touches, kisses, in the absence of knowing that they are welcome is an unavoidable part of sex and romance. End one, you end (or seriously impede) the other.

It would be hard to overstate how utterly silly this idea seems to me, not to mention dangerous.

Jaffe challenges it by going after the premise that she has identified. She argues that whatever gendered imbalances exist in capacity to interpret signals are not inevitable but about power, socially enforced gender roles, and the gendered public/private divide, and that men are perfectly capable of acquiring these capacities. Which means that sexual/romantic cultures that are premised on ongoing mutual nonverbal and verbal signalling of interest, and engaged mutual seeking, reading, and acceptance of those signals, are entirely possible.

I agree with her.

Moreover, I agree with her as someone who is colossally bad at knowing when someone might be interested in me. I know this incapacity is not absolute and inherent, but for me has a specific origin and is amenable to change with work and time. I know this because, in general, I'm actually pretty good at reading people and relationships and situations. It's just that, for me, social anxiety and various flavours of shame get in the way when it comes to knowing if people are interested in me. That's one etiology among many, of course, and I suspect what Jaffe describes is more common, so the kinds of work required to resolve this incapacity will vary. But, regardless, absolute and invariant it is not. (And for the record, I have rarely if ever been a "plunge forward" type, notwithstanding a few embarassing choices when I was younger. Mostly, I assume no one is interested and act accordingly.)

I also think that the premise Jaffe writes about is not the only faulty premise bolstering the fears that challenging sexual harassment and abuse might lead to the end of romance, flirting, and sex. I think, drawing on things that feminists identified decades ago, that it is also premised on sexist narratives of women's experiences of desire being absent or weaker or passive or inherently more subject to containment by propriety than in men. Men pursue, women are pursued. Men are beasts, women are the guardians of morality. Etc. Sure, there's a longer discussion to be had there about the micro-politics of initiating relationships and encounters -- women face much more intense surveillance and social punishment for their choices, and of course the ubiquity of sexual violence itself shapes how it all happens. But the idea that men obliviously plunging forward in the absence of enthusiastic encouragement is the only source of energy and initiative from which romantic and sexual fun can spring is...well, again, very harmful and kind of silly.

I wonder, though, whether some of the vehemence with which some men disparage the kind of sexual culture imagined implicitly in the Jaffe piece and much more clearly in lots of other writing is also about something beyond masculine sexual entitlement.

Let me take a few steps back to explain what I mean:

One very common idea of freedom, of what life should be, boils down to maximizing your space to be able to do whatever you want, unencumbered by constraints from other people, rules, the state, etc. This is the freedom of right-libertarianism, of classical liberalsim, of neoliberalism, of the MRA, of the sexist gamer boy, of the man-child, of the tech start-up bro, of dominant masculinity. The targets of its complaint and the degree of insistence that it should be absolute, versus willingness to balance it with other goods, varies with its precise flavour and kind. But in all of these cases, freedom is treated as being about getting you out of my business.

In contrast, insisting that it be normative to invite, actively seek – early, at every scale, continuously – signs of interest, or not, in sexual and romantic contexts is precisely the opposite. It is saying that I must invite you into my business. It is not only saying I must respect your boundary when you set it, but it is inviting you to play a role in shaping my conduct, my choices, even my desires, before they bump into a hard boundary that you have set. It is deliberately and consistently going out of your way to make sure that your every space, every relationship, is co-created by the others who are in them. It is inviting others – in ways and degrees attuned to the specific relationships and contexts – in to co-create you.

Which is not to say that it is easy or simple, or that there is just one way to do it. Rather, it is a different starting point for navigating all of the inevitable complexities of relating to those around us. It is also not to argue for a surrender of self or of principle – it is co creation, not obedience.

To those whose only vision of a good life is maximizing the disconnected autonomy of the liberal self and/or the rigid impermeability of dominant masculinity, this is a tremendously threatening idea in ways that go far beyond romance and sex. It is an attack on an important micro-level building block of how gendered power is reproduced in our everyday lives. It touches every aspect of how our families, our friend groups, our activist formations, our classrooms, our workplaces function.

So I don't think this idea explains everything – many of the objections to a robust ongoing challenge to sexual harassment and abuse are definitely about nothing more than masculine entitlement to women's bodies. But this is part of the mix.

And as for it ushering in a new age of sexual puritanism – again, that's a dangerous and silly suggestion. For me, at least, realizing this mode of relating to others requires connecting to desire and vulnerability through the powerful block of shame in a dynamic, fine-grained, ongoing way that is precisely the opposite of the puritanical "No!" and "Bad!". It holds the potential to lead to an equitable rather than a dominating/misogynist anti-puritanism.

And to me that's a pretty enticing possibility.

1 comment:

Ruth Pickering said...

What a liberating analysis, Scott. Thank you!