Tuesday, March 20, 2007

“No” is not the default

Let me tell you a story. A true story.

Many years ago, when I was still young, I struck up a conversation with a charming, beautiful, sexy, intelligent woman. Let's call her "Irene". We seemed to dig each other, so I asked her out on a date.

We had a good date. Really good. Tons of eye contact, laughing, a lot of "accidental" touching, resting her hand on my thigh, not to mention really terrific conversation and considerable sympatico.

"Can I walk you home?"

"Sure!"

We arrive at her doorstep. She opens the door. "Come on in."

I'm thinking, "Woo hoo!"

I step inside. Suddenly, the temperature drops to twenty below zero. She goes to the bedroom and turns on the TV. She won't look at me. I sit down next to her, and she scoots away. I barely open my mouth and she shush's me. I'm a card-carrying SNAG*, and damn proud of it, but I don't need to be Deborah Tannen to figure out I've suddenly pissed in her cornflakes.

After about five minutes of this, I make my excuses and leave. She doesn't even see me out. I'm not angry, but I sure am confused. Very confused.

I get home, and I just can't figure it out? What did I do?

I guess I could have just jerked off and gone to sleep, but instead, I picked up the phone.

"Hi, this is Larry."

"What do you want?"

"I'm just curious: What happened? Everything seemed to be going great and then suddenly, wham you're all, 'Who the fuck are you?' What gives?"

"Well, I want a man to be more aggressive."

"What was I supposed to do? Grab you when you started to freeze and rip your clothes off?"**

"That's exactly what you were supposed to do."

"This is still within the realm of possibility."

"The door's unlocked."

I will leave the rest of the evening to the reader's imagination.

This is, of course, merely an anecdote. But did I happen to stumble upon the only woman in the world who really wants a man to take charge? I doubt it. Does every such woman have both the ability to "step out of the game" and the willingness to step back into it without ruining its flavor? Probably not.

We had a brief affair of a few weeks. I really wasn't the sort of man she really wanted—I just wasn't aggressive enough. And she, frankly, wasn't the sort of woman I really wanted. We parted friends, though, and saw each other off and on until we lost contact a couple of years later.

Now, I'm easy: If women want to insist on written consent, signed and notarized, all right, that's what I'll do. You set the standards. I might complain, but I'll comply.

But I will ask this: What effect are you having on Irene's sexuality, and the sexuality of women like her? This is not about a game she wants to play, this is about what sort of man she wants, and how she wants him to act. She doesn't want to make every man explicitly negotiate consent. She wants a man who will rip her clothes off as a matter of course. I'm not saying she's "right", I'm not saying she's "wrong", but that's how she actually is.

Of course men should be clued into body language and nonverbal signals. But many men (and no small few women) aren't. Perhaps in a perfect world there wouldn't be any women with Irene's sexuality, perhaps not. But it's true that in this world, there certainly are.

When imperfect communication meets a very wide range of emotional and sexual attitudes, how vigorously do we want to actually criminalize every mistake? And all for the sake of those who don't have the self-possession to utter a single syllable under a bit of pressure, and who don't have enough situational awareness to stay away from pressure.

At what point do we stop treating people as victims by default?


*Sensitive New Age Guy

**Update: The exhortation that I should have "ripped [Irene's] clothes off" was metaphorical; she wanted me to aggressively initiate sex. At no point in that evening or our subsequent affair did she ever indicate that she wanted me to ignore an explicit "no" at all, much less without prior negotiation.

25 comments:

  1. But many men (and no small few women) aren't.

    I guess that was my point. It can be so hard to tell, especially when you're young and inexperienced, that I feel one should be cautious. But I'm all for latitude as well. Eh, communication's complex and for a mental health professional, I suck at it. Ask my wife.

    ReplyDelete
  2. It's better to teach people to be clear than to harshly punish people for making mistakes and thereby teach them to be paranoid.

    And I think you're being too hard on yourself. You communicate just fine. 99% of the battle is just being honest with yourself--you can't communicate clearly at any level if you don't know what you have to say.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Excellent post, and a good point to make. I've been having a rather heated discussion on this topic on RE's blog. Your scenario is an important issue to discuss because it totally negates the concept of asking and getting specific permission for things, which some advocate, but which is totally unrealistic and just not the way people interact, even outside of your scenario in this post.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I don't think my position totally negates explicitly negotiating consent. I think it's a good idea to explicitly negotiate consent about sex—even for someone such as "Irene". (And she actually did do so.)

    I don't, however, think we should criminalize a failure to do so in the same way that we should and do criminalize violations of explicit non-consent.

    ReplyDelete
  5. That's what I meant - negates it as an absolute rule in the criminal context, which is what has been argued for elsewhere.

    ReplyDelete
  6. A lot of this debate goes down to the philosophical fundamentals of progressive libertarianism. My view is that we should restrict only those possibilities which are not matters of choice; otherwise we should be maximizing the number of choices, even the choices we happen to disapprove of.

    ReplyDelete
  7. ...negates it as an absolute rule in the criminal context...

    In that sense, yes, I agree.

    ReplyDelete
  8. B.B.,

    I was one of the women involved in the heated debate over at R.E.'s which is how I found my way here...

    My view on the scenario that you described is that the women in question was actually immature and disrespectful of you and any other man she expected or expects to just rip her clothes off and go at it without any indication that she wanted such to occur. I'm all for rough, aggressive sex, but communication before it occurs absolutely must take place. I've personally spent literally months negotiating and discussing similiar scenes before they took place.

    ReplyDelete
  9. I think this is seen to a lesser degree far more often in the general dating scenario that many women have that the man is supposed to take all of the initiative.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Faith,

    My personal preferences are similar to yours. On the other hand, I don't extend my personal preferences to a moral judgment of Irene's view of relationships and sexuality. I morally judge people on the basis of whether they're hurtful, She wasn't actually hurting anyone—not even me.

    I'm very leery of calling someone "immature" or "disrespectful". I think these words have objective meaning, "immature" has mostly to do with making decisions one will later regret, and "disrespectful" mostly having to do with not treating other people seriously.

    I don't think "Irene" exhibited either of those traits.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Also, I should add that Irene wasn't actually interested in rough sex. The sex itself was pretty vanilla. She just wanted her partner to be very aggressive about initiating sex.

    ReplyDelete
  12. "I'm very leery of calling someone "immature" or "disrespectful"...I think these words have objective meaning, "immature" has mostly to do with making decisions one will later regret, and "disrespectful" mostly having to do with not treating other people seriously."

    I think perhaps there's a bit of mistranslation here. I was actually referrring the behavior as being immature and disrespectful rather than her, I suppose. I also don't agree with your definition of immature. Immature can mean what you defined it as, but it can also be your definition of disrespectful. It can also be simply being ignorant to social mores or appropriate interaction due to lack of education or inexperience. We're all immature and disrespectful at times; I believe this is likely true regardless of our age and experience. We are human afterall and we all make mistakes.

    What you are describing to me sounds more like she was likely uncomfortable with her sexuality and was therefore pushing the responsibility for initiation off onto you. This, I suspect, is likely very common behavior amongst women and it's one that I believe it due to many factors, including lack of sex education and the way in which our society shames women for being sexual at all. There are many submissives who exhibit the traits you're describing and it is quite often due to all or some of the factors I've described above.

    ReplyDelete
  13. I understand your position, but I beg to differ.

    I'm not going to argue the specific semantics of "immature" and "disrespectful". I'd rather discuss whether any pejorative judgment of her behavior is warranted.

    I have two basic criteria for evaluating peoples behavior, humanistic and efficient. The humanistic criterion goes to whether the behavior causes suffering in others. The efficient criterion goes to whether the behavior achieves that person's intended result.

    I don't see any reason to criticize "Irene's" behavior on those criteria. She's not hurting anyone else by being passive and waiting for an aggressive man. And holding oneself passive seems like an efficient way of quickly determining whether some man will in fact be aggressive.

    As to whether her behavior was inappropriate or ignorant (or dismissive) of social mores, that's a horse of a different color. Both of those characterizations seem vague. How does one objectively define "inappropriate"? And it seems to me that we both are engaged in the task of defining social mores, not discovering them.

    I don't know that even I, actually present, have enough information to make any sort of conclusions about her psychology. Unless a person expresses or exhibits symptoms of actual dissatisfaction or unhappiness, I tend to go with the default assumption that they're pretty much psychologically healthy.

    ReplyDelete
  14. "Unless a person expresses or exhibits symptoms of actual dissatisfaction or unhappiness, I tend to go with the default assumption that they're pretty much psychologically healthy."

    Oh, know you're getting into really lovely territory. There are in fact many people who can appear quite happy and have no dissatisfaction and still be quite psychologically unhealthy. They're commonly called psychopaths or sociopaths. People who would or do seriously abuse children or other adults also often appear to be quite psychologically healthy.

    But, anyway, I still stand by my statement and I'll withdraw now rather than keep pounding a dead horse.

    ReplyDelete
  15. But, anyway, I still stand by my statement and I'll withdraw now rather than keep pounding a dead horse.

    This sort of attitude puzzles me very much. As soon as a disagreement is identified, and the discussion begins to get interesting, my interlocutor stomps off in a huff.

    Is it really so personally threatening to some people that someone might actually disagree with them?

    ReplyDelete
  16. There are in fact many people who can appear quite happy and have no dissatisfaction and still be quite psychologically unhealthy. They're commonly called psychopaths or sociopaths.

    ::Breaks out DSM-IV-TR from bookshelf::

    Point of order: Sociopaths and psychopaths still exhibit behaviors that are unacceptable. Sociopaths are better at hiding them. I further contend (in opposition to the DSM) that sociopaths are also not psychologically ill, unless one wishes to consider a lack of empathy a neurological disorder; sociopathy is a social construction, since such traits lead to an immense amount of success by most measures. Sociopathy is a good analytical tool, but I think that it's not necessarily a psychological disorder. I've been meaning to write on this for some time.

    "Psychopath" is also not a useful psychological term. It is not reflective of any actual disorder, but is a pop-culture euphemism for violent tendencies.

    People who would or do seriously abuse children or other adults also often appear to be quite psychologically healthy.

    This also depends on what form of abuse you are talking about. Is someone psychologically ill because they use violence and fear? I'm afraid that those were the sine qua non of parenting and social control for many, many generations.

    All of which is to say, one must be careful tossing about terms like "psychologically unhealthy," because they tend to be subjective in the extreme.

    ReplyDelete
  17. I see a lot of parallels regarding faith and morality between most religious people and many (but not all) PoMo lefty types.

    As a PoMo lefty myself, I find this tendency especially irritating.

    ReplyDelete
  18. It's interesting note that If I had drawn a comparison between a working, functional, apparently happy adult woman and sociopaths, psychopaths and child molesters, I would have been (justly) eviscerated.

    I also admire Faith's trick of both standing by her statement and withdrawing at the same time.

    ReplyDelete
  19. It's interesting note that If I had drawn a comparison between a working, functional, apparently happy adult woman and sociopaths, psychopaths and child molesters, I would have been (justly) eviscerated.

    Are you saying that women can't be psychopathic child molesters? Huh? You goddamn misogynist!

    ReplyDelete
  20. What is a PoMo lefty? And I have a few comments of my own and observations after having participated on a few feminist blog discussions over the past few days.

    ReplyDelete
  21. "Well, I want a man to be more aggressive."

    "What was I supposed to do? Grab you when you started to freeze and rip your clothes off?"**

    "That's exactly what you were supposed to do."


    BINGO! This is what most real, breathing, heart-pounding women want out in the REAL WORLD.

    Feminism would rather we thought the opposite...but it simply doesn't fly in the face of reality.

    I think most of us men growing up abused by feminist ideology wasted precious years of our dating lives under such harmful misconceptions. I think all (conscious) men had to go thru this inevitable reckoning and awakening to the light.

    Forget all the egalitarian political BS - deep down, women are still hardwired to want strong men who wield power and can shoulder responsibility - not some wussy SNAGosexual who they have to lead around by the hand.

    This reality-based "revelation" is really what drove the recent formations of the MRA & PUA communities. Fellas, be sure to teach your sons the TRUTH about womyn. Don't let them be misguided and waste their lives down false paths worshipping false idols like we did...

    ReplyDelete
  22. Byrdeye

    This is what most real, breathing, heart-pounding women want out in the REAL WORLD.

    Gah. Ugh. Blech.

    Some women want that. Some women want SNAGs like me. Some women want something completely different.

    I'm not an MRA. I think "Mens' Rights Activism" is utter and complete bullshit. Men no more need a "movement" to protect their rights from women than European colonists need a movement to protect their rights from American Indians.

    The fact that I'm for full equality for everyone does not mean I support a return to the days of gender stereotyping; quite the contrary.

    If it weren't for guys like Byrdeye, there wouldn't be any need for bend-over-backwards sensitivity.

    Sigh. Against stupidity, the gods themselves contend in vain.

    ReplyDelete
  23. Let me be clear: I have absolutely zero concern for the effects of any standard of consent for men. We men can take care of ourselves, thank you very much, and comply with just about any reasonable, humane and unambiguous standard. There's no question that the standard, The lack of an explicit, sober 'yes' should be considered a 'no', is reasonable, humane and unambiguous.

    I'm a thinking, feeling human being, though, and I think I can express a concern that some women might object to some particular standard—especially when some, such as Ren, actually do object.

    ReplyDelete
  24. There's no question that the standard, The lack of an explicit, sober 'yes' should be considered a 'no', is reasonable, humane and unambiguous.

    Lol, and that applies to BOTH men & women, then?

    So, unless a guy says, "YES, I WANT TO HAVE SEX WITH YOU," consent has not been granted either and he does NOT want sex by default?

    And the Euros exterminated the NAs. Whereas they have always held up White women as a privileged class with the old concept of chivalry. Bad comparison - and a very insulting one to NAs.

    ReplyDelete
  25. Euros? NAs? Europeans vs. North Americans?

    Let me be blunt, byrdeye: My earlier comment was perfectly clear, so I won't bother repeating myself. You're obviously a moron with deficient reading comprehension skills, and your latest comment is even less comprehensible than usual.

    Please, please get offended and stomp off in a huff.

    ReplyDelete

Please pick a handle or moniker for your comment. It's much easier to address someone by a name or pseudonym than simply "hey you". I have the option of requiring a "hard" identity, but I don't want to turn that on... yet.

With few exceptions, I will not respond or reply to anonymous comments, and I may delete them. I keep a copy of all comments; if you want the text of your comment to repost with something vaguely resembling an identity, email me.

No spam, pr0n, commercial advertising, insanity, lies, repetition or off-topic comments. Creationists, Global Warming deniers, anti-vaxers, Randians, and Libertarians are automatically presumed to be idiots; Christians and Muslims might get the benefit of the doubt, if I'm in a good mood.

See the Debate Flowchart for some basic rules.

Sourced factual corrections are always published and acknowledged.

I will respond or not respond to comments as the mood takes me. See my latest comment policy for details. I am not a pseudonomous-American: my real name is Larry.

Comments may be moderated from time to time. When I do moderate comments, anonymous comments are far more likely to be rejected.

I've already answered some typical comments.

I have jqMath enabled for the blog. If you have a dollar sign (\$) in your comment, put a \\ in front of it: \\\$, unless you want to include a formula in your comment.