Now that a very small handful of men have suffered some consequences for their sexually-assaultive behavior, we’re apparently heading into a witch hunt and on the cusp of a full-blown sex panic. No one is going to have sex any more, at least, not the way we have been or want to or like to. No one’s going to get to joke anymore, and all the men have to be worried that anything they say can be misconstrued, and they’ll get in trouble even though they didn’t mean anything bad by it. They are worried that they’re going to have to monitor their behavior, that they’re going to have to think before they speak, that they’re going to feel constrained in word and deed.
Welcome to the indoctrination every woman has gotten since birth, my friends.
News articles evoke the limits (the risks!) of believing women, the dangers ( if there’s any chance of any false reporting ever, we just shouldn’t believe any of them until we see some proof), the limits to challenging, changing, calling out and transforming rape culture.
I feel frustrated and tired and not even a little but surprised that so much of the media coverage, ostensibly about the pervasiveness of sexual violence in our country, has turned to whether or not we can really believe women, and to what extent we really want to change our culture. Don’t we just want to focus on the few bad apples at the top? Do we really have to ask men to change their behavior at home and at work and on the bus and on the street and on military bases and in government and in school and on campus and in the fields and and and …
Masha Gessen raised the specter of sex panics, evoking the language used during the early days if the AIDS crisis, when gay men (and straight women) were dying because the government refused to acknowledge that this disease was a problem, and the main message we got was to be afraid of sex because sex could kill you. Queer folks fought back against this fear-mongering, celebrating our bodies, laying claim to all the protection and latex barriers we needed: we deserve pleasure, we said, we deserve joy, desire, sex, whether with strangers or in a monogamous long-term coupling or with a good friend now and then — pretending to be straight married people was not going to save us. Money for research for a cure and a vaccine was going to save us, and with that not forthcoming, we were going to have to save ourselves.
This is not the situation we find ourselves in now. The situation we find ourselves in now is that men suddenly (after decades –even generations — of being told that their behavior was hurting women and other folks) are expected to be accountable — or maybe are just afraid of being held accountable — for their actions. This expectation has arisen in social media and on news channels for about five minutes, and now we’re asked to worry about a sex panic: All flirtation is about to come to a screeching halt because god forbid you flirt with someone at a bar and she didn’t want you to flirt with her and now she’s called the cops and ooh you’re in trouble!
Because that’s the world we live in. Where women are the problem.
The thing about the sex panic — please. I am trying to take it seriously, to respond thoughtfully, but it sounds like backlash and redirection to me, and I’m sorry to see so many women writers and reporters taking up the mantle of edgy and rebellious to sound the alarm. God forbid we expect folks to be intentional about their sex, their sexuality. But I’ll tell you what — the crisis for these men in the workplace (or college campus or in the home, or when training olympic gymnasts, or…) isn’t that they’re afraid they won’t get to have sex, but that they won’t get to do what they want, when they want, with impunity.
God forbid you should have to take some care around how you approach a potential sexual partner, or even a whole sexual encounter. There are folks who apparently have no idea how hot it is for a partner to ask you if they can kiss you or if they can touch you, exposing their desire while also leaving room open for me to say no. That option to say no is as important as the option to say yes; I mean, if I can’t say no, then I can’t actually consent. I have no patience with people who freak out about the Antioch rules, who blubber that it’s just not going to be sexy if he (or they or she) has to say, every step of the way: Can I kiss you here? Do you want me to touch you here? Can I stroke this part of you? And when folks describe these steps, they use a mincing, mocking, emasculated (of course) tone, disrespectful toward any man who would deign to ask for sex. Because men – well, men are not supposed to ask for sex or anything else — they’re just supposed to take it. We’re hamstringing, even castrating, our men, turning them into (gasp) women.
Because it’s women who ask permission for things, right?
Imagine that scene played out with a whole different tone — breathless, obviously hungry, and vulnerable. Yikes. Scary, right?
I’m going to tell you right now that interactions like that one changed my life, my relationship to sex and sexuality, my desire to have sex, my sense of my own power, autonomy, integrity: all because it happened one day in college that a lover listened when I said no, even though she was hungry and wanting. That act, that moment, made yes an entirely different animal for me.
I feel no sympathy for men who are upset that their sexual lives are about to be upended because they can’t harass women with impunity anymore (for this particular moment in time). I feel no sympathy if you are looking at your own behavior and wondering if maybe you hurt your friends or coworkers or subordinates or classmates or former partners. I feel no sympathy if you are upset that now you need to be more cautious in your approach to sex.
(And why are we talking about sex panics when the focus has been sexual harassment in the workplace? Of course we should redirect attention away from the idea that women should be treated like human beings and not potential receptacles for your dick, should be treated like coworkers and not a visiting sorority party, are not at work to meet a husband, to complete a MRS degree, to find sex partners (there are so many apps for that now), or augment your workday by providing eye candy or “harmless” flirtation — nope, women are at work to work and get paid, just like you. What a concept. But apparently expecting men to put a lid on some fraction of their sexually-inappropriate behavior is akin to asking them to put on a chastity belt and sit in a corner with hands tied, mouth taped, sad and lonely and pathetic and emasculated — yikes — and is somehow going to cause the downfall of society because some people met at work and fell in love at work after they flirted or fooled around and now that’s not going to be allowed anymore and then no one will get together and no one will have any more babies and America is going to wither and die because we can’t grab the secretary’s ass anymore or ask her what kind of porn she likes.)
Here’s the difference between the behavior that’s being called out and those consensual relationships at work — the word consensual. That’s the difference. This isn’t something that should need explaining, and I don’t think it actually does — I think those who are raising the fear of witch hunts and sex panics know exactly what they’re doing. They’re doing what abusers (and apologists for abusers) always do when their behavior is called out and made visible, when someone tries to hold them accountable for their actions: they turn the tables and begin scrambling to put the blame on victims and accusers, on anyone who tells them that they are responsible for their actions, that they are responsible to not actively hurt the people in their lives.
That fourteen year old at the mall? She was asking for it. It’s her fault. It’s their fault. If you tell, everything’s going to fall apart, and it’s going to be all your fault.
These conversations don’t seem hard to me, and they don’t seem as complicated as this particular cultural moment wants to make them. Don’t rape anyone today. Don’t rape anyone when you go out into the world, or take someone out on a date, or go to a party, or go to church for your shift at the altar, or tuck your kids in to bed. It seems actually quite simple to me.
And yet, these days, those whose power is under some small threat are trying to make us feel guilty or bad that they have been forced to attend, to some tiny extent, to the consequences of their actions. Witch hunt, folks are crying. What’s the quote I saw in a recent article: women have the power and now it’s the men who are afraid!!1!1! The tables have turned, we’re supposed to understand, and women are going to do to men what men have been doing to women since there have been such things as women and men in our cultural collective consciousness —
Meanwhile, back in reality, let’s just have a look at the news, shall we? Parents are having endless children and chaining them to their beds. A man, over decades, sexually assaults over one hundred and fifty girls in the guise of gymnastic coaching. The pope, this new liberal pope we love, calls those who expect him to take real action on sexual abuse in his church stupid leftists. Teenage boys rape teenage girls and share the video live on social media.
And yet, older “feminists” call younger women entitled or weak or whiny because they won’t just “take it” or — are you kidding me, Caitlin Flanagan? — insisting that when we were taught to keep our knees together, sure, it was sexist, but it taught us to stand up for ourselves, to slap someone who went too far, to keep a dime in our shoes so we could call for a ride home if our dates got too handsy — wait, what? Are we saying that, back in the day, girls weren’t raped or “pressured into having bad sex they didn’t really want?”
While we are busy worrying about whether Aziz Ansari is a dick to his sexual partners. women and children are being raped en masse in war zones across the world. Everytime you write about a Weinstein or a Cosby or a Allen, all those guys get is more press. This is not a Hollywood problem. When are we going to turn our attention to the cultural forces that trained the women who were drugged or raped by HW or BC, who taught those women what was expected of them, who touched them in their bedrooms or grabbed at them on the street or expected them to be available for the looking, the touching, the fucking? When are we going to turn our attention to our homes, our classrooms, our schools, our streets, to the so-called private places where parents are given leave to do whatever they want (because: parenting is sacrosanct! You can’t tell me what I can do in my own home! A man’s home is his castle!)?
What he did wasn’t as bad as HW, we say, so let’s just give hum seven or eight thousand more chances to get it right — he’s basically a good guy! He says good stuff in public! He does good work for the church! He didn’t mean it! It was just a joke! maybe he’s learned something!
Whatever. Let’s keep on excusing the behavior. That’ll do the trick,
It’s not as bad as can easily be translated to, it’s the fucking baseline for. Aziz Ansari-type behavior is just a little bit bad, right? Not so terrible, just a bad date — not like he forced her down and shoved his dick into her, right? Not like he threatened her job or to kill her or anything? So let’s give it a pass. Let’s let it get worse before we take any action.
Please pass this rationale on to the women brutalized or killed by male partners, women who went to the cops to try and get some protection only to be told, Well, what he’s doing isn’t technically illegal, and we can’t do anything until he breaks a real law. Harassing you endlessly, calling your phone so often you have to change numbers, stalking you at home and at work, threatening to take your kids, threatening to harm himself, even just intimating he might do you harm — well, that stuff’s not arrestable, He’s just kind of a jerk, right? Maybe don’t have gotten involved with him next time. That’ll fix you right up, honey.
Maybe let’s just give those guys a pass. They didn’t know it wasn’t ok to treat a woman like a receptacle, like it’s her entire job to give him sex, it’s her reason for existence.
He just didn’t’ know! No one ever told him! Well, now he’s gotten the message, I’m sure. And lots of other guys have, too — and here’s the message they’re getting: Keep on doing what you’re doing; there are women who will stand up for your right to be a shitty asshole when it comes to sex, especially if you’re kind of a good guy out in the world.
You understand (right?), that giving the Azizs and the Francos a pass is what builds the HWs. HW didn’t start out raping women over hotel couches. It doesn’t work like that. He built up slowly, and people gave him a pass, over and over and over and over and over again. He didn’t know it was wrong! He just went too far. He was just too handsy. Don’t be so sensitive. It’s just part of the job. Suck it up, little camper. Didn’t you say you wanted to be an actress?
I’m not saying, of course, that Aziz or James Franco or any other guy who pressures or shames or guilts a partner into sex is about to become our next mass rapist — who knows if they will. I’m saying some other things. I’m saying that when we excuse shitty behavior — whether or not it’s technically against the law — we normalize it, we make more room for it in our culture, we strengthen the baseline for more violent behavior, we reify rape culture.
It’s not that difficult to know when someone wants to have sex with you. But, of course, I’m over here trying to have a conversation about enthusiastic consent and women’s sexual agency, and over there, the rapists and rape apologists are on a different planet, one where men want sex when they want it, and women are there as catalysts or providers or receptacles, but the words yes and no don’t really come into the equation. They don’t really matter, they aren’t part of the game, because in this other game, women’s words don’t mean much, anywhere — in bed or in court or in the office. I’m trying to have nuanced conversations about consent with people who refuse to concede the capacity of women to consent, or that consent is something that matters in sex, or that a woman’s desire is something they should take into consideration at all.
This is a distraction, this talk of sex panics — let’s obfuscate the issue so that we don’t have to respond to what’s really being said, which is that it is unacceptable to subject anyone to unwanted sexual behavior, and if you do it, there are (maybe) going to be (sort of) negative consequences (for a few perpetrators), but at least the conversation is louder, and a little more difficult, for the moment, to ignore.
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I’m hoping, soon, to be able to write about something else here. In my notebooks, I’m writing fairy tales and novel chapters. What about you? What creative projects are percolating around the edges of your rage and fear? What words will you offer into the world today?