Feminism and Sex

Previously, I wrote about what feminism is, and I included a link to a video detailing the “straw feminist” trope. (You’ll want to watch that video if you haven’t yet.) It’s very common for erroneous stereotypes to be partially rooted in reality, and feminism is no exception. Sadly, even what may seem like a reasonable, mature depiction of feminist issues are entirely capable of succumbing to this pitfall. Here’s one such example:

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Not everyone is the same. I know, that seems like a thoroughly banal observation completely unworthy of being said for its sheer obviousness, but it’s deeply important, and its consequences are so often overlooked. It’s far too easy to get trapped into a self-centric view of things, judging others’ actions as if your own personal metric were the supreme measurement of appropriateness. (It’s not.) If you want to have any hope of understanding other people’s worldviews, and if you want to have any hope of critically assessing your own, it is completely necessary to understand the full repercussions of this deceptively simple observation. Not everyone is the same, and that’s okay. “This thing is not something I would enjoy, so it is unacceptable” is a destructively defective metric for diagnosing the decency of, well, anything. To appropriately ascertain the acceptability of an action, first abrogate your own associations. In other words, divorce yourself from your own taboos when you’re observing a situation that neither includes nor affects you.

Having done that, you can proceed to the next stage: beginning to rationally consider the situation at hand. Remember that not everyone is the same. In this video, you saw Sam (the guy) interacting with two relevant females: Ainsley, the object of his attention, and Celia, the Straw Feminist. Celia is depicted as the mouthpiece for feminism, but her hostility to sexuality (indeed, her apparent complete asexuality) makes her something of an anachronism. She dresses conservatively and appears to object to any degree of sexuality. Given that feminists enjoy sex as much as anyone else (if not more), this is absurd. This is salient because she cannot divorce herself from her own position of anti-sexuality; she views his flirting as inherently offensive and tries to convince Ainsley that her acceptance of it is wrong. She’s right about it being offensive, but not for the reason she cites.

The problem here is not that he finds Ainsley sexually attractive and is willing to say so. In this way, Celia’s concern misses the mark. It would be incredibly naïve to assert that no amount of workplace flirting is acceptable. Why? Not everyone is the same. Some men like to flirt, some women like to flirt, and it is inevitable that members of both groups will come together in the same social setting, even if that happens to be the workplace. Many people pursue romantic relationships with coworkers, and for them, this is not an objectionable activity. Thus, it is obvious that we cannot flatly declare all instances of workplace dalliances to be forbidden.

No, the problem here is not that Sam made a sexual remark to Ainsley; the problem is that he did so without considering whether or not such a thing would actually be appropriate. He makes it clear that he has no understanding of why this might be crossing a line. During the confrontation between Ainsley and Celia, Ainsley plainly states that she enjoys his attention, and at this point, I consider the specific incident closed (until she changes her position—that she enjoys it now does not mean that she always will, and if her opinion does change, she has the right to demand a stop to this lasciviousness).

That does not resolve the larger issue, however. If he was willing to treat Ainsley this way, it is also likely that he would regard other women similarly. This is a problem. Not everyone is comfortable with this kind of attention, which may very well be sexual harassment. When a man and woman have developed a relationship where they welcome this sort of titillation, there is simply nothing wrong with it (although I would question the wisdom of partaking in front of other coworkers), but until the pair has reached this point, making these advances is inappropriate. (Objectification, which Celia interpreted Sam to be doing,  ought to be avoided in any case.) In terms of the modern parlance, this is an opt-in system, not an opt-out one.

Sam also demonstrates other sexist tendencies when he teases his friend and coworker, Charlie. His presupposition is that men should be better at basketball than women. It is inconceivable to him that Charlie’s sister could be more skilled at a physical activity. This is, of course, absurd, yet it is a very common trope. This attitude makes his behavior all the more condemnable. For as far as I’m willing to defend the situational acceptability of workplace romance, adding an element of latent sexism makes it far less likely to be appropriate.

On the whole, feminists do not object to sexuality. What feminists object to is the presumption that making sexual advances is automatically acceptable. A boss who slaps an employee’s ass is abusive for at least one of two reasons: 1) without consent, this is a form of sexual assault, and 2) there is an imbalance of social power there that makes it nigh impossible for this interaction to unfold on a level playing field (if the employee rejects the boss’s advances, there may be negative consequences, so an objection that might otherwise be voiced is instead stifled in an unfortunate attempt not to rock the boat). You’ll note that I have avoided using gendered pronouns in this paragraph—feminists object to this presumption regardless of the target’s gender. The goal is, after all, equal—not preferential—treatment.

It’s important to understand where the boundaries lie. Being in a night club, where heightened sexuality may be the normal state of things, is an entirely different animal from being at work. Context clearly matters. Not everyone has the same perspective, though, and this is an important part of that context. Growing up in a relatively homogeneous setting makes it easy to unwittingly overlook the differences between people. Sam’s difficulty in putting himself in someone else’s (in this case, women’s) mental shoes stems from what is often referred to as privilege. An upper-middle-class suburban white male may find it challenging to appreciate the very different world a lower-class gay black woman inhabits. They probably both lack the frame of reference to commiserate with a Chinese adolescent. The privileged position of the white male in American society is largely indisputable, having been studied by both serious thinkers and laypeople. The important thing is to make an effort at learning to identify one’s own privilege. This is the heart of the problem that we saw in the West Wing clip: if Sam had understood this idea, he might have been better equipped to interpret the nuances of his behavior. Perhaps he even would have been able to correct Celia, helping her to recognize why she was almost right.

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