looks like we need a little refresher course on consent

looks like we need a little refresher course on consent October 17, 2016

So you’ve decided that Trump’s comments about women are acceptable, because Hollywood is already vulgar? You’ve decided that it’s acceptable to support a man who’s openly boasted of sexual assault, because Kennedy and Clinton, and even Reagan, were perv machines? And since some women read Fifty Shades of Grey, the rest of us have lost any right to object to sexual violence? Mark Meckler, for instance, writes that the Left can’t criticize Trump, because it already encourages a culture of sexual permissiveness. And Anthony DeChristopher, writing for The American Thinker, seems to think that if one watches Game of Thrones, one can’t criticize actual sexual violence. 

This Catholic feminist is not impressed.

I’m beginning to get the suspicion that those within the right-wing bubble languish in deliberate ignorance of the kind of conversations that are going on elsewhere, that they’re still rattling their metaphoric sabres at a second-wave liberal feminist movement allied with the sexual revolution, under the impression that any woman who murmurs the dread words “equality” or “women’s right” must necessarily be lining up in slobbering hypocrisy to pleasure Mr. Clinton

But the reality is, that many of us harshly criticized Bill Clinton then, and still do so today.  There exist many branches of feminism, and since the Nineties we’ve grown in awareness of the extent to which patriarchal privilege was already woven into the fibers of the Sexual Revolution. Sexual liberation, even for earlier feminists, did not mean liberation to have as much sex as they wanted, but liberation from the politics inherent in the sexual expectations of a patriarchal society. Sexual libertinism didn’t alter these politics. It just broadened the parameters of injustice.

“The only perfect love to be found on earth is not sexual love, which is riddled with hostility and insecurity, but the wordless commitment of families, which takes as its model mother-love.”

That’s feminist Germaine Greer talking, right there.

And Greer on abortion:

“What women “won” was the “right” to undergo invasive procedures in order to terminate unwanted pregnancies – unwanted not just by them but by their parents, their sexual partners, the governments who would not support mothers, the employers who would not employ mothers, the landlords who would not accept tenants with children, the schools that would not accept students with children.”

And here’s feminist Andrea Dworkin on pornography:

“We see a major trade in women, we see the torture of women as a form of entertainment, and we see women also suffering the injury of objectification—that is to say we are dehumanized. We are treated as if we are subhuman, and that is a precondition for violence against us.
I live in a country where if you film any act of humiliation or torture, and if the victim is a woman, the film is both entertainment and it is protected speech. Now that tells me something about what it means to be a woman citizen in this country, and the meaning of being second class.”

More Dworkin:

“The girls of the counterculture Left were wrong; not about civil rights or the Viet Nam War or imperial Amerika, but about sex and men. It is fair to say that the silence of the mothers hid a real, tough, unsentimental knowledge of men and intercourse, and that the noisy sexuality of the daughters hid romantic ignorance.”

Breanne Fahs, in “Liberated Sex and Other Myths,” writes:

“As a final, and perhaps the most insidious, example of women’s so-called sexual “liberation,” women also dismiss, negate, and undersell the frequency, severity, and emotional impact of their coercive sexual experiences. While resisting the label “rape victim” certainly has some benefits (e.g., women can avoid stigma), it also obscures the pervasiveness of coercion women face, normalizes men’s violence against women, and de-emphasizes less visible forms of sexual violence (particularly men’s violence against other men and women’s same-sex violence).  Over 80% of women reported coercive experiences that would land in the “grey area” of rape discourse: pressure to engage in rough anal sex; acting out a boyfriend’s sadomasochistic fantasy that he saw in pornography; pressure to give men blow jobs; pressure to have sex when sick with pneumonia; pressure to have sex during cancer recovery; enduring painful intercourse while a man said he was “almost finished”; drinking too much and saying nonconsensual sex was “her fault”; trying an unwanted threesome to make a husband happy; and so on. This suggests, again, that coercive experiences sit at the core of many women’s sexual experiences and, more alarmingly, that coercive behavior underlies hetero men’s “normal” sexual practices and feelings.”

I grew up hearing how awful sexual libertinism was, but most of what I heard was a verbalized pearl-clutching over people “acting just like animals!” or a mistaken association of sexual sin with good old wholesome vulgarity, or the constant implication that it was all really the fault of women who dared to leave their homes and go try to be like men (sexual promiscuity being male privilege, apparently?). It wasn’t really until I began to study Christian personalism that I found an ethics of mutuality and interiority that made arguments against promiscuity make sense beyond the “you don’t want to end up pregnant and alone” pragmatism.

I learned to criticize the sexual revolution from a personalist standpoint, and learned to criticize it even more from a feminist perspective, because feminism is not a monolithic heap of angry braless baby-killers out to devour men with their voracious vaginas, but rather an ongoing conversation about ethical and political concerns, with heightened alertness to the power dynamics implicit in established social norms or practices. Entering into this conversation was a logical outgrown of personalist ethics, because I was constantly aware of how conversations about the identity of persons seemed not to match up with conversations among Christians about the role of women. Presumptions about male privilege and dominance are so built into our tradition of what we will accept in relationships, even in marriage, that feminism is, I believe, necessary, to complete the personalist project.

We know that a person is never to be used as a means to an end, never treated as a mere object – so why are so many Christian men still so clueless about the fact that grabbing and using women against their will is not just playful flirtation, not remotely the same as mere vulgarity or lewdness? Why is boasting of doing so equated with “locker room talk”?

The inability to distinguish between ordinary vulgarity and sexual assault arises from a very basic ignorance about the importance of consent. Now, consent is not the end-all of sexual morality, but it is a sine qua non: necessary, if not sufficient, for any sexual act to be morally licit. Yes, it is possible for a person to sin sexually even in the context of consensual sex. But the absence of consent makes it not just a sin, but a crime, an act of injustice, a direct and deliberate violation of the dignity of the other person. Sex-positive feminists (who need a good dose of Dowrkin, IMO) may fetishize consent to absurd degrees, but that doesn’t make consent irrelevant.

If men continue to view women as objects – objects that need to be properly covered, objects of inspiration, objects to be admired, objects to place on pedestals, objects for penetrating, objects for containing babies, objects for adorning the home, objects that need to have trim ankles under fluffy skirts – consent will continue to be hazily construed in their ethical consciousness.  “Men are active; women are passive. Men initiate; women receive” –  sex as framed within this binary will never really get just how important consent is, as a bare minimum. The implication is that all sex acts arise from male potency, and as long as they happen within marriage, and without those indecorous anglo-saxonisms, it’s good and holy. Thus there’s insufficient distinction between the variety of sexual sins, transgressions, and crimes: just a single line, between “married hetero Catholic sex” and “everything else, yuck.” No wonder people like Phyllis Schlafly refused to acknowledge marital rape as a thing.

So, women read Fifty Shades. My main problem with the book is that it’s horribly written, but yes, it does indeed have elements of abuse and rape-tolerance underlying the narrative. NOT because of the (inaccurately portrayed) BDSM, but because Christian Grey is an abusive asshole. This is nothing new, of course. This is not a sexual-revolution problem, nor a vulgarity problem (plenty of Medieval literature is far more vulgar) – it’s a patriarchy problem. It’s the acceptance of a power imbalance, a failure of true consent, as inevitable in sexual relationships, and the idea that the use and abuse of a woman can actually end up being redemptive. Heaven knows I’ve run into this often enough, when Christian women are encouraged to stay in abusive marriages to Catholic men because it’s their job to save their husbands.

But do women deserve to be forcibly groped because they read a book about sexual abuse? Do you honestly think people enjoy stories because they want to experience, in reality, what the stories portray? I guess all the men who got their macho tingles from watching “Braveheart” are just longing to be hanged, drawn, and quartered. And if a presidential candidate boasts about hanging, drawing, and quartering men, this is fine, because men liked watching “Braveheart.”

And given that Game of Thrones consistently represents sexual violence as the gruesome outcome of war, perpetrated by villainous sociopaths, I don’t think I even need to dignify that objection with a response.

Consent, folks. It may be difficult to determine whether ostensible acts of consent are genuine – whether every “yes” is really a “yes” – (see the Fahs quotation again, above) – but it’s pretty definite that grabbing a women’s vulva and forcibly kissing her, out of the blue, does not pass the consent test. It is assault. It is a violation of female dignity. And we’re not impressed with the chivalric heroism of men who opt not to call our sexual parts by vulgar names, so long as they think that powerful men grabbing women there is on the same moral plane as Beyonce’s twerking.




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