It’s Not About the Vulgarity

It’s Not About the Vulgarity October 25, 2017

As more reports emerge about the scope of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, and the scale of sexual harassment and assault in general, we are turning our attention increasingly to the conditions in which what is often termed “rape culture” flourishes.

Toxic masculinity. Locker-room attitudes. A society that commodifies female sexuality. Capitalist, colonialist notions about possession and power. Normalization of predatory attitudes towards sex. The idea that a woman who doesn’t “put out” is somehow a prude.

These conditions exist across the board, not exclusively in Hollywood, nor in “Left” versus “Right” spaces. The problem is deep-rooted and widespread, so it is wise for us to turn our analytic lens upon our own behavior, to see whether we have been complicit.

As I wrote recently, one mode of complicity is the refusal to pay attention or to believe women.  In patriarchal cultures, especially in traditional religious communities, “good” people, people who rightly view sexual assault as horrific, tend to think “she must have brought it on herself” or “he can’t have done that; he’s a nice person.”

This is one way those who are otherwise well-meaning may enable perpetrators.

Leah Libresco, writing in First Things, suggests that another way we enable perpetrators may be through widespread acceptance of vulgarity, especially in the workplace:

In the office, vulgarity similarly functions as near-harassment, even when a raunchy joke is genuinely appreciated by its hearers. Every moment of crudity normalizes sex-as-assault, if only at the level of making someone else uncomfortable.

Because I have spoken out pretty clearly, in the past, in praise of vulgarity, Libresco’s argument has been brought to my attention in several quarters, sometimes with affectionate concern, other times with an air of “see? you evil perv!”

Which last one is funny. In the past few months, I’ve been lambasted as an evil and depraved person because of my comfort with raunchy jokes and f-bombs, which is rather ironic: that a demographic that voted for Trump in spite of his overt bragging about sexual assault –  that defended him, even, saying “this is how real men talk” – is suddenly so very concerned about the plight of vulnerable women. Are those of us who enjoy Game of Thrones and Cards Against Humanity the real problem here? Especially when some of us have been pretty annoyingly vocal about our opposition to rape culture, have defended victims, initiated campaigns, and assisted victims in finding resources for aid?

Still, I don’t want to throw forth a red herring here, lamenting the hypocrisy of the Right rather than looking at what may in fact be a valid argument. If I’m serious about opposing rape culture, I do have to ask myself whether I have been unwittingly complicit.

And I do think Libresco makes a valid point. A certain kind of sexual talk can indeed be a sort of advance-operation, breaking down barriers, asserting power, reiterating the helplessness of women to do anything about our own discomfort, when the desires of the powerful are at stake.

The thing is, it’s not vulgarity per se that is the problem, though in many circles this kind of talk comes via vulgarity. The real intrusion is not comical references to bodily functions, or robust Anglo-Saxonisms. Pointing out that a vegetable resembles a cock-and-balls (as so many do) is not an advance movement towards asault; otherwise, we gardeners would be obliged regularly to suppress our mirth.

The problem is a kind of forced intimacy in speech, which can take place whether one uses “dirty words” or not.

Take for instance the “Miller’s Tale” from The Canterbury Tales, in poor Absolon is tricked into giving the saucy Alisoun a kiss upon her “naked ers.” Part of the humor of the story is that the hapless lover had no idea, until that moment, that women have pubic hair. “A beard, a beard!” he shouts, in horror. Later he comes back with a hot poker to get his revenge, and this time it’s Alisoun’s lover who gets it on his own “naked ers.”

The story is vulgar in the sense of dealing with sex and body parts, as well as in its use of earthy language, but there’s nothing in it to make anyone uncomfortable, and my critics have yet to attack me for teaching Chaucer or Shakespeare (though maybe they would, if they understood just how naughty some of those bits actually are. Ignorance, for the prudish, is indeed bliss).

The Miller tells the tale in mixed company, on a religious pilgrimage, and the only person who is irritated is the Carpenter, who takes it as an insult. There is even a nun present. The Medieval mind did not infantilize religious sisters as some tend to do today, perhaps.

Very different from this story is the kind of vulgarity in the workplace that enforces an unwelcome intimacy, the vulgarity that makes mention of “me” and “you.” A man commenting on his sexual preferences or alluding to past conquests, remarking on a woman’s body, telling the kind of dirty joke that makes personal involvement in sex acts explicit and present as a shared experience one never asked for: this, indeed, is the Weinstein approach, and one that women should be empowered to shut down, without fear of being called prudish. Or, whatever, go ahead and call us prudish. And go away.

Such language is a form of trespassing on sexual privacy.

But it’s not only the users of vulgar language who trespass in this way. One can be inappropriate and force intimacy while being perfectly dainty about it. I’ll give three separate examples.

  1. A male professor gives a talk about modesty to his class. He specifies that he has special requirements for how women should dress in his presence, because he’s a “happily married man, and wants to stay that way.” Many of the women in class feel uncomfortable. Many men do, too. Later, this professor takes one woman student aside – she is blond, attractive – and informs her that she in particular needs to watch the way she dresses (yes, this has happened. Repeatedly).
  2. A debonair, older European man is in a wine bar, talking to a young American woman. He remarks upon her beauty, and asks her whether she is in a relationship. She says no, she wants to concentrate on her education right now, and has no interest in having a boyfriend. The debonair older man pouts, sips his wine. A beautiful young woman like you, he said, should not be deprived of the pleasures of love.
  3. I give you this stylistic mess of an article – by Antony Esolen, purporting to be about Fr. James Martin, though it is in fact a string of anecdotes of a sexual nature – in which not a single vulgar word is spoken, and yet inappropriate insinuation and prurience abound.

Now, not everyone enjoys vulgar humor, any more than everyone enjoys slapstick, puns, or goofy cat videos. Nothing wrong with a difference in taste. And part of education as a mature individual in the world means recognizing when fart jokes are or are not appropriate. This has to do with social judgment, or perhaps with manners, however –  not morality.

I would suggest, also, that a refusal to call things by their proper names – a dread of the word “vagina” for instance, or a reluctance to refer directly to “oral sex” – can itself be a form of complicity in rape culture. Take, for instance, the novel Lolita, in which Nabokov deliberately writes the most loathsome character imaginable, a suave and educated sexual predator who details at length his kidnapping and repeated rape of his stepdaughter, then blames her for seducing him, and does so without ever using a single vulgar or explicit term. Lolita is not a dirty book, in the sense that Humbert does not use dirty speech. He’s no Falstaff.

And that’s how he gets away with it. If for just a moment he spoke of his exploits using correct terms, maybe the readers would be onto him. Unfortunately, Nabokov over-estimated the intelligence of his readers, because for several decades the general critical view of Lolita was that it was a naughty and titillating book, due to its sexual nature. Some saw this as a kind of “forbidden fun” and others as gross indecency. Even critics as intelligent as Robinson Davies failed to get the reality that Lolita is the story of a predator who hoodwinks his judges into believing that the child he raped is the one actually at fault.

It is a story to slap us in the face with our own complicity in rape culture; because, whether the powerful man uses vulgar speech, romantic idiom, moralistic dictates, or effervescent euphemism, he’s always the one who calls the shots. We always believe him.

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