Tuesday, January 01, 2008

It's the "Sex" Part That Needs Redefining

I've been reading figleaf's Real Adult Sex (NSFW, but not quite what it sounds like either) and he's been talking a lot about what he's "calling *men's* dominant paradigm of women as the "no-sex" class."

I find the posts interesting because, well, they are (this is one of my faves, for obvious reasons) but also because it's really nice to listen to someone trying to work out feminist arguments in a way that will actually reach other men without intentionally watering them down or twisting them into something they are not.

He explains the theory thusly:

But.... it *doesn't* resonate with men... to the point where we're inclined to say "in our dreams!" Because for whatever indisputable *abstract* privileges such class division might bring to us our *experience* of it is... pretty disempowering.

So in the face of that contradiction -- holding the reins of patriarchy on the one hand and feeling totally out of power when it comes to sex on the other -- I decided to try and (mis)apply a standard strategy from mathematical logic: attempt to prove the contrary position -- that men perceive women as the *no* sex class -- and see what shakes out. And, in fact, tons of fascinating stuff shakes out....

The point being not that feminist theories are wrong but that they are incomplete in that they tend to only describe how men (as a class) act within the system and how women experience being in the system, not how the average man actually experiences being in the system, or even really how women act from his perspective. Which is a fair criticism.

It's also the type of criticism and expansion of feminist theories that is best done with men leading the way - for obvious reasons - so it's really nice to see a man addressing it, because I've been wanting my male peers dissatisfaction to be properly addressed for quite a while now.

But of course, that doesn't mean I agree with all of it. I don't think he's wrong, exactly, just that it's obvious and understandable that he's still working this out - we all are - so it needs some (a lot?) of fine tuning.

It makes me feel like we need some unifying theory.

While he talks about this terminology resonating with men when little else does, and he draws as much from feminist writers as he does from personal experience when explaining the theory, it still bothers me that the terminology doesn't completely resonate with women. (ok, with me, anyway.) So, while it's a very useful theory for reaching out to men, (and again, may I add, thank god, finally?) it still doesn't help much for reaching out to people and has limits in the extent to which it will facilitate conversations between women and men, feminists and not.

Mostly, I disagree that women don't see a distinction between being called "the sex class" or "the no sex class." I think that men and women both identify with being called "the sex class" - or identify with neither. This presents a problem when trying to work things out together.

Well, then, how to resolve this?

I think figleaf got pretty close in his this post on the consent:

I was thinking about someone I quoted earlier on the limits of "no means no" and it occurred to me that even the concept of requiring consent is kind of missing a big point.

We don't seek our friend's "consent" when we ask them to join us for lunch. Instead we seek consent to park our car in somebody's driveway. We don't seek "consent" when we have a couple of extra tickets and ask if our friends want to tag along. We seek consent to use the school gymnasium for a neighborhood fundraiser.

There's been a lot of talk in the feminist blogosphere over the last several years about shifting the goalposts of consent from "no mean no" to "yes means yes."* Which I completely agree with.

But, yeah, still missing the point. Legally, it makes sense to worry about consent, because that's always going to be the legal issue. But culturally, it's both a revolutionary step forward and still so far off the mark. I have the same vague feeling about defining men as the "sex" class and shifting women to the "no-sex" class. It's useful, and good, and suggests some major changes to how we view things, but pretty soon we are going to notice that we've only moved things around a bit. The paradigm shift we are looking for is still buried beneath it all.

I think quite often we are talking past each other.

Not because women are from Venus or men say what they mean, dammit! But because we perceive ourselves differently than others perceive us.

Figleaf classifies women as the "no-sex" class (er....identifies that women are perceived as the "no-sex" class by men) because men have this perception that women don't want sex.

But why the fuck does this even matter? Why does the stereotypical man care that he wants to have sex but women (supposedly) don't? And why do we care? Well, because the stereotypical man wants to have sex with a woman, not a man, that's why!** Shifting women to the "no-sex" class is still focusing on how one gender experiences and perceives the other; it's not really looking at how we both experience living with the system, how we perceive ourselves and are viewed in turn, and, most of all, how this all fits together:

I'm suggesting that either way the heteronormative assumption is that sex is something to be obtained by the man, and dispensed by the woman... that sex is requested by the man and granted by the woman... which in turn assumes that sex isn't something she just might naturally just want to *have.* And that's what I mean by the dominant male paradigm of women as the "no-sex" class -- that by nature women just aren't interested, let alone motivated, the way men are.

Wait!....back up a bit.

....the heteronormative assumption is that sex is something to be obtained by the man, and dispensed by the woman.

Yup, that's the part.

Or, as someone told me quite seriously during the pie fights "A man's sexuality is defined by sexually desiring women. A woman's sexuality is defined by men sexually desiring her." In short form: sex is something that men want and that women have.

That lie that "women don't want sex" is only one part of this very false proscription for sexual behavior.

It's an important one. One that's long overdue for demolishing. And certainly a better one for talking to men than "men hate women." (As is the reasoning behind labeling men the "sex" class - the "boys will be boys" assumption that men are always horny that figleaf picks apart all the time as well.)

However, it's one that doesn't resonate with women not only because, as figleaf constantly points out, we know this for the lie it is, but also because it doesn't speak to our experiences as the class that is responsible for giving out sex.

Now, I don't think that figleaf needs to change his terminology so that it will speak to women as well as men. That would be silly and selfish and counter-productive for obvious reasons. But again, we need some way of talking about this is public, in mixed company, etc. And I think the key there will be found in the dynamic itself - and the tension between how we are taught to be, how other's perceive us, and who we actually are - not just how men or women view the system from the inside.

*the term, in case anybody doesn't know it, is really "enthusiastic participation." But, it tends to be rephrased as "yes means yes" when talking to a non-feminist audience. Which rather misses the point, imo, since the most radical part of "enthusiastic participation" is the idea that one wants to do this, rather than emphatically agreeing to do something.

**because, you know, no one is gay or bi in the prescriptive scenario.


figleaf said...

Hi Mickle,

I really appreciate the time you've taken to dig into it, to look for weaknesses, to say what you do and don't like, and to just give it a good all-around shake.

Hearing how it all sounds from your perspective helps. A lot.



wedes said...

I'm sort of amazed that there aren't more comments on this post. It's really fantastic and I plan on linking it to my journal as soon as I'm done making this comment.

Thank you thank you thank you.

I think it's important to talk about this as individuals and not as group identified. It's so difficult to have a conversation that's about women do this and men do that when we are individuals. With similarities yes, but we all come from such different places and it's so easy to set each other off because none of us wants to be labeled as a stereotype.

It seems totally contradictory to me to say on the one hand we want women to have a voice of their own, and then on the other to go ahead and define what that is for them and how they should say it and why.

Which is why the whole sex conversation is so very charged for me. We're talking socially about a private and totally subjective aspect of our culture.

I hear people say that no means no or yes means yes, but only if it's in a single committed relationship that has equal meaning for both parties. That's a double bind and not only frustrating but totally off putting.

When I look at the gay male model as discussed in Soul Beneath the Skin by David Nimmons, I see this Isle of Avalon idea of a culture of bliss. Pleasure for pleasure's sake with no judgements nor any strings. I can barely imagine that and it makes me no end of furious when I hear about my gay male friends who have sex so often and so casually. I'm envious of that freedom. Even within the safety structures my friends now deal with, they still have more psychological and emotional freedom to be sexual than I feel I ever will.

But what that book does do is give me a mental tool to work with. To see my own strictures and structures by comparison.

It's a useful tool and one that I use often.

I'm looking forward to reading through your links as well.

Mickle said...

Thanks you both for such flattering comments!

"I think it's important to talk about this as individuals and not as group identified....we all come from such different places and it's so easy to set each other off because none of us wants to be labeled as a stereotype."

I think it's vital that we do both. And I think that to a certain extent feminism provides a model for this. The idea of conciousness raising is very different from indoctrination after all, since it requires both learning theory and contributing to it by adding you own experiences to the wealth of knowledge available to all.

But, in my experience, a lot of that is lost in translation from feminists to non-feminists. Either the language ends up being very formal and convoluted and academic or it becomes very hard for newbies to recognize when feminists mean "woman" as a social construct, the average "woman" according to statistics, or simply themselves. (It doesn't help that we aren't perfect and we get these all mixed up sometimes too.)

"It seems totally contradictory to me to say on the one hand we want women to have a voice of their own, and then on the other to go ahead and define what that is for them and how they should say it and why."

It is, and this was something I struggled with for a while. Mostly just noticing it and worrying at it for a while then shoving it to the back of my mind again.

But reading feminist bloggers over the past few years I've realized that feminisms' goal isn't so much to try and define women's experiences for them, but to identify the various pressures in their lives so that they can be more honest with themselves about their choices and eventually advocate for larger changes that will make their choices more autonomous -because even if you were going to say yes no matter what, the yes means more if you had the (economic, legal, practical) option of saying no.

(That's pretty much my stance on all sorts of things - such as of honoring the flag via not burning it - just in case anyone cares.)

Which isn't always an easy process on the part of the person being pressured, because it means acknowledging that you aren't always in control. Even when you are the one making the decisions, you aren't the only one making the decisions, and this can affect the consequences of your choices, and thus your choices themselves. It's a very frightening and humbling realization.