Monday, January 14, 2013

Myths take a long time to die

Sometimes, trolls  on the internet are successful in generating a response when maybe you should just leave it alone. Like when they try to sound reasonable and yet manage to hit a point I find completely illogical or based on flawed assumption with pretty much every argument they make. And when they apparently count as legitimate intellectuals in Estonia.
Jaan Kaplinski, an Estonian author, wrote a blog post at the end of last year giving his views on rape, naming it Rape or Non-consensual Sex. In it he presents several arguments about why some kinds of non-consensual sex happens, and why it is sometimes, in his mind, not rape. He explicitly calls out "radical Scandinavians" and since Radical Scandinavian Man are some of my middle names, I feel compelled to answer. The radical thing in this case is to not accept non-consensual sex, apparently. I will warn the reader that I have other radical notions like "try not to harm others" and "women and men are part of a category called 'people' and it is possible to communicate with them".
Mr. Kaplinski's basic assertion is that men can have problems understanding a no in certain situations, and that it shouldn't be illegal when a man then penetrates a woman without consent. I have several problems with this, and will go through them in order (though obviously some of them overlap). Mainly, I find that the argument is immoral by itself, that it is based on flawed assumptions, and that it is an argument that has negative consequences for society as a whole.

The moral argument is quite simple, when you remove all the frills. It is wrong to do what you want with another's body against their wishes. I don't think I need to ask people or Mr. Kaplinski to imagine how they would feel if they were penetrated by someone without consent, as it should be pretty obvious that it constitutes harm. Sometimes, there can be circumstances where you can transgress against someone to stop some greater harm from taking place, I do not see how penetrating someone against their will could possibly stop some greater harm. This seems like the kind of thing that is so self-evident that I almost don't want to write it down - as someone who thinks sex can be a wonderful thing you do together with another person, I don't think I should have to. And what argument does Mr. Kaplinski make for why doing this kind of harm is acceptable? Because communication is difficult sometimes. If it's not clear by now, I am no great philosopher, but it seems to me that if you're in a situation where you could potentially cause great harm, you have some responsibility to make a decent effort at avoiding it. Making an extra effort at communicating with your sex partner seems like a very small effort to make, if you are indeed motivated to not do harm to your sex partner (which I sincerely hope).

Mr. Kaplinski makes several assumptions that I don't think hold when analysed critically, the first being that communication is necessarily so complicated. Take these quotes from his blog post:
[...]often the female no is not an absolute no but can be a step toward finally saying yes.[...]
Here, it is not simply a person understanding another person, but a body understanding another body. And a male body tends to understand the closeness of a female body in a very straightforward way. Yes, with an effort, a man can even then abstain from sex.
In the first case, obviously the sex should wait until you actually get that yes, while using the skills you have gained in other social interactions to make sure that you're not badgering, intimidating, or making the woman you're talking to feel uncomfortable. If we see the important word as being "yes" rather than "no", we seem to avoid a lot of the problems. To the extent that women are conditioned to not express sexual desire for fear of being accused of being a slut or similar shaming language, I suggest working to tear down sexist double standards on the structural level, and making sure that there is enough trust between you and your sex partner to express desire despite it. As long as you honestly care about communicating with your partner, most of the time you should be able to make it work. If there's still uncertainty, well, lack of sex has never killed anyone. Of course, Mr. Kaplinski is here talking about situation where two people have come quite far sexually already, so that a yes shouldn't be quite that difficult to express, if the other person is indeed interested in expressing it.
In the second quote, Mr. Kaplinski suggests that the male body understands the presence of a female body meaning a "yes" to sexual intercourse. The answer to that is easy: the body is wrong. And as Mr. Kaplinski writes, men can back off at that point. He says it takes effort, but as mentioned, making an effort to avoid inflicting great harm is obviously the right thing to do.

A second assumption used by Mr. Kaplinski to explain why communication is so difficult for men is an appeal to nature: in mating rituals in the animal world, no doesn't necessarily mean no, and men, by their nature, are "autistic" and have more problems understanding others than women.
We are willingly or unwillingly a part of animal kingdom and our erotic rituals are quite similar to the rituals of some other animals. And in these rituals, often the female no is not an absolute no but can be a step toward finally saying yes.[...]
Yes, we men tend to be autistic. As I have been explained by women, they always understand whether a man is interested in them. Not so with men.
First off, and it is perhaps needless to say, that something is natural does not make something right. A person who is angered and kills someone else can not excuse it with death being a common result after conflicts in the animal kingdom, nor can someone who kills their children say that animals often do it during hard times.
Perhaps more importantly, we live in a world where women have at various times been considered frigid, at other times too emotional, at some times dangerously part of the natural world, and at others removed from it. Men, on the other hand, were often seen as their opposites (and often somehow better because of it). What I mean by that is that if we lived in a society where boys and men were encouraged to have an active emotional life, strong empathy and caring for others, and put a greater focus on communication and friendships over gender lines, we might well end up with men that are different than what seems natural right now. Will gender differences persist? Quite possibly, but looking at history, there is obviously a great variation in behaviour among men and women alike so we should never be too tempted to see our behaviour at present as being "natural". In addition, we live in a society where women's voices in general are given less validity than those of men's, if we were to make more of an effort to not denigrate women's opinions, maybe there would be less of a problem to understand them in more intimate settings.
The mention of autism is interesting. People who are diagnosed with autism often have problems throughout their lives, whether interacting with men or women. Autism is not a problem that occurs only in the bedroom or when dealing with relationships. What people with autism spectrum disorder usually do is to learn to cope with their problem so as to improve their social life, using certain cues as signals for moods and situations they don't instinctively get. If you care about social interactions where you might have a problem (and if you think you might cause harm by misunderstanding consent, I hope you do care), you will hopefully take steps to rectify it, by learning various cues and ways of communicating for that which you don't understand instinctively. It might be prudent to add, in this context, that literature and other culture is a way of understanding the world around us; romance literature and movies are overwhelmingly coded as feminine, and are to a great extent read by women. Though I won't make any absolute statements about it, it's entirely possible that Mr. Kaplinski's experience with romantically psychic women is merely the effect of a group of people taking a more intense interest in romance than he (or his male friends) do.

A third assumption that seems to motivate his post is that women are not attracted to "good guys" but rather macho-men who are, presumably, not good:
And it was a shock to me to discover that men relish talkint obscenities, that in their discourse sex is very much connected with rude force, even with violence. And the greatest shock was to find that girls were more interested in such macho-type men than in good guys as me.[...]
[...]I was too good a guy and couldn't understand that bad guys had more luck with women than good guys. And quite possibly still have.
First off, I am going to go out on a limb here and say that a guy who is truly good would not write a resentful blog post decades later complaining about not having had enough sex.
Secondly, in my experience women don't particularly like bad guys (though obviously that also happens) - they like interesting, funny, confident, attractive people in a mix, much like men do. I can't mention that many female friends of mine who find someone being nice being a turn-off; however, if "nice" or "good guy" was the main thing they could say about a person, I would also not assume that they're very attracted by him. Confidence and being clear about what you want probably helps quite a bit in many kinds of social interaction, flirting and getting into bed with someone among them; being withdrawn probably doesn't. Of course, if a woman is mostly interested in getting laid for a night or for a little while, getting together with an attractive guy who clearly signals he's into that is probably the right way to go. I don't know if those guys are what some people see as "bad guys", of course. In many blog circles, this kind of thing is called "nice guy syndrome", and plenty has been written about it.
Additionally, in the context of this post, wouldn't the fact that women are supposedly more interested in macho-type men mean that there were less situations where consent was lacking? I mean, if they were attracted by them, wouldn't it stand to reason that they actually had consensual sex when they did have sex? And what's wrong with that? The lesson here should not be (and never should be) "care less about women's consent", it's (if it matters that much to you) "become more attractive".

A final assumption is the way Mr. Kaplinski sees the interplay of men and women in society in regards to sex:
I cannot but agree with the assertion that a female no is a no when it is told seriously, not as an element in a play where woman rises the stakes, present herself as a more valuable partner asking for an effort from the male to get access to her favours.
Mr. Kaplinski seems to see sex as a commodity, something that women possess and men must bid to gain access to. A similar idea is that sex is something men want and seek, and women's role is only to accept or deny. I won't deny that a lot of people follow these concepts, and that a lot of social rules are based on them, such as shaming women for having sex (giving it up too easy). However, what I do say is that we should all work to change it. I have never understood what women supposedly give up when they have sex to make society get all scandalized; sex should be something two (or more) people do together because it's enjoyable for both of them. They both get enjoyment and both "lose" some time (they probably weren't going to do anything better with it) and give some physical effort. To me, at least, sex is worth having so long as everyone involved is into it; I want partners who find me attractive and are confident enough to take pleasure in my body as I take pleasure in hers, and more than anything the confidence to ask what I like. As long as people are aware of the risks in regards to STIs and unplanned pregnancy, why should we expect men and women's attitudes to sex and sexuality to be so different from each other?
Though it's certainly a long process (and one that's been championed by feminists for a long time), if you don't like the game, the right response isn't to punish someone by minimizing their wishes and to do them harm; it's to change the game.

Before going to the final section where I'll add why I think Mr. Kaplinski's argument is a bad thing for society as a whole, I must comment on this part:
[...]last minute abstention is detrimental to male health. Strong arousal without following gratification, without the possibility of penetration and ejaculation can easily lead to inflammation of the prostate and the lower urinary tract. If it becomes chronical, it can lead to prostate cancer and other nasty illnesses.
That is silly. I'm not going to dig up the incidence rate of prostate cancer for men who become aroused and then don't ejaculate vs. those who don't, because the dilemma Mr. Kaplinski presents here has such an obvious solution: if you're concerned that not ejaculating after becoming aroused is dangerous for your health, most of the people reading this have two hands. Do use them.
I will add that Mr. Kaplinski urges women to consent more because of this risk to men's health. To me, that would more or less amount to pity sex, which I can frankly do without, as I prefer women to have sex out of pleasure, not out of obligation.

At long last, a comment on the responsibility of a public intellectual and this kind of argument about rape and consent.
Culture and society matters. It matters to how people relate to each other, the acceptance of violence and oppression. You only need to look to times such as that of the Slave Trade, apartheid in South Africa, World War II, pretty much any occupation, and any place or time where women are considered to be property rather than citizens to make that clear. In these countries, the people who are in power gain great power and privilege over other groups, which are commonly denigrated, dehumanized and devalued. Though people are, in my opinion, generally decent people who want to do right, power corrupts, and when you have a society that tells you that some people are not worthy of respect and that your wishes matter more than theirs, great ills can be done to the oppressed in a casual manner by anyone who's sadistic, having a bad day, frustrated by their lot in life, or any other reason. That is understandable, though obviously something that is unacceptable and we should always work to prevent. So culture matters, and can increase the number of people in society who commit violence against others, or who simply stand by and do nothing when harm is done. We need to look no further than the recent rape cases in Steubenville and Delhi for examples of cultures where sexual violence against women is done and few if anyone intervenes to stop it.
However, as I mentioned before, I think that people as a rule can be decent, and with a society and culture where people are treated as equal, most people will not treat others as less worthy, they will be. To back up that point, especially in regards to rape, I would like to point to recent research in the US that has given rise to Predator Theory, which is simply that most rapes are actually committed by a small group of men who victimize many women. They target the women they identify as most vulnerable and get them into a position where they know they have what society regards as plausible deniability: they were drunk, she didn't say no clearly, she seemed interested earlier, and the like. As the research shows, however, they are well aware that they are assaulting non-consenting women, and will continue to do so. This is well in line with other criminological research, which shows that most crime is committed by a small minority who are repeat offenders.
With that background, I think Mr. Kaplinski's argument that men have problems understanding a no and because of that non-consensual sex should not be seen as rape or something illegal is not only immoral, but also on the larger scale promote a society and culture where women's wishes and consent are ignored, which would likely lead to increased victimization, and effectively give cover to the group of rapists who repeatedly and wilfully victimize others by letting them say that consent and communication is "confusing" when in truth it is navigable by most with a bit of effort, and those who don't make the effort or don't care are clearly in the wrong.

What bothers me the most about Mr. Kaplinski's blog post is perhaps that it presents sex and sexuality as something joyless, where it's not about people doing something pleasurable together, but rather a social competition where spending time with someone else stops mattering in favour of the raw mechanics of sex. As someone who thinks that the person you're doing it with and mutual enjoyment both while having sex and while spending time together otherwise is important, it seems like a very strange world where women's personalities and desires are erased in favour of a worldview where putting notches on your bedposts is the only positive you gain from having sex. That is not the kind of society I want, and indeed I am surprised that anyone would.

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