Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Sex! (Now there's a title for you.)

Let's get this out of the way first:  I am a feminist.

To give that some meaning, a definition:  A feminist is a person who believes in the full equality of women with men and in the full agency of women over their own lives.  Feminism does not require that men be hated or belittled or ignored or punished.  Feminism need not be against marriage or motherhood, nor does it require respect for the more extreme, cartoonish views about gender relations that have become associated with it.

What's prompting me to write about feminism today are several mostly unrelated topics that have been in the news lately, including:

Culturally, our approach to rape prevention has usually involved educating women about avoiding situations that might lead to their being raped.  When I was in college, two decades ago, women were encouraged to call for a campus police escort when walking across the campus at night.  At the time, I thought that was a good thing, and to an extent I still do.  But when the focus is on telling women "don't get raped," that's just a bit wrongheaded.  The lion's share of the focus should be on telling men "don't rape."

In the same vein, I get what some women are saying about the nail polish.  The existence of the product could be read by some people as putting the onus on women to avoid being raped instead of putting the onus on men not to rape.  In an ideal world, this product wouldn't be necessary, because it would never occur to any man to drug a woman for the purpose of having sex with her.  We don't live in an ideal world.  If I were a woman, and if I felt vulnerable to this kind of attack, I'd like to think I would appreciate having this tool to help me avoid being raped.  But I can also imagine being frustrated that this kind of thing is necessary.

The truth is that we desperately need to educate young men about these issues, but our collective attitude toward sex is part of the problem.  Culturally, we have a tendency to treat sex as a game in which the male is on offense and the female is on defense.  Even our language is infected with metaphors that reinforce this concept.  The goal of the man is to score, while the goal of the woman is to prevent that from occurring. 

For younger women, their fathers often expect to assist on defense.

When you set up this type of arrangement, enforced through millions of interactions between men and women, it is hardly unreasonable to expect that some men will cheat to win, just as players of real sports use performance-enhancing drugs and dirty play to win at their games.

That does not make it right to break the rules, of course.

This entire approach is wrongheaded.  If we want to end rape culture, we are going to have to adjust the cultural understanding of sex away from the game metaphor.  The truth is that both men and women want sex.  They want to have interactions with each other that might lead to sex, or that might not.  But most importantly, both men and women want to choose when, where, and how they have sex, and with whom.  We should not instill in men, through our culture, the belief that getting sex is the result of breaking down a woman's defenses until she gives in and gives it up.  The result of that is almost always something terrible--at best, it is sex that leaves at least one of the parties dissatisfied; at worst, it is rape.

There is a popular T-shirt, aimed at a certain segment of the population--namely, fathers of young women--that lists the rules for young men seeking to date the wearer's daughter:

1.  I don't make the rules.
2.  You don't make the rules.
3.  She makes the rules.
4.  Her body, her rules.

This almost gets it right, and as a bonus, it combats the cultural idea that it is the responsibility of fathers to control their daughters' sexuality.  (It isn't.  Her body, her rules.)

But I say "almost," because we're still not quite there.  This is still focused on defense, to an extent.  If the wearer's daughter chooses to date someone, she doesn't get to make all of the rules.  If she and her date decide to engage in a physical relationship, it's up to both of them.  They both need to agree that it's what they both want.

Of course, that doesn't fit nicely on a T-shirt.

There's more to it, yet.  And that's where iCloud comes in.  It would be easy to blame the victims here--to say that they should have had stronger passwords, or to say that they shouldn't have taken the nude photos in the first place.  Maybe it's not entirely wrong to say those things--just like it's not wrong to develop a nail polish that detects GHB or to encourage college women to call for a police escort when leaving the library late at night. 

But I also have a problem with a blogger at Forbes.com, who called the distribution of these photos a "sex crime." 

I don't think I can go that far.  As invasive of these celebrities' privacy as these acts are, they are only images that are incidentally nude.*  That is, it would be just as invasive if these were private family photos without any nudity at all. By the way, I've previously made myself clear about how to treat celebrities you encounter.

* - Disclaimer:  I haven't seen the photos, and I'm not likely to.

No one is being raped.  No one is being assaulted.  The worst thing about the "sex" aspect of this is that some people that none of these celebrities know will know what these celebrities look like without any clothes on.  Will it substantially modify these celebrities' lives in some way?  Unlikely.

I refuse to get exercised about the nudity aspect of this occurrence.  We place entirely too much emphasis on nudity, and specifically on avoiding nudity and exposure to it.  These celebrities have bodies, with breasts and buttocks and genitals.  So does everybody else.  Big deal.  Last I checked, you can't see someone's personality or intelligence--you know, the important parts of a person--in a nude photo.  After seeing a nude photo of Jennifer Lawrence, the next time you see her in a film, one of two things is going to happen:  One, you'll be picturing her naked (which you would probably be doing anyway), or two, you'll appreciate her acting skills (which you would probably be doing anyway).**

** - Also, I find it frankly disturbing that people are more concerned about their children seeing a photo of Jennifer Lawrence naked than they are about their children seeing Jennifer Lawrence and her "Hunger Games" castmates murdering each other for sport on the big screen.

Calling the release of these photos a "sex crime" cheapens actual sex crimes and reduces these celebrities to mere sex objects, to nothing more than their unclothed bodies.

Of course, that doesn't mean that those responsible shouldn't be pursued.  I just don't see the need for hyperbole.  In the end, this is about these individuals' right to control their own photos, not the content of those photos.

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