Chains of oppression: Katie Roiphe, Lena Dunham and the sexual counter-revolution

Via Pennyred

Kink has been part of the sexual menu for so long that it’s hard to pretend anyone is shocked anymore when it turns up on the table. The practice of male masochism, for example, has become almost idiomatic when one is discussing Wall Street workers, or the British aristocracy – despite Rousseau and De Sade, the French still refer to sadomasochism as ‘La Vice Anglais.’

At no point, however, has anyone implied that men who want to be sexually dominated by women also want to be dominated by them socially and economically. Quite the opposite, if the long history of powerful men paying poor women to beat them up in backrooms is anything to go by. Apparently, though, a few smutty books about naughty professors wielding handcuffs are meant to prove that modern ‘working women’ (sic.) aren’t really as into all this liberation schtick as we make out.

In a cover story for Newsweek, noted rape apologist Katie Roiphe argues that the recent success of pop-porn bestseller ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ proves that even feminists secretly want to be shagged into submission by great, big, whip-wielding brutes. Not just in spite of our feminism, but because of our feminism. Roiphe argues that modern “working women” – I’m sorry, was there ever a time when women actually did no work? – find “the pressure of economic participation… all that strength and independence and desire and going out into the world”…”exhausting.” Roiphe goes on to theorise, based on precisely one film, one tv show and one novel, that “for some, the more theatrical fantasies of sexual surrender offer a release, a vacation, an escape from the dreariness and hard work of equality.”

[Admin note: per our posting policy, this full-length article from another site has been excerpted. Visit Pennyred for the full article.]

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Why Cakes Cannot Be Both Had and Eaten

The Consent Is Sexy (CiS) campaign has advertised itself as striving for a more lasting response to the problems it identifies than a mere alteration of college policy or an increased awareness of the existence and activities of Survivors of Assault and Rape. It claims to want a totally open and honest discussion of issues related to sexual violence at Haverford, as well as an enduring change in what it believes is a pervasive rape culture on campus.

I applaud CiS for recognizing that, to the extent the problem can be concretely defined, superficial fixes will not do. Plenary resolutions and tweaks to Haverford’s process for handling reports of sexual assault are simply insufficient. Only an open-ended commitment to changing the way that we think about (or don’t think about) rape is going to be enough.

I agree completely. But I think that taking CiS’s stated goals to their logical conclusions reveals some uncomfortable contradictions. By all means we need to eradicate rape culture wherever we may find it, but we will not do so until we take on hookup culture and the celebration of casual sex as well.

In an earlier post on this blog (“Sexism?”), the organizers of CiS explicitly refute the rather odd charge that their goal is to criticize Haverford’s hookup culture. They respond that they had no such intention, and that in fact many of them have had “positive experiences in hookup culture.”

Herein lies one of the central paradoxes of sexual liberationism: sexual violence is a grave sin, but the conditions in which such aggression can most easily manifest itself are to be not only permitted, but relentlessly encouraged. It is imperative that cool-headed rationality prevail long enough to come to a clear verbal agreement about the nature of a sexual encounter before it begins, but suggesting that cool-headedness can prevail for long enough to obtain a condom from somewhere farther than three steps down the hall is “unrealistic.”

To quote an article critiquing a similar CiS campaign at Gonzaga University, a key part of this worldview is that “college kids simply cannot help but have sex, so we simply need to live with this immutable, objective reality. Of course, college kids are told they mustn’t rape, smoke, make racist remarks, be homophobic, or denigrate native cultures, so they apparently do possess some self-control. But not in the sack.”

For anyone who thinks I’m attacking a straw man, consider SHAC’s condom distribution program. I’ve had it suggested to me that the initiative “promotes a healthy view of sex.” But this clearly isn’t true. Read SHAC’s Go! posts and other advertisements and you will find them asking people to save the condoms for “those in need” and to refrain from hoarding them lest others be left empty-handed in an “emergency.” In other words, we are encouraged to see impulsive sex as completely unavoidable, akin to an unforeseen accident. And the rebuttal that we as a community are only “recognizing reality” and not making an endorsement of any particular behavior is equally vacuous. I suppose that the Sexvember sex toy raffles and Juicy Justine seminars merely “recognize reality” as well.

In other words, if we believe in paternalism fervently enough to think that it is our collective responsibility to provide subsidized contraceptives for our classmates in the name of public health, then we must also believe in paternalism enough to feel responsibility for their psychological well-being as well. I humbly submit that meaningless hookups are not the pinnacle of such well-being, and that our failure to promote a more dignified sexual ethic means that we’re not really as good at being paternalists as we think we are.

Those who try to combat rape while taking a laissez-faire approach to casual hookups ignore the fact that carefree, potentially alcohol-fueled sexual encounters are the very sort of situations in which the risk of sexual violence is greatest. And no, this is not “victim-blaming” (“survivor-blaming”?). Any reasonable crime-prevention strategy has to be twofold, both convincing potential perpetrators not to commit crimes and instructing potential victims on how to avoid situations where they put themselves in the most danger.

Moreover, we are supposed to decry rape culture for subliminally and/or overtly condoning the objectification of women (and men), but how can we encourage hookups without tolerating the same exact mindset? What is hookup culture but the belief that it’s okay to treat other people as only instrumentally valuable, of use to us merely because of their capacity to give us physical pleasure? When it comes to casual sex, we are supposed to believe that using other people for our own selfish purposes is not only acceptable, but biologically unavoidable.

The bottom line is this: we cannot have our cake and eat it too. We cannot eradicate rape culture while preserving a hookup culture that thrives on the same themes we supposedly condemn. Some will probably respond that I’m unfairly conflating consensual sex with rape, and that instead of “ignoring reality” I should at least endorse efforts to make sure that when people do have sex, everyone is on the same page. But this misses the point, which is that we deserve better than a culture that tolerates the commodification of other human beings. Of course it’s the case that nonconsensual sex involves a more tangible and more grievous harm than consensual sex, and the fact that it takes place has rightly brought forth the ire of what is hopefully a critical mass of the student body. Nevertheless, trying to fight rape by further trivializing the emotional and moral significance of sex is self-defeating. Just because we may not perceive sexual libertinism as damaging doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have consequences.

Child: Can I please please pleeeeaaasseeee have a cookie?

Parent: Yes, or no, or “wait until after dinner” WHY? because I said so.

That’s not how consent works.

It would be awesome if we all just asked for everything we wanted outright. But especially when it comes to intimacy, being direct can be really hard.

SOAR, you’ve done a great job raising questions and forcing the Haverford community to start talking about consent. I think a lot of the student body is starting to see how important it is to receive enthusiastic consent before pursuing any sort of sexual act, regardless of the gender of the actor or the recipient. But it’s different to say “yeah, I agree that consent is important” that to say “yeah, and I’m going to make a commitment to ask for consent every time.” For a lot of people here, asking for consent might be new. And new things are challenging. I think that we, as a community, even if we agree that consent is important, don’t know how to logistically ask for it.

And it might seem silly. But actually, I don’t think asking for consent is such an easy thing to do.

It’s not “hey, can I take off your clothes now while we kiss passionately?”
or “hey, can I put my sexual organ into some part of your body?” or “hey, can I take off my/your pants?” or “if you come back to my room, we can put on my hook up playlist and give each other oral sex. How does that sound to you?”

Sure, any of those would constitute consent. But none of them seem natural. For someone accustomed to talking about sex and consent, they might be easier to pull of, but for people just trying it out, I think they’re a tough sell.

Sure, you could make the argument that if you think asking for consent is too awkward, you probably shouldn’t be having sex in the first place. But we aren’t going to pursue that because people have non-consensual sex all the time. The real challenge is making consent not awkward but a normal part of our collective social lives.

How can we, as a community, approach realistically asking for consent in a way that feels natural, sexy and most importantly, safe and open to the potential for both parties to say no?

In my experience, it looks like, “hey, are you okay with this?” “Are you okay?” “are you comfortable?” “do you want to take a break?” and “are you sure?” go a long way. There are a lot of different ways to ask for consent, but asking if your partner is okay in a given situation is a solid way to start.

But you don’t stop there! Consent is the kind of thing that you need to ask for more than once. More than twice! My rule of thumb is to ask every time I approach a new level of intimacy. That goes from dancing in Lunt basement to sliding off my last layer of clothes and every step in between. Because if it’s as easy as asking “are you okay with this?” then why not? Consent doesn’t need to be scary. But it is if we don’t talk about it. And it definitely is if you think that asking for consent means that you stop hooking up to ask if/where you should put your genitalia.

Consent in a nutshell- like a kid asking his or her parent for a cookie – and then another cookie and another cookie.  Having a cookie without asking first would be stealing.  Having too many cookies would be just plain unfair to the person the cookies belonged to. Asking if you could grab the cookie, chew the cookie and let it dissolve with acid in your stomach is just gross (but true).  No, definitely, the best way to go about this is to ask the cookie owner if he or she minds if you eat one.  And remember, there will always be another chance to eat cookies- it’s not a reflection of your value as a cookie eater if the person would rather save some cookies for later.

Consent is…sexy?

I think this campaign is very interesting and thought-provoking, and for that I commend it, but I have one major reservation that I just can’t seem to get over. I don’t like the title. Yes, it’s short and to the point, and it catches one’s eye, but I can’t get over the implications it has. Okay, having consensual sex is sexy! Having respect for other people and their boundaries is unquestionably good and important! I still have reservations, however.

I’m sure the creators of this campaign didn’t mean it this way, but when I read the signs, the go boards, and this blog, I am left with the feeling that ONLY consent is sexy, that you can only be sexy if you consent. Yes, the signs are saying that SEEKING consent is important. But what’s also important is that NOT consenting is also fine. Being asked for consent and then saying NO, being comfortable and confident enough to say no, is good, important, valid, and even sexy. You can say no to sex and still be a worthwhile person. You can say no to sex and still be sexy! This campaign has been mostly about raising awareness of consent and asking for it, which is definitely something that needs to happen. One thing that’s lacking, though, is the message that when someone asks you for sex, you can say no. Just because they’re asking doesn’t mean that you have to say yes. Just because YOU ask doesn’t mean THEY have to say yes.

In short — saying yes to sex is good. But saying no to sex is also good.