A few weeks ago a Facebook friend (friend in heavy quotation marks) posted an article in The New Yorker by Masha Gessen, “When Does a Watershed Become a Sex Panic?” This was in the wake of several new accusations levied against various powerful men in entertainment and government, the most recent at the time being Louis CK, Kevin Spacey, and George Takei. This acquaintance on Facebook is someone I would qualify as “safely liberal,” i.e. anti-Trump but undeniably non-revolutionary. Against my better judgment I clicked on the article. I knew it would upset me and it definitely did. I took to Twitter with a mini-rant and promised to write a longer piece about it, but being the busy person that I am I let it go and decided that the moment had passed. It wasn’t worth it.
Then, a week ago now, this acquaintance (who I really should delete lest he be the cause of my death due to over-boiling blood from mind-numbingly ill-conceived liberal-lite bullshit) posted Gessen’s follow up article, “Sex, Consent and the Dangers of ‘Misplaced Scale’” with the coy prompting, “Thoughts?”
So, ok. Here we go, here are my thoughts (a little late, but what can I say, I don’t get paid for this and my writing practices aren’t at all geared towards the fast paced world of journalism).
Masha Gessen’s logical paths and conclusions are riddled with false equivalencies that attempt to appeal to women and LGBTQIA in order to protect men. It is simply the same stance as the men who are afraid of a “witch hunt” in very, very thinly veiled sheep’s clothing. She wants to appear as a “reasonable feminist,” and “logical dudebro lady friend who has concerns.” She understands “both sides” even. But she offers the ridiculous notion that these outcries against unsolicited and undesired sexual advances, harassments and attacks could somehow lead to a criminalization of “bad sex. I am here to call bull shit on this line of thinking and to pick this absolute ridiculous pair of articles apart bit by bit.
First, I have to note that Gessen does a great job of reeling in the unsuspecting feminist by claiming solidarity and understanding. She is, after all, a woman too. She’s even queer! And she’s chimed in with her #metoo stories over the last few weeks which she recounts in the article: “I have been raped by a man (a stranger), coerced into sex by a man (a friend), and held hostage by a man’s (my boss’s) compulsion to talk about sex and take—and exhibit—pictures of sex.” We are lured into a false sense of security that Gessen will understand how each of these various experiences with sexual misconduct, while varying in degrees of violence and perhaps psychological scaring, are interconnected, part of the ornate and complicated tapestry that is rape culture. But instead she wants us to focus ourselves on the differences between these three violations of her body and mind and treat one as more significant than the other – creating a scale of pain that legitimizes one as more deserving of backlash and attention than the others. To add salt to the wound of turning on women who have not experienced “legitimate rape,” she then uses her queerness to call on the fear of “sex panic.” As if there is an equivalency between a group of marginalized peoples (women, as well as queer men) rising up against their abusers (men, especially white men in seats of power) and a government sanctioned panic regarding the lives and sexuality of the LGBTQIA community. There’s not. These are not the same.
Gessen does little to even talk about the particularities of the sex panic surrounding queer lives however. We as the fairly educated liberal masses consuming The New Yorker may think of the 80s AIDs panic or various instances of criminalization of sodomy, etc. She brings no particulars of these types of sex panics but instead pleads that: “…it is particularly troubling that the frenzied sequence of accusations and punishments is focused on sex” and focuses her attention on the potential unfairness of the sex offender registry and colleges adjudicating cases regarding sexual assaults under the provisions of Title IX. She belittles these accusations as “frenzied,” as if women are haphazardly throwing around accusations with their vaginas full of period blood and emotions and this is not a series of accusations each building on the last as women and victims of assault and harassment for the first time ever are given unprecedented support, admissions of guilt by their harassers, and even some minor repercussions for their violators. Furthermore, she misses the point on which her entire marginalization as a woman (and a queer woman, no less) rests – which is sex. We are marginalized due to our biological sex, choice of gender expression, and choice of sexual partner and sex itself as power historically has been the main driving forces of the subjugation of women and queer peoples. Of course, then, our stories and our accusations and the (few) punishments surrounding these accusations would be focused on sex. Stop being naïve and stop not understanding where your own marginalization comes from. It’s tiring to have to explain.
She follows her break down of the issues with colleges’ instituting rules of “affirmative consent” with this monumentally stupid set of sentences:
The affirmative-consent and preponderance-of-the-evidence regimes shift the burden of proof from the accuser to the accused, eliminating the presumption of innocence. If the presumption of innocence is rooted in the idea that it is better to let ten guilty people go free than risk jailing one innocent person, then the policing of sex seems to assume that it’s better to have ten times less sex than to risk having a nonconsensual sexual experience. The problem is not just that this reduces the amount of sex people are likely to be having; it also serves to blur the boundaries between rape, nonviolent sexual coercion, and bad, fumbling, drunken sex. The effect is both to criminalize bad sex and trivialize rape.
While everyone on the right side of history right now is calling on people to “believe women” I have yet to see anyone’s take to actually be “should those accused of sexual misconduct come before a court of law we will take no steps to give them a fair trial because we are assholes who do not follow the rule of law.” While our court system is by no means perfect, it is not the public’s job to make sure the courts are running properly. We are calling for public support of women and the various types of assaults upon their bodies and minds they have endured over the past centuries of existence. It is not a plea to the courts to change everything about their operations in regards to cases of rape or sexual harassment – but it is a plea to take women and queer peoples more seriously and to bolster their voices and their pain above the fear that men may have to dial back their fucking libidos and their gross need to flaunt their power over the marginalized masses through sexual assault, coercion and harassment. In no way does this mean anyone is required to have less sex and the math here, to me, makes absolutely zero sense. If someone wants to explain this logic of accusations of rape, possibility of locking up an innocent man, and the need to have less sex, then by all means do, but from what I can see it is absolute trash designed to instill a fear that through women claiming power in their sexual engagements they are making it impossible to have a lot of sex. This then, logically concludes that men have always had the power in their favor when it came to sex. Which is exactly the fucking point of these accusations of assault and the desire to finally believe women. We are looking for a change in the activity of sex. Not that there be less of it, but that there be some sort of leveling of the playing field – that women feel some amount of power that they will be at the very least heard and believed when they are put into the position of nonconsensual sexual misconduct. This only empowers them more to have the type of sex that Masha Gessen seems so concerned that we may not have any more (like seriously, why does she care so much if people aren’t having as much sex?). Think about all the great sex we might have and our future generations of women might have if they are o longer terrorized mentally, emotionally, physically by the trauma of previous disgusting male depravity.
Gessen continues to argue that the differences between rape, nonviolent sexual coercion, and harassment are important, but she does not say why other than in legal terms (i.e. the differences between murder, battery, etc). And again, no one that I know of has been arguing that we change the terms and conditions of the court or legal system with regards to the differences in these types of crimes. But if we are going to think of these differences on the individual level, on the cultural and social level, of the well-beingness of women and queer communitites, I would argue that these differences only serve divide the cause and create a hierarchy of pain that is not necessary if we are seeking to change things on a large scale. That we treat each of these abuses of power as equally disturbing and disgusting, in my eyes is important. Job loss or suspension on all of these accounts is not ridiculous to ask for when women have been forced out of jobs due to a variety of sexual harassments for time immemorial. What the path to redemption for such men looks like, I have no idea. I don’t think we have a road map for that wherein any man such accused has sought to apologize or make legitimate change for his mental health. I don’t even know if it’s possible, but if it is then we will cross that road when get to it. I’d love to think that there is a way to heal the toxic masculinity that is so ingrained in the likes of these various men and that they would someday be worth trusting again, but I have no idea. As someone who was raped it definitely took more than two weeks of outpatient therapy to feel more or less comfortable in my own skin and to not suffer daily PTSD after being catcalled on the street.
This is why I don’t sweat the differences between the various types of sexual harassments that women face. I’ve had friends and family act like they couldn’t fathom what happened to me, but I know that it all ends up living in the same place in our body. While it might cause more severe a reaction in those who have suffered violent rape, in the end they are all vestiges of the same evil and over time they build up and cause that same cringe down our spines and shortening of our breath as a man follows us down the street late at night. When we emphasize the differences outside of legal terms we create walls that separate us from those who share in a similar experience. We find women who feel they “got off easy” because they were only groped on the train a few times and you marginalize rape survivors as a fringe group of women with their own set of needs. You don’t trivialize rape, as Gessen says, you marginalize it and make it a smaller issue than it is. You make it a special interest group, not part of the 50%+ part of the population that it actually affects.
In the second article, that I haven’t addressed as directly yet, Gessen says that it is standard in the course of history for society to focus on renegotiating sex when the rest of the world is out of control. Which, I wouldn’t say is wrong. Certainly, people like to have something that they can actually find control over. Case in point, Gessen says “we are living with the possibility of unthinkable destruction, but we seem to be spending significantly more time discussing the sexual misbehavior of a growing number of prominent men than talking about North Korea or climate change.” But this trivializes rape (something she warned against in her previous article) as something not as deserving of public outcry or attention, and also limits humans as only capable of caring about one thing at a time. Of course, she’s right, that there’s not much I can do as an indvidual to stop nuclear war or climate change. I do what I ccan to vote for people that I feel will help with those issues. I protest when I can. I recycle, I bring my own bags to the grocery store, I’m vegan (which I know is a controversial thing with regards to environmental impact, but don’t at me). I will continue to do these things and also call for people to believe women and support those who are bravely facing their accusers and the backlash of public opinion. It’s a lot, but I know people are trying to care about all of it despite how much there is to care about.
She then uses two cases to show how consent has been used as a way to victimize women who don’t actually feel victimized. The particulars of which you can read in her article and I don’t know much about, I’ll admit. From this she concludes, however that this sexual renegotiation leads to sexual restrictivness that denies women agency in their own consent – instead it casts women as victims in all cases that involve messy power dynamics. While this article as a whole is argued slightly better and she certainly picks cases that would seem to prove her point she then again leaps to the conclusions that women are being infantilized by all of this.
In the past, sexual laws and regulations have most often been strengthened in the name of protecting children. “For over a century, no tactic for stirring up erotic hysteria has been as reliable as the appeal to protect children,” Rubin wrote in 1984. Sometimes the children are symbolic: anti-gay crusades are almost invariably framed in terms of “saving the children”— not specific children, but just the children who have to share a country with queers. In the current American conversation, women are increasingly treated as children: defenseless, incapable of consent, always on the verge of being victimized. This should give us pause. Being infantilized has never worked out well for women.
But she forgets again who is leading the charge in the sexual renegotiation. This is not a top down scare from the government or other public officials in an attempt to focus our attention on “protecting poor, defenseless women.” This is a movement that has centered women’s pain and been mobilized by the marginalized masses as a means to change the patriarchy. This is not an insignificant detail, but Gessen insists on forgetting it because she’s scared that people won’t be having enough sex. Of course if this were to all lead to changes that we want all it would change is the amount of nonconsensual sex. And if a man is so scared that a succubus is going to lure him into a false sense of security only to turn and report a rape, then I don’t know, maybe he really shouldn’t be having sex anyway. I do not feel infantilized by this movement, on the contrary I feel empowered and more capable than ever before. This has been a moment of uniting women and I don’t feel sorry for a second for the various types of men who have had to face repercussions for their actions.