Sunday, July 5, 2009

On Sex and Male Power, Part I

I suppose I could have used a more titillating image to go with this piece. But if I had - wouldn't I just be playing the same game that I'm about to challenge? As a male, would using an image of female subjugation to draw attention to injustice be anything but exploitive?

I don't know. Mt. Rushmore may not be sexy, but it gets part of the point across, and it does so without blurring boundaries.

Because that's what this post is about: the blurred line between "consensual" sex and male dominance in U.S. society. A big jump-off from my usual line of questioning, but one that is late in coming. I should have written this a long time ago, but I think I only recently have been able to touch on it effectively.

So here goes:

I start with a premise that few would deny - we (U.S. citizens) live in a patriarchy. In this society, males dominate. Males dominate positions of political power. Men make more money for doing the same jobs that women do. Men dominate the media - making it so that women in the media are often objectified and sexualized; even those bringing us the "news."

I don't think I have to go into any more depth there. That's all patently obvious.

Level Two:

Due to the level of male dominance in our society (and especially in the popular media), all things being equal - things are not equal between men and women. From birth, girls in this country are inundated with messages about their "roles" as females - generally about the need for being "attractive" (and how to do so), the need to be submissive (to some degree) to male desires.

Yes, men are also told their roles throughout life. And most men don't actually fit within those roles. However, there is a much larger pressure on women to focus on how they look, how they present themselves, and how they put in the effort to gain male attention - in all contexts, including "professional" areas where those ideas should seem irrelevant.

Level Three:

I am now going to focus on a sub-set of male-female relations in this society: heterosexual sexual relationships. Because it is within this realm that I believe the media plays the most direct role,* and it also happens to be within my realm of experience.

So, recently, I've had some discussions with friends (one in particular) about whether or not it's possible for sex to be "just sex" between men and women in our society. More specifically, we've discussed the man's responsibility in those situations. To start, we'll go with the "random hook-up" scenario.

So a female (call her "F") and a male (call him "M") are at the club (or the bar, or wherever), and they're doing their thing. Having drinks, talking with friends, looking around at those of the opposite sex around them. At some point, F and M see each other, and they're intrigued. They come together, maybe dance a bit, do some groping - they get excited. A while later, they're at F's house, having sex. Numbers are exchanged, nobody makes a further call. End of story.

In this scenario, let's say that all F wanted was sex. She felt the need, she went out and did something about it. Nothing wrong with that. M was doing the same thing. Totally mutual. Totally consensual. Totally equal. Right?

Well . . . the problem is this: we've got that whole "Madonna/Whore" thing going in our society. I.e. a woman that is fully comfortable with her sexuality and demonstrates that is a whore, while a woman who is not and does not is of virginal purity. There is no in-between. And I know the minds of men, and I'd say that that belief falls out far too often (among women, too, although more submerged).

So men want to date and love the Madonnas, and they want to use and cast away the Whores. The problem being, of course, that there is no true dichotomy like this, so women run a constant risk of being cast as the Whore in men's minds - which often precludes an opportunity of further connection and a true relationship (because men close that door when their judgment comes down).

So we go back to F and M and their "consensual" sex. If F really only wanted sex, then she's okay - as long as she doesn't mind the possible judgment that will come from M (and/or his friends or whomever) about it all. But what if she finds, somewhere along the line, that she is actually attracted to M on a different level? What if she decides, sometime during the rise to sex or afterwards - that she would like to get to know M?

Well - then she's in trouble. Because our society has pounded into M's brain that F must be a slut because of her willingness to have sex (or engage in sexual acts) right off the bat. Even though he did the same thing and gets off un-judged. So he decides that F is decidedly un-dateable and won't give it a further thought. Because, if she's a "slut," then she must be more likely to cheat, less likely to commit, less intelligent, less "worthy." All a bunch of BS, of course, but the truth seldom does people any good when ingrained bias rears its head.

On the flip side - M can roll both ways. If he just wanted sex - he just got it. However, if he wants more, he can go for it - still with no guarantees, but without being cast as "undateable" simply because he was willing to have sex.

And that's the man's power in this situation. His power is that he gets to cast a judgment with the weight of society behind it. He gets to have a one-night stand without losing anything, while the woman makes a choice (conscious or otherwise) to give up a further opportunity by having that one-night stand.

Okay - so there are a lot of questions and arguments against what I'm saying here. But the guy could want more and get rejected, too, right? If the woman just wants to have sex and the guy wants more, then doesn't she have all the power?

Sure, to answer the first question. But that doesn't change the inequality of the overall situation. A black man can be a white man's boss, but that doesn't mean that the black man isn't oppressed by overall institutional racism. Same here. A woman can have more power in a given situation, but that doesn't empower her on a societal level. I often hear women talk about "taking back power" over their sexuality - and I'm all for it - but you can't do that operating within a vacuum. Part of that must come knowing that there is a sacrifice to doing so. Hopefully at less cost than the benefits, but a sacrifice comes. One that a man never really has to make.

As for the second question, what I just said applies, and so I disagree. The woman doesn't have all the power because she has to make that choice, before sexual contact has occurred. The choice between doing what you want in the moment, at the possible cost of a loss of further connection, versus holding back on immediate desires, so that future options are available. And going with the latter still guarantees nothing, possibly making things worse if all the guy wants is sex in the first place. A lot of possibility of disappointment here (and I'm not even talking about the fact that most guys are terrible lovers).

Finally, Level Four:

I've tried to lay this out as concisely as possible, but it's a deep dilemma - one not easy to explain. But I think we've finally gotten to the point where I can write about the man's role in all this. Right now, I'll just use myself as the example.

So - say I'm in M's place in the previous scenario. I think F is sexy, and I want to do something about it. She says she wants to do something about it. We're agreed. So shouldn't we just do something about it?

The problem is - I've already thought through everything I wrote above (and so much more). I know I have the power here. I know that there's a risk that F might not actually want "just sex" - that she may want something more and feel that that's a way to get that. I also know that - having the power - I'm in a position to have F feel used when all is said and done. I also know that maybe F really does just want sex, and has no interest in more - which maybe I have interest in. I know that - maybe - F is making a conscious choice to forgo further opportunities by choosing to have sex.

Okay. Okay. So there are a lot of possibilities. Some end with "no harm, no foul." We fulfill basic needs, we part ways, both none the worse for wear. But a number end with negatives: maybe she'll feel used; maybe she's doing something she doesn't really want to try to get more; maybe I'll end up wanting more, and she's already eliminated that option - so I'll get hurt; maybe I just have flat societal power over her, and that just doesn't feel good, no matter what she actually wants.

So, in my position, with all the possible negatives that can come from this, how can I go through with it? How can I feel okay about possibly using a woman? How can I feel okay in a situation where I might be abusing my societal power?

My personal answer? I can't. So I don't put myself in those situations. I will make sure women feel wholly safe with me (something that takes real time - not a night, not even a few days), so that they can make an honest choice for themselves, without the pressure of patriarchy influencing it.

On a more general level, I just ask men to be aware of their power. And the devastating effects it can have (not that it always does, but can have) on another human being. To be aware that, in our society, sex is not "just sex." There is history and pressure and injustice and inequality behind it. To be aware of that - and to make subsequent decisions with that awareness in full view. You all might not make the same choices that I do - maybe mine aren't the right ones - but awareness never hurt anybody.

As for the women? Bring that same awareness. Make your choices for you - knowing that - most often - the men aren't going to bring that awareness. Know what you want - and go for it. I'm in no position to be giving any other advice on this one - since you are all the experts, and I'm just working on suppositions.

There is so much more to be said and written on this topic. I know I've left glaring holes and haven't made myself fully clear. But this part of the fight needs to be mentioned - by me, in this space - and waiting to say it "just right" likely means that it won't be said at all.

When it comes to gender and sexuality - I'm the oppressor. I'm the privileged one, here. I don't have many answers. I'm starting to find the right questions. And I hope all you experts out there (women, LGBT) wouldn't mind helping me out on this one.

I'm out of my element here. And that's where the learning happens.


Zindzhi said...

I'm a big fan of your blog and posting for the first time. It refreshing to hear a man talk like that. I'm a young 24 year old black woman and the whore/Madonna dichotomy does not apply to me . because when I leave my house it is assumed that I'm always available for sex. i live outside the US(Haiti) and here most men praise the subjugation of women. I'm going to be judged no matter what . I'm very careful as to whom I date period . I don't have the luxury to own my sexuality and revel in it.that is only for men. When older men approach me it is implied that they want sex with me.

When I lived in the US I felt a little more in control , because of the sex positive movement and the environment I was in. Here if your not a good family girl then you must be a whore. I'm so glad that there are men who care like you do and don't pass judgment. Trust is the key is this. you don't have trust you have nothing

uglyblackjohn said...

Sex as "just sex" never works.
Even if one discusses the complications for weeks and come to the decission to engage - the woman gets hurt in the ways you mention.
Is it fair?
Nope. but that's just how things work.

(Nice to have you posting again. I thought you'd retired to Asia.)

Ashley said...

I appreciated this post; I think you raised some interesting points. I'd agree with Zindzhi, though, that the Madonna/whore dichotomy doesn't really apply to Black women. In this country, it's more like desexualized mammy/whore. But, that's an entirely different conversation. Thanks again for the post.

Lxy said...

Choptensils: This has nothing do with your post.

But would you be interested in possibly making a submission to the Thymos Anthology of Asian American writing?

We are actually based in Portland and are putting together an anthology of Asian people talking about their experiences in the region.

A lot of your posts would seem to be right up this alley. Even if you are leaving for China, you don't necessarily need to be physically in Portland to make a submission.

Here is URL to our call for submissions. We are actually having a meeting this Saturday 7/11

If you have questions, drop me an e-mail at ThymosBook AT

CVT said...

Zindzhi and Ashlea - Thanks for commenting. That's exactly what I'm looking for - since this is a realm where I have to operate on a lot more theory and conjecture, I really appreciate getting different viewpoints in here.

As for the Madonna/Whore - it's definitely a white dichotomy in a lot of ways, but the way that sexuality and objectification are expressed in the American media would seem to encourage the power-dynamic I am referring to in this post (because I'm not actually talking about just white women here). I've talked a little about exotification in the past, but I could do more on objectification of women of COLOR, specifically.

Uglyblackjohn - I'm still here. Probably leaving the States in September or October (but hopefully still posting if I can get blogspot access). The "that's just how things work" reference seems a bit too much a convenient way to accept a bad situation to me, though. People are going to get hurt, either way, but that doesn't mean we can't consciously work to alter the situation - both on large and individual levels.

LXY - How have I lived in Portland so long and not known about Thymos? I've worked with folks from APANO, did the Asian Youth Conference (again, not the real name) . . . We need to be getting the word out to each other!!!

Anyway - I'd love to make a submission. If you had any preferred themes (or a specific post as a jump-off), that would help me focus . . . Otherwise, I've always got SOMETHING to say. Any chance I could get an audio component in there somehow?

Zindzhi said...

In the American media that is how it work, but let's not forget that in America the default for womanhood is white. the power dynamic is going to be different for every race of women.

People get hurt in these things,because people are not honest about their true intentions.Unfortunately for us women it is rare to meet men who are not going to judge us, because of how society conditions us ( men and women). we are not allowed to be Libertines :)not like men can be.

I could be wrong this could be different in some other places like Europe for example where the woman/man dynamic is different.

Also it could be different in GLBT communities.

Lxy said...

Choptensils: Do you know Joseph from APANO? He is going to help with this anthology I believe.

In terms of themes, there aren't any specific requirements other than talking about one's experience as an Asian American. The call for submissions lays out the general parameters:

Basically, a lot of the blog posts that you have already made about being a biracial Asian American living in Portland and dealing with its lack of "color" would be perfect for the anthology.

In terms of audio submissions, we are thinking about setting up a website with Asian American oral histories on it, so you might be able to submit an audio piece for the website and also a written submission for the anthology.

Thymos has an e-mail list. Do you want to join it? If so, you can send me your e-mail at ThymosBook AT, and I'll pass it on to the List moderator.

Also, here is the blog of Byron Wong, who helped to found Thymos and is one of the driving forces behind it. He is in Portland and a great person to network with:

Ms. Sis said...

As a 37 y.o. woman of color/mother/educator/artist this issue manifests in so many ways it is hard to wrap my head around it at times.

It means that even though I have a graduate degree, and have been teaching college level courses for 9 years, I cannot expect that I will be taken seriously and/or respected by my male colleagues, male superiors or even male students. Every day is a questioning of my capabilities, because as a W.O.C. the assumption is that I am not an authority or "qualified" regardless of my resume (which mostly people don't bother to look at anyway.)

As a mother- from the beginning it has meant judgements about my parenting skills, my sexual habits, my marital status- from the nurses and dr's who often looked at me and assumed my background, my age and treated me disrespectfully based on their stereotypes. It translates into women and children living in poverty because our lives, work and worth are not properly valued. It means weird assumptions that all lead to levels of disrespect, that I have to let roll off, or I would be fighting all the time. And I am a lover not a fighter...

which leads to the other realm of hell- how all of this dirties one of the most amazing things in the universe. I don't believe in "just sex" in that every time I have consensually engaged in the act it is always more than that. I don't think that I can ever divorce my heart and emotions from the act, or things leading up to it. I also don't think that every encounter has to lead to relationship/marriage/ or other specific expectations and that people should be able to give each other pleasure and be in the moment without having to have all the answers or the future laid out.

But it is true that power dynamics are ever present, and patriarchy hangs out every where- even in the bedroom. Judgement sucks, rejection sucks, and holding back sucks, and there never seems to be a way to win. Which is also the problem, cause it shouldn't be a win/loss scenario. It should be an equal exchange.

It means as a woman I might get sex, might get love, might get respect- but possibly never receive all three simultaneously since they seem to be mutually exclusive or otherwise conflicting. Which is ridiculous, and hard for me to comprehend, because I am able to maintain all three simultaneously for others, without feeling taxed by the process. At least that is until it becomes clear, when talking abut interactions with men, that the shift has happened for them.

They have lost respect, cause apparently doing x was too much and only b and c were ok on whatever number of date we were on, or in whatever length of time. It is both a curse and a blessing to be comfortable in your body as a woman. Sure I can know who I want, what I want, how I want, etc... but to ask for it or put it out there leads to the end.

As far as love goes, it seems like most men feel love is some sort of scarce commodity they have to stockpile up and be really stingy with. Like they can't make more, or it wont replenish if they give it away readily and openly. I don't think love is all that complicated or difficult as we make it out to be. I still have love for all my consensual lovers/partners, because there was something about them that I loved enough to feel comfortable sharing aspects of myself with them in the first place.

And if women were respected, it would be assumed we are capable of making our own choices and those choices would be respected and honored for their honesty and trueness to self and our own needs. Especially when women being satisfied makes the world a better place, you'd think everyone would put more effort into making that happen, and be appreciative when women are making the space for that satisfaction.

Greg said...

Interesting post. I actually quite enjoy hearing straight people's takes on the whole one-night-stand/dating/relationship power dynamics (and games -- you know, the whole, "It's his responsibility to call me...", "It's only been two days, so I can't call her back just yet...", etc.). I even remember there was this one girl I used to work with who had been dating a guy for about a year or so and she was, get this, waiting for him to ask her to move in. WTF? If you're dating for a year and can't have a serious conversation about where your relationship is going, isn't that pretty sad? I've also heard of a lot of girls in LTRs who say stuff like "If he doesn't ask me to marry him in X amount of time, then I'm breaking up with him." Seriously, how screwed up is that?? I often find that in straight relationships there is such a lack of clear and honest communication because people are so intent on playing their male or female "role."

Anyway, while I totally get the whole patriarchy thing and the male privilege/power aspects of what you're saying, ultimately I think that you may not be giving F enough credit in some of the scenarios you bring up. For example, when you say that if after a night of "just sex," F decides that she would like to get to know M, then she's in trouble because M likely has it in his head that she must be a slut... So, if I were F, the fact that M thought that way (or was too stupid to think otherwise, or whatever) would make me not want to get to know him better in the first place (Sorry, I know this isn't incredibly articulate).

Another thing is that simply thinking this way, such as always making sure women feel "safe" with you, etc. could potentially be contributing to the existing power structure by reproducing the scenario in which women are less powerful than men and need to be protected. I mean, if you think about it, shouldn't we always be careful and thoughtful and protective of whoever we're with regardless of our or their gender?

But, hey, I'm gay and don't participate in the world of straight dating so maybe I have this all wrong. Honestly, though, it feels really good to know that to an extent I'm free from all of these gendered roles and power plays (at least in the world of romance). I know a few straight couples that have pretty much dispensed with those roles, too, but they're few and far between.

CVT said...

Some great comments coming in - great perspectives. I'm loving the learning I'm getting to have happen here.

I think I should try to clarify a little bit: it does sound in all of this that I'm not giving females the credit that they know what they're doing in these situations. That's not what I'm saying at all. The vast majority of the time, I bet all my over-thinking is irrelevant.

However, my whole point is that - because of the inherent power dynamic - I want to make sure that I'm damn clear in my intentions and that the other person feels safe with me BEFORE I do something that may (somewhat) take advantage of that dynamic. And so I wouldn't jump right in the first time I met somebody. After we've got some understanding? That's when we can change the roles. Sex is not a promise, but I still hold that full respect should always be involved - and FELT - by both partners every time.

GREG - Great to hear your perspective on this one. I definitely think that assumed gender roles damage relationships quite often.

In your paragraph about how the woman shouldn't be interested in a guy who's judging her - the problem is this: she won't know. Guys lie all the time. Straight guys are pretty evil in their use of their own power in this way. So the guy can play the "understanding, female-ally," and still have inherent judgments about that first night without the girl being aware of it (until way too late). So why not just skip all those possibilities and doubts by the GUY making a conscious choice to avoid it?

As for me taking on the male role by trying to keep the woman "safe" and protected - that's a great point. I'm sure that's very strongly built in to how I deal with relationships, etc. And I'll really need to examine it. The problem with that one, however, is how do I separate me being protective of women because of societal gender roles from me just not wanting to abuse societal power? Or just wanting people to feel safe around me, in general (like my kids, friends of any gender)?

I very consciously make myself a "safe" person around race - so how can I do the same thing around gender without it seeming patronizing? Oy. Gotta love this complicated world.

CVT said...

Oh - and LXY - I DO know Joseph. Worked with him through the conference. Actually talked to him about facilitating a dialogue with a "mixed-race Asian" group. I'll e-mail you, so we don't have to keep this conversation going through this blog.

Anonymous said...

I like this post a LOT. I'm a black woman who lives in China and like Zindzhi, the whore/madonna dichotomy doesn't apply to me. But for different reasons. I'm so fucking repulsive (because African women are repulsive, natch) that no man would want me (Chinese men don't date black women, and the foreign men want Chinese girlfriends because "ASIAN CHICKS ARE HOT!!!"), but for some reason they think they have the right to grab my breasts and my ass because apparently I'm just a slut who's constantly available. Even though they don't want me to begin with.

CVT- you can use blogspot in China (provided you use a proxy server), but you're going to need someone who can read Chinese to allow you to edit your blog. Unless you find a way around that, but that's the problem that I'm having.

Anonymous said...