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.
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.
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.