FeatureSex & Gender

What Makes for Ethical Sex?

The status of the 'other' in hetero-sex

On February 8, 2018, The New School will host an event entitled “Sexual Harassment and Assault: Eros, Power, Violation, and Consent.” Psychologist Jeremy Safran will moderate a panel featuring Lew Aron and Adrienne Harris from NYU Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis, Katie Gentile from John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and Lisa Rubin and Ali Shames-Dawson from the New School for Social Research, who together will creatively engage the pressing ethical, political, and psychological questions arising from the #MeToo movement. This panel is meant to sketch — rather than answer — the most significant questions this moment brings to the fore, before transitioning into workshop style breakout groups. In the weeks leading up to the event, we will host contributions from the panelists, and we invite readers to submit responses via submissions@publicseminar. org and to participate in the event on February 8 ( Registration & More Details Here ). The event will not be filmed. Below is our third piece, from Ali Shames-Dawson.

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In preparation for the upcoming panel-workshop, I have chosen some texts that I believe offer important framing for thinking about what we are witnessing with the #MeToo movement and backlash, in particular the aspects of normative sexual practices that many people just can’t seem to make sense of  was there force? Consent? How do we know? Is being an asshole the same thing as being a predator? Where is the line? Where is desire? What is desire? And on whom does the ethical burden fall  he who asks for, or demands, a sexual act, or she who must accept or decline? How free is she, really, to decline? As usual, what is lost in the public discussion is nuance, and what takes its place is polarizing language, rumblings of gender warfare, and often villainization. The sorely disappointing and wholly unsurprising Aziz Ansari encounter  no matter where you stand on the issue  seems to be one of the toughest for us to collectively digest, in large part because people don’t know what to make of the role of agency and responsibility on the part of the woman involved, nor what it means that Ansari’s behavior feels so familiar, so normal.

I am inclined to invoke the very first line of MacKinnon’s (1989) tome, Toward A Feminist Theory of the State. She writes: “Sexuality is to feminism what work is to Marxism: that which is most one’s own, yet most taken away.” While I yet maintain hope for the carving out of sexual agency even within intersecting vectors of oppression (Ritzer, 2007; Tolman, Anderson, & Belmonte, 2015), I don’t think we can overstate the relevance of MacKinnon’s claim. Socially approved female sexuality within the machinery of compulsive heterosexuality is first and foremost a response to male desire, calling into question the ‘hetero’ of hetero-sexuality. If male fantasies of sexual pleasure/desire dominate the intersubjective field, where is the Other?  In their Women, Risk and Aids project in the late 1980s, Holland, Ramanozoglu, Sharpe, & Thomson (2004) interviewed 148 young women in the UK, and reported finding no evidence of positive, independent female sexual subjectivity;  what they found instead was “negative/passive” or “unknowing/acted upon.” That is, women articulated their sexual experiences absent of desire of their own, and wholly responsive to the dictates of the male partner. They called this  “the male in the head.” Notably, there was no corresponding ‘female in the head’ of their male interviewees. While this too perhaps lacks some nuance (and it has been roundly critiqued  really, no evidence, none?) what we might call authentic sexual subjectivity or sexual empowerment in girls and young women (and that too has been roundly debated, e.g., Lamb & Peterson, 2011) is rightly classified as something that is won  or if it was ours to begin with, won back. And let me be clear: it is a bittersweet victory, because women in pursuit of pleasure, who draw their own boundaries and name and claim their desires, are often punished, one way or another (Tolman 2002; Infanger, Rudman, & Sczesny, 2016). It is not farfetched to conclude we do not first and foremost belong to ourselves, no matter what anyone tells us. (Nor do I claim that this phenomenon is bounded by gender or sexual orientation, but that is another topic for another day.)

Never mind that most notions of agency, at least in popular currency, rely on neoliberal expressions of the Cartesian subject  rational, free, autonomous; never mind that so-called discursive possibilities, or what we might just call ‘our options’ are generated from within relational contexts, i.e., how someone responds to us recalibrates what we regard as potential avenues for action; never mind that “Why didn’t she just leave?” erases the complexity of human experience, the strange cross-breed of desire and doubt, of the socially enforced suppression of our (read: women’s) spontaneous reactions, the setting in of confusion once an attempt at boundary-setting is met with a challenge  what is it that I did want? Is this what I want? Let me choke on your finger and feebly half-resist while I try to think this through. . .

My brief post here is motivated by some of the questions that represent our collective difficulty with nuance and with notions of responsibility, with allowing others to be other than we are, and especially our often blunt ignorance about the workings of gender oppression: “Why didn’t she just leave?” is perhaps the most salient question coming from the Ansari event, from both “Grace’s” critics as well as from her supporters who share various shades of skepticism, albeit a bit more privately. Many of them are grappling with the question in a slightly adjusted form: Why didn’t I just leave? Moreover, the assault-or-bad-sex debate ties into this question  in fact produces it  and has people crying out for more precise language, so I offer something here to address that plea as well.

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1) Burkett, M. & Hamilton, K. (2012). Postfeminist sexual agency: Young women’s negotiations of sexual consent. Sexualities, 15(7), 815–833.

Through a discourse analysis of interviews with Australian women aged 18-24, Burkett and Hamilton (2012) detail the ways in which ‘just say no’ is an inadequate prescription for women given the contradictions in social messaging and norms that characterize sexual encounters in our cultural moment. In particular they detail how neoliberal ideals of free choice and autonomy inform postfeminist ideology of sexual empowerment while “masking” enduring gender inequalities. Borrowing language from Angela McRobbie (2009) and Rosalind Gill (2007) they describe postfeminist sensibility as confused between a belief in women’s natural right to sexual agency  and related mandate of personal responsibility  and women’s condemnation of themselves and other woman who cannot seem to control their sexual encounters with men. Despite this public celebration of women’s free choice and sexual assertiveness, unwanted, pressured, coerced sexual activity remains common and normalized, which makes it difficult if not impossible to realize the norms of sexual freedom that supposedly are theirs to lose. They conclude that these features flatten the continuing complexities of the process of consent, which is dominated by myths and assumptions that implicitly constrain women’s possibilities for choice and action.

2) Cahill, A. J. (2016). Unjust sex vs. rape. Hypatia, 31(4).

To the question of the line demarcating sexual assault from bad sex, Ann Cahill offers the classification of unjust sex, elaborating an idea offered by Nicola Gavey (2005) to begin to account for the so-called gray area that fills in the space between sexual violence and ethical sex. It is this space that Gavey (2005) identifies the ’cultural scaffolding of rape,’ where women’s sexual choices or sense of agency is impinged upon within what otherwise appears on the surface like consensual sex. These cases seem to be marked by the presence of an ambivalent or split will on the part of the woman. For Gavey, Cahill points out, these are not instances of unacknowledged sexual assault, but illuminate the problematic of normative heterosexual practices, which emphasize male sexual aggression and female submission. These features make for unjust sex, which, while distinct from rape, have in common with sexual violence the disregard for women’s sexual desires. Cahill makes an argument that the ethical quality of an interaction is not whether or not each party wanted it, but the degree to which each party’s desire “had the capacity to affect, in a meaningful way, the quality and nature of the interaction.” (5) Cahill’s article is especially important because the attention paid to how the behaviors, actions, and intentions of the people involved have a role in shaping the other’s sexual subjectivity, and consequently their sense of rights and possibilities. When one party’s desires disproportionately direct the encounter, we have unethical sex, if not sexual misconduct proper. Most notably, perhaps, is what Cahill dubs the “crucial question of uptake,” i.e., whether or not a “no” or the lack thereof is even recognized as meaningful (p. 9). Cahill adeptly addresses the distortion (she calls it hijacking) of sexual agency that occurs when consent becomes the only legible response, which she argues distinguishes it from rape. Whereas the goal of rape is to take away agency all together, unethical sex bends the agency of one toward an end determined by an other (Note: pp. 10 – 12 are especially relevant to illuminating how Ansari’s behavior narrowed the woman’s sexual agency, but did not take it away).

3) Bryant, J. & Schofield, T. (2007). Female sexual subjectivities: Bodies, agency and life history. Sexualities, 10(3), 321–340.

Both Burkett & Hamilton (2012) and Cahill (2016) call attention to how norms condition possibilities for action, and Cahill (2016) in particular elucidates how one partner’s responses can either expand or delimit the other’s agentic capacity. Bryant & Schofield (2007) add to this a series of rich qualitative accounts that both vivify and challenge these perspectives. Using what is called ‘life history’ methodology, they collect stories of women’s sexual identity development which highlight how agency and meaning evolve through time, practice, and experience in conversation with cultural and generational contexts. In so doing, they cast tremendous light on the dense intersubjective tangle that can teach a woman what she can and cannot say, do, or hope for. One particularly poignant account tells of a woman’s discovering, for the first time, that her “no” was meaningful; prior to that encounter, she’d come to learn that setting limits only meant eventually giving in because no partner had ever let her no mean no. With a partner that honored her boundary, she found new ground for sexual exploration and expression. Simple an example though it may be, I have yet to come across a more powerful rendering of how other’s responses to us condition what we expect and accept for ourselves.

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Nobody is asking for sex denuded of risk, vulnerability, or even the erotic play of power and aggression. That would be impossible, if not impossibly dull. But as long as one party is disproportionately at risk, disproportionately vulnerable, disproportionately made to shrink and feel confused by aggression or pressured by repetitious appeals, I think we can all recognize that we’ve got a problem. If we want ethical sex  sex that doesn’t make us go, ”Hmmm, was that assault?”  and yes, better sex, then we had better figure out how to let the other person in the room with us actually be another person in the room with us.

Works Cited

Bryant, J. & Schofield, T. (2007). Female sexual subjectivities: Bodies, agency and life history. Sexualities, 10(3), 321–340

Burkett, M. & Hamilton, K. (2012). Postfeminist sexual agency: Young women’s negotiations of sexual consent. Sexualities, 15(7), 815–833

Cahill, A. J. (2016). Unjust sex vs. rape. Hypatia, 31(4).

Gavey, N. (2005). Just sex? The cultural scaffolding of rape. New York and London: Routledge.

Gill, R. (2007). Postfeminist media culture Elements of a sensibility. European Journal of Cultural Studies, 10, 147–166. doi:10.1177/1367549407075898.

Holland, J., Ramazanoglu, C. Sharpe, S., & Thomson, R. (2004). The male in the head: Young people, heterosexuality and power. London: Falmer Press.

Infanger, M., Rudman, L. A., & Sczesny, S. (2016). Sex as a source of power? Backlash against self-sexualizing women. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 19 (1), 110 – 124.

Lamb, S., & Peterson, Z. (2011). Adolescent girls’ sexual empowerment: Two feminists explore the concept. Sex Roles. doi:10.1007/s11199-011-9995-3

MacKinnon, C. A. (1991). Toward a feminist theory of the state. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

McRobbie, A. (2009). The aftermath of feminism: Gender, culture and

social change. London: Sage.

Ritzer, G. (2007). Contemporary sociological theory and its classical roots: The basics. Boston: McGraw-Hill.

Tolman, D. L. (2002). Dilemmas of desire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Tolman, D. L., Anderson, S. M., & Belmonte, K. (2015). Mobilizing metaphor: Considering complexities, contradictions, and contexts in adolescent girls’ and young women’s sexual agency. Sex Roles, 73, 298–310. doi:10.1007/s11199-015-0510-0

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