Seeking the pleasures of 'consent' under duress
Last year the journal Studies in Gender and Sexuality published a panel called “The ontology of the rape joke,” organized around a performance by Vanessa Place of her piece, “Rape joke.” The panel included responses from Jamieson Webster, Jeff Dolven, Gayle Salamon, Kyoo Lee, Katie Gentile, and Virginia Goldner, and ended with a reprint of Patricia Lockwood’s arresting poem, “Rape Joke.” The panel sought to examine the roles rape jokes play for the cultural body. This issue went to press just as the allegations against Harvey Weinstein hit the headlines. As the powerful white men tumbled and #MeToo ramped up, the panelists decided they wanted to expand their analyses and rethink these forms of sexual violence. Katie Gentile’s “Give a woman an inch, she’ll take a penis” was published here in January, as part of a series leading to an event titled“Sexual Harassment and Assault: Eros, Power, Violation, and Consent” at the New School.
Now we are pleased to feature Virginia Goldner’s essay, “Sexual harassment: Seeking the pleasures of ‘consent’ under duress.” Each panelist will weigh in during the coming months. The essays will be collected in a future issue of the journal Studies in Gender and Sexuality.
Every time it seems as if we have exhausted our supply of top tier sexual harassers, another one bites the dust. No one, except those paid to do it, can keep track of the list of those accused, but all of us remember a shaken Al Franken, resigning his senatorial seat over a highly damaging photo, while calling out the President and Roy Moore for their far more egregious predations and lies. Franken is now seen by many as an early casualty of the “moral panic” that infused the initial rash of abuse revelations. His snarky affability, which could be guaranteed to nail even the best prepared witnesses he interrogated as a Senator, is a true public loss, wherever you come out on the issue of his conduct.
I wanted to revisit the image that cost him his job and reputation to see what I could make of it as a psychodynamic clinician. I was working off an intuition that some dynamic complexities had been lost in the Reckoning, especially those regarding the relations between power, eros and gender.
When I looked back at the Franken image, it became very clear that he was not looking at me. That gleeful, sadomanic grin was obviously meant for all the men who secretly felt like him. His shabby trick, performed (literally) for the male gaze, executes a masculine trope:
Hey this girl is sleeping, look what I can do to her! (“Pass this around!”)
But of course, the joke’s on him. Everything about that goofy misogynistic moment reveals him to be just another guy who can’t get the girl who thinks she’s too good for him — unless she’s unconscious. (Remember that he’d tried to orchestrate a big, wet tongue kiss earlier in their trip, and was rudely rebuffed).
In Franken’s account, staging the photo barely registered as an “event” in his workday, and was at best sloppily filed in his long-term memory. But incidents like this, and what they communicate, can define a woman’s experience of the workplace for all her days.
(“You don’t belong here. But since you’ve made your body an object of my desire, do you really want me to ache for you, to feel like a loser? You think I haven’t already used you for my erotic purposes when I shut off the light at night?)
For Leeann Tweeden, the model and broadcaster whom Franken groped and photographed without her knowledge or consent, the experience was still a bitter pill 10 years later, even though she did accept his late-stage apology. She reported feeling “disgusted and violated” when he “aggressively stuck his tongue in my mouth, making me want to rush to the bathroom to rinse out the taste of him.” It was only later that she discovered the photo, which triggered another round of helpless humiliation that she carried with her over all the ensuing years.
When asked why she never reported Franken’s misconduct, Tweedon’s weary response was all too familiar. Fearing she would not be believed, and that her accusations would damage her career, she concluded that “it was not worth the fight [since] it was just going to be seen as my fault… and he was going to get off scot-free.”
Just an ordinary workday for him — the end of ordinary workdays for her.
This is why that well-worn defense of “I don’t remember” or “it was so long ago” cannot be dismissed as entirely without merit. The bad boy up there in the plane is often defensively unlinked from the good boy (often a beloved icon) back on land, the one who has been climbing the ladder of masculinity (which would include leaping his way down a death-defying ski slope) every day of his life.
In this exhausting, never-ending quest in search of a win — or an escape, a moment of sexual shaming — a quick hit — deflects from the doer-done/to dynamic of male competition (“If I don’t win, I lose”), momentarily turning the dreaded risk of becoming a defeated bottom into the edgy high of being a top.
Sexual coercion, feminists remind us, is one of the ways women pay for the potential gender shame that permanently undergirds masculinity. Indeed, the “fear of falling” that Barbara Ehrenreich connected to the rise of the middle class is dynamically soldered into the template of masculinity, preparing the ground for the collateral damage of sexual predation.
–I cannot risk being rejected.
–You cannot laugh me off — or worse, make me out to be ridiculous.
–You cannot say no to me.
Franken’s impulsive act of misogynistic staging reads as just such a warning. Initially confusing, then startling, then shocking and stingingly painful – a sickening betrayal by an apparently trusted colleague. But then, as the image does its work, we also come to see how juvenile it is – as if it were performed in someone’s suburban basement, a comedic enactment of Franken’s erotized dependency on women, and the uncertain masculinity it reveals.
This is part of why are tempted to give him a pass. Unlike Cosby’s drugged sexual victims, Franken’s sleeping target was only symbolically violated in a scene meant solely for the bros, whose “been there, done that” laugh serves to cement their bond.
A violation of trust, and of the embodied dignity of a colleague to be sure, but also a goofball revelation of Franken’s remarkably arrested hetero-dynamics. The scene, which eventually cost Franken his public life and reputation, captures the ”too-muchness” of his excitement, while relying on our indulgent recognition of masculinity’s retributive vulnerability for the laugh.
This is the aspect of gender trouble in which we are primed to protect masculinity’s confident veneer because, although it struts cool and enviable, it is held together by matchsticks – always at risk, easily wrecked, too often retaliatory.
“I Deserve to See You Naked”: “Consent” Under Duress
Franken’s photographic betrayal of his colleague was one of the early triggers driving the outrage of the #MeToo movement, which has generated a torrent of brilliant writing from a host of new voices, along with spot-on commentary by second-wave feminists who can still turn a phrase.
Unfortunately, it turns out that there is still much more to say, since sexual abuse and harassment do not disappear when they are called out, so much as they lie in wait. These practices prey on the weak, and weaken the sturdy by subtle strategies of objectification that rely on deniability and mystification as opposed to brute force. This is not the rapist lurking in the bushes, but a master manipulator whose desires do not so much require erotic satisfaction as they crave the erotic tension of a potential boundary violation, made all the more intoxicating by the open question of whether and when the woman can be coaxed to betray herself.
The most chilling example of many of these dynamics would surely be the abuses committed by Larry Nasser, whose sinister practice of vaginal penetration (a perversion of a folk method actually known to Freud as a treatment for hysteria) was an unthought known in the world of gymnastics. By ‘playing doctor,’ Nasser’s pedophilia was ritualized, so that he was able to abuse and confuse generations of young athletes and their families because, even now, our transference to medicine as a kind of Priesthood is very hard to relinquish.
In all these cases, it is important to remember that unlike rape, which is often (though not always) an impulsive, propulsive act, sexual harassment is a project of leisurely objectification. You have to be at work (it is not a street crime), you have to be in charge of someone (and thus in possession of some relative measure of success), and you probably have to corrupt others to stay quiet or to actually arrange the set-up, (a cynical strategy that dispenses with the need for brute force because it turns potential witnesses into confederates and bystanders, thus further isolating the target by messaging her that absolutely no one cares).
In sum, sexual harassment is a form of erotic sadism, orchestrated and deliberate, its dosage tweaked for maximum nervous pleasure. The particular way that any particular man might extract pleasure from this form of predation cannot be presumed in advance. His enjoyment would have to be unpacked, with his permission, if and when he became willing to take himself to task.
But absent that kind of crucial case material, I would argue that there is still something to be gained by imagining our way into the psychodynamics of this practice. The public conversation on the issue, which actually turns on the feminist insight that “sexual harassment is about power, not sex” is moving in the right direction, but it still lacks the complexity and nuance that psychoanalytic thinking can provide. Deconstructing the state of mind of both the predator and the preyed upon can bring us much closer to the psychic action of this form of sadistic abuse. [i]
First, the harasser probably takes pleasure in activating “the startle” – that sudden, shape shifting realization that this is not the next ordinary moment in the target’s unremarkable business day – but the moment when she realizes that from now on, her days are not her own.
What follows is a canyon of dread – the muddled uncertainty (“did he just…?), the shock of poisonous betrayal (“I thought he thought the world of me…”), the stinging shame (“I am just a body who happens to speak, not a speaking subject”).
As the workplace becomes unpredictably sexualized, getting flustered becomes commonplace, and her workbrain yields to its ancient forbear, the amygdala of “fight/flight/freeze.” In this whiplash of shifting cognitions, the harasser can enjoy the pleasure of having a plan whose outlines are unclear to his object. (“What will happen? Will it happen this time? Will it happen every time? When will it happen? Which time?”).
Such preoccupying and massive confusion, masked by a veil of necessary professionalism, is itself probably another source of the harasser’s erotic pleasure. Contrary to Kissinger’s famous maxim, it is not power itself that is an aphrodisiac, but the power imbalance – – what I can make you do, make you put up with.
“You can do Anything if you are a Celebrity,” The Donald famously bragged — a notorious one-liner that was echoed by Michael Weiner, the creator of Mad Men, who allegedly told an assistant whom he had just promoted to write an episode of the show, “I deserve to see you naked.” (He later fired her). And then of course, there is the bizarre, self-hating exhibitionism of Louis CK, who admitted that he “took advantage of the fact that [he] was widely admired” to get the female comedians who opened for him to “consent” to watching him jerk off.
Reprehensible, but not incomprehensible, if we speculate that Louis was not looking to excite these women so much as to shame them for the price they were willing to pay for admiring him, while he got off on shaming himself for being a star.
But to be clear, submission itself is not necessarily the ultimate driver in these compulsive games. These men could have (almost) anyone – why did they take these high-stakes, unnecessary chances? Why bother?
Why did Charlie Rose take all those long, awkward drives on the LIE with those nervous, inexperienced interns, none of whom could make Rose-level conversation to make the time pass? Why did Matt Lauer pull his pants down in the middle of his workday, shaming himself while an assistant lay passed out on the floor, when he could have so easily gotten an old lover to meet him at a nearby hotel, and take the stairs?
There is the addiction to risk, of course, the eros of pushing the envelope, the defiling of decency, all of which contribute to what sex is all about. But consider also the conflicted relationship to masculinity that is at work here – an identification with its sociopathic entitlements to be sure, but it is also an erotized way of giving the finger to the patriarchal authority that will not let these winners rest. (I’m taking my pants off right here in your sleek corporate office. I’m waving my dick around backstage on Broadway!).
Most importantly, consider that the pleasure to be had in this extreme sport is that of the perversion of consent. Unlike rape, where consent is vanquished, or erotic mutuality, where it is ratified, the pleasure of sexual harassment is that “consent” is coerced, i.e., it is “consent” under duress – an iteration of the logic of ‘the least bad option,’ a form of reasoning that all girls learn to master when they first start making out.
The erotic requirements of this practice vibrate on a razor’s edge. The object must still be a subject—not a thing-lump moaning on the floor, but someone you could get to erotically moan against her will, like the woman who described Harvey Weinstein’s disgusting attempts at oral sex, which “ruined it for all time” she later reported. (This forced encounter, complete with fake moaning, could be seen as Weinstein’s coercive perversion of a consensual BDSM game, where the lovers erotically transform (play with) control, submission, shaming and consent to everyone’s satisfaction.)
What is key to the practice (as a consensual game or an act of coercion) is that the target must somehow still be “in there,” fighting for herself, but losing. It simply does not work if she is completely defeated. There is something to be said for the eros of the fully dehumanized sadomasochistic object, like the unnamed protagonist in the Story of O – but that is not this game.
For the harasser, the sexual charge of this erotic arrangement could well be the sadistic pleasure of watching you betray yourself as you try to protect your personhood, while he goes about dismantling it in a slow drip of degradation — all the while maintaining the pretense of decency. “I startle you, objectify you, then mind-fuck you and glide back to business,” disqualifying your reality testing as I go.
“This is/is not happening.” You cannot put words to it. You cannot clarify the situation. You cannot escape — if you want to work in the industry.
The situation is a chilling example of what Gregory Bateson called a “double-bind,” a series of contradictory messages that create an airless trap of confusion which cannot be named, and from which there is no exit, other than madness. Consider for instance the early stages in an unfolding project of sexual harassment. The target is told “I think the world of you,” but soon enough is asked “to twirl” or “smile,” or unbutton her blouse a bit, or talk to her boss while he parades in a loose bathrobe, etc. If she comments on the toxic paradox, she becomes the one “talking dirty,” the one bringing sex into the workplace, the one creating a crisis. This might even result in sex, if her boss thinks she’s weak enough, or equally catastrophically, to the loss of her job and her prospects in the industry, if she is now seen as a problem, or decides to give up on her dreams rather than be drummed out of her chosen profession by sexual shaming.
Under any of these conditions, all variants of the “Grow Up Girl” question “Why didn’t you just leave? Laugh him off? Shake him off? Go to HR?” presume a clarity of selfhood that may well have already been dismantled.
Not in possession of all her faculties, perhaps not really in her right mind, the issue for her is not one of leaving, or even one of changing the situation, but one of reality testing. It does not help to remind such a victim to” Just Say No” when her question is “What Just Happened?”
We can all agree that sexual victimization ought not to be a badge – but it still is a fact. And yes, while it does look like, this time, “Time’s Up!” sexual harassment, like any virus, is a social pathogen always scanning for a weak spot.
Virginia Goldner is a Clinical Professor in the NYU Post-doctoral program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis, the Founding Editor of the journal Studies in Gender and Sexuality, and an Associate Editor of the journal Psychoanalytic Dialogues. Website: virginiagoldner.com
[i] For another, closely related take on the psychodynamics of the sexual harasser, read the December 2, 2017 blogpost by Alexandra Katekakis, titled The Power of Preying, Why Men Target Women in the Workplace on the Center for the Study of Affect Regulation website (www.CSAR.NYC.com).