Monday, November 06, 2017

#metoo and #ihave - Redefining The Rules Of Sex And Power

There are the written rules - what people are supposed to do and not do - and there are the rules a scientist might write up after observing what really happens.  The first set is prescriptive and the second set is descriptive.  Humans strive to find ways to make the world work the way we think it should.  

I'm trying to find some way to make sense of what the sudden attention to sexual misconduct by powerful males means and how things might look in five years.  Will the power balance be radically different?  Or will all this just fade away and powerful people will continue to do what they want?

The media have been full of women's (and some men's) accounts of being abused by men in power.  #metoo has been well covered.  So when I heard about the hashtag #ihave - where men were supposedly confessing to their own abuse of power, I looked to see what was there.

Disappointing.  You can look yourself.  Maybe there are some serious confessions in there, but it's loaded with unrelated stuff, plus confessions of trivial stuff, plus mock confessions.  It did get me to Steve Locke's "I have led women on, I've cheated"  and "Benjamin Law: Five Things I Admit #IHave Done."  One could say, these are a good start toward self-awareness.

Let's see, here's Locke's list:
  1. "I have led women on,"  
  2. "I've cheated, and 
  3. acted in ways that reflected a sense of entitlement towards the exploitation of women's bodies and behaviours. 
  4. I've acted in ways that could be described as 'creepy,' both sober and under the influence. 
  5. I've absolutely been overly defensive when called out for my actions, and 
  6. have attacked things that certain women loved most about themselves because I felt intimidated by them. The list could go on." 
He also talks about punching a wall and feeling powerful when it frightened the woman he was with.

This is a pretty good list.  But I suspect that many women would also confess to these kinds of behaviors, at least 1, 2, 5, and 6.  Part of this is about growing up, learning how to negotiate the adult world, dealing with one's insecurities.

Locke says he went to therapy (and still goes) to understand and change his unhealthy relationships with women.  

Benjamin Law's list is softer. 
  1. Told female friends, "Yeah I'm mates with him, but wouldn't be if I was a woman" – because I knew of his weird and predatory behaviour around women.  [I guess he's saying he shouldn't be mates with the guy.]
  2. Laughed awkwardly at sexist remarks in professional situations, instead of pulling men up.
  3. Almost gone on TV to discuss a book written by a famous Australian musician who has been violent against women I know.
  4. Declined disclosing my wage to a female colleague who suspected she was being paid less than me (she was) for fear of reprisal from our male boss who'd told me to keep it quiet.
  5. Suggested things were far worse in the past.
I'm not saying that this list doesn't help people become aware of little ways people can passively support systems of abuse.  But what women are #metoo-ing is far more egregious than what I'm seeing on #ihave.  (I checked to see if I should capitalize #IHave, but it got be back to #ihave.)

I even saw a tweet that compared #metoo and #ihave to the public denouncements and confessions of the Cultural Revolution in China.  I understand why someone might see a connection, but the differences are far more significant, starting with the fact that the Cultural Revolution denouncements were instigated by Mao.  Not by the people who were wronged.  

And while I recognize that men's careers might be ruined by false accusations, far, far more women's careers and lives have been ruined by actual sexual harassment and assault.  When the number of men's ruined careers starts approaching 25% of the number of women's ruined lives, then we can start worrying more about false accusation.  Not that we shouldn't call them out.  But it's no reason to dismiss such accusations altogether.

The ideal would be equal power between two people so that anything that might be construed as sexual is consensual.  Here's what it seems like we have to overcome:

Taking advantage of an unequal power relationship.    (I recognize that some might argue that our society, with an assist from nature,  gives extra power to men so this is always the case.  But ask any man who's been turned down for a date, if there are many individual women who have more more power than many individual men.)  Some of the key sources of power:
  • Physical Strength - men are often stronger and larger than women and can force themselves on women
  • Authority - laws or customs give someone the right to wield power over another - a teacher, a boss, a pastor, a parent, a police officer, a building permit official
  • Social Power - society awards greater credibility for all sorts of reasons - persuasiveness, physical attractiveness, occupation, connections, charisma 
  • Economic Power - those with money have power over those without
For each of these sources of power, except physical strength, there is an implied transaction.  One person trades sexual favors - from touching to intercourse - for something the other person has the power to give or take away - a grade, a job, a dinner, a passport, a better life, etc.  For men, physical strength can be the clincher if the other forms, in the end, don't get them what they want.  

Are all these equal? Or are some worse than others?  Here's my proposed hierarchy, recognizing that these actions often combine more than one aspect.
  • Forcible rape - where there is not even a modicum of consent is the worst.  
  • The threat to take away a woman's  job or to otherwise make her life more difficult if she doesn't consent to his overtures.   
  • The offer of something she needs or wants in exchange for sex.  
The idea here of consent is conceptual.  Technically, if someone were forced to judge, there could be different levels of consent depending on how necessary or discretionary the given or taken 'item' is.  I think readers can imagine a continuum of scenarios from essentially forced to essentially consensual.  

Sex or Power?   Some argue that all rape is about power, not sex.  As a former young man, I can't help but be skeptical.  Sometimes a cigar is a cigar.  The alcohol, music, and body contact at a bar or party can easily lead a young man to take advantage of a woman, not to exert power, but to have sexual release. But, of course, much of Weinstein's inappropriate touching was a way of showing the world his power as a relatively unattractive man to have beautiful women around him who  allowed him to touch them inappropriately.  And for some (many?) men, power is an aphrodisiac, in which case the power and the sex are combined.  

But one doesn't have to be a powerful mogul to combine sex and power.  All the men for whom sex is the game of pursuing the prey until she submits and who then lose interest after the 'conquest' exhibit some variation of this combined sexual desire and power.  

If there is no other position of power involved, if the sex is not in exchange for something else, things get murkier.  How does one determine consent?  When I was coming of age, girls were supposed to save sex until marriage.  Consent was not socially acceptable.  They were supposed to say no and the boy was supposed to somehow know the difference between a real no and a face saving no that meant, keep going.  Hollywood still gives us countless role models that sex is a hunt - think, for example, of Barney Stinson in How I Met Your Mother.  Just go through this list of Barney quotes and think about how Marshall, Ted, Robin, and Lily love him despite his predatory behavior.

Is There Ever Equality?  Suppose we have two college students who meet and find each other attractive enough to go out on a date.  Neither has an official position of power over the other.  Yet one might be older, or more attractive, or richer, or more talented, or more socially inept, or more sexually experienced than the other.  They may each have qualities that makes one superior in some ways and inferior in other ways.  One may be more attracted to the other, than the other way around.  Each of these conditions gives a modicum of power to one or the other, though it may change from moment to moment, or month to month.   

It's in this situation that I think we have to give people more space to make mistakes, to experiment, to grow up without serious reprisals.  I'm not talking about men who lie and cheat to get sex.  But I am talking about people who don't yet know who they are or what they want;  who aren't that comfortable with themselves or with others.  I'm talking about people who have difficulty reading non-verbal cues from others.  These people are going to make sexual mistakes.  They need some room to learn how to be in a relationship.  But they also need to recognize that another person is involved and be respectful. [Hmmm, this sounds like an ad for sex education in schools.]  If they get into powerful positions, this pass no longer applies.  Besides, they ought to have enough money to get professional help.

OK, that's a first draft for ways to think about this.

And as I was writing this - I let it sit overnight and then made more changes - I came up with another interesting project:  Make a list of Weinstein brothers films, watch them, and rate them on how women are treated by the men.  (Actually, that's a good thing to do with all movies.  My daughter first suggested that to me long ago.)  To what extent do we as movie goers accept abusive treatment of women in films and thus encourage men to model that behavior?

[UPDATE January 27, 2018:  My daughter also brought the Bechdel test to my attention.  To pass this test a movie must have:
(1)  at least two women in it, who
(2) who talk to each other, about
(3) something besides a man.
Something to pay attention to when you watch movies.]

[We started watching How I Met Your Mother on Netflix.  I wanted to see why it was so popular.  It's well written, fast paced, funny, and the episodes are short.  It was a good way to take the edge off after heavy shows, like Vietnam.  But really, Barney's behavior toward women is manipulative, devious, and everything that is wrong with perpetual one night stands based on the idea of the hunt.  The show does give glimpses of his inherent loneliness and fear of commitment,  but it glorifies his relentless pursuit of the one night stand, through deceit and with absolutely no regard for the women he pursues.]

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