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Category Archives: sexuality

Last night, on a “family show,” families everywhere learned that when a woman says repeatedly over the course of several months that she is not interested in a man, she doesn’t really mean it. They learned that when said man, after the first indication of disinterest, continues to make comments about how he would like to be with said woman, that’s not only acceptable, but going to be rewarded in the end.  The audience was told that even if a woman has acted like she couldn’t stand a man for months and months, if he makes some grand gesture for her she will (should?) acquire romantic feelings for him.

I thought Once Upon a Time and I were on the same page. Strong Female Lead™ Emma Swan told Captain Hook that she had only kissed him as a “one time thing” to thank him for saving her father’s life (which was problematic from the get-go, but I’ll leave it there). She looked at him with disdain when he attempted to put his hand on her back as they left a room together. She explicitly said he was not someone she would “actually kiss” when the villain cursed his lips to try to hurt her. Everything about that said to me that she was in fact not interested in this guy.

Looking at the candidate for love interest himself, just in the last episode alone, Hook directly described what he has been doing as “chasing this woman.” When Emma complained about wearing a corset, he said “Your discomfort is a cross I’m willing to bear,” and then leered at her.  Also, a past version of him noted, “If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you were trying to get me drunk, which is usually my tactic.” Previously, Hook implied that Emma wanted to leave town not because she had another life she liked but because she was afraid to love him, despite all the evidence in the previous paragraph. I thought this was supposed to be creepy. I mean, it was creepy, but I thought it was on purpose and that they knew it was creepy.

(There are many other examples for both, but these are the ones I have offhand and I can’t stomach going looking for more.)

But alas, when we get to the season finale, all of Emma’s “no”-s over the course of an entire season turn into a “yes.” She spends the whole episode flirting with him, at complete odds to her previous behavior, and then they make out.

There are a couple of ways to interpret this. One is that, while her words were saying “no” over and over again, what she meant the whole time was “yes”—and indeed, there were a few moments where they made the acting choice to have her eyes flicking to his lips when they were speaking and other similar instances as a subtext under the maintext of “no.” Under this model, “no” really does mean “yes,” and Hook was not obligated to take that explicit verbal disinterest as “no” and in fact ultimately justified in doing so. (Version A)

Alternately, it could be because, while Emma did really mean “no” at the time, she changed her mind. This could be because he wore her down (Version B).  It could be because she was moved by his sacrifice of his beloved ship (the Jolly Roger) and thought that, much like when he saved her father, it deserved a reward (Version C). It could be because she thought that if he gave something up for her she should give something up to him (Version D).

Versions A and B are Rape Culture. Versions C and D are The Traffic in Women. Let’s talk about each.

Rape Culture, as a conceptual apparatus, describes the ways in which contemporary sexual and gender politics are organized around a belief in men’s inherent right to access to women’s bodies. (This isn’t to say only men can rape or only women get raped [nor indeed that there are only two categories], but as a system of power it’s gendered in that way.) This is the stuff of street harassment (I have a right to look at you and comment on you and a right to a response from you). It’s the logic by which women who dress revealingly or flirt or make out with someone are “teases” if they don’t then “follow through” on what the man is “owed” by their implicit contract.

Rape culture is a very old problem, but where many forms of gender inequality have diminished over time, this one has gotten reinvigorated by some recent popular media.  We see it in Twilight, where Edward behaving in stalker-y ways toward Bella is framed as romantic. (Probably the best line from the famous Buffy vs. Edward mash-up:  “You know, being stalked isn’t really a big turn-on for girls.”) We also see it in Blurred Lines, the lyrics of which have brilliantly been paralleled to the statements of rapists.  The song’s narrator just “knows” the “good girl” “wants it.”  Well golly, that should be good enough for anyone . . .

So while Emma said “no,” she really meant “yes,” or she changed her mind because he was persistent. Hook’s assertion of a right to her body was ultimately legitimated. That’s rape culture.

With calling Versions C and D The Traffic in Women,  I’m thinking of the Gayle Rubin version, not the Emma Goldman version, which I have not read. The key part of the traffic in women for our purposes is that it is a cultural and economic system whereby women are commodities to be sold by men.  It used to be that your parents sold you to a husband (or paid a husband to take you), and as a result you became his property (Fairly literally. Married women didn’t exist as separate legal people).  And as his property you had to do what he wanted (I won’t start on Once’s record on forcible marriage, though I think I will be back next week to write Once Upon a Misogyny (with a Side of Racism) for how they treat the character Regina).

This is, again, an old problem, but, also again, one that persists. The notion that if a man spends a lot of money on a woman she’s obligated to have sex with him is one instantiation of it.  So is the comment at the center of a recent controversy that “compares a man’s obligation to go to work, regardless of his ‘mood,’ to a woman’s obligation to have sex with her husband” (The comment is old, and not as linked to Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell as it was described to be, but it’s still pretty appalling and a clear version of this logic).

So when Hook gave up his ship for Emma, he bought her fair and square. She owed him something, either consciously as in Version C or more as the result of cultural conditioning as in Version D. Actual quote: “You traded your ship for me?”

And this episode was described by the show’s Executive Producers as “epic wish fulfillment.” It begs the question: Whose wishes? It certainly doesn’t fulfill the wishes of people who were drawn into this show by its strong female leads (Emma and bandit Snow White and the Season 1 villain Regina), because the glorification of rape culture and women as purchasable is incompatible with strong female leads. Does it fulfill the wishes of the Twilight generation (and their moms), who found Edward’s stalking and the Edward-Jacob ownership battle oh-so-romantic? Perhaps.  Does it fulfill the wishes of men who have been trained to see women as something to which they have an inalienable right? Absolutely.

This is profoundly disappointing, particularly from a show that was premised on rethinking fairytales. This isn’t rethinking. It’s more of the same old patriarchy, and its 2014.

And speaking of my dissertation defense, here’s the Prezi for that for those who were unable to attend, since I wasn’t able to have it streamed or live-tweeted.

Recently, my friend and colleague T. J. Tallie  published Queering Natal: Settler Logics and the Disruptive Challenge of Zulu Polygamy in GLQ, and since T. J. often has smart things to say I prioritized reading his article in my ongoing project to keep up on recent work my field and related ones.

It’s a great piece that does an excellent job parsing out the way polygamy (or, as he points out, more accurately polygyny) was the “flashpoint” for British colonial anxieties about their capacity to control “the natives” in 19th century South Africa and the potential for Zulu practices to “contaminate” British “modern” sexuality; he expertly demonstrates the ways this nonnormative (to the settler colonists) practice was seen as dangerous and disruptive (and therefore was queer) (p. 168). (Yay for using “queer” to mean disruptive the way I like!)

I’d had a quote on polygamy on my list of possible blog topics for quite some time (since November, based on the date of the original source). It came from a news article about the Women’s League of the African National Congress party in South Africa; the larger point of the piece was that the league refuted the label of “feminist” (which was what caught my eye in the headline).

Responding to and deploying a tired definition of feminism, the Women’s League also denied hostility toward men, instead identifying its mission as the advancement of women; this commitment led to an exchange in which, “asked about whether [South African President Jacob Zuma’s] polygamy was not against the advancement of women, [Women’s League president Angie] Motshekga said practising his culture was a ‘personal choice’. She said the women Zuma married were consenting adults, and he was not harming anyone.”

I found that framing of consenting adults really interesting at the time (hence saving it for later), and now I find that I want to return to it in conversation with T. J.’s work, in part because I have been trying to work through ideas of consent for my work on fandom and labor and the sexual consent frame has been particularly useful as one that accounts for both constraint and choice.

To do this, I turn to Martha Nussbaum’s 1998 piece “Whether from Reason or Prejudice”: Taking Money for Bodily Services about sex work. Nussbaum points out that many of the problems people identify with sex work are common to all sorts of other activities, yet we don’t think of them in the same way—factory work requires use of one’s body in ways one can’t control, therapy is emotionally intimate, being a model who works to train gynecologists involves extensive contact, etc.

Nussbaum contends that we therefore need to figure out what specifically is bothersome about sex work—and whether this is “from reason or prejudice”—rational or just indefensible cultural bias. I’d like to apply this form of reasoning to the polygamy question in order to get at questions of consent.

The most typical mainstream objection polygamy (which, as in the historical Zulu case, seemingly always takes the form of polygyny) is that it is oppressive to women. As in the case Tallie describes, there is generally no regard for how the women involved might see the practice, but rather monogamists declare that such women are “oppressed under the barbarism of their men” (p. 173).

Now, when only men get to have multiple wives, it does participate in a logic of male access to and control of women and is therefore problematic. But this logic of access is prevalent in all kinds of cultural practices and institutions. As just one example, the high school boys CJ Pascoe studied for Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School (something else I’ve read recently as part of catching up) worked to solidify their masculinity through extravagant claims to sexual control over girls’ bodies, and the girls were often uncomfortable about this but went along with it because that was how high school culture worked. It is therefore unreasonable to condemn polygamy as uniquely problematic.

A corollary to men having a right of access is the discourse of male hypersexuality. Certainly, in the context Tallie describes it was convenient for the British to argue that polygyny was about Zulu men’s hypersexuality in contrast to restrained British masculinity since this fit right in with their beliefs about the need to “civilize” the natives. But this logic is also not specific to that time and place; the idea that men want more sex than women is of course a tired trope of both comedy and drama.

Indeed, I’d argue that the horror-fascination with polygamy—which I’ve mostly encountered in the US-specific context of Mormonism, but Tallie’s discussion of how Zuma was treated in the British press a few years back seems similar—has something to do with men having unlimited sexual access, something both desired and disavowed within normative masculinity.

However, as the examples of Pascoe’s work and the “frustrated husband and wife with a headache” scenario already begin to suggest, polygamy, though indisputably based in gender inequality, is not uniquely coercive.  This raises a couple of issues around what consent means in such a situation.

Nussbaum points out that “poor working women” are “heavily constrained by poor options” in general, saying that “I think that this should bother us and that the fact that a woman with plenty of choices becomes a prostitute should not bother us, provided that there are sufficient safeguards against abuse and disease, safeguards of a type that legalization would make possible” (p. 696).

Applying this to marriage (of whatever number of people) as an economic institution, we can ask about who is in a position to consent in terms of what that person’s choices are and, as I have argued in the fan-labor case, the awareness of those choices. In the case of Zuma’s wives, then—given the likelihood of class endogamy—they are likely to be educated and financially secure, making their choice of this form of relationship meaningfully consensual rather than coerced by circumstance.

Though clearly there’s always some inequality impinging on consent, asking about what the options are both relocates agency with the less-powerful person and doesn’t deny constraint, a useful antidote to the freak-show quality of contemporary visions of polygamy and the tendency to discount people’s own meanings for their practices demonstrated both by British colonists in the 19th century and discussions of fundamentalist Mormons today.

Of course, there’s still that small but persistent manner in which gender is the axis of inequality in these formations. As a way around this, while polyamory is clearly not the Ultimate Radical Thing™ it is sometimes made out to be by its proponents, the idea of nonbinary relationships that are negotiated to everybody’s specifications—where each participant potentially has the option of multiple partners if they so desire—does get around the imbalance of polygyny.

And it does so without a normalizing defense of heterosexuality or monogamy, such that it seems likely to open up more sexual possibilities in a way that is supple with regard to the particularities of the situation, which is really what I think we ought to look for in a theory of sexual consent.

There has been a ton of writing about all the wildly awful things about the Steubenville sexual assault case: the slut-shaming and victim-blaming; marksdubbsthe focus on the boys’ “ruined lives” at the expense of any mention of the impact on the person who experienced the assault; CNNCNN’s bizarre coverage (which prompted petitions to land in my inbox from three separate progressive organizations); and all the awful things that got said on social media (brought to my attention by @AmandaAnnKlein). Also, there was a truly odd use of the word “alleged”–its purpose is for the perpetrator, to preserve “innocent until proven guilty,” not for the victim, to imply nothing ever happened, mmkay?

All of those things have been critiqued, I think, extraordinarily well, and I don’t think I can improve on that.

What I want to talk about is the ways this may be a turning point for electronically networked youth culture.

This is not to suggest, as some journalists have, that somehow the events are a product of electronic networks, as with Susanna Schrobsdorff’s statement in Time: “Joking about rape, referencing sexual acts and girls making fun of girls perceived as ‘sluts’ is just part of teen online culture now.”

This is not part of teen online culture. It’s part of teen culture, full stop. And it’s not “now”; as someone who presumably went to high school more recently than Schrobsdorff, I can vouch that saying these kinds of awful things is not new. What’s new is the visibility, the leaving of traces.

I’m a scholar of gender and sexuality and media; lots of people in my circle account themselves feminists. And as a result, an interesting juxtaposition occurred on my Twitter feed during the week of March 18: Veronica Mars and Steubenville. (I was late on Veronica Mars because of SCMS, and now I’m late on Steubenville because Veronica Mars broke first. A day may come when a news event will coincide with my blog production cycle, but it is not this day.)

But watching the last couple episodes of Season 1 of Veronica Mars the other weekend (in which, spoiler alert, Veronica finally pieces together what happened the night she was drugged and raped) in conjunction with the verdict in the Steubenville case coming down, there were both such similarities between the fictional case and the real one and such crucial differences that it got me thinking.

In VM, as in Steubenville, lots of people witnessed sexual things happening to a drugged girl who everyone assumed was drunk and slutty.  All of those witnesses (with the exception of the ex-boyfriend in the VM case), did not act to stop the events from occurring, which makes them morally responsible even if legal codes often don’t have a way to make such bystanders criminally responsible. (Though, you know, bystander effect is a real thing that happens.)

When Veronica could not remember what happened, and knew only that something had, it took her a year of piecing together disparate sources to figure it out. In Steubenville, electronically networked youth culture recorded everything, and though the local authorities were not inclined to intervene until prodded by national outrage and Anonymous, those (prosecutable) traces made the difference. As Richard Oppel wrote in the New York Times, “because the victim did not remember what had happened, scores of text messages and cellphone pictures provided much of the evidence” in the trial.

The fictional bystanding and the subsequent harassment of Veronica as slutty took place in meatspace, was ephemeral, left no traces. The parallel with the real-life crime is that “the trial also exposed the behavior of other teenagers, who wasted no time spreading photos and text messages with what many in the community felt was callousness or cruelty” (Oppel).

At SCMS a few weeks ago, I attended a paper on bullying in Nickelodeon TV show iCarly, given by my colleague Martina Baldwin. One thing that came up in the Q&A after the session was that, while there’s a long tradition of young people being awful to each other, the difference is in the traces. Things that used to be said in hallways and heard by only a few people now last longer because they are written down; by comparison to the nasty note written on paper, the text message or Facebook posting is exponentially more transmissible and harder to destroy. (Of course, this is the paradox of the Internet: things you want to get rid of last forever; things you want to preserve disappear.)

Indeed, the moral panic around “cyberbullying,” while technologically deterministic in suggesting that such things never occurred before the Internet, may not be totally off base. First, there’s the increased nastiness that comes with not bullying someone in person (this is not just true of youth; see the comments on any news story with a controversial topic, many if not most of which are written by adults). Second, there’s the intensification that comes with the seeming permanence and “everybody knows” aspect of these modes of harassment.

But now, the people who did not assault the girl physically but did do so emotionally and socially may also face consequences. The Ohio attorney general has announced that he “might consider offenses thatsteubenville1 include obstruction of justice, failure to report a felony and failure to report child abuse” (Oppel). This is an interesting turn of events, and not for the reason suggested by what the judge apparently said:

(Which sounds a bit like “you would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for those meddling kids.”) While it may indeed serve as a lesson to kids to keep their torture of each other more private, it also has another potential:steubenville2

Youth culture is, more or less, what it has been—if not always, at least as long as I’ve been aware of it. It was already highly networked and skilled at the transmission of information, particularly in ways that harass and harm others.

But the fact that the youth network is now electronic made all the difference in securing justice for that girl in Steubenville. Even more broadly, the use of electronic media traces as evidence in prosecution raises the possibility that the unique ways that these technologies intensify the awfulness of teen culture may begin to recede. In this way, despite all the ridiculousness that has surrounded it (see again the first section of this blog), the verdict is an incredible step forward.

As part of my work of professionalization, I have signed up for table of contents alerts for various journals in my areas of interest so that I can keep up on recent work. One such alert came through recently for the journal Sexualities, and Shannon Weber’s piece What’s wrong with be(com)ing queer? Biological determinism as discursive queer hegemony caught my eye.

Though I think the piece does some oversimplifying, I was struck by the feeling that it would be great to teach with–uncomplicated being good for undergrads and then I can complicate in lecture. (Inability to exercise my educational creativity muscles strikes again)

I was thinking, in particular, of starting class discussion with the statement that has become the title of this blog post: Homosexuality is a choice. I think this will be quite a jolt, given, as Weber describes, “the success that the Christian Right in particular has had in framing the debate over LGBTQ rights: telling queer people that they are not normal and do not deserve equal rights because their behavior is chosen and sinful” (687).

To say non-heterosexuality is a choice has come to be tightly linked to an antigay position, that is, and correspondingly saying that it is innate has come to be the only politically acceptable pro-gay position.

As Weber points out, following Jennifer Terry, the idea that sexuality is biologically determined positions it as something one cannot control (680). First, this participates in the same logic that stereotypes non-heterosexuals as sexually out of control—manifesting as homosexuals will always hit on every person of their “same” sex or as bisexuals are slutty.

Moreover, it participates in the same logic by which non-heterosexual desire is seen as a bad thing—that no one would choose it freely. As Weber put is, this is “an always already defensive position that argues not for sexual agency and freedom, but an acceptance of same-sex desire only inasmuch as it cannot be cured away into reformed heterosexuality” (682) which takes me back to beating my dead horse on the trouble with tolerance.

Weber speaks of strategic essentialism in LGBT politics (682), but I don’t actually think it is strategic. When you talk to an average person on the street, most of them believe that whatever orientation they have was innate—I was present recently for a round of “gayer than thou” where people were competing to have been gay earlier, but was too tired to intervene and point out their essentialism, too tired even to put my finger on why the whole thing irritated me. And if that bunch, who has read their weight in queer theory, can do that, it’s pretty pervasive.

But of course, it absolutely is a choice. I am agnostic on where desires come from, but once we have them we have to figure out what they mean and what we are going to do with them.

Even if we could prove that homosexuality was genetic and occurred in a certain percent of every population throughout time (which would be a benign variation like eye color, incidentally), how people responded to those desires in themselves and others has varied wildly. How people have made sense of such desires (as holy, as sin, as act, as identity, as mutable, as immutable) has also varied wildly, as is has how people have perceived nonnormative configurations of relationship (as failed heterosexuality, as nonsexual companionship, as sexual).

People can perfectly well choose to never act on their desires. They can choose their religion over it. (Which, incidentally, as Weber points out, using the framework of religion as a way to make cases for same sex rights is pretty clever: you’re not born locked into a religion forever, you can choose a different one, but if you have one it is a very important part of your identity that many would find it appalling  to try to force someone to change–and it would definitely be unconstitutional if the state did it.) Choosing to suppress rather than act on desire makes a lot of people miserable. But it makes other people less miserable than feeling like they’re sinning. Either way, it’s a choice.

This way of thinking of non-normative configurations as a valid choice rather than only defensible as uncontrollable is a useful framework. Weber gives the example of the way biological essentialism frequently attends narratives about transgender status, critiquing how this, like biological essentialism around same-sex desire, disallows the experience of an identity that has changed over time.

Weber stops with pointing out the trouble of essentialism, but it occurs to me that the framework of choice is also useful here: “I want my body to look like this; I want to be perceived in X way” produces a more livable life than “I can’t control this and am forced to change my body because I really am this on the inside but I was born in the wrong body.” (Though I acknowledge that the latter self-narration is often a strategically necessary essentialism for those who want access to medical body modification.)

We might contest the system that produces the self-loathing of the ex-gay or the sense that having certain wants or desires means anything about a sex or gender category to which one belongs, but people choose how to respond. It’s a sane response to an insane system.

What I’d want to get my students to see is that it’s a choice. It’s not an entirely free choice, of course, because it’s constrained by the socially available options. But it’s a choice people can make how they want to respond to those constraints. The world I want to live in is not one in which we all have to accept that the non-heterosexual can’t control it and tolerate them, but rather to open up the things that are socially possible to choose.