Saturday, September 06, 2014

On Sexual Reciprocity

I am so busy this month - foremost I have to get a complete draft of my play DARK MARKET ready for the September 21 reading. I also have to write a one-act about the Bronte sisters and as if that isn't enough I was just inspired to write a one-act based on my sister's infamous bachelorette party many years ago.

But I've been rolling the idea of an essay about sexual reciprocity around in my head for weeks now and I need to put something down before I forget. This is an auspicious time since Gloria Steinem has just co-written an op-ed piece with Michael Kimmel in the NYTimes that addresses the issue.

Here they talk about the implementation of an explicit-consent code of conduct at colleges:
While doomsayers lamented that the new rules would destroy the mystery of campus sex, the students took it in stride. Instead of, “Do you want to have sex?” they simply asked, “Do you want to implement the policy? 
Of course some guys on campus were against it, in an honest way. “If I have to ask those questions, I won’t get what I want,” blurted out one young man to a reporter. Bingo. 
But seriously, since when is hearing “yes” a turnoff? Answering “yes” to, “Can I touch you there?” “Would you like me to?” “Will you [fill in blank] me?” seems a turn-on and a confirmation of desire, whatever the sexual identity of the asker and the asked.
Putting aside practical issues about implementation, there is an unexamined issue here. The fact that rape and prostitution and forced marriage exist makes it clear that for many people, especially male people, mutual desire does not matter. They don't care if they get a "yes" because although yes may not be a turnoff, no is not a turnoff either. In the case of some rapists of course, getting a "no" is the whole point, but many men who don't require resistance by the same token do not need to believe their sexual partner is aroused in order to complete an act of sexual intercourse.

This is obvious, and yet it struck me recently - why should this be, and why is it never discussed?

The most likely reason it isn't considered remarkable, or a phenomenon to be scientifically investigated in any way is because of the long persistence of absolute patriarchy. As Steinem/Kimmel observe elsewhere in the article:
Until now, this has been the state of affairs in our nation’s laws on sexual assault. Invading bodies has been taken less seriously by the law than invading private property, even though body-invasion is far more traumatic. This has remained an unspoken bias of patriarchal law. After all, women were property until very recently. In some countries, they still are. 
Even in America, women’s human right to make decisions about their own bodies remains controversial, especially when it comes to sex and reproduction.
That is it, exactly. Women were all property until very recently and some women are property in some places in the world right now. Since when do the sexual desires of property count for anything? And in fact, property having sexual desires could be extremely inconvenient, since there's always a good chance the desire is not for the legal property owner.

Even though women in the US are for the most part no longer goods exchanged between parents and husband, that way of thinking persists, as long-held customs will. 

The belief that men don't care about the sexual desires, much less more nuanced emotions of women is so reflexive that I was stunned by this passage in an article about the career of porn star James Deen in GQ. Author Wells Tower :
At this point, in answer to the query I posed at the start of our voyage, I can sincerely say that I would rather drink a mugful of live ticks than switch places with James Deen. 
You're shittin' me! you say. Why? Well, not only because being impelled to couple every day with a stranger before a room of onlookers seems like an experiment dreamed up by Martian scientists. And not only because the Groundhog Day-ish sameness would, I think, accumulate to a monotony akin to a career in oyster shucking. Ultimately, for this reporter, I would be frightened that if I weren't able to recall the names of sexual partners beyond the previous two weeks, ideals like intimacy and love would begin to seem gooey and absurd, and a terrible unexamined loneliness would become the natural condition of my life. I do not voice this sentiment to Deen. It would offend him. It would come across as prudishly un-"sex-positive" and critical of Deen and the industry he holds dear.
It's quite a surprisingly good article, and includes a harrowing episode where an especially grueling and uncomfortable three-way porn shoot leaves one of the female actors in tears - which she tries to minimize, but I don't think the author buys it:
Deen flees the set in search of a shower. Isis and Proxy sit abed for a postgame interview.

Isis Love: Proxy, how you feeling right now? 
Proxy Paige: [panting] Good! Worked over. 
Isis: Was it everything you expected it to be? 
Proxy: Yes, and I got to do a lot of things I hadn't done before. 
[Proxy is breathing heavily. Her voice is fragile, muted with restrained emotion.]

Isis: Do you want to cry right now? Come here, munchkin.

Isis Love holds Proxy Paige while the brine flows from her eyes. "It was a really good day," Proxy says, her voice splintering. "I don't know why I'm crying. It was really extreme, and I did a lot of things I don't normally do."
"You're so cute," says Isis. "What was the best part of the day? Your favorite part." 
"You fisting me," says Proxy. "I've always wanted to be, like, fully fisted in the ass. I felt like that would cross some sort of, like, anal threshold, and I finally did it. It was intense." 
"Can I have a tissue for my munchkin pie?" Isis calls to the crew. Isis Love cradles Proxy Paige, and Proxy does the only thing one can do when you've survived such an afternoon as this, which is to weep and grin and weep.
I was expecting the article would be nothing but admiration and jealousy of Deen and his means of making a living. Tower acknowledges this with the "you're shittin' me!" But he follows that up with:
...ideals like intimacy and love would begin to seem gooey and absurd, and a terrible unexamined loneliness would become the natural condition of my life...
I thought that intimacy and love being declared gooey and absurd was the masculine ideal! Certainly to the extent that you wouldn't normally admit otherwise in a men's magazine. Having an endless parade of anonymous female jizz-receptacles was the ultimate goal of every red-blooded American male, I thought. 

This section from the article also surprised me:
"Yeah," Deen says. "I always say sex is like soccer: It's fun and athletic, and you should do it with your friends."
Yes, I think. Right. Certainly. Here is a simple statement that Deen means pretty much as it sounds, but it also pithily expresses yet another reason why you or I will never be the sort of soccer player James Deen is. It's not just that he's got bigger, you know, feet than we do. It's that for you, on that night of enduring awkwardness when you went out for drinks with the woman in the adjacent cubicle and achieved your long-cherished fantasy of playing soccer with her, you did so not because you thought she was going to be this tremendously good soccer player. It was that you were thrilled that she found you sufficiently nonrevolting that she was willing to get on the field with you, which was a big consideration, because as you both knew, what makes the game so very, very exciting isn't its competitive physics but the conceit that the game is actually a high-velocity delivery system for privileged emotional knowledge of the other player's secret self. And that even if you're the sort of freebooting venereal Olympian who tries to play soccer with absolutely everything that moves, your compulsion to play is still ultimately grounded in the marrow-level conviction that the game matters in some way a good deal more complex and high-stakes than simple athletic fun.
Really? Men give a rat's ass about a woman's secret self? Men even conceptualize that a woman has a secret self? Maybe I've been spending too much time talking to 20-something guys on online dating sites lately, but in my recent experience what men want most from women is "no drama" by which they mean "no personality quirks that might impede the goal, however briefly, of impersonal sex-having, please."

Which brings us to prostitution. What so many of these 20-something men on dating sites seem to want is basically a free prostitute - someone who will serve their needs for dehumanized coitus and not have any needs of their own in exchange.

As this discussion on The Straight Dope board indicates, the majority of the discussants consider all women to be basically prostitutes, and so actual prostitutes are better because pretending to have feelings for a woman, while preferable to paying big money for a quality prostitute, doesn't guarantee a sexual pay-off and therefore it's worth the money to go to a prostitute. So actually, the idea of reciprocity is absent from both their interactions with prostitutes and with non-prostitutes. The goal is a penis in a vagina - everything else is the unpleasant but necessary services or goods you must pay to achieve the goal. Pleasing the woman sexually is not even a secondary pleasure - it's a horrific burden.

The online discussion is ancient so there's no point in my asking the participants, but I wonder - would they pay someone to be their friend? And consider that a bargain? Because with a real friend, you have to provide friendship services to them in exchange for those they provide for you. But there's no guarantee the friend will always be available, or always in a good mood. Sometimes the friend might want something from you. Much better to pay for a friend then to bother with all that emotional work.

Well of course a friend is not considered property. Women still are - and I suggest that the men on this discussion board have that belief in the back of their mind. Women are property you have sex with and it is very inconvenient to have to pay property anything in exchange for sex, but if you have to pay, you might as well pay cash and get exactly what you want, when you want it, like any decent capitalist.

But how important is reciprocity? Well consider this - if men actually cared whether or not their sex partners felt desire for them, rape would disappear, prostitution would disappear, all forms of sexual exploitation would end. This would never have happened. We would be living in a paradise.

But we are not. Because it would appear, most men, most of the time, simply do not care about women's feelings. Even - or possibly especially - the women closest to them.

Now the big question is - is it nature or is it nurture?

More soon.