Thursday, January 18, 2018

Sex and the Single Encounter

Internet thinkers have been chattering about the tale from an anonymous woman about her unpleasantly sexual evening with a reasonably well-known comedian, starting with wine and dinner and ending with sexual acts which she apparently did not desire to perform, all on the first, um, date. At The Atlantic, Caitlin Flanagan basically got things right and James Hamblin largely missed the point, and it seems to me that the fact that he is twenty years younger than her (and she is only a year younger than I) explains a lot of the difference in perspective: Flanagan, and I, were raised in the old mores, and got to see everything come apart as teenagers and young adults, just before Hamblin was born.

The details of the encounter do not need to be repeated, but suffice it to say, "Grace" sought the comedian, and after some arranging that had an evening in which she went to his pad for a glass of wine, they went out to dinner, and then they returned to his apartment, and shortly thereafter were engaged in a sex act which she, apparently, wasn't really hot on, and it went on from there until she broke down in tears and left. Finally, she got to shame him by getting someone to recount her tale, naming him but not her. He, by old-school standards, comes across as a cad; her participation is more complex, not only because we hear her emotional side, but because of the obvious emotional conflict within her. As Flanagan says, what they did was "was hardly the first move in the 'one-night stands' of yesteryear," which itself reduces the prolapsed morality of my early adulthood to antique propriety. But then, the point after all is that there are no longer any rules. The whole talk of consent one hears among the liberated righteous comes across, in the scenario of this "date" and for that matter of dating in the large, as wholly inadequate to the matter of real male-to-female interaction. In the story, she consents, and consents, and feels bad about consenting, but she keeps at it until, apparently, he asks for something she is unwilling to give, and then her "no" really comes as a teary abrogation of every "OK" said heretofore. Conversely, "consent" is simply not up to the task of justifying the assertion that he shouldn't have been asking in the first place. After all, she could have been a sexually aggressive and adventurous woman, or even a prostitute who was up for anything he was willing to pay for outright. But in this case the negotiations broke down in mid-encounter.

Meanwhile various women writing on the matter talk about how men are conditioned by society to chase after sex, and how women are conditioned to yield. This fails to deal with human difference in both respects: on the one hand it attributes too much to culture, and on the other whitewashes over the extreme range of human temperament. The woman in this comes across with a neediness that certainly no woman I ever dated expressed; the man's drive is is less clear, because we do not hear his side, but it's not hard to interpret him as having a sexual drive which she (from his perspective) volunteered over and over to satisfy, but which one may not assert of every man. And while she says that she offered lots of nonverbal cues, anyone reading on the history of this had surely heard the male side: that women send out signals that men are meant not the catch, so they can be docked points for missing them.

Really, anyone should have the sense to see that this business of male-to-female interaction is actually difficult, which is perhaps one reason why all prior societies mediated them with rituals and norms, often of great elaboration. Just sixty years ago, there's no way a nice girl like her would have been in the man's kitchen in the first place, and never mind the sex. None of this was perfect, of course, and a lot of it functioned to the disadvantage of women, no doubt. But having no structures at all hasn't fixed the problems; it has simply meant that the thing is a complete crapshoot for anyone who isn't either a complete prude or utterly promiscuous.

I lived at the prudish end, not that I was stupid enough to make an issue of it in the licentious late '70s and early '80s. To illustrate: I spent part of one summer school at UMCP with a roommate in the dorms who had sex with his girlfriend every night. I simply arranged, on my own, to delay my return to the room until I expected them to be completed, and walked in on them in mid-coitus twice. The breaking point was when he expected me to vacate my bed for a weekend so that she could occupy the room with him for several days of fun: I put up with his inconvenient fornicating, but depriving me of the bed I had paid for. When I took the matter to the resident director, she essentially backed him up, and I was fortunate to find someone else who grudgingly let me move in with them for the remaining days of the term. For my own part, I found chastity much less complicated and fraught. I did not join my flesh to another, and thus avoided all the attachments spoken of by Paul; and in an earlier generation, I would have found my choice buttressed by a social order that at least paid lip service to Christian mores.

But not any longer. Blessed are they, it appears, who are not driven by sexual desire; but the rest play upon an uncertain field, torn between play and battle.