Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Rage of Consent

I stumbled on a strange sex-advice column at Slate the other day.  A "22-year-old autistic queer woman who has never been sexually active" reported that she's periodically told by
friends—even progressive, feminist friends—who are older than me and try to take on a bit of a “mom friend” vibe, about whether women and gay men under 25 are able to consent to sex. I am told, at least once every couple weeks, that if you’re under 25, you’re incapable of consent because your “frontal lobes are still developing.” When I point out they suspiciously only apply the argument to women and gay men, they either tell me I am too young to understand, too inexperienced to understand, or too autistic to understand. 
The columnists - a man and a woman who write the column together - came down on what I consider the right side of the question: the friends are condescending and flat wrong.  They consulted various experts who confirmed that while some parts of the brain may continue to develop until the age of 25 (though women usually mature faster than men), there's no evidence that those parts have anything to do with a capacity to give consent to sexual interaction.

It's hard to see how they could, because "consent" is such a muddy, muddled concept in the first place.  As a legal concept it's a fiction: remember that in the not very distant past, American white women of any age couldn't consent to have sex with black males; men of any age could not consent to anal sex with other males in the US; at various times, no one of any age could consent to oral sex with anyone, and so on, no matter how developed their frontal lobes were.  Contrariwise, women who had once given consent, especially in marriage, could never withdraw it afterward. "Marital rape" was a hotly contested concept for just that reason: a husband might respect his wife's reluctance to let him exercise his marital rights, but he wasn't obliged to.  A good many people confuse the legal definitions of consent with what might be called the 'common-sense' definition (and you know what I think of 'common sense'), partly out of ignorance, partly because they find it convenient to do so.

I suspect that Underage's older, progressive, feminist friends set the bar at 25 for "women and gay men" because of penetration, which Andrea Dworkin hinted was inherently violent in her 1987 book Intercourse.  When this notion was challenged, Dworkin's defenders denied that she had actually said so, because she'd cannily relied on innuendo and rhetorical questions.  Plausible deniability, in other words, which was odd because Dworkin was not renowned for indirection.  But see this essay by Nona Willis Aronowitz (Ellen Willis's daughter), which I might give more extended attention sometime.  Aronowitz is, in my opinion, wrong about numerous matters, especially when she claims that "the pro-sex side had won" the war for the soul of feminism.  That's an oversimplification at best, as Underage's complaint shows.  But then, unlike Aronowitz, I actually read Dworkin's work from Woman Hating through Intercourse, and to a lesser extent beyond.

I also suspect that if Underage's friends got their way -- suppose that the legal age of consent for women was raised to 25 -- they'd soon find reasons why it should be even higher.  And then they'd argue that because the brain, having finished developing, promptly begins to deteriorate, no one over 25, or 30, is competent to give consent either.  Since their strictures aren't based on any actual evidence, but just their personal (and yet shared, which is the disturbing part) hangups, it's fair to suppose that they don't want anyone to seek erotic pleasure: so much can go wrong.  Except themselves, I presume.

It would be interesting to ask them at what age straight men and lesbians become capable of consent.  What are straight men under 25 supposed to do for sexual partners?  Older women?  Older gay men?  What about erotic play between children of more or less the same age?  I suppose that 'progressive, feminist' women of a certain age would simply consider that to be abuse.  My late Tabloid Friend on Facebook declared dogmatically that any child who is interested in playing with another child's body must have been abused already, and was simply continuing the cycle of abuse.

I don't think that Dworkin led feminists astray: she spoke for many women - feminist, non-feminist, anti-feminist.  From what I've seen, many women, often but not always older, white, and educated, shared her disgust for sex.  Aronowitz quotes Dworkin to the effect that men must "forgo their 'precious erections' and 'make love as women do together.'"  This is disingenuous, because Dworkin also wrote about lovemaking between women as grinding misery.  (Again, I have the advantage over Aronowitz of having read a lot more than the one-volume selection of Dworkin's work that she reviewed.)  Dworkin liked to walk both sides of the street, as it were, in a way that later came to be known as "triangulation."

I want to stress that I'm not telling women, or anyone, of any age, that they must enjoy sex, or engage in it at all if they don't want to.  Erotic/sexual freedom means the freedom to say no, to abstain, to set limits.  It's the traditionalists, actually, who reject nuance and the right to say Yes to this person or at this time, and No to another person or at another time: if you say Yes once, you can never say No again, and if you say Yes but have a bad time, you brought it on yourself and deserve no sympathy.    I don't know how far Underage's older, progressive feminist friends would go in that direction, but I bet they'd go pretty far. When ostensible progressives take traditionalist positions, they need to be challenged and shut down.  Like Dworkin, who was apt to vilify women who claimed to enjoy intercourse as (Aronowitz quoting her again) "'left-wing whores' and 'collectivized cunts'".  I'm old enough to remember the lesbian/feminist sex wars of the 1980s, where such epithets and more were hurled by older, progressive feminists at other women.

Underage's story stuck with me because it fits with other symptoms of reaction I've noticed: panic about nudity, panic about touching.  I realize that my Sixties-generational optimism about a better, freer, less screwed-up sexual world was naive, but I couldn't understand why anyone would want to police other people's sex lives.  I later realized, and learned, that sex is scary.  Especially for heterosexual women, for reasons that are well-known.  But for men too.  Dorothy Dinnerstein's The Mermaid and the Minotaur (1976) taught me so much about why people distrust, even hate the body: it can't be relied on to feel pleasure or give it; it fails us, it breaks down, it disappoints, eventually it sickens and dies.  So I don't blame religion, or feminism, for what looks to me like resurgent prudery in many corners of society; I see it as part of our human nature and heritage, which needs to be examined and criticized and resisted, especially when people mobilize bad science to try to frighten and restrict the sexual lives of other people.  If freedom means anything, it means the right to say No, but also to say Yes; and clearly many people don't think we should say Yes.