This post originally appeared in September 2009
I’m heading back to New York City after a couple of days in Providence. The weather, so humid yesterday, has turned wonderfully brisk and autumnal. I think of my native state, sweltering and drought-ridden and smoke-filled, and feel — almost — guilty that I’m not there with the millions of other suffering Californians. Home on Tuesday.
Brown University’s first annual “Consent Day” was a great success, not least because of the immensely popular t-shirts (a photo here) designed by Catherine McCarthy, the student who led the organizing team for the event and who first contacted me about coming to speak. The front of the shirt is visible in the photo, the reverse includes the reminder “Consent is active, enthusiastic, and freely given.”
I gave a workshop entitled “Sex, Consent, Enthusiasm, and Stoplights: Rethinking the Language of Yes and No.” The basic thesis is familiar from this post, but I also touched on the “all men are dogs” (myth of male weakness) ethos which undergirds so much of the way we socialize modern males (and socialize women to think about them). I also brought in what my women’s studies students know as the “upside-down triangle”, which I wrote about in this post.
There was some good give and take, and some very thoughtful questions from a mixed audience of Brown students.
In the second part of the workshop, we held a male-only discussion group. It is, of course, important to do anti-rape work with both men and women. When doing survivors workshops, it’s obviously beneficial to have women-only spaces. (And yes, men can also be survivors of sexual assault, though usually at the hands of other men rather than women — which may make all-male space more problematic, but that’s another topic for ‘nother post.) But in dealing with issues around sexual consent, the topic on yesterday’s table, single-sex space can also offer an opportunity for a higher degree of safety. And I was eager to meet with at least a few of the young men who had been through the workshop to hear their thoughts and feelings.
As our hour together Thursday evening bore out, many young men (certainly all of those who, gay and straight alike, participated in our closed discussion) are frustrated by the absence of a discourse of healthy male sexuality. This was a self-selecting group; these were guys who had volunteered to participate in Consent Day activities and who identified themselves as sympathetic to feminist goals. Several were already involved in peer counseling or in campus progressive politics. They were energized and excited by the discussion about enthusiasm and consent; there were no rape apologists to be found. But the real hunger that many of them articulated very well (not surprising for Brown University students) was a hunger for some kind of validation of their sexuality as good, healthy, okay.
“I know all the things not to do”, one guy said; “I work really hard at being a good ally. But I sometimes feel that in order to be a good ally, I have to pretend that I’m asexual; my fear is that women won’t trust me as a friend if I show any sign of sexual desire.” This lad hastened to add that he wasn’t sexually interested in most of his female friends; what he’d like to be able to do is talk about his sexual feelings (as some of those friends talk with him about theirs) without losing their trust. Several of the other men in the room nodded in agreement. We talked at length about the familiar but still-powerful compartmentalization phenomenon, one in which “good guys”, those who strive to do justice with their lives and with their bodies, live a separate, secretive sexual life (usually involving pornography) that seems, at least to the guys themselves, to be something profoundly shameful.
Timothy Beneke’s Men on Rape is now out of print, but one of the many memorable lines within that invaluable text is this: “I’m not aware of any common English phrases that allow one to express sexual desire in a way that acknowledges both lust and humanity.” Beneke captured a truth about our idiom, but he also captured a truth about the way in which we see male sexuality in our culture. For a host of excellent reasons, rooted in countless painful anecdotes and our own collective witness, many of us — perhaps most of us — have a difficult time believing that heterosexual desire doesn’t invariably compromise a man’s capacity for empathy. We men can’t want sex, our culture tells us, and while still seeing the people we want to have sex with as they really are. “A hard dick has no conscience”, we say with resignation or cynical bravado. But as is so often the case, our language in this instance doesn’t so much reflect an immutable reality as it creates and maintains a distorted understanding of our nature and our potential. Continue reading