Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Culture that Isn't Adequate in Respecting the Importance of Sexual Consent

I recently had the treat of listening to a CBC story and panel discussion on the recent scandalous University of Ottawa pub crawl. For those who aren't up on Canadian news, there was a recent pub crawl at the University of Ottawa that was "exposed" by student reporters. Students are in teams, and there is a list of dares to earn points.

These "dares" included things like having anal sex with one of the judges of the event. The University has promised to put a stop to the annual event, and some of the participants have come out to say that everything was consensual and that other people need to stay out of their business.

The crack team of cultural commentators that CBC put together tried to figure out if this was "Rape Culture". What followed was a couple of minutes of semantic nonsense before they gave up on that term and went on to very poorly understand consent and why it is important. One panelist - trying to be helpful, I guess? - said that anyone who wasn't comfortable with what was going on could have just left. Then they tried to get into a question of whether women were fragile and needed to be protected.

To understand this, the first thing you need to do is look past your arrogant, idiotic view of yourself as a self-turning wheel. Have you ever made a decision you regretted, not because you didn't have the information you needed to make the right choice, but because you were tired or angry or hungry? If you can honestly say no to that then you have a remarkable lack of self awareness.

Obviously a conservative news panelist would immediately interject here, "So if you have sex with someone who is hungry it's rape?" The reason they will interject this is because they aren't interested in discussing consent or trying to shift our common understanding of what is okay and what is not okay, but rather they are motivated by fear of being accused of doing something themselves. If a man reads my modest proposal to presume the guilt of those accused of sexual assault and viscerally reacts to the proposed injustice, they are reacting to how afraid they would personally feel. If you want to think objectively about whether or not it is a good idea for society, you'd be just as concerned about the present conditions for women as you were about hypothetical conditions for men.

So let's talk about how people actually make decisions. We still make decisions when we are tried, sad, angry, intoxicated, grieving, pumped up, ecstatic, and under any other thought-influencing condition. We can't separate our emotions from our thinking. Doing something because you are enraged is still doing it. Doing something because your favourite sports team just won is still doing it. Doing something because everyone around you is doing it and you don't want to bring them down is still doing it.

Still, we all have some sense that some of our decisions were out of character because of an extreme circumstance. Or that they were essentially in character but in a part of our character we would have known better than to express were it not for some circumstance. We somehow divide factors that feel integrated into ourselves from factors that don't feel integrated into ourselves. If you've never felt you had to do something you were deeply opposed to in order to save your life, and if you've never had an alien beam thoughts into your head, then you might not realize what it's like to act on, or to choose not to act on, compelling forces that don't seem like yourself.

If we take the decision whether or not to have anal sex with a particular person, we can imagine all kinds of factors that could go into that decision, from a wholehearted desire to have anal sex with that person to a threat of violence if you don't. Sexual attraction is probably deeply integrated into sense of self, so much so that other than "a wholehearted desire to have anal sex with that person" I was at a loss for words about how to describe actually wanting to do something. It's some combination of sexual attraction, interest in the particular sexual act, feeling safe, feeling you are in an appropriate environment, and many other things, but most of us know what "would like to have sex now" feels like, and a lot of that feeling is too subconscious to really try to disassemble.

The question is why the people who organized this event want other people to have their decision-making needles moved. Acting in a way that you think maximizes the chance that someone will decide they want to have sex with you could be seen as reasonable, but thinking of only yourself and not the consequences for the other person is exactly the kind of thing we need to stop doing. The people who set this event up made it in such a way that it is very likely to cause people to do things that they will later question or regret, or even to do things that they aren't comfortable with at the time. It's exclusive so balking at it means being cast out of a social group. There is a sense of letting your team down if you don't go along with it. Everyone is drinking. It's late at night. They are applying every pressure they can without criminal coercion.

I can just imagine the CBC panelists saying that's ridiculous. As if someone would have anal sex they didn't want to have just because they didn't want their team to lose an event with nothing but bragging rights on the line. Again, we're poisoned by the myth of individualism, as if everyone just makes the ideal decision for themselves at all times. Teamwork is a very, very powerful motivator. People are motivated to all kinds of ridiculous and inappropriate behaviour by a sense of team and it takes almost nothing to create it. Put half the people in a room in blue shirts and half in green and you'll immediately see half of them form a strong in-group, out-group division.

I'm not infantalizing women. I'm "infantilizing" all people, insofar as we feel it is infantilizing to face ourselves for what we really are. There is nothing wrong with acknowledging you don't make your best decisions when you are tired or that you'd do things you wouldn't normally do to avoid being excluded from a social group. Knowing that about yourself and about people in general increases your empathy.

People constructed an event to try to pressure other people into sexual activity they weren't comfortable with. I don't know if there was any sexual assault at the event, but even if there wasn't, how can we not say this is part of a culture that is committed to making self-serving guesses about the sexual consent of others.

To me, though, the ultimate thing that ought to be putting us all off about this event is that participants earned points by having sex with the judges. You don't have sex with your students, you don't have sex with your employees, you don't ask your barista out, you don't ask for sex from a position where it can be taken as an implied threat - whether you mean it as a threat or not. Again, judge at an essentially meaningless competition might not sound like a position of power, but more than half the people who find this ridiculous would be just as susceptible to that influence. Most people's heuristics tell you deference to the judge is important, even if, taking a step back, you would not value their opinion very much at all.

In an ideal world perhaps we'd all have very enlightened attitudes towards sex and having sexual competitions would be fine, or saying to your friend, "I could really use an orifice to put my penis into, mind helping me out?" would be okay. We don't live in that world, and we don't get there by pretending we already do any more than we can end systematic racial or gender discrimination by pretending it isn't there.

There is some doubt about the intent of the event, but we know that 5-10% of men commit multiple sexual assaults because of their disdain for women. Now take a man who lives his life in whatever way you live your life to end up the judge of a contest where he can award points based on the willingness of women to allow him to put his penis in their anus. Would you tend to think that makes him more or less likely to be in that 5-10%? If anyone wants to bet me $20 a judge that they have never committed sexual assault I'll be happy to take your $40 or $80.

I could have gotten this all wrong. Maybe the entire event started with the organizers saying, "Listen up everybody, we're all here to have a fun night, and part of making sure everyone enjoys themselves is being conscious about respecting one another. Obviously the dares on this list are encouraging people to push their personal boundaries, but I don't want anyone to do anything they are uncomfortable with, or to try to pressure others into doing something they are uncomfortable with. If you start thinking you need to do something you don't want to do to make your team win, just remember that there is actually nothing on the line here - if you aren't enjoying yourself nobody is winning. And not to be a downer, but I'm serious about that no pressure thing, if I hear anyone pushing someone to do something they don't want to do I'm going to kick them out. So let's all enjoy ourselves the way we want to enjoy ourselves and respect everyone else doing the same."

I don't get that idea, though, since you'd think defenders of the crawl would have made a big deal of it.

1 comment:

  1. Hmm... Maybe it's because that feeling is too subconscious to disassemble that I have no clue what it is.