The Personalist Project

I've heard a lot of people say, in the conversations sparked by #metoo on Facebook and Twitter, that rape, sexual assault, even harassment are ultimately about power.

But power enters into sexual dynamics long before we reach assault, doesn't it? It's there as soon as the insecure initiator starts manoeuvring, consciously or unconsciously, to get the upper hand in an encounter. It's there when the older guy pursues the younger girl who makes him feel like the worldly, experienced one. It's there when the "nice guy" decides to make a move on a friend while she is crying on his shoulder after a nasty breakup or the death of a loved one. It's definitely there when an employer invites an intern up to his hotel room to discuss her professional future, having made it obvious that he has the ability to destroy reputations or make careers at a whim. 


Years ago, skeptic and activisit Rebecca Watson talked in a short video about her experience of being made uncomfortable by a men at an atheism conference who, after listening to her talk about rape threats and harassment during a panel, followed her into an elevator to suggest (after the elevator doors closed) that she should come up to his room for coffee and talk more. 

She was surprised at the hostility this story evoked from men. How dare she assume the fellow's motives were nefarious? How dare she connect this expression of interest with things like sexual harassment and rape? 

Watson never said that she felt assaulted. She said she felt uncomfortable. She was in an elevator, with someone larger than her, with no witnesses and no way out. She was acutely aware of her own vulnerability should the man react badly to her "no." The entire manoeuvre felt predatory to her, and because she thought men might not be aware that this is how they can come across, she decided to tell the story and say, hey, don't do this. But she was excoriated up and down for making a big deal out of something small, something "just in her head."


This stuck in my mind because of how someone else--in a commentary I'm not longer able to find or remember in its entirety--explained the problem: men are often conditioned or accustomed to cornering women, physically or emotionally, before asking for more intimacy, and this is threatening to women for all the reasons Watson gave and more. Men can't necessarily stop women from worrying about rape or assault, but they can make it easier for women to say "no"--and the ability to say "no" without undue consequences is a prerequisite for a truly free "yes."

Watson's encounter was experienced as threatening because she didn't know what the consequences of her "no" might be. It's threatening not only because men are larger, or because women have so many experiences and stories of rape and assault to make us aware of our vulnerability, but also because (as Katie van Schaijik has noted before) the temptation for women in the master-slave dynamic is often to submit, to please, to manage other's emotions, to act out of "the fear of power and punishment and abandonment." 

So #metoo has me thinking about what Katie Van Schaijik calls the master-slave dynamic, and how it inserts itself into matters of sexuality. We moderns want consent to be a clear, clean line, a boundary that makes everything on this side of it OK and legitimate, and everything on that side of it illicit.

But there are times when even being asked for a "yes" or a "no" amounts to a power play. It's a power play because the consequences are unevenly balanced, because the pressure is unevenly placed. Sexual matters aside, waiting until someone is tired, drunk, sad, dependent, indebted, or lonely to push for something from them is...well, it's predatory, isn't it?

Leah Libresco used the "Elevatorgate" example a couple of years ago to argue that, in order for consent to be as free as possible, it is incumbent that we reduce the risks of saying "yes" and the costs of saying "no," especially in relationships and systems that tend towards a power imbalance. 

Specifically, when it comes to romantic and sexual overtures, men must learn to pick up their share of the emotional work. Don't merely settle for being someone who accepts "no" non-retributively. Be someone who provides an easy "out" for others, who looks for ways to let everyone save face. 

The conference attendee could have introduced himself to Ms. Watson in the lobby, with others around, and asked her to join him for a coffee in the hotel bar. The risks of saying yes are lower for coffee in a public place than they would be for a private tete-a-tete in a stranger's hotel room. The cost of saying no are similarly lower in a lobby with multiple exits and people around.

(To be continued)

Image via Pixabay

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Comments (4)

Paul Rodden

#1, Oct 20, 2017 7:40am

I have always been sensitive, so found it constantly hard to relate to men in general as they seem so crass. I do wonder how much it is learned behaviour and peer pressure as when I read things like this I simply can't relate to them, although I know so many men do behave this way. Personally, I can't stand being in all men groups because I also feel that sense of 'macho' power play. To me, it seems based in a sense of desperate insecurity, not strength. A need to prove something about their sense of inadequacy to each other, expressed in domination, which is why it is so dangerous, it seems to me. It does not seem to be based in sound interiority, but exterior rewards, doing things not because they are good, but because they give rewards/kudos within the group.

The men they look up to - the pack leaders - as well as the women they use to improve their standing within the pack, are highly objectified.

I think biology is often used as a reason to justify and excuse, rather than it being the result of 'natural drives'.

To me, it seems childish, playground behaviour, and so immature, but it's just a subjective view...

Kate Whittaker Cousino

#2, Oct 20, 2017 8:43am

Paul, I absolutely agree that, in my view, both parts of this dynamic--dominance and slavish submission--stem from insecurity. The secure person--man or woman--does not need to manipulate or manoeuvre into a position of power, or sacrifice their will and judgment to another, within relationship because he or she is confident of his or her value and able to be concerned with the other person's subjectivity as well as their own.

I think it can be especially difficult for men to escape the dominance trap if they have been socialized into it because they have perhaps fewer learned tools for navigating interpersonal relationships. They are less accustomed to doing "the emotional work" (google the phrase, fascinating stuff) of maintaining intimacy. But obviously many men, such as yourself, learn different ways of relating, and we can hope cultural transformation can result from those individual movements away from the master-slave dynamic.

Katie van Schaijik

#3, Oct 20, 2017 9:29am

I love the men in my "healthy boundaries" support group. I love them for their willingness to be vulnerable, their openness to "feeling their feelings", and their quietly, patiently listening to the women who so often come across as scattershot and rambling in their sharing.

It's given me fresh respect for the gift of masculinity.

Paul Rodden

#4, Oct 20, 2017 11:20am

Thank you both for your comments. They are both appreciated and encouraging.

I also like the idea of the 'healthy boundaries' support group, Katie.

Thank you, again.

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