19 January 2018

What's so urgent about sex?

Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet (Paramount 1968) Seeing this film is the only high school field trip I still remember! Source.
Heterosexual men who can't or won't hear "no" are back in the news, along with women's time-honored tactics to ward them off. As unlikely as it is that anything I say would be read by any man who needs enlightenment -- and at the risk of being accused of virtue signalling -- I'm going to persist in asking my questions, and I'm going to begin by paying tribute to my late friend Betsy Moen. During a Right Sharing of World Resources study tour in Jamaica about thirty years ago, she addressed the then-current fashion of focusing on women as the "targets" of economic development. As I recalled in an earlier post,
While there, Betsy gave a talk at a seminar organized by Geoff Brown at the University of the West Indies, and the next day she summarized her talk on a Jamaican Broadcasting morning television interview show.

Her talk was entitled, "Why Target Women?" She explained why women were "targeted" in much contemporary economic development work—resources devoted to women were far more likely to benefit the whole family, according to credible research, whereas men tended to spend additional resources on themselves.

However, after describing the efficacy of targeting women in development work, Betsy asked a powerful question: what are the assumptions and consequences of this strategy for men? Are men just a problem to be bypassed, or are they themselves worthy of attention? Clearly, the old development methods of transferring more money and power to men don't work, but is neglect the only other option? Have we assumed that men cannot be educated to be responsible fathers, productive economic partners, collaborative leaders?
In the specific area of sexual boundary violations, men are perpetrators far more often than women, so why target women as the ones responsible for fixing the situation?

In targeting men, we'll have to work at several levels. The most frustrating and intractable cases, involving men who seem undeterred by fear of consequences, might need to be worked primarily at the systems level. Sex addicts, for example, are just as destructive and self-destructive as other addicts, meaning that persuasion won't work and fear-based disincentives probably won't work either. For their own protection and the protection of others, they need to hit a brick wall, and then be directed into treatment, while we also help victims heal in every possible way, including the poison of shame.

For those men who still believe or take advantage of the ancient double standards, but who aren't total sociopaths, maybe persuasion and education have a better chance...? I hope it's starting to dawn on these operators that they can't count on social impunity anymore. For them, fear of a devastating exposure might work. As I argued a couple of years ago,
Not every accusation will emerge from a 100% clear-cut predator/victim encounter. My point is that sexually aggressive people are now living in a far riskier world, and they have to face the question of whether their preferred lifestyle and image are really worth it.
As we survey the wreckage left by boundary-violators and the huge outpourings of outrage and counter-reaction greeting every new celebrity scandal and every new debate about "consent," there's something I just don't understand, and this may reveal what a sheltered life I've led. The mystery: why does it seem so important to have sex with someone before you know that person well enough to understand their boundaries? I ask this because every discussion of determining what constitutes "consent" seems to presuppose that having sex is so urgent that those boundaries ought to be measured and crossed (with whatever form of consent the pundits finally agree on) as soon as possible!!!

I get that, in a new relationship, either partner may be simultaneously attracted and a bit ambivalent, hopeful and fearful in practically equal measures. When you assume a truncated timespan, it's understandable that signals may not be all that clear! Some of the more measured recent discussions of consent seem to grant this, while still somehow assuming that the ultimate and obvious goal is sex that very night.

(That tired old male defense, "she was just a tease," precisely exposes a predatory mentality that puts gratification before understanding. Honest flirtation can certainly include teasing, but subsequent resistance of any kind should tell the one being teased that something dangerous is going on.)

But, seriously, aren't there many delightful ways of expanding each one's knowledge of the other before sexual boundaries are crossed? Isn't that exploration a joy? And isn't the willingness to show restraint in itself a gift to the other? How do we begin to challenge the presumption of urgency and raise up a positive, even erotic role for restraint?

George Fox University's tagline is "be known." (The university's Web site makes the very relevant point that, among other things, "to be known is to be heard.") Maybe the King James Bible translators gave us a precious insight when they translated "to have sex with" as "to know." I don't want to hide behind a fake piety here -- we understand that not every episode of "knowing" in the Bible was sweet and romantic. But as we try to understand what "targeting" men means, maybe we can teach this insight:
  • I want to know you. I want to know you as much as any one person can know another. In fact, I believe that, knowing you this deeply, I can trust you, not just allowing you beyond my most intimate boundaries but entrusting you with my life.
  • I want to be known by you. I want to reveal to you how I came to be who I am. I want to offer you joy and comfort, not bitter memories. As the Song of Songs reveals, sex is very much part of this knowing, but by far not all.
Not every sexual encounter will match this level of knowing, but every sexual encounter obtained by lying about our good intentions will certainly end in pain. The more lying and coercion, the more pain. I may indeed have lived a sheltered life, but honestly, this shelter (based on a biblical appreciation of sex as "knowing") is available to everyone, and seems a lot nicer in the long run than the world's urgent and chaotic addictions.

Some of the articles I read these past few days that led to these meditations are the following:

Elizabeth Bruenig, "The Aziz Ansari debacle proves it's time for a new sexual revolution." Related: Caitlin Flanagan: "The humiliation of Aziz Ansari."

Andi Zeisler, a thread on Twitter.

Morgan Guyton, "How can we talk forgiveness in the age of #MeToo?"
For evangelicals, Jesus’ penal substitution is the same thing as Donald Trump’s pardon pen. It erases all culpability, all accountability, all responsibility for processing, growth, reparation, and reconciliation. This is because evangelical atonement is “objective,” not “subjective.” It’s about satisfying God’s wrath against sin, not about giving a Christian believer the courage to face the evil he’s done with integrity.
Ann Voskamp: "The Church's Weinstein Moment: nailing some theses for assault to the door of the Church."

Peg Conway, "Shades of grey: toward real-life Christian sexual ethics."

Addicted to crisis?: when we gather together in times of crisis, let's remember who we are.

Edward Snowden talks to Daniel Ellsberg.

Perpetual War Watch: William Hartung says that 2018 looks like an arms bonanza.

James Harman medley -- another video from his partnership with Junior Watson and Esben Just.


Scholastica said...

Amen. When I watch t.v. or movies I'm puzzled at the amount of sex in the absence of a committed relationship. Where/when/how did this get to be a "thing"? Reading your essay made me wonder how many of the men and women who engage in this behavior are afraid of or incapable of emotional intimacy?

Johan Maurer said...

Thanks, Scholastica. Granted I hang out with what some might consider a tame crowd (Quakers), but they seem pretty happy to me!

I'm sure that being afraid of or incapable of emotional intimacy is a real phenomenon. But I'd love the church (and anyone else for that matter) to think about this: is it possible to teach or model or advocate genuine intimacy among young people who have never seen it before? Back when people read books, Judy Blume and Cynthia Voigt would be among those I'd point to. In today's popular culture, maybe this theme's novelty value would attract attention.