The Things We Carry: Concepts of Womanhood, Explicit Autonomy, and Burdens of Consent

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Tonight I had an interesting experience.  While not entirely unexpected, it did drive home to me that there are many individuals who believe a woman has no right to refuse attention.  It calls into question a number of concepts many Americans believe are realities, but are really only tautological.  We keep telling ourselves that we are free and equal citizens.  And yet, when it comes down to a simple matter of saying “no, thank you,” to sexual advances–it becomes apparent that at least not all of us are quite so evolved.

 

The Power of Veto

I went out tonight with every intention of drinking, flirting, and dancing with strangers.  I did just that.  I will be the first to admit that I don’t fit the mold of Southern femininity. I am an aggressive, forthright woman.  I ask for what I want as clearly as I can, and make no pretenses about saying “no” to things I don’t want.  I’ve had quite enough of being polite.  Niceness is a trap for me.  If some people have their feelings hurt by my rebuff, I consider it collateral damage, but not my concern.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to be rude.  In the situation I referred to above, there was definitely some very explicit dancing involved.  I went into that club with precisely that intention.  But I also made it clear that it was just a dance, not a promise of anything more.  I looked him in the eye when the song ended and thanked him for the dance.  Then I went in search of enough water to drown a small buffalo, because hydration is important.

“I”–it happens a great deal in my writing. “I feel. I want. I am. I will. I speak. I think.”

 

Who is Asking For It?

Was I dressed in a fashion that might be revealing? No.  First, because it doesn’t please me, but there’s another reason, too.  You all know why.  Even when we’re talking about someone who is plain-spoken to the point of using words that draw blood, if that person is a woman wearing revealing clothing she, not the people who disregard her right to say “no,” is responsible should any sexual violence be done to her person.  People will ask how she was dressed, was she unchaperoned, was it late, had she been drinking?  They will justify the blatant acts of aggression against a woman based on these answers.They will turn her into a child, a pet, a thing, a whore.  All to avoid addressing the actual issue and probing into the idea that women are saddled with the burden of consent, even when they withhold it.

“Senno ecto gammat” Roughly translated from Czech, “Only with explicit permission.”

So, there I was at the club, leaning on the bar, drinking my water and sweating like a pig. The guy I’d most recently danced with had followed me to the bar and was pressuring me to have sex with him.  Now, I danced with eight other people–men and women–and none of them were the slightest bit peeved that we parted ways when the dance music changed.  We were there to have a good time.  I went hunting for simple human contact and the pleasurable exertions of dancing to good music. I was enjoying myself.

When I told this guy–let’s call him Fred, because I don’t actually think I ever got his name–thanks, but no, for the third time, and urged him to go and find another girl to have fun with, he was obviously angry at me.  Yes, there had been quite a bit of contact between us on the dance floor.  I also have the misfortune to be blessed with a talent for casting smouldering gazes at people, even when I don’t actually mean to.  But I never let him kiss me, although he kept trying.  So why did Fred say the words “You were begging for it on the dance floor.” Why did he, out of all the other people I’d danced with, think that I was “asking for it?”

In my estimation, Fred felt entitled to take liberties with my person, not because there’d been exceptional chemistry or I’d told him I liked him, wanted to see him again, whatever.  He felt entitled because he was a man and I am a woman.  Obviously, my feelings and autonomy are sublimated in the face of his desires.   That’s never washed with me.  Unless I found myself in a difficult situation where outright rebuff would end with me being sexually assaulted, I’ve never had trouble deciding what was and was not going to happen to me.

 

Aggressive Women

In this culture, aggressive women are sometimes  seen to be mannish, man-hating creatures.  There is no Latin term for a person who hates men, and I find this very telling.  The closest we come is the word misanthrope which means to hate people.  So, the only real people are men? This has a lot to do with the masculine and feminine roots of latinate words, so I won’t go into that too much.  But why, when a woman is assertive, dominant, or frankly aggressive about going after what she does want is she made somehow unnatural, unfeminine? When she denies unwanted attention, she’s cold or unwomanly–immediately subject to the entitled man’s scorn?

“Man is defined as a human being and a woman as a female — whenever she behaves as a human being she is said to imitate the male.”  ~Simone de Beauvoir

I wouldn’t keep coming back to Simone’s work if I didn’t see it still to be pertinent.  If I want to go out, drink, dance, and flirt, I have to be trying to get someone to take me home and fuck me, right?  First of all, if sex were going to be involved, I consider myself the subject, not the object of the verb.  Second, my consent is my gift to bestow upon those I deem worthy, not something to be thrown out into a crowd in the  hopes that  someone will pick it up and use it to blow their nose.  If I want to give my bed favor, I don’t play games of coy prevarication.

Oddly, this is a turn-off for most men I’ve encountered.  In some cases, my direct approach has actually led them to call me rather unkind things.  Perhaps because they want to see themselves as the Mighty Hunters, the active part of that binary.  But I’m not passive.  I can’t even pretend to be shy or wilting like some fragile blossom of femininity.  People like to assume that I’m a lesbian because I’m so often masculine in my language and posture.  But is it truly masculine?  And how does this bear on my sexuality? Yes, I like other women, but I see no reason not to like men also, if I’m so moved.  It may always be a mystery.

 

At the end of the night, I’m not really so distressed about my interaction with “Fred” for its own sake.  I had eight other fantastic dance partners, reconnected unexpectedly with someone I used to work with a long time ago, and feel roundly satisfied that I achieved my objective.  What it does cause me to question are the ideas that women are equal in the eyes of the law.  I look at my recent experiences with the opposite sex, think about the avalanche of legislation impinging upon the reproductive freedom of only women, and also the income inequality that is rampant among skilled professions in Western cultures.  I think about the cases where young women were raped into the hospital–and yet the media attaches language that casts doubt on the guilt of the culpable young males.

I put these things side by side on my conceptual dressing table, and I look at them.  Seeing them all together like that, I wonder–are we really culturally evolved to a state of equality between the sexes? Or have we simply adopted a philosophical veneer and called it good enough? Well, it’s not good enough for me, and I won’t be quiet about it. I won’t shut up and be a good little passive feminine doll.  No one would believe me, anyway.

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One thought on “The Things We Carry: Concepts of Womanhood, Explicit Autonomy, and Burdens of Consent

  1. Philosophical veneer aside (the closet junkie in me loves that choice of words by the way), this is still an issue and will continue to be an issue sadly. I have never been ‘that’ person, a Fred, for a number of reasons I don’t care to go into. My immediate reaction to your writing this week was a gut check on what I am doing as a father, about to release to one beautiful young man into a society that has some f’d up double standards at times. I hope, better yet, I pray I have done my job of instilling values in him, and my youngest who will be following him some years down the road.

    You shouldn’t be quiet about it nor should anyone else. I would expect nothing less.

    And lastly, hydration is very important. 🙂 Great post as always Erin.

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