Sex, Contracts, and Manners

Sex, Contracts, and Manners

In the West, at least, we are becoming massively aware of the extent of coercion and exploitation in sexual relations. However, we should also bear in mind the (no less massive) fact that millions of people on a daily basis flirt, play the game of seduction, with the clear aim to get a partner for making love. The result of the modern Western culture is that both sexes are expected to play an active role in this game. When women dress provocatively to attract a male gaze, when they “objectify” themselves to seduce them, they don’t do it offering themselves as passive objects: they are the active agents of their own “objectification,” manipulating men, playing ambiguous games, including the full right to step out of the game at any moment even if, to the male gaze, this appears in contradiction with previous “signals.” This active role of women is their freedom, which bothers so much all kind of fundamentalists—from Muslims who have recently prohibited women touching and playing with bananas and other fruit which resemble a penis to our own ordinary male chauvinist who explodes in violence against a woman who first “provokes” him and then rejects his advances. Feminine sexual liberation is not just a puritan withdrawal from being “objectivized” (as a sexual object for men) but the right to actively play with self-objectivization, offering herself and withdrawing at will. Will it be still possible to proclaim these simple facts in the near future, or will the Politically Correct pressure compel us to accompany all these games with some formal-legal proclamation (of consensuality, etc.)?

Yes, sex is traversed by power games, violent obscenities, etc., but the difficult thing to admit is that these are immanent to it. Some perspicuous observers have already noticed how the only form of sexual relation that fully meets the Politically Correct criteria would have been a contract drawn between sadomasochist partners. The rise of Political Correctness and the rise of violence are thus two sides of the same coin: insofar as the basic premise of Political Correctness is the reduction of sexuality to contractual mutual consent, Jean-Claude Milner was right to point out how the anti-harassment movement unavoidably reaches its climax in contracts which stipulate extreme forms of sadomasochist sex (treating a person like a dog on a collar, slave trading, torture, up to consented killing). In such forms of consensual slavery, the market freedom of a contract negates itself: slave trade becomes the ultimate assertion of freedom. It is as if Jacques Lacan’s motif “Kant with Sade” (Marquis de Sade’s brutal hedonism as the truth of Kant’s rigorous ethics) became reality in an unexpected way. Before we dismiss this motif as just a provocative paradox, we should reflect upon how this paradox is at work in our social reality itself.

The declared aim of proposals for sexual contracts which are popping up all around in the aftermath of the #MeToo movement, from the US and UK to Sweden, are, of course, clear: to exclude elements of violence and domination through sexual contacts. The idea is that, before doing it, both partners should sign a document stating their identity, their consent to engage in sexual intercourse, as well as the conditions and limitations of their activity (use of condom, of dirty language, the inviolable right of each partner to step back and interrupt the act at any moment, to inform his/her partner about his health (AIDS) and religion, etc.). Sounds good, but a series of problems and ambiguities arise immediately.

The right to withdraw from sexual interaction at any moment opens up new modes of violence. What if the woman, after seeing her partner naked with erect penis, begins to mock him and tells him to leave? What if the man does the same to her? Can one imagine a more humiliating situation? Clearly, one can find an appropriate way to resolve such impasses only through manners and sensitivity, which by definition cannot be legislated. If one wants to prevent violence and brutality by adding new clauses to the contract, one loses a central feature of sexual interplay which is precisely a delicate balance between what is said and what is not said.

Although I am not a fan of Sex and the City, there is an interesting point made in one of the episodes where Miranda gets involved with a guy who likes to talk dirty all the time during sex. Since she prefers to keep silent while making love, he solicits her to also say whatever dirty things pop up in her mind, with no restraint. At first, she resists, but then she also gets caught in this game, and things work well: their sex is intense and passionate, until… until she says something that really disturbs her lover, makes him totally withdraw into himself, and leads to the break of their relationship. In the middle of her babble, she mentions that she noticed how he enjoys it when, while he makes love to her, she pushes her finger into his ass. Unknowingly, she thereby touches the exception: yes, talk about anything you want, spill out all the dirty images that pop up in your head, except that. The lesson of this incident is important: even the universality of talking freely is based on some exception, not on the sense of extreme brutality. The prohibited detail is in itself a minor and rather innocent thing, and we can only guess why the guy is so sensitive about it. In all probability, the passive experience it involved (anal penetration) disturbs his masculine identification. Sexual interplay is full of such exceptions where a silent understanding and tact offer the only way to proceed when one wants things done but not explicitly spoken about, when extreme emotional brutality can be enacted in the guise of politeness, and when moderate violence itself can get sexualized.

Last but not least, should such contracts be legally binding or not? If not, what prevents brutal men just from signing it and then violating it? If yes, can one even imagine the legal nightmare its violation may involve? This does not mean that we should endorse the French letter signed by Catherine Deneuve and others, which criticizes the “excesses” of #MeToo “puritanism” and defends traditional forms of gallantry and seduction. The problem is not that #MeToo goes too far, sometimes approaching a witch hunt, and that more moderation and understanding are needed, but the way #MeToo addresses the issue. In downplaying the complexity of sexual interactions, it not only blurs the line between lewd misconduct and criminal violence but also masks invisible forms of extreme psychological violence as politeness and respect.


Ippolit Belinski

Ippolit Belinski is the admin of Zizek.uk. He is an independent scholar working on Carl Schmitt and Hannah Arendt. Belinski has yet to publish his manuscript, though he often justifies the lack of publications by proclaiming to be a poet instead.

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