Sex, Contracts, and Manners

Sex, Contracts, and Manners Sex, Contracts, and Manners
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.

In replying to insistence on a difference between Weinstein and Louis CK, #MeToo activists claimed that those who say this have no idea about how male violence works and is experienced, and that masturbation in front of women can be experienced as no less violent than a physical imposition. Although there is a moment of truth in these claims, one should nonetheless pose a clear limit to the logic that sustains this argumentation: what one feels cannot be the ultimate measure of authenticity since feelings can also lie. If we deny this, we simply deny the Freudian unconscious. In a truly effective patriarchal domination, a woman doesn’t even experience her role as that of a humiliated and exploited victim; she simply accepts her submission as part of the order of things.

One should also bear in mind that patriarchal domination corrupts both of its poles, inclusive of its victims, or, to quote Arthur Koestler: “If power corrupts, the reverse is also true; persecution corrupts the victims, though perhaps in subtler and more tragic ways.” Consequently, one should also talk about feminine manipulation and emotional brutality. Ultimately, as a desperate reply to male domination, women fight back any way they can. And one should admit that in many parts of our society where traditional patriarchy is to a large extent undermined, men are under no less pressure, so the proper strategy should be to address also male anxieties and to strive for a pact between women’s struggle for emancipation and male concerns. Male violence against women is to a large extent a panicky reaction to the fact that their traditional authority is undermined, and part of the struggle for emancipation should be to demonstrate to men how accepting emancipated women will release them from their anxieties and enable them to lead more satisfied lives.

The main problem with contractual sex is not only its legal form but also its hidden bias: a contract obviously privileges casual sex where partners don’t yet know each other and want to avoid misunderstandings about their one-night stand. One needs to extend attention also to the long-term relationship permeated with forms of violence and domination in subtler ways than the spectacular Weinstein-style enforced sex.

Ultimately, no laws and contracts help here – only a revolution in mores. But why talk about politeness and manners today when we are facing what appear to be much more pressing “real” problems? In doing so, do we not regress to the level of de Quincey’s famous quip about the simple art of murder: “How many people began with unleashing terror and economic catastrophes, and ended up with behaving badly at a party?” But manners DO matter. In tense situations, they are a matter of life and death, a thin line that separates barbarism from civilization.

There is one surprising fact about the latest outbursts of public vulgarities that deserves to be noted. Back in the 1960s, occasional vulgarities were associated with the political Left: student revolutionaries often used common language to emphasize their contrast to official politics with its polished jargon. Today, vulgar language is an almost exclusive prerogative of the radical Right, so that the Left finds itself in a surprising position of the defender of decency and public manners. Politeness (manners, gallantry) is more than just obeying external legality and less than pure moral activity. It is the ambiguously imprecise domain of what one is not strictly obliged to do (if one doesn’t do it, one doesn’t break any laws), but what one is nonetheless expected to do. We are dealing here with implicit unspoken regulations, with questions of tact, with something towards which subjects have as a rule a non-reflected relationship, something that is part of our spontaneous sensitivity, a thick texture of customs and expectations woven into our inherited substance of mores. Therein resides the self-destructive deadlock of Political Correctness: it tries to explicitly formulate, legalize even, the stuff of manners.

[Appeared in The Philosophical Salon on January 22nd 2018.]