Friday, November 4, 2016

Teach the Children

When I was in junior high school, one of the group assignments we were given was to create our own version of the 6 o'clock news. For our team, I had the weather report (I remember working in a marijuana joke) and the closing editorial. My editorial, was something of a rant, because it was about something that actually bothered me - the habit of adults to think that as children, we were too stupid to understand the difference between television and reality. When I read "7 Reasons So Many Guys Don’t Understand Sexual Consent," it was like I was 12 again.

As a high-school student in the 1980s, I could have told you that each of the points that "David Wong" brought up were bogus. It's not like anything that he said is new. Just like the idea that, broadly speaking, media that "the Left," takes exception to is treated as some form of insidious mind control isn't new. That said, he does hit on something real in the piece:

If you're wondering, no, I've never in my life groped a woman who didn't grope me first. This is not because I was a gentleman who cared about consent. If you'd cornered me in high school and asked me why I hadn't just grabbed a girl at a party and made her kiss me, I'd have said it was because I wasn't cool enough, or hot enough. "I'd have to lose weight and make the football team to do something like that!" See, I was told that the ones who held back until they had permission were the pussies, the cowards, the nerds.
For the record, if you'd cornered me in high school and asked why I hadn't just grabbed a girl at a party and made her kiss me, I suspect I would have told you that a kiss wasn't worth being beaten up, thrown out of school or going to jail for. I knew, by the time I was in high school, that sexual contact with a person without their consent was a crime. In the same junior high school where I'd pontificated about being treated like idiots by adults, a rumor had gone around that a boy had cornered a girl behind the building one day after school and "felt her up," as we called it back then. It was a scandal. It also turned out to be a good reason to beat up unpopular boys - I think at least two were pummeled on suspicion of being the perpetrator.

Mr. "Wong," in another article, tells us that he grew up in a small town in one of the deep Red counties in Downstate Illinois. I, on the other hand, grew up Upstate, in a kind-of-blue distant suburb of Chicago. And I suspect that a lot of the difference can be chalked up to that. He describes the 25th Anniversary Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, the one with Kathy Ireland on the cover, as "the first porn magazine [he] ever owned." Where I came from, if you'd described the Swimsuit Issue as "pornography" and weren't a feminist, people would have told you to go back to Wheaton*. And while sure, I'd heard the Swimsuit Issue described as pornographic when I was in school, I went to a Roman Catholic high school - and as far as the Benedictines were concerned, a model in a tube top, miniskirt and heels lounging on a Mustang counted as pornography.

Of the "7 Reasons," five of them were attitudes that we associated with people who were, to be blunt about it, backwards. And that included large swaths of Downstate, whom we tended to regard as unsophisticated hayseeds. Not that we saw ourselves as urbane and cosmopolitan; we understood that we lived in what people in Chicago termed the boonies. (Yes, I grew up a Black kid in the boondocks.) But at least were weren't living The Waltons or something.

Reason #3, "Sexual Assault = Guy In An Alley With A Knife" was sort of a given for most people, I think, although I'd stumbled into a book with sections of the New York State legal code in it as a young teenager, and had come to understand that Rape, at least as a legal matter, wasn't about force or violence, but about consent and age. And while I wasn't a sharp legal mind, I presumed that "consent" was more or less what we'd always thought it was, agreeing to do something. That understanding, interestingly, got me into a lot of trouble, when, as a young college student, I insisted on a pedantically literal interpretation of "violence," and so made a stand on the idea that sexual assault was not inherently violent, since a lack of consent did not require or necessarily imply, violence. (Yes, I eventually learned to find better hills to die on.)

And reason #2, "All Sex Outside Of (Heterosexual) Marriage Is Wrong" was a basic assumption of most Christian denominations that I was familiar with, and being nominally Roman Catholic myself, and attending a Catholic high school, I was well versed in it. But when I read this:
Remember when people implied it was hypocritical for Jennifer Lawrence to complain about stolen nude photos while also posing nude for a magazine? Same deal -- if you grew up hearing that all naked photos are sinful, what difference does it make if the woman consented to the sin?
I was surprised. Where I came from, there was the idea of compounding a sin. Sure, naked photos - or photos of women in tube tops, miniskirts and heels lounging on Mustangs - were sinful, but you could always do worse - and forcing the woman into it or stealing the photos counted as doing worse. Confession didn't allow you to lump multiple wrongs into a single sin. Sure lust was a sin, and letting that lust lead you to premarital sex was also a sin. But forcing a woman into sex was worse. Maybe the idea that you could work your way out of Hell stood in the way of deciding that if you were going to sin, you may as well go big or go home.

But I started this off with the idea that a big chunk of the article seemed like blaming "the media" where it wasn't warranted, and so let me go back to that. The piece makes a big deal of the bad acts of Harrison ford roles in various movies. And this was the sort of thing that wound me up when I was twelve. The fact that Harrison Ford's characters in the movies were always putting the moves on women who would rather be dipped in boiling oil but suddenly came around was never understood to be the way things actually worked - Han Solo, Rick Deckard and Indiana Jones were fictional characters - and "Forcing Yourself On Women Makes Them Love You" was something that only happened in fiction - which is why it worked for them, but everyone else went to jail for it. You could have asked any of my friends, and I suspect that they would have told you that. Not because we were somehow uniquely inured to media blandishments, but for all that the adults around us seemed to think that we'd do anything we saw on television, doing something stupid, or criminal, because you saw someone on television do it was generally seen as the mark of a moron. Adults may not have thought us capable, but the expectation was there, and by the time most of us were in seventh grade, we'd internalized it.

And I think that's the thing that's missing from this piece. Mr. "Wong," at no point, mentions the role of parents, peers and community in all this. The idea that "Everything Women Do Is Intended To Stoke Male Hunger," for example, isn't something that children learn from the media. It's something that they learn from the people around them on a day-to-day basis. Their fathers, brothers, friends and neighbors. And maybe even their mothers and sisters. Where I grew up, we didn't see the Swimsuit Issue as pornography, because the idea that the only reason a woman would wear a skimpy bathing suit was to entice men wasn't a thing for us. The difference between Sports Illustrated and Playboy was that inside a Playboy, the women didn't wear any clothes at all. Anybody could have told you that. If you can't see the name of the publication, but one talks about nude Vegas showgirls, it's a pretty safe bet which is the porn.

People who have difficulty with the idea of consent are not, I suspect, evenly distributed throughout the population. Because I don't suspect that wonky ideas like "Asking Permission Is A Sign Of Weakness" or the things that happen in movies are a good model for real life are evenly distributed throughout the population. My father wasn't the most feminist guy you'd ever meet - not by a long shot. But while I never picked up his habit of referring to women as "broads," I did pick up on the understanding that if he ever caught me mistreating a woman, I'd have to answer to him for it - and it wouldn't go well for me. And I can't think of a single person I knew when I was growing up who openly bought into the anti-consent mindset set forth in the Cracked article. I suspect that there must have been some - after all, it was rumored that a boy had cornered a girl and groped her behind the junior high school. But there was another story, and as it came out of the public high school, I wasn't around when was supposed to have happened either, and it went something like this: Jock accosts girl in the hallway, and won't take "no" for an answer. Girl, being a soccer player (just about everybody whose parents could afford it played soccer) steps back, tees off, and boots him between the legs. Hard enough, allegedly, that she ruptured his scrotum. Everyone agreed that he had it coming. True story? I have no idea. But the fact that the overwhelming consensus was that he was asking for it says to me that our problems with consent weren't due to society. After all, we'd seen Harrison Ford movies, too.

*Wheaton being Wheaton, Illinois - where Billy Graham went to college. Wheaton College's reputation for being scarily fundamentalist was applied the the entire town.

No comments: