Sex, Power, Perspective

In Boston, I barely went outside. There were these skybridges connecting the hotel to the mall to the convention center, and I can't count the number of times we walked through it. On one of our first passes (kind of late in the evening), Jen and I stumbled into what we affectionately referred to the rest of the trip as "the rape escalator" which is in this sort of narrowing hallway where all of the lights suddenly seemed to be out, and though we hadn't seen anyone in the tunnel behind us, these men appeared out of nowhere and stood  too close to us on the way down, and Jen and I laughed and laughed because that's the kind of women we are. But later, when we'd had more sleep, we talked about why the presence of men in slightly dimmer lighting is threatening and whether men like this perceive their ability to cause fear, whether moving so close is an act of stupidity or an act of domination. A few weeks ago, one of my students was explaining her vision for the kind of honest, informative sex education talks she'd like to have with her daughter someday. They hinged on the necessity of teaching her daughter about "not disrespecting her body," and offered one of the metaphors she had found inspiring: purity is like a rose, and every time you let a boy touch you a petal falls off (I may be paraphrasing, the original likely lacked the acerbic tone). A few minutes later, another student made a joke about lust. Lust is what happens after you buy a girl dinner.

And the last night in Boston, there was a conversation about how we as mothers will have to come to terms with our children's sexuality at some point. Much of it revolved around discouraging sex, which obviously, in the teen years, I get, though my kids are still young enough that this is largely an intellectual exercise for me. Still, even in this group of smart, strong women there was a tendency to frame sex as something done to women. Something violating, something damaging. The "what if someone wanted to do that to your sister" school of educating boys. My friends tell me I would feel differently if I had daughters instead of sons.

All this to say that I've been thinking about rape culture. And I've been thinking about it both in my work and, stepping back a bit, considering how it informs my work. I think it's an interesting dynamic, to be both intellectually aware of the dangers of invalidating a woman's consent and yet enculturated to the point that the handsome Turk scene from Downton Abbey is undeniably hot.

Because of course it is, and it is because we've been brought up on the fantasy of the (attractive) man who is demanding and even physically overpowering (but in a gentle way). In the real world, it's not so much sexy as it is assault. And yet the fantasy is pervasive, and I think in part because if a woman's consent is shameful and damaging to her self-worth and certainly to the commodity that she still very much is, then she needs someone to carry the burden of it for her.

It just seems very sad, and terribly, terribly dangerous.