In the fallout from the alt-lit meltdown, I've been thinking a lot about misogyny and manipulation and consent. I've been thinking about communication and boundaries and agency, and I'll be honest when I say that I read some accounts and came away confused. I called a friend and said, "you have to read this essay I just read because I don't know what I think." Clearly there were power-imbalances being exploited. Clearly, there was the rampant disrespect of women and their choices, and their ability to make choices, and the predation of women both extraordinarily young and intoxicated is horrifying.
These were not, unfortunately, the only problems I saw. And I want to pause for a second to warn you that I'm going to say things that are critical of the girls' behavior, and that's going to sound like victim-blaming, which is in no way my intent. I think those girls were behaving in exactly the ways we have empowered them to behave, which is not fucking at all. We have not empowered them at all.
There is a problem, a serious problem, when girls--and I'm going to keep calling them girls because, god, they were so fucking young--when girls feel that they need an excuse to not have sex with someone, and that furthermore, that excuse must in no way offend anyone else in the room, or make any man feel that he is not, as a rule, infinitely fuckable. That's problem number one.
There is a problem when girls think it's okay to allow seemingly nice men to just do shit for them. Girls, we say, men (especially older men) just like doing shit for you. The reality is that it is always, always, always part of an exchange. Sometimes, the currency is as simple as sitting on the next bar stool looking pretty and acting relatively sweet. Something, though, is being bought. And I'll go on record as saying that I have no problem with these transactions so long as we're all on the up and up. As a culture, though, we've trained girls to not see anything weird about guys just doing things for them. (Pretty girls, I should say. Just the pretty girls.) It's like signing a contract without ever negotiating terms. I should say, that I in no way believe anything is owed in exchange for the meal or the drink or the place to stay, but a currency has been exchanged which amplifies whatever power imbalance is already at play.
And maybe the problem ultimately is with the whole idea of consent. I mean I liked it, personally, enthusiastic consent. It sounds pretty good. But the definition of consent is "permission," which still leaves girls serving as the gatekeepers, and that is a fucking problem. It just is. And yes, I know that we want consent from both parties, but in practice, in the culture we've built, this is how it plays out: the men are responsible for asking, and the girls are responsible for saying yes.
What I do like is the concept of agency. That we have a right to our own desires. That we have a right not to have desire. That we should be able to honestly express where we're at on that range at any given moment from
A) I have absolutely no intention of having sex with you.
C) I would like to have sex with you right now, and these are the ways I would like to try first.
I also think we should speak openly about the fact that there's a middle ground.
B) I'm not sure how I feel about having sex with you, but I'm willing to be convinced.
That's a real thing to feel, and I think we should be willing to communicate that. But until we can state that openly, every deflecting excuse we throw out--I'm really tired. Maybe tomorrow. What if your room-mate comes home? Every single one of them is going to sound like B.
So while I have conversations with my sons about consent, what it looks like and what it doesn't, I'm going to make an effort to move toward discussions of agency, which I think is more complicated but also more true. Agency is about recognizing people as individuals with different desires and the capacity to make their own choices. Consent is something you get. Agency is something you have, and something that, in others, you have an obligation to respect.