Sex, Lives and Media-fate
What is a thinking person to make of the new landscape of sexual consent?
Since October 26, when Jian Ghomeshi left the CBC under a cloud of uncertain meaning, things have moved very fast indeed. On Parliament Hill, two NDP women have brought messages to the Liberal leader about two of his MPs and he has suspended said MPs, who are men; sexual misconduct of some description is alleged. And in the USA, Bill Cosby, Mr. funny old oddball family wise-man, is under intense scrutiny – without criminal charges pending – for forcing sex on unwilling women, perhaps using drugs to help him get what he demanded.
Ghomeshi will go to court on four charges of violence against women for sexual purposes. His appearance at the Toronto courthouse has been described as a media circus, a gong show, and a feeding frenzy. I do not care that he is a “high-profile individual”. I do care about the issues.
I am 63 years of age. I have a retentive memory, I love to observe the culture through the lens of our media, entertainments, authors, poets, musicians and social commentary in all shapes and sizes. I have watched the unfolding of the story of men and women, their relationships, the imbalance of power between male and female, cultural “typing” of gender or sex, and the tortuous course of the Women’s Liberation Movement and the Sexual Revolution. I am not exactly obsessed by the topics, but I have to say – full disclosure – when the subject of sex comes up in a serious, non-scandal, non-celebrity, fashion, it grabs my full attention.
In the 1950’s, I was instructed by elementary school health textbooks about the differences between boys and girls. Boys are less emotional, more physically active, less talkative, less careful about other people’s feelings, more likely to hide their own feelings. Girls are, well, the opposite of those things I listed about boys. Boys do, girls are. Nature made us this way.
I got bent by those lessons. Not irrevocably, but unmistakably. Then came the Third Wave of Feminism. (Wave One, 1790 to 1850; Two, suffragism, 1910 – 1950) And I am so thankful it did, because it also helped ease in The Sexual Revolution of the 1960’s and ‘70’s. Not only did women demand liberation, equality, rights. They spoke up for their own sexual desire. Strong libidinous appetites lurk inside the female too!! Women like it! Men did not have to see themselves as the initiating gender, the pursuing, lust-driven gender, any longer.
Great news. Equality for women in sexual activity meant more sex for everybody, I believed. I think that is still true, in the secular, wealthy, bourgeois, educated, democratic West. It is OK to say yes to sex just for the pleasure in it, no moral judgment made differently for the male or the female of the species for that. Marriages would never be the same after this, nor any other sexual relationship between two people. It was not license to commit “adultery” – as some conservatives still believe is the case since women were outed as sexual beings. Betrayal of trust has not undergone change in its markers. But, open marriage and swinging and swapping and polyamory and non-heterosexual sex all came into full light of the culture after this. Women have successfully fought the attitude that they must be more chaste than men.
What is not to like about the new sexual norms?
One of the wonderful effects of women claiming their sexual power and appetite in a public way, is the end of the ‘Man-the-Predator’ stereotype. Women can be predatory in sex too. It is a tenet of sex-positive feminism that pornography can be fun for women too, that female prostitution is not always female victimization, and women are emphatically not cast by Nature in the role of ‘The Gatekeeper’ of sex. Women are not always ultimately the gender that gives the green light or the red light to decide when sex happens. Men too might say no…
Some men have fought back against female empowerment. I am not blind to that painful fact. Male chauvinism is alive, and vigorous. There are men who will never accept that women should be equal in power. Religion with a patriarchal bent upholds male chauvinism, and can hold the minds of women in thrall to its prohibition of female equality.
Sexual activity and public presentation of it is one area where male supremacists have tried to push back against women’s empowerment. Atrocious pornography whose only purpose is to degrade the female grew alongside the movement to make female-friendly porn. I am quite alive to the fact of human trafficking – slavery, to call it by a truthful name – for the purpose of prostitution; it is global in scope. The fact that impoverished women from third-world and ex-Soviet lands, from exploitative political, religious, and/or economic systems, may “willingly” sell themselves into sexual servitude in the rich West for a chance to escape their homelands, does not mitigate the horror of enforced prostitution and the new slave trade.
The Canadian scene: do we want more Law to govern sexual behaviours?
If you can, reader, put aside what I just wrote about global situations in women’s oppression.
Let us look only at Canada and the topic I outlined in my first paragraphs: sexual activity and the consent of both participants in a sexual act. Are we retrogressing to the perspective that women are the gatekeepers of sex? If there is to be a sex act, or not, it will be the female who makes the final decision: is this what “explicit consent” will come to mean in law and in the culture?
I so ardently hope that is not the direction our culture is headed due to the recent events involving Jian G. and the MPs in Ottawa.
One should probably only speak of one’s personal experience rather than generalize about how humans behave in their intimate moments with another human. So I will say that I personally have often gone through a sexual experience, from first eye contact, touch, kiss, stroke, getting naked, doing, completing, sharing a cigarette – you get it – without either of us being exquisitely clear that there were a series of moments when YES was explicit. That is just not how sexual liaisons have evolved, in my personal experience. I could say it is true of many of us, from the evidence of conversation with friends, from fictional representations in film and literature, and from serious study of sexual behavior. But I will stop at my experience.
I do not expect that law will be written to regulate people in their intimate moments. I know that college campuses indeed have such Codes for men and women, but college is not society at large. I would not want law, the courts, the police, and legislators to take on this task. I want some freedom left for human intelligence, sensitivity, and love, to regulate how we treat one another. Each relationship of two people is unique. Law is too grossly clumsy to regulate this.
I will accept that culture can offer unwritten codes of moral behavior in matters of sexual activity. I am free to reject cultural norms there as in any other sphere not enforced by law, and I will take the cultural and social consequences. (Which, by all the evidence on the internet, in social media, celebrity culture, gossip etc. are weighty consequences indeed).
But I am adamant, uncompromising, dogmatic in this – I do not want a society where The Law is at hand after each sexual act. Imagine: every time one person who participated in a sexual act with one other, feeling that the act was “wrong” in retrospect, regretting their choice and its consequence, can go to The Law to prosecute the other.
NO. No no no no. For the sake of humanity, leave some areas of your life not under the shadow of The State. The State is already entirely too invasive, and it is getting worse. Do not invite it into our intimate lives.
Nelson Political Earthquake? Or “La la la la, Life Goes On”?
Nelson has a new mayor, and she is the first woman to hold this chair in our history. Nelson has four new councilors, a majority, and three of the six now are women. Is this a sea change for Nelson? Oh blah dee, oh blah dah. Nope. Business as usual, I think it is fair to say.
Do you know, dear reader, that your scribe in this column was himself a candidate in the election, and came in last in the field of 12 councillor candidates? Maybe you should dismiss the next commentary as sour grapes from a six-time loser.
A majority of women on city council promises nothing in particular. There were four women on the last council. No radical changes were wrought in their term. Three of the women who might well have been re-elected chose not to run again. Why? Only they know.
It is my perspective that political change was minimal during their term, despite the hope and promise of a new dawn in 2011. The green, feminist councilors did not deliver radical change.
Mayor Kozak said enough when she declared she is a staunch Centrist. The political Centre is middle of the road, the path for normal ideas of what will be the future based on what has been our recent past: development, growth, capitalist economics, the rich, the middle, and the poor.
Ho hum. Humdrum. I enjoyed my role as a candidate saying ‘No’, the future will be quite unlike what you think is normal. It is time to stop growth. It is time to ready Nelson for the post-capitalist economy. It is time to think of climate change as more than inconvenient weather and catastrophe in other people’s homes – floods, droughts, wildfires, tornadoes, hurricanes, torrential rains, lethal blizzards, crop failures. Climate change changes everything, as Naomi Klein titled her book. (This changes everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate.)
And do not ignore class warfare… since the 1980’s, the rich got richer, until 1% own most everything; 85 people in the world have a combined “personal worth” exceeding the worth of the bottom half of humanity. This fact has burned across Facebook and is trumpeted in Klein’s book. I enjoyed reciting this fact for audiences at all-candidates meetings during the election. One forum was for social issues: poverty, addiction, affordable housing. I asked the crowd:
“Bring that fact from global society – the rich / poor divide, the 85 and the 3.5 billion — home to Nelson and ask how it looks here, how it is felt in our context. It looks like million-dollar homes in our town and more homeless people on our streets. What will city hall government do about this?” I had ideas. Few liked them. I owned the label ‘socialist’. No one liked that.
The lesson in my defeat is, Nelson voters do not want to hear what I had to say, at council.
My fraction of the vote in 2011 was 25% in an election where around 2,000 voters came to the polls. This time, 4,000 voters came out, and I garnered 10%. My unpopularity is manifest.
“Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose” (J-B. A. Karr, 1849)
Nelson is fond of its own image. Nelsonites of a certain class love the notion that this town is special, unique in consciousness, protected by benevolent spirits. Yet despite the hype, this town can be held up as a paradigm of the West and its fear of the future. Who wants to think that the good lives we have had, since the West came to rule the globe after about the year 1850, might be less good in future? It is easier to be Stephen Harper or Christy Clark, offering vistas of normalcy and business as usual, than to be Naomi Klein, or Charles Jeanes.
Klein, and my favourite author on the subject of future society, Charles Eisenstein, are sure that the next world, the next economy, the next politics, will solve the ills of capitalist society.
I read many perspectives on how things will, indeed must, alter in our systems, and thereby transform the world. “The more beautiful world our hearts tell us is possible,” is how Eisenstein sums up his imagined new world order. His erudition is immense, his grasp of physics, ecology, biology, economics and politics, seems extensive and profound. He is wise enough not to offer a blueprint for the new order, as Marxian socialists often attempted to do.
Eisenstein is uplifting in his optimism and his spirituality. He believes in us. He has sketched what he calls “the sacred economy, the economy of The Gift.” He will not draw a blueprint. So he finds himself often at the point of not telling how we get from here, with all our crises, to there, when the more beautiful world unfolds. He tries to inspire hope. Fear holds us to what we know. I find I am wondering if it is best to be ambiguous about what comes next for us.
Conclusions: fear and planning, and a “new narrative” for humanity
My observations of human fear about the unknown, and our attachment to what we know, do not lead me to optimism. It seems to me, for every one who opposes development economics and growth – protestors against Kinder Morgan, against the tar sands, against fracking – there is at least one who says, “So what will I do for a job if you stop the projects going forward?”
Socialism failed, with all the blueprints it had for the future. Soviet Russia and its planned economy, the doctrine of state ownership, popular belief in scientific materialism, crashed. There are few who mourn socialism, since it failed so spectacularly. Yet we are now suffering from a lack of trust in the future because no one can describe it with a programme as socialism did. My electoral experience tends to lead me to this conclusion: people want reassurance that there are solutions, we know what they are, and government can implement them.
Eisenstein asserts that the old narrative of control and management of nature is dying. He might be correct. But no one has a narrative that we believe in so fervently as that old one. A narrative of humanity at the mercy of forces we do not understand is my personal choice. It doesn’t inspire hope.
Charles Jeanes is a Nelson-based writer. The last edition of this column can be found here.