What to do if you can’t tell the difference between sexual harassment and sexual liberation

Crossposted at Of Means and Ends.

1) Stop publishing articles about feminism.

2) Stop talking to women, just to be safe.

Guardian writer David Foster has faced a fierce and well-deserved backlash to an inane article blaming feminists for stifling sexual liberation by calling out sexism.

The campaign against everyday sexism has shown that a deeply unpleasant vein of misogyny still runs through our society. But in highlighting the antisocial, misguided behaviour of some unreconstructed individuals, it is important to be aware that such behaviour is not representative of most men’s attitudes. More worryingly, from the perspective of a progressive sexual politics there is a danger that the campaign is promulgating a view that any direct sexual advance is tantamount to harassment. If directly propositioning somebody for sex is automatically condemned as misogynist, as the campaign appears to assert, then the movement risks being highly counterproductive to the feminist cause and playing into the hands of the sexually repressive, patriarchal ideology that feminism strives to counter.

Foster is taking a tired argument about uptight feminist killjoys who don’t “let men be men” and giving it a faux-feminist anti-capitalist sheen.

Sexual pleasure pursued purely for its own sake runs counter to what Freud called the “reality principle” and social philosopher Herbert Marcuse later adapted as the “performance principle” – ie the restraints placed on us by the demands of civilised society, whereby sexual gratification has to be earned through social “performance”. Such performance is manifested through some or all those things – money, social status, property, marriage, procreation – that underpin capitalism and ultimately civilisation. In short, such a principle seeks to ensure that the pursuit of sexual pleasure occurs initially within a framework of spending and consumption, being ultimately directed towards a monogamous, patriarchal, potentially procreative relationship.

Apparently if you don’t want to bow down to our capitalist overlords and sign up for a house with a picket fence and 2.5 kids, your only alternative is to randomly proposition people on the street.

Foster tries to align himself with a sex-positive feminism that he clearly doesn’t understand. There’s a middle ground between traditional dating and creeping on random women. Ideally, even in a no strings attached sexual encounter, there is some personal rapport that is being built, and at least common human decency if not emphasizing the friends in friends with benefits. Most importantly, there is consent. And to get to that consent requires conversation and reading what a person is or is not interested in.

There are ample ways someone can pursue that liberation without making women feel intimidated, frightened or objectified. I’ve known plenty of women who’ve pursued such arrangements, in a way that was comfortable and respectful. I know plenty of men who’ve participated in them without saying or doing things that would land them on the everyday sexism website.

Aside from setting up a bizarre all-or-nothing dichotomy, Foster is ignoring the power dynamics at play that make random, unsolicited sexual advances creepy and frightening to women:

Feminists quite rightly espouse that both women and men should have the right to pursue sexual pleasure purely for its own sake, outside of a monogamous relationship, and independent of the patriarchal strictures of consumer capitalism. As such, there is nothing inherently sexist, or threatening or harassing, about making a direct, unambiguous sexual advance to another person. We are conditioned to find such propositions taboo because an expression of straightforward, unencumbered desire transgresses prevailing ideology.

It might not feel inherently threatening to a man, but to be stuck on a bus or a train with a stranger who made an “unambiguous sexual advance,” to be propositioned by someone twice your size, to have no way to predict how a man will respond to rejection can make women feel unsafe.

A woman (or man) does not consent to being sexualized by going out in public. People can arrange the kind of sexual adventures Foster talks about outside of monogamous relationships by engaging with people as human beings first, developing mutual respect, and obtaining mutual consent. Rather than blaming feminists’ assertion of rights for sexual repression, Foster needs to learn to recognize what the sexual liberation he claims to want actually looks like.

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