Wednesday, January 24, 2018

The pre-Moment moment

I'm thinking of a time that seems long-lost, but was really just a few months ago. The moment before The Moment. During that age, a vision of sex-positivity had emerged that seemed - in practice but not on paper - distinctly focused on giving straight men things they'd always wanted, and had indeed once had, before pesky feminists got in the way. Specifically: sex-positivity meant open relationships (for men; extended to women only if the men in question go for that), sexual adventure, threesomes (with two women). Anything-goes in theory; in practice, anything the people in society with the power over how things go demand. The freedom to be sexual, as long as being sexual involved being that model from that music video, being quoted as saying your latest photographed nudity was about empowerment.

It could seem, then, as if a pre-feminist men's utopia was just getting recast in new terms. As long as antiquated - that is, gendered - language (the "philanderer," say) was studiously avoided, we (intentionally vague "we") were expected to forget about who - for all sorts of reasons, including culture and economics - generally winds up in which role, who's the powerful, who's the passive or screwed-over. As long as there was a nod to the existence of individual women making the most of the new order, as long as there was the occasional Guardian story about a woman with ten boyfriends, that was - or was meant to be - enough.

For me, this all culminates with a Savage Lovecast call, from the immediate pre-Weinstein/#MeToo moment: A young man called in to say that a middle-aged male college professor of his had just asked out his female friend, a recent college grad. Eww! was the caller's thinking. She's just 22! (Or 21. Or 23. Something like that.) The caller was distraught because he'd considered this prof a real intellectual hero. How could A Great like professor whatshisname do something so crude, so tacky, as to ask out a girl he's friends with?

Dan Savage's answer - about consenting adults, the "campsite rule" (Savage's wise suggestion that in age-gap relationships, the older partner leave the younger better than they'd found them), and the possibility that there's something in it for the younger partner as well - struck me as technically right but... incomplete. Yes, there was something up with the caller, with his notions about sexuality (why wouldn't a prof exist as a human being, outside the classroom?). Yes, a 22-year-old college graduate is an adult, not a (college) student, and as fair-game for an aging prof to hit on as a random 50-year-old, 90-year-old, etc. And yes, it sure did between-the-lines seem as if the caller wanted to date his same-age friend, and was squicked out not so much by the prof but by the mere fact of another man hitting on the woman he wanted for himself.

But was that the end of the story? Consenting-adults - well, potentially consenting, assuming she returned his interest - and therefore, no one's business but theirs?

There seemed to be a missing piece: There, to my ears, something not great about the situation, but what? What language was there for describing a situation at once OK and not OK? OK as in, yes, consenting adults, we should wish these two people (assuming the woman was interested) all the happiness in the world. Not OK as in, a clichéd scenario like that, playing out for the trillionth time, points to unpleasant things about sexism and power structures. It's OK that this prof asked out this former student; no one's individual, consensual relationships should be judged on the basis of whether they further a progressive cause. But it's not OK that 'powerful older man pursues much-younger woman' is the love story. Which, look, it is, whether it's being celebrated or condemned. Not the only one that's out there in the world - hardly! - but the only one that reliably, and across genre, sells.

A letter to an advice column is always going to be about real people, but also archetypes. And think of it like this: How many Great Genius professors - recognized as such by students of all genders, are middle-aged women? But also (and this gets at why the story was squicky): How many male students must deal with the anxiety of not knowing whether their (female) professors are helping them as educators, or are after something more?

Now what we have is pushback that goes... not too far, exactly, but in sort of the wrong direction. Is it predatory that a pushing-50 movie director has started dating one mid-20s woman after breaking up with another? Is it sinister that a 30-something male comedian was even going on a date with a 20-something female fan in the first place?

I don't think it makes a drop of sense to use the language of abuse to discuss consensual relationships that evoke, by their mere existence, broader unjust structures. But maybe don't ignore those structures, either? Maybe don't treat it as sex-negativity - or as evidence that women just plain don't experience desire because hormones - to mention and challenge the existence of these structures.? I don't know exactly which language is necessary, so platitudes about nuance and middle-ground and so forth will, for now, have to suffice.

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