Monday, January 22, 2018

The straight-lady non-bleakness manifesto you have been waiting for

What is female heterosexuality, in the age of #MeToo? It strikes me that we're stuck, as a culture, in "an evening that a woman in her early 20s spends with a man in his 30s." Time stands still at that specific life stage, at the moment when a straight (or straight-relationship-having) woman is out in the world, very desirable to others but not quite sure what she herself wants. Also, I suppose, in a specific cultural situation - the young woman is probably either a college student or a recent grad pursuing a glamorous profession, but still at the very lowest rungs. The wide range of women's romantic experiences (real or imagined) that don't fall into that framework are ignored.

Once the ubiquitous Story shifted from Weinstein and the truly vile (or, in a way, even before), it became this odd thing where entertainment narratives about powerful men seducing sheltered women got reinvented as something for everyone to be very concerned about, even if the genuinely very-concerned are a handful of earnest feminists on Twitter, and 99.99% of those following these stories are titillated or just entertained. How much of the Story is about a collective sense that the disappointing-and-worse encounters experienced by early-20s women of a certain class are among the more dire feminist causes has to do with a (justified I think!) sense that they matter, and how much is about the fact that this demographic of women plus this topic will get clicks?

But beyond this, there's a piece missing when it comes to how female sexuality itself gets discussed. There is, of course, the focus on consent, which is both necessary and something that can make it seem as though female heterosexuality consists of sometimes agreeing to what a man has suggested. Add "enthusiastic" to "consent" and what you get is a woman very happy to have said yes to acts suggested by a man, a man who had, initially, shown interest in her, before she'd had a chance to think about him either way. There's increasing understanding about the need to go beyond mere consent, which is a start. And I think B.D. McClay is onto something when she examines why female desire gets left out of the equation:

The problem is that you can't say yes in a world in which your yes is presumed until someone gets a no, just as you can't say no and be understood if no is the only word you're permitted. You can't express desire to a partner who can understand your desire only in terms of acquiescence.

There's a challenge, though - a couple of them, actually - as long as this topic stays in the realm of arguments. First has to do with the sheer bleakness of female heterosexuality as presented even in opinion-writing I agree with (or have, for that matter, written myself.) It's not clear what to do, in opinion-land, with the existence of female desire for men. Is it a real pity? How can it be, when it is, for so many women, a source of so much joy? Or, at least, for some women. For a non-zero number of women, is the most I could state with absolute confidence. Which... gets, in turn, to the problem with any conversation about what it means to be a member of an enormous category such as 'straight women.' What does it mean, then?

For some women who so identify, straightness doubtless is about not feeling drawn to women sexually, and just sort of going along with convention - boyfriend, husband, settling down. For others, it's closer to what (some) gay men experience, and involves intense desire for men. (A sort of wiring that doesn't magically disappear upon encountering male awfulness of the #MeToo variety.) For others still, somewhere in between, or something else entirely. There's also a range in how affected individual women are by cultural scripts. It's possible to receive all those many cultural messages about who has which role, who wants what, and then go ahead and just... not live your life like that.

But I - like everyone else I suppose - have trouble believing my idiosyncratic thoughts about everything don't have broader political applicability. And really, wouldn't it be better if The Moment assumed that female heterosexuality consisted of something more than hoping the men life throws at you aren't terrible? Wouldn't recognizing I mean really recognizing the existence of women's desire for men - including for men who may not desire them back - help out in terms of banishing, once and for all, the foolish, dangerous myth that with enough persuasion (or force), any woman would want to have sex with any man? It couldn't hurt, is all I'm saying.

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