Honesty is Hard
For the past month or so, the skeptic blogosphere has been talk a lot about harassment at skeptic events. Throughout these conversations, I've made a few disturbing observations:
People (mostly women) are getting harassed at skeptic events. This doesn't seem to be occuring at higher rates than at other events, but any harrassment is too much, and we can do better than that;
Many people (mostly men) in the skeptic community are not taking this problem seriously. This is also fucked up, and I'm glad it's getting some attention.
These issues have been extensively documented by Stephanie Zvan at Almost Diamonds. Everything that I could say on the topic (and how disturbing it is) has been said much more eloquently elsewhere, and I have nothing new to add. Suffice it to say that yes, this is happening, and I hope atheist/skeptic conferences all adopt strong harassment policies, with an emphasis on enforcement.
What I'd like to discuss is a secondary issue (which is not nearly as important as the two identified above, but I think is worth discussing): the issue of harassment has led to a number of discussions about exactly where the line is between consensual flirting and harassment. These are important discussions to have, I think, but I'm bothered by two (somewhat related) themes I keep seeing crop up in these discussions:
1) It's wrong to want sex from people without being interested in getting to know them
This is generally couched in reasonable-sounding language like this from PZ Myers:
I have a simple suggestion. Think of sex as something two or more friends do; but also keep in mind that most friends don’t have sex together. When you’re at a meeting, plan to make friends promiscuously, but remember: the purpose first and foremost is friendship, not sex partners.
At first glance, this seems like a reasonable suggestion. Most people prefer to get to know people before having sex with them, and most people would rather have sex with someone they like for nonsexual reasons also. But some people just want sex, and there is nothing wrong with that. It's not up to us to tell people what their goals should be in a social interaction. Denigrating anonymous men for wanting to “bag a young hottie” (which is Jen McCreight's paraphrase, not an actual quote from anyone) at each speaking gig sends the sexnegative message that desiring sex with a person you find attractive (which is how I would have phrased it) is WRONG and CREEPY. In addition, speaking about it as something that only men do contributes to the myth of men not being hot. McCreight puts desiring sex with attractive women in the same category as talking only to a woman's chest, nonconsensual groping, and following a woman to her hotel room. I think that's terribly unfair. There is nothing wrong with sexuality. There is nothing wrong with desiring sex for purely physical reasons. Resorting to slut shaming is not necessary to discuss harassment. It's bullshit, and it should stop.
2) Dishonesty is expected, and even encouraged, where sexuality may be involved
This is related to Point 1 by virtue of the fact that if wanting sex is wrong, then people who want sex are going to be encouraged to hide that fact until the socially appropriate time. People who just come out and say they want sex (even in the least coercive and lowest pressure way I can think of) are disrespectful, objectifying, and should be ashamed of themselves. Fuck that. Asking for sex is not seeing a person “as your plaything.” It's just asking for sex. Objecification only happens if you see the other person's desires as irrelevant. As long as you are genuinely seeking enthusiastic consent, if you want sex, you ought to ask for it! Hiding your intentions is just being dishonest, not respectful. As one commenter on this blog put it:
I too find smart, interesting people who think about things quite sexy, yet am generally skittish of strangers. I’m also alternately oblivious to and skeeved out by the way flirting (in most mainstream venues) happens most times. Still, I’d far prefer for someone to tell me they think I have great boobs and would like to make out with me than to just hint at it, assuming they are respectful of my possible “no thank you.” I like transparent, respectful asks, and people who ask for consent frequently and sincerely.
In addition to those desiring of sex being encouraged to remain silent, women who are objects of such desire are also encouraged to be dishonest about their refusals. The (true) observation that rapists ignore refusals is used to suggest that women shouldn't be encouraged to clearly communicate their own desires. The (also true) observation that women are socialized not to clearly communicate a refusal is used to suggest that we should not be encouraging women to break free of that socialization and be more honest about what they want. This is confusing the “is” and the “ought.” The undeniable state of mainstream heterosexual flirting is that men are expected to be the aggressors, that clearly communicating a desire to have sex is disfavored, and that a clear refusal is often met with hostility. None of this is an argument that the status quo is the way things ought to be. We should all be encouraged to be more open and honest about what we want from a social interaction, even if the we may be subject to negative social consequences.
The exception, of course, is when physical safety is in question. If anyone is in doubt about his/her physical safety in an interaction, all of these rules go out the window, and people should do whatever they need to in order to get to safety. That cannot be stressed enough, and it should never be forgotten.
Of course, the flipside of this is that we should stop punishing women for being blunt. A woman who clearly communicates a “no” is not being harsh, she's being honest. A woman who says she's not interested in someone (even if s/he hasn't made any advances) is just being communicative. Hurting someone's feelings through deception is a dick move. Hurting someone's feelings by telling them the truth is a brave and awesome thing to do, and we should encourage people to do it.
However, the danger of social disapproval is not a good reason to be dishonest. If your friends will think of you as a bitch for giving a clear refusal, get some new friends. If the object of your affection will see you as creepy for being clear about your sexual interest, that's not a reason to hide your interest. Honesty often has negative social consequences. It does not follow that dishonesty is justified. If flirting should be about creating intimacy, then it relies on both parties behaving in a trustworthy way (i.e. not lying to each other). Jadehawk disagrees:
You can’t remove the social context because the social context is what determines how women will respond. they’re not flirting with you in a social vaccum, and pretending otherwise is just fucking stupid. We have to fix the social context first (i.e. not punish women for being above-average-assertive, and instead shut down those why try to punish women for blatantly and “rudely” setting boundaries and even taking initiative themselves), before you can seriously expect women to consistently “help” socially inept guys at flirting by being blunt with them.
I agree that it's unrealistic to expect anyone to completely go against their socialization, but that doesn't mean that we should not ask them to do so, or, when we're discussing behavioral standards, to hold up an against-the-mainstream behavior as ideal. Society socializes us to do many things that we reject. Dishonesty could be one of them. Jadehawk's view is that women are just brainless products of society's conditioning, and have no choice in how to act. I think we all have a choice, regardless of what we're told, or how we're taught. I don't think “the social context is what determines how women will respond.” I think women will respond based on their own individual choices, in light of the social context.
To be clear, I don't think people are always (or even usually) obligated to express their sexual interest or lack thereof. It's all about your intentions. If you intend to send the message for someone to back off, do it clearly. Don't use subtle social cues that are open to interpretation. If you want to get to know someone, do that. If you intend to communicate sexual interest, do it clearly. Don't do it by pretending you want to get to know someone. And don't pretend you're interested in sex if you're only interested in getting to know someone. If you want to get to know someone, and also have sexual interest, then feel free to communicate either or both. My only problem here is dishonesty about one's intentions.
This also shouldn't be taken to mean that I think people always have clear intentions. It's perfectly reasonable to be hours, days, weeks, or years into a social interaction, and still not really be sure what you want out of the interaction. That is actually, I would argue, the mainstream expectation. The problem occurs when people know what they want, and pretend that they don't.
Flirting is not easy. But if we try, we could make it a little easier.