It’s hardly an overstatement to say that sexuality is a subject of great concern for many feminists. Women, so the argument goes, have often been coerced into relationships or sexual acts that leave them feeling unsatisfied at best and, at worst, traumatized. The solution is to teach people, especially men, to behave in a way that respects the sexual autonomy and dignity of their partners. To this end, many feminists have promoted the concept of enthusiastic consent, which has been defined as follows:
… Enthusiastic consent is a principle that says that “no means no” is crucial – if a sexual partner says no, you have to stop – but it’s not enough. In order to ensure consent and prevent sexual violence, everyone, regardless of gender, has to make sure that their partner is enthusiastic about what’s going on.
Enthusiastic consent is an ongoing state, not a yes/no lightswitch. It requires sexual partners to be in ongoing communication with each other. It does not mean that you have to get a signed contract to touch my right breast. It does mean that you have to pay attention to whether or not I’m into it as you move your hand toward my right breast, and that if you can’t tell, you have to ask.
– Jaclyn Friedman, The (Nonexistent) Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Consequences of Enthusiastic Consent, Jan. 3, 2011
Now, enthusiastic consent sounds like an elegant solution to the problem of sexual coercion. Make sure your partner is into what’s going on, and when in doubt ask. Easy, right? The problem is, this oversimplified sexual ethic tends to ignore the sexual dynamics that exist in real life between young men and women, especially within a first sexual encounter:
Thinking he was a weirdo, I was freaking out in the dark. He turned on the light.
Then he said, “Okay, I’m ready, ready to see you.”
“Right here.” I waved. “I’m right here.”
Then he began to undress me.
“What are you doing, Bob?” I said.
“I need to see you,” he replied.
“No need,” I said. “Just dive in.”
“I need to see what you look like,” he said.
“But you’ve seen a red leather couch before,” I said.
Bob continued. He would not stop. I wanted to throw up and die.
“This is awfully intimate,” I said. “Can’t you just dive in?”
“No,” he said. “It’s who you are. I need to look.”
– Eve Ensler, The Vagina Monologues, The V-Day Edition, p. 56.
I was freaking out. Bob continued. He would not stop. I wanted to throw up and die. Bob, of course, is a hero. Eve Ensler’s example of a “good man.” Yet Bob is also a man willing to push his partner to engage in a sexual act without asking whether it’s okay, even after she’s made it clear what he’s doing is making her uncomfortable.
It’s relevant here that most heterosexual men understand “What are you doing?” as a code phrase for “Stop!” How many feminists think it’s acceptable for a man to respond to “What are you doing?” by saying “I need”? The fact that Bob expressed his preferences as something that he needed indicates that he was being more than a little pushy here. That’s sexual entitlement. And it works. Why?
It worked for Bob because he did what heterosexual men are expected to do if they want to be successful within the gladiatorial sexual arena. He played a game of chicken. He is Eve Ensler’s hero because he played Russian roulette and, fortunately for him, the chamber wasn’t loaded. Bob entered into a sexual encounter with a sense of entitlement, pressured his partner to do something that initially made her uncomfortable, and was able to pull it off because he was confident and sexually experienced. Does it ever occur to Eve Ensler that Bob was able to pull off his hungry, beautiful beast shtick because he’d gained sexual experience from dozens of previous sexual encounters, some of which probably didn’t go so well? The fact is, if Bob had responded to his partner’s “What are you doing?” by anxiously asking if it was okay, the story probably wouldn’t have ended with sex.
The vignette about “Bob” has bothered me for a long time, but I’ve only recently been able to articulate why. If meaningful “consent” implies two people “feeling together,” then Bob never got consent. According to the sexual ethics of Jaclyn Friedman, Hugo Schwyzer, and many other feminists, what Bob did was coercive and unethical. Yet Bob is forgiven because he was able to sexually arouse his partner. Bob stuck to his guns in the face of his partner’s obvious discomfort with what he was doing, and yet his pushiness and sexual entitlement goes unnoticed and unmentioned in the breathless prose of the vignette because he successfully pulled it off.
Am I saying that Bob was a wolf in sheep’s clothing? A snake who only pretended to care about his sexual partners? No, not at all. It’s quite possible that Bob was a caring and compassionate lover. But let’s be honest here. He was sexually entitled. He was performing the masculine role to the hilt.
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A couple of commenters, marle and Cessen, have pointed out that they haven’t read or seen “The Vagina Monologues,” and I imagine that’s true for a number of readers. The story I’m talking about is entitled “Because he liked to look at it.” Some performances of this skit are here: