Friday, July 18, 2008

Consent, the patriarchy, and altruism

So it has been said, quite frequently, that my hatred of all patriarchy-inspired "beauty rituals" including high heels, surgery, and movement-restricting clothing is really demeaning to women. My critique of the violent and abusive nature of all things labeled feminine mocks women that choose such things of their own free will. Pro-porn1 advocates claim that objections to the industries of objectification and abuse--porn, prostitution, and stripping--are taking women's agency away from them or applying the same kind of moral outrage that conservatives are apt to.

The disconnect, I believe, lies in the definition of "consent". In a prior post, I confessed that all sex acts within a patriarchy lie along the same continuum of non-consent. Which, although the word is shocking, makes all heterosexual encounters acts of rape. This is not to say that pleasure and love is not possible in this society. Simply, because of our socialization in gender roles, we cannot determine for ourselves whether or not even the smallest adherences to gendered behaviors--such as plucking your eyebrows--is actually an act of free-will. It seems simple: I want to pluck my eyebrows, so I do. But the question is, would I want to pluck my eyebrows if I had not been told that my naturally bushy brows are ugly? If every image I saw of femininity was not a gross distortion of nature, would I still have the desire to forcibly rip hair, and sometimes skin, from my body?

Thus, it stands to reason that the most gendered encounter--the act of coitus--is probably less a product of free will than any other.

However, that is not to say that I think everyone who does not realize that their actions are not their own is stupid. Nor am I infantiziling women. My point is that everyone, even me, does not consent to the violence done to their individuality by gender roles, and that the exercise of those gender roles in this society is inevitable. Humans are social creatures by necessity. Succumbing to our social programming in ways both known and unknown to us is hardly an act of stupidity. It is a mechanism of survival, instilled in us through billions of years of evolutionary adaptation. Basically, social creatures exist in a state in which they trust the members of their immediate social grouping not to hurt them. They know they they will not hurt them by familiarity. The social animal knows that to hurt others would be wrong or unnecessary, and since the other animals around it look and act similar to it, it assumes that they agree with this principle and are thus worthy of some measure of trust.

Therefore, when a new organism wanders into the vicinity of the previous animal's "turf", either seeking admission or to otherwise, the animals are far more likely to trust and tolerate an organism that acts and looks like them.

Humans instinctively know this. The social phenomenon of trends and fads arises from this tendency. Most humans will seek to minimize differences in order to belong to a group, and to be seen as a friend and not a threat.

To say that someone that adheres to gender roles is stupid, therefore, is to assume that people are more like gods than animals. We are lucky to possess free will and consciousness, and these things allow us reason that the things we do are wrong or silly or weird. However, thousands of years of social conditioning in the rightness of gender roles cannot be entirely overcome by any individual in so long as those gender roles are still encouraged by popular society and our immediate acquaintances.

It is hardly easy to admit that the power of reasoning cannot overcome my instinctive need to belong to the point where I can erase all the violence done to the definition of my selfhood. My choices in this mad world are either to submit to the need to belong and be unhappy by the nature of the things I must to, as a woman, to belong, or to resist the need to belong and be unhappy by the nature of my loneliness. The "choice" between two unhappinesses is hardly a choice at all. Even consciously choosing one or the other is hardly feasible, for there are a thousand ways that resistance is overcome.

And so I exist in a perpetual state of non-consent. I have never consented to the person I am or the urges I have, instilled by social conditioning. I can only choose to be aware of my misery and loss of choice, or fool myself into thinking that I am free. The second choice, however, is not the greater of two evils. The necessity of ignoring violence is hardly the actions of a weak mind. That too is human nature. If we see no other choice, then no other choice exists. It is not enough for me to say that one chooses to be a porn star, because I do not know if the rational behind joining the sex industry is entirely free. In actuality, I know that it not entirely free, in the same way that I know my decision to pluck my eyebrows is not.

What, then, of those who would objectify women? Are they not subject to the same social forces, are they not the same helpless victims of human instincts? That answer is complicated.

I believe, as do others, that humanity's instincts are not to rend and tear and kill. I think that we are inherently peaceful and altruistic, and that as social creatures we are apt to do good things for others, even for no gain for ourselves, because this instinct has resulted in the creation and maintenance of societies.

Luckily for women, this altruism is not damaged in the way that it is for men. We might be socialized into hurting ourselves, against the instinct of self-preservation, to serve a need to "fit in", because if we do not fit in, we are vulnerable and lonely. However, the altruistic tendency is socialized out of men by the constant message that women are not human, that they are different, that they are the Other. If the natural human inclination is to do good for, or at the very least ignore, those similar to us, then the only way that this instinct can be overturned is by the notion that those that we hurt and suppress and kill are abused for the sake of self-preservation, because they are not human, or because they, being the Other, like it.

This theme is not restricted to gendered interactions. The above is used again and again to perpetuate and justify every human horror, from sexism to racism to animal abuse and to genocide. People electrocute others on the orders of someone in uniform in order to belong and not resist perceived authority--a self-preserving response to the threat that authority embody. What things like the Mil.gram experiments show is not that humanity is naturally cruel, but that we are cruel when we can be convinced that this cruelty is necessary for our own survival or the greater good2.

It is the socialization of the male that warps the natural human altruism, while the socialization of the female merely distorts the urge of self-preservation. That is not to say that females cannot act in such a way that is deliberately cruel, or that men can act in such a way that is self-destructive; merely that gender roles make it far more likely for men to be abusive and for women to be self-sacrificing.

All of this social theory is well and good, but what does it have to do with consent?

There is something very different between a gendered woman's act, such as choosing to stay with an abusive husband, and a men's act, such as beating his wife. That is where I make the distinctions of moral wrongness and consent. A violence done to the self may not be natural, but it is not morally wrong. A woman who chooses to stay with her abuser does no moral wrong. However, a man that chooses, as the result of socialization, to abuse another is not acting out of a perversion of natural human altruism, but is morally wrong.

Likewise, it is not an act of infantilization to admit that gendered interactions, "consented" to by women, are not a product of natural human instincts. It is an admission of their humanity and the social forces that every single one of us will never be free of in our life times. That is not to say that a man's violence is something that he cannot help. On the contrary. While his attitude about women may never be changed, and while men, in so long as the gender continues to be socialized in this fashion, will never consciously and subconsciously think of women as the Same, and not the Other, their choice to act in such a violent matter is exactly that: a choice.

Because we acknowledge that every one of us has the power of reason. We do know that when we do things that affect other people, even animals, that they probably have the power to form an opinion of our actions and the way that they affect them. A woman takes away no one's choice when she plucks her eyebrows or "consents" to marital rape. A man is morally wrong when he acts in such a way that requires the socialized subjugation of women for that action to be valid or "consented" to. In less words, a man perpetuates and submits to sexism, a woman only submits to sexism.

This can be observed in the incontrovertible fact that men, as a collective, have benefited far more from the present state of affairs than women have. Just as a slaveholder may consent to perpetuating slavery, a slave cannot "consent", in the real meaning of the word, to his own status. And this is shown, time and time again, by the state of fear and violence that the masters shower upon their inferiors. They must be made to think that their submission is an act of self defense and of normalcy, or the vast mechanisms of this convoluted hierarchy cannot function. But a man suffers no real loss in status by refusing to abuse. A woman, however, suffers very real losses by refusing to submit to the social forces that drive her to "consent" to her subjugation. Consent, in this context, can only be applied to those actions in which there is a net gain, rather than a net loss.

For it is taken as a priori knowledge that the act of consent, and to a lesser extent, free will, may only be taken by a fully rational human being. And it is truly a sick society in which the definition of consent is only applicable to those that would use it to submit themselves to some other's perversions and abuse, when the other can excuse his abuse, and gains, with various appeals to his right of superiority and moral wrongness.

And that is how and why, in many words, women's actions are not subject to the same sort of scrutiny and scorn as the actions of someone who perpetually benefits from a society that bestows upon him unearned privilege and rights for his chance of a penile appendage.  

1I refuse to call them "pro-sex". Porn isn't sex any more than a movie with a sex scene is a real sex act. Just because it looks like sex and is marketed for sexual pleasure does not mean that it is sex and not a performance.

2Excepting, of course, those instances of real human sociopathy or mental illness. Which, I am convinced, are extremely rare and usually mistakenly contributed to psychosis and not an extreme reaction to normal socialization.


Aoife said...

Hey Jen this is a fuckin superb post. Your blog is great. Keep it up

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Liberality said...

I read a comment of yours over at Twisty's blog and so I came over to read more. Wow, you are good. I enjoy reading this.