Sexism was everywhere in the society I grew up in
So let’s make one thing clear: I am a straight white man, well-educated, who grew up in a household with two college-educated parents. We had our issues, but overall, I am well aware of the fact that I grew up in a privileged situation.
As a college student in the 1980’s, I went through sensitivity training designed to make me aware of my privilege and of the disadvantages various other groups have to overcome. I worked hard to recognize these distinctions, and committed myself to resolving them. I glowed with pride when a female political activist friend called me “the best feminist.” That was back in 1990.
So you can imagine my surprise when I find myself discovering another means that the patriarchy found to expand its privilege. I am well aware of the way that we all live in a society whose views are so colored by sexism that we often are not aware of our assumptions. So I was struck by this feeling listening to the radio the other day.
Terry Gross was interviewing Vanessa Grigoriadis, author of “Blurred Lines: Rethinking Sex, Power, and Consent on Campus.” The Lily News also published an interview with this author. In part of the Fresh Air interview, Gross and Grigoriadis discussed the difference between a “no means no” policy and a “yes means yes” one. Grigoriadis conceded that initially she had resisted the idea of making “yes means yes” the requirement for consent, but that she changed her mind as she learned about it. At this point, Gross pointed out that “no means no” essentially puts the entire burden of moving forward with the intimacy upon the woman.
As Gross put it, “But it’s equally awkward, I think, for the woman to be in the place where the man is making all these advances and you have to say no, no, no. Stop. No. I really mean stop. No. Ok. I’ll leave. No. It just puts all of the responsibility on her, and it makes it, like, really awkward. And it’s not a shared awkwardness. It’s, like, one person having the full burden of the awkwardness.”
Upon hearing this comment, I was struck by how even this policy that seemed so progressive in the 1980s and 1990s, “no means no,” was still something that protected the male prerogative to sex. The women had to take all the responsibility while the men could just push forward until they were told to stop.
It made me think of an episode of The Jeffersons in which George Jefferson said that the “man is the accelerator and the woman is the brake.” Clearly, this was another example of how the privilege of men to enjoy sex without responsibility became part of our cultural consciousness — even to the point that the supposed feminist response still put the burden of deciding upon the woman.
It wasn’t until several years after college, when I was a married man, that I finally came to understand that women like sex too. I always understood that women certainly bore the greater risk with the potential of getting pregnant, but my understanding of sex was through the lens of a sexist society that still treated women as figures who were to be seen as the keys to our male pleasure. Consent was whether the woman would allow the man to get what he wanted, rather than a process through which two adults mutually decide what they want.
I must admit that I was embarrassed by this realization, and I felt I needed to publicly confess my prior views. What also struck me, however, was how thoroughly sexism permeated our approaches to just about everything. Even the supposedly progressive approaches to male-female relations were marinated in that sexist stew.
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