Things used to be simple between men and women. Probably. And now they’re messy AF. Definitely. What’s going on?
INTRODUCTION TO ILLUSTRATED FIELD GUIDE
The culturally-embedded codes and conditioning, and the unspoken rules governing how men and women interact with each other are shifting massively and, in the process, their inherent unfairness to women is becoming visible and undeniable. Here’s a look at ve examples of what the hell I mean by that.
Two or three times in the past few months, whilst having conversations about Weinstein with men, I was taken aback to hear agreeance about his monstrosity, tempered with something along the lines of,‘yeah, but those women’. Those women what? The underlying implication was that because actresses or women trying to get ahead in Hollywood use their beauty or sexuality, they had forfeited the right to victimhood.This goes beyond ‘asking for it’ by wearing clothing which provokes the famously unstoppable carnal desires of men, who subsequently have no option other than to grab pussies. This gets down to the fundamental contract between men and women; where women are purchased, and thus enter into a transactional or business relationship, rather than a human one, with rights and kindnesses stripped away accordingly.
Prostitution is a very obvious and literal example but contracts operate elsewhere with more subterfuge; a father ‘giving away’ his daughter as a bride feels to us like a harmless if archaic tradition but, given that marital rape wasn’t legally recognised in the UK or in all states of America until the early Nineties, that contractual handover from one man to another has had some dark overtones.The male – and societal – mindset which understands the transaction of prostitution is also in operation when a man buys a woman drinks or dinner, tacitly purchasing access into her underwear at some point in the immediate or near future.That same mindset compartmentalises and dehumanises women when they use their sexuality; the power of which has to be controlled and dominated through some form of explicit or implicit purchase. Once bought, they are whores, and whores aren’t really people, remember?
Zelda Perkins was an assistant to Weinstein during the Nineties when she dropped everything to help a young woman who claimed Weinstein had attacked her. Perkins fought tooth and nail to get Miramax and Disney to the table so she could set out terms which Weinstein would have to abide by in lieu of prosecution (she was advised by her own lawyers that prosecution would be fruitless). She didn’t want money, she just wanted to hold him to account in whatever small way she could, but they would only negotiate with her if she accepted a payoff of £125,000 rst. That wasn’t just hush money; that was ‘you’re bought’ money and it came with all the power of suggestion behind it.
The notion that men must persist and overcome women’s resistance to their sexual advances has a long history and is deeply embedded in our cultural conditioning. Much of it stems from the high price placed on female purity and the narrative of the dominant male. In centuries past, women would reject advances and rst proposals to bolster the reputation of their virginity. Before sex-before-marriage became common or socially acceptable, a wall of defence – “I’ve never done this before”/“We shouldn’t”/“I’m not that type of girl” – would have to be overcome before bases two through four could be reached; the girl showing she’s not a slut, the guy showing his persistence eventually rendered her defenceless and ensured his sexual victory.
Decades have passed since the sexual liberation of the Sixties, and today consenting adults can fuck each other without the same fear of opprobrium from society. Hell, Teen Vogue recently reported on an anal sex workshop at Harvard. Times have changed.And yet.And yet despite the weakening of the ‘slut’ narrative, the recent reappraisals of consent, and acceptance of women actually knowing their own minds; the persistence narrative is as strong as ever, and in many cases has taken on a more sinister tone. From growing up watching Pepé Le Pew hound his lady skunk paramour, to listening to Robin Thicke and co. blurring lines and advocating one more drink, or watching all the many, many instances of stalking being romanticised on screen; a woman’s ‘no’ means very little still, it remains an invitation to push further until she relents.
The extra layer of dif culty here is that the persistence-resistance dynamic forms the basis of a lot of irting.That push and pull can be really hot and fun. But teasing and irting where both parties are putting out and reading signals is different from not taking no for an answer, from forcing submission from someone who is no longer, or was never, enjoying the interaction, and from feeling entitled to anything more than a conversation just because a conversation has begun.
Which leads us into the murky depths of the state of consent today. The global scale of #MeToo revelations show that a lot of men haven’t bothered to look for the assent of mutual or ongoing consent. Rape, assault and harassment have been revealed to be even more common than we thought, and a lot of us already thought they were pretty widespread. Various excuses have been offered up in the guise of apologies, many of which end up shifting the blame to the victims, but all show a total disregard for consent – either not seeking it at all or totally ignoring any signals or verbalisations which removed it – even Louis CK who so thoughtfully asked his victims first before jerking off in front of them.
Two very brilliant rejoinders to the apparent lack of understanding surrounding consent have re/surfaced on the Internet recently.Tea Consent was made by London’sThamesValley Police back in 2015 but had a resurgence in the wake of the Brock Turner trial and again during #MeToo. It’s an illustrated video which subs drinking a cup of tea in for having sex; simple and tongue-in-cheek, it explains the subject in a way you hope will make things more clear-cut for teenagers and college students – where it’s been making the rounds in classrooms across the States and UK:
If you say, “Hey, would you like a cup of tea?” and they’re like, “Uh, you know, I’m not really sure,” then you can make them a cup of tea, or not, but be aware that they might not drink it.And if they don’t drink it, then, and this is the important bit, don’t make them drink it. Just because you made it doesn’t mean you’re entitled to watch them drink it.And if they say,‘No thank you,’ then don’t make them tea. At all...
More recently Twitter user @Neo_url let loose with the following incisive and widely shared tweet: “If you’ve ever tried to put your nger up a straight guy’s ass during sex, you’ll know that they actually understand ongoing consent, withdrawal of consent and sexual boundaries very well. They act confused when it’s our bodies.”
It should be black and white that partners seek green lights from each other in their sexual encounters – both men and women. However, thanks to the way girls are socialised, consent is somewhat murkier from the female perspective; from a young age, girls are taught and given perpetual reinforcement to keep everyone happy,not to rock the boat or upset people. Where boys are encouraged in their bombast, girls are praised for their sweetness or being nice.When applied to sex, that socially ingrained instinct not to upset or hurt feelings makes consent a much more knotty thing than ‘just saying no’. It’s what Kristen Roupenian’s fictional story Cat Person illustrated so well;those micro-moment shifts from feeling one thing to feeling quite another, and as a woman it’s easier to ignore your discomfort than to make a scene.As the Aziz Ansari fallout showed, even when the signs are there that boundaries are being pushed beyond, that a moment has shifted into one person’s discomfort, it’s easy even for ‘good guys’ to choose not to see them.
Today, girls growing up are still struggling to be afforded the traits of leadership, assertiveness and confidence freely given to boys – for now, they must make do with being bossy, nasty and loud – but in owning those qualities and flying in the face of social niceties, we can hope that their self-belief and surety in what they do and don’t want is built and bolstered; ensuring that when the time comes,consent becomes a gateway to sexual experiences which both sexes are fully and happily participating in.
There is a long and appalling history of using ‘female madness’ as a justi cation to imprison, dispose of or silence women. A document from the late 1800s details the criteria for admittance into a West Virginia women’s mental asylum. It runs the gamut to cover pretty much all behaviour or misfortune which could befall a person but includes:
‘imaginary female trouble’, ‘egotism’
‘rumor of husband murder’ ‘menstrual deranged’ ‘mental excitement’
Oh and ‘asthma’ – LOCK HER UP!
Women tend not to be thrown in asylums with such aplomb these days, but casting doubts on female rationality and sanity remains as popular as ever.Whether it’s Redditors detailing the crazy/hot matrix – a graph which shows the point at which regardless of how hot a girl is, you run the risk of falling-foul of the ‘never-stick-your-dick-in crazy’ edict, or the pernicious daily labelling of a woman as a ‘mad bitch’/‘fucking psycho’/or just plain ‘crazy’ where a man passes unremarked or perhaps as ‘eccentric’, or the countless number of abusive and controlling relationships where a woman is made to doubt her feelings; undermining women by tarring them as nuts is a popular pursuit.
The positive though is that the term ‘gaslighting’ is gaining ground and recognition; it stems from a 1938 play and then lm, Gas Light, in which a husband convinces his wife she’s losing her mind in order to cover up his own shitty behaviour; today it’s de ned as to ‘manipulate (someone) by psychological means into questioning their own sanity’.
The spread of understanding of this term has given women increasing power to push back and understand that their mental health, or sense of emotional equilibrium being called into question, is a discursive tool which individual men – often ones they are in relationships with – and sometimes society in general will use against them; it does not mean their feelings or intuition are invalid.
STORIES AND GAZES
You may have noticed that of late it feels as though mainstream society is gradually awakening from a strange fever dream wherein only the stories and views of a selection of white men were interesting or valid.What the ever-loving fuck was that about? Male writers and their stories – about men – have dominated our cultural landscape so wholly and for such a long time that it has taken a while to cast the scales from our eyes and see the myriad rich and brilliant tales and ways of seeing beyond the narrow offering we’ve supped from so far.
Historically, men’s thinking and writing has broadly been taken to be truthful, authentic, objective and authoritative, whereas women’s stories have been patted warmly on the head and dismissed as subjective, irrational, emotional (because that’s a bad thing), silly and inferior; given what media critic Lili Loofbourow describes as the cursory ‘male glance’ – women’s stories not being worth the scrutiny that the male gaze affords to the female face and form.Various male literary greats have trashed their female counterparts along the lines of angry feminist/angry lesbian/jealous of men/jealous of youth and beauty, or sought unwitting vengeance by writing weak female characters that exist solely as cyphers for male protagonists’ plot and character advancement – winning critical plaudits as twentieth- century Shakespeares in the process.
Today though, it feels as if that is at last becoming a tale of the past.The Internet has been democratising the spread of creative voices, allowing new perspectives to evolve and develop their own powerful followings, without the control or backing of dominant male narratives and narrators,or grey corporate interest;today we no longer have to be fed what a small group has decided is what we should desire or be interested in.The recent enormous successes of WonderWoman,Big Little Lies, Black Panther and Call Me byYour Name have shown that,wow, it’s almost as though there’s an appetite for stories created by and showing the experiences of people who represent enormous tracts of our societies – even women in their forties and gay guys.Who would have thought it?
When it comes to women redressing the dominance of the male gaze, that can be a little harder.The male gaze is so entrenched that we still nd it hard to spot when it’s in action. In light of feeling exhausted and pissed off at the cultural mores of eradicating female body hair, I recently let my armpit hair grow out, only to feel a pang of disappointment when after a few weeks it didn’t look ‘sexy in a French way’. Escaping the validation cycle of being governed by what makes you attractive to men is hard for women; we’ve been raised on an unattainable starvation diet of beauty ideals fed to us through years of male-controlled media and advertising. But, again, that’s changing – again thanks to the Internet, and more speci cally Instagram – now we are seeing a more diverse range of representations of beauty lter into the mainstream; we are seeing the visions of female creatives and creators proliferate; we are at last starting to see through women’s eyes too; the dilution of that dominant gaze is well underway and it looks goddamn incredible.
Daisy is a cultural strategist and writer based in NewYork.
Katharine is an illustrator. She lives in London.