Public Property, Part One: That Kind of Girl
September 14th, 2014
There are a couple of current events (“current” encompassing the past month or so) that are germane to the direction of my blog. Specifically, concerning the topics of professionalism, transparency, and hypocrisy. As someone who is in the process of applying to medical school, my image is something I think about constantly and the relationship between my personal life and professional aspirations is fraught. I hope someday those two facets of me will be less uneasy bedfellows, less compartmentalized. This Melissa Febos quotes comes to mind:
After therapy that day I walked through Union Square farmers’ market with the particular lightness of step that I’ve come to associate with hard-won revelations… Telling the truth to other people, about my job, my addiction, or anything I concealed, had had the same effect, had been followed by the same lightness of step. Honesty brought my double lives together and in doing so made the world a bigger place, in which I could move around more freely.
—Melissa Febos, Whip Smart, pg. 257
I am extra protective when it comes to women being ruined professionally, having to monitor their bodies and safety constantly, especially when their personal experiences have bearing on their career trajectories. If a woman’s worth is based on her body, and she becomes devalued upon exposure what are the implications for transparency and honesty?
Prevalent is the idea that women’s bodies are a liability, something we have to guard and conceal. Their misuse could ruin our lives, jeopardize our professional appearances. We have so little ownership over our flesh, strangers feel as if they have the right to comment on our physical attributes, as well as the insight to speculate on the complicated relationships we have with our bodies—why we would choose to display ourselves in a particular fashion. Show off? Must have low self-esteem, daddy issues: poor young thang! As if the waves we make with our curves are for public consumption, wholly self-conscious. Our value as human beings, the entirety of our self-worth hinges on how we allegedly appraise ourselves sexually. Hint: if we have consorted with and enjoyed the admiration of multiple men indiscreetly, we are used up instead of affirmed. We are the naive victims on a two-way street. Wanting sex and wanting to be wanted are both viewed as character defects. Which neither benefits women nor men.
We men have to learn this Golden Rule over and over: Women want to be wanted and they love sex.
—Jonathan Ames, Self Sentenced: My Life As A Writer The Last Few Years
CELEBRITIES HAVE BODIES, TOO
And thus the week of The Fappening (Is there a grosser onomatopoeia?) began, with scandal and sarcasm.
Dad: Did you hear about Jennifer Lawrence?
Me: Oh my god, did you know that female celebrities have breasts, too?
The way I feel about our society’s antiquated, histrionic views on nudity and sex can pretty much be summed up in my response to a Facebook friend’s prompt…
Joan: I get that there are naked celebrities all over the internet, but why isn’t anyone talking about the fact that someone HACKED ICLOUD. It seems like JLaws boobs are burying the lead on this one…
That black strappy thing is pretty nice, I will agree. But still. iCloud. Hacked.
I feel like PR managers around the world are hyperventilating.
Chris: Blah blah Patriot Act online privacy blah OH LOOK TITS. Because women’s bodies are public property in rape culture.
Tony: lets be more sensationalist chris
Me: if only we lived in a society where nudity was considered natural, not scandalous.
THEIR BODIES BELONG TO US
My most significant high school boyfriend and his friend made some good points and missed some others.
High School BF: i don’t know, i feel strange about the outrage after the nude photos of jennifer lawrence…i feel like i’ve never seen such a backlash to nude celeb photos being leaked. i’m trying to put my finger on why the outrage bugs me so much, but maybe this has something to do with it: notice anything in the picture? a strange juxtaposition? i see the difference obviously, but it feels like we created a culture obsessed with celebrity nudity and then decry it when it occurs under the wrong circumstances…
Jon: Consent, consent, consent, consent, consent. I agree the reaction as been wholly different (and that’s a good thing). Maybe a critical mass of Millennials are old enough now that we have enough of a public voice to publicly scold the scolds who are clucking about how these young beautiful people have had the temerity to act like young beautiful people always have. I am perversely gleeful that the sick fks who were swapping these pictures are now vulnerable to kiddie porn charges. Burn, mother fkers. Burn.
High School BF: i think the difference here is just that we see jlaw differently from other celebs — we like her more, we find her more personable, like us, etc. — and so it angers us more. if the other celebs had had their pics leaked and not jlaw, i’m not sure we would have this anger. look i’m not suggesting the two situations are the same. i don’t have any desire to objectify these women by saying if they show their bodies in one context, they have no right to object to us seeing them in other contexts, as though their bodies belong to us. i just think it’s weird that we engage in actions along the same or similar lines, and then express outrage when it goes too far. we seem to have a strange and unhealthy obsession with celebrity nudity, with the private lives of celebrities, and really with celebrities in general. there’s such an outcry to denounce these leaked photos, while i don’t know a single person who is able to pass up a good celeb tabloid. it might not be the same thing, but it seems to me that the same urge that created the former (curiosity, obsession, the plain old urge to gawk at a famous person) also created the latter.
Yes, consent is the critical difference in women voluntarily deciding to display themselves, whether in acting roles or just because they feel like it. But I think there are others reasons why we have a guttural negative reaction to this particular celebrity outing.
I’m not interested in discussing the relative merits of particular celebrities, because I care very little about celebrity culture. But we can analyze celebrities as archetypes. On the one hand we have J Law, who is viewed as everybody’s BFF, slurping soda and devouring nachos like one of the dudes—not much of a threat in terms of intrasexual competition. She even cut her hair short, and not in that manic pixie dream girl cliché way. We are especially offended when this happens to her because she is relatable and ordinary so it could happen to anyone! Also there is the problematic notion that she did nothing to provoke it, doesn’t deserve it. Sure she is cutesy and has a hottish bod but doesn’t explicitly sexualize herself. Does not give a fuck what we think. On the other hand we have the polar opposite, let’s say Courtney Love. Desperate for attention, relevance. I think it’s safe to conjecture that we wouldn’t feel outraged if private information, specifically nude photos of her, were made public. Even with explicitly malicious intent, even if she did not consent to such exposure. Sure, she is an extreme example: we see her as a black widow whose own daughter chose to divorce her. She’s probably a shitty person, undoubtedly a wholly unsympathetic character. Relevant to my critique, she also happens to be a trainwreck, a not-so-hot mess.
Which brings us to the concept of a ruined woman. For a more intermediate example, there is someone like Kristen Stewart, or perhaps this generation’s Drew Barrymore whoever that may be. She is precocious and messy and has smeared eyeliner. Slightly wild, untamed. She hasn’t done anything blatantly immoral, hasn’t publicly hurt others or made a fool of herself as far as I know, but we expect bad behavior from her. At least slipping a sneaky bottle of booze into her garter belt at an award show or whatever the kids are doing these days. Because sex or drugs wouldn’t be shocking coming from her or her ilk, we empathize a little less if nonconsensual sex or sexual exposure befalls them. It isn’t so divergent from their normal behavior as to be noteworthy; it isn’t so out-of-character. They had it coming.
There are kinds of women, ruined women. And in a culture where women’s bodies are already viewed as public property, we believe they have less of a right to privacy than the rest of us—the supposedly sound decision-makers. We all know that sluts be cray cray. Since bitches don’t like sex and only give bee jays in exchange for true love or to make an impression, if a woman is willing to give it away like candy and <gasp!> pretends that she likes it, she’s already lost her scruples. There is a distrust of sluts because we have been taught that sex is an antagonistic act only really wanted by one party. We take the feelings and desires of an allegedly mentally imbalanced or manipulative person into lesser consideration.
Let’s talk about rape, baby, and whether if someone reveals her body or allows us to touch her body in one context, we have a right to it in any context that suits our fancy. The way that rape laws work in the United States of Godbless America, until fairly recently marital rape wasn’t considered a crime. Like, the term “marital rape” would have been viewed as an oxymoron. Once you agreed to take a man as your lawfully wedded husband, to love and to cherish chastely ‘til death do us part, he had full and legal access to you. Remember that horrifying divorce case between David Hager, that nutjob evangelical gynecologist whom George W. elected head of his Celebacy Ed. Commission? As in, a guy who was responsible for making official decisions governing the drugs the FDA approved for reproductive health, yet refused to prescribe contraceptives to his unmarried lady patients and prescribed bible study as a cure for menstrual cramps. During his divorce proceedings, when his wife accused him of anally raping her regularly while in bed, he argued that he didn’t realize it was up the butt. (Like, that was his alibi.) Which does not bode well for his competence as a gyno if he was unable to locate his own wife’s vagina. And, moreover, implies that it would have been permissible if only it had been up the correct hole. All-access pass. Rock ‘n roll! Then there are legal proceedings that are commonplace in rape cases. Regardless of the admissibility as evidence, women’s sexual pasts are brought into the courtroom to call into question their character and reliability as witnesses. Their social media presence is exhumed for offhand comments and song lyrics with potentially sexual overtones. Anything to suggest they were asking for it, are looking for it.
Sluttery is evidence of consent. If you like sex, you must accept it in all instances from all people. Sluts are viewed as indiscriminate, not the enterprising sexual opportunists that we are. And let me tell you, because I’ve boned tons of guys, I know my preferences. I’ve honed my game. I know what is acceptable behavior and what isn’t. What is par for the course and what is uncalled for.
IT CUTS BOTH WAYS
Are sluts out of control and not to be trusted because they’ve made what we view to be a series of questionable decisions? Or does their vast amount of experience make them all the wiser? As a lawyer I once dated answered when I posed that very question, “It cuts both ways.” A few dates later when I grew concerned that he just did not get it, I got personal. (For the sake of transparency, at the point of disclosure to him, I had only been raped once). I’ve been raped twice, once in June 2004 when I had just turned 20 and once in December 2010 when I was 26. The experiences were different from one another in various ways. For one thing, at the time of the first rape I was young, scared of what others would assume, naive about the emotional repercussions, and I did not feel empowered to confront the man afterwards. In contrast, by the time of the second rape I was older, more proactive about self-care, and I had already had the first experience to give me more realistic expectations of how I would feel and what it would take to cope. More significantly, my state of consciousness and resulting participation varied. During the first rape I was passed out drunk, thus lacking the physical or mental capacity to consent or move. Directly prior to the second rape I explicitly stated my lack of consent, declaring, “We are not having sex right now;” yet the guy decided to proceed with utter disregard anyway. I’m not sure which is worse, fucking someone who doesn’t know (I woke up disoriented with him inside me) or fucking someone who says no in a complete fucking sentence. Both are bad. And both were wholly uncalled regardless of my previous sexual history or my desire to get fucked sometimes by some men, even one of them.
Besides getting raped by two men, I have had consensual penis-in-vagina sex with fifty-four men, including one of the eventual rapists, and consensual not-quite-sex sexual relations with numerous other men and women. Which is to say, I know a thing or two about sex. And I know that even though I have had a spectrum of consensual experiences and even though the circumstances of the two non-consensual experiences diverged from one another, those two experiences were distinct from all the rest. They were inverted spaces in which men did things to me. Without any regard for my body or desires. Without acknowledging that I am a human being with needs, like the need to feel safe and in control of my body—autonomous. I had no level of participation in either act beyond physically pushing man number two away, which was more reflexive than conscious.
I surmise, though, that most people would feel a lower level of sympathy for me than they would if they read a similar story written by someone with less of a history.
Some might argue that I got myself into those situations; I made my bed and was forced to lay in it.
Women are expected to assume the role of sexual gatekeepers, to keep men in line because men can’t control themselves. Men are animals with desires and women are recipients, passive except to maintain boundaries. When women fail to guard their bodies or, god forbid, express sexual desires of their own, and men take advantage of their moral or cognitive slippage, touch or talk to them in unwanted ways, they should have known better.
I invited man number two into my bed, but I did not invite him for a round two after I told him I was done for the evening. There is no such thing as a sexual all-access pass. Women (people in general) have the right to revoke consent at any time and retain the respect of their partners.
Context and consent are everything. Just because celebrities have agreed to be public figures, exposing select facets of their lives, does not mean their bodies belong to us.
If only “gatekeeping” referred to having dominion over how much of ourselves we choose to expose. If only we were the initiators rather than the refusers.