Seduction and Its Nasty Implications

[Trigger warning for sexual assault.]

When I posted How to Seduce an Asexual, I left out a lot of things about seduction that I have a problem with. Namely… well, the entire system of ideology that’s behind it.

I had an extended conversation with C about it after I made that post, and the conclusion we both came to is that ultimately, seduction comes down to placing blame. Or credit, as the case may be—boys patting themselves on the back for having “scored” with so-and-so, bragging about it to other boys.

Historically, it has probably been more about blame than credit. Here are the definitions of the verb “seduce” given by the OED:

1. trans. To persuade (a vassal, servant, soldier, etc.) to desert his allegiance or service.

2. In wider sense: To lead (a person) astray in conduct or belief; to draw away from the right or intended course of action to or into a wrong one; to tempt, entice, or beguile to do something wrong, foolish, or unintended.

3. trans. To induce (a woman) to surrender her chastity. Now said only of the man with whom the act of unchastity is committed (not, e.g., of a pander). Cf. DEBAUCH v.

4. To decoy (from or to a place), to lead astray (into). Obs. exc. with notion of sense

5. To win by charm or attractiveness. Obs. rare

Inherent in most, if not absolutely all, of these is a value judgment: sex is bad, it is the wrong course. For the seduced, having sex is foolish or at the very least unintended. According to C’s way of thinking, you cannot be seduced if you set out originally to have sex with whomever you happened to have sex with. You might say that you were seduced, but I think most people would agree that if you intended to do it from the outset, you weren’t actually seduced. So that means that at least in some sense, having sex would be something negative. Maybe that means you have “chastity”—some kind of innocence or purity which can be given away. A virginity, whatever the heck that means, that you are protecting by not having sex. You’re trying to hold to these principles, and you wouldn’t normally do it, but someone came along who was just so amazingly tempting that you had to give in. He seduced you. Notice who is both the subject and the agent of that sentence. It’s not you, it’s him.

Or maybe you’re not a virgin. Maybe you’re married. If you’re committed to a monogamous relationship, then it’s wrong to have sex outside of that relationship. You do it anyway, and when your partner finds out, you say, “She seduced me.” Whether or not that’s true, if you can get your partner to believe it, it may shift some of the blame onto the “seductress.” While you may not be absolved of blame in the public eye, the focus shifts. Google Michelle McGee, for instance, and you’re likely to find blog posts about her where people have had to use a disclaimer: “Of course Jesse James is also in the wrong, but…”

Seduction is inherently about manipulation, even if the result is framed as something which is liberating. It is about strategizing, cajoling, overcoming resistance—even if that resistance comes from “unfounded fears” or negative ideas about sex, and results in a welcome removal of such fears. It is a choice made under pressure deliberately calculated by the seducer, if it does constitute a choice at all. It’s not really even framed as a choice; it’s framed as something that was done to someone.

And it’s scary, because a person in “seduction mode” will likely not recognize very obvious signs of non-consent and back off. M laughed at me once for pulling his hand out of my underwear, and then put it back. He thought of my actions as if they were a move in a game, apparently, when really I wanted him to stop, and it would be hedging to say I was merely “uncomfortable” with what he was doing. I was scared. I could tell he would be able to overpower me, and most likely nobody would take my side. He didn’t respect me or the knowledge I had about my sexual orientation—not that he even listened to me when I tried to explain and make my boundaries clear. I thought that if I could just communicate to him what asexuality really means, he would stop violating them, and start to take me seriously. That never happened. He was convinced that I was “not really asexual” and apparently thought that he was sweeping me off my feet, getting rid of my “unfounded” fears, and so on.

Why is it that consent is allowed to be implicit—indicated by anything from the clothes a victim is wearing to his/her previous history and character—but there is no room for implicit non-consent? Why does a lack of a no apparently mean yes? Why does Cathy Young say that requiring initiators to seek explicit consent for sexual activity:

“infantilizes women (while the policies may be gender-neutral on their face, they generally presume men to be the initiators in heterosexual encounters). Are women so weak that they can’t even say ”no,” or otherwise indicate their lack of consent, unless the man takes the initiative of asking?”

Hey, I tried to indicate my lack of consent. It didn’t work. And having heard from 90 people so far (and still counting) about their experiences with rape and sexual assault, I realize that it is a common phenomenon to have one’s boundaries treated like they are a joke, even in cases where the victim very explicitly said no.

Actually, up to 88% of those who have been sexually assaulted experience some degree of involuntary temporary paralysis during the assault. It doesn’t make them weak or infantilize anyone, male or female; that’s just the way that most people (and other animals) instinctively respond to such a threat. In fact, it is probably adaptive and helpful, since resistance may only make an attacker more violent, and do more damage.

Treating sex like it is a game to be played out, especially a game wherein one party is expected to be the gatekeeper, and show resistance that is supposed to be overcome… well, I think it’s awful. Especially so for those who are assumed to be consenting when they are not. And even when the sex IS consensual, framing it as seduction removes the implication of free choice from the “seduced” and places the blame/credit on the “seducer.” And I wonder why, if you really made a fully informed and free choice to have sex, you wouldn’t want to give yourself credit for making that choice.

I just wish that we could get away from a manipulative model of how sex works and put everything out in the open. There is nothing wrong with having sex if you want to, and there is nothing wrong with not wanting to, either. I mean seriously, what is with all this sneaking around? Why is it such a huge problem to just outright ask if someone wants to do it or not, and then honor their wishes?

Baseball is Creepy!

The baseball metaphor, that is.

While messing around on the intarwebs tonight, I came across this article about finding a positive sexual metaphor. I’d highly recommend that everyone go take a look! In the first part of the article, the author examines baseball as a metaphor for sex in American culture, and just how insidious this metaphor really is:

Baseball is fundamentally oppositional. Both teams can’t win. One team wins and the other loses. As sex, that’s about one partner “gaining” something, and the other partner “losing” something. In our culture, women tend to lose status when they have sex, and there’s a lot of hubbub about women “losing” their “precious virginity.” Men, on the other hand, gain status and respect from sexual experience. This aspect of the model also serves to reinforce gender stereotypes, which are rarely conducive to safe, empowered and satisfying sexual encounters.

Could this have had anything to do with my own fairly intense fear of rape? I was born into the losing team, after all. And the message that I will lose out if I have sex is everywhere, as is the message that the “opposite team” is out to get me–to force or coerce me into having sex without regard for my own feelings about it. In a lot of cases, that really does happen to people, and when it does, doesn’t the baseball metaphor for sex provide the perfect excuse for the assailant? After all, it’s just how you win the game. No wonder there are so many rape apologists!

In its literal sense, baseball can be a fun game, but unlike its literal counterpart, when we’re talking about sex as baseball, there is almost never a switch-up between which team is batting and which is on the field–there is not supposed to be; you are born as either a batter or an outfielder, and that’s where, at least in theory, you stay.  That takes all the fun out of it, doesn’t it? Because if sex happens, somebody loses, and that loser is determined before the game even starts. It’s a predictable, rigid social role. To win the game says nothing about whether the sex was enjoyable for either party. It’s just about whether or not it happens.

This underlying way of thinking has shaped my experiences with heterosexual men, and that’s not to say that they all thought that way themselves, but that this unhealthy power dynamic exists at all has made me extra wary of dealing with “the opposite team”–to the point that I, for the most part, choose to simply opt out of dealing with them entirely, and instead I generally only play with the queer team. It just removes that whole level of uncertainty, that vague sense of wondering whether this person is playing against me, that sense of always having to be vigilant, just in case. Queer people can’t play the game like everyone else anyway; they aren’t allowed to be included in it in the first place.

The article goes into a lot more detail about that, and also proposes an alternative metaphor for sexuality: eating pizza. It’s definitely a much more ace-positive model, since nobody assumes that everybody must eat pizza; while they may be rare, there are just some people who don’t, and that’s fine.

I do think, however, that the metaphor starts to break down a little here:

Eating pizza with a partner is also not a radically different experience from eating pizza alone. The pizza model deflates the myth that masturbation is a lesser sexual experience than partnered sex. Eating pizza alone encompasses the complete pizza-eating experience, just as masturbation is a complete sexual experience. When we do it it with someone else, the fullness of the experience doesn’t change, we simply add communion with our partner(s) to the experience. What’s different is the companionship, intimacy, variety, and possibly the fun of having someone feed you for a change.

I am not sure whether we should classify masturbation as a purely sexual experience. After all, there are plenty of asexuals who masturbate but do not necessarily consider the experience sexual. To some, it may be. To others… the very reason it might be considered okay is because it seems to be a lesser sexual experience (though even then, many find it bothersome). It really isn’t all that involved, when compared to partnered sex, whereas when eating pizza, aside from the initial negotiation of toppings, the actual act of eating the pizza is not different when doing it alone or with a partner. More is required of the person who is having sex with a partner, as opposed to the person who is masturbating. In many cases, a lot more is required. I just don’t think the difference translates well, when we use this metaphor as a vehicle for expression.

I guess the question is really about whether we consider something to be sexual based on sexual appetite, or whether we consider it to be sexual based on which body parts are involved. It seems that people define things as sexual using both of these determinants in different situations. For example, some people think that kissing is sexual–for them, perhaps, it arouses a sexual appetite. But then, to continue the metaphor, people can still eat something even if they have no appetite. Is it the physical act of sex that defines it? If so, which physical act(s) are we talking about, here? Or is it more about the mental aspect of it, the desire/appetite? In some cases, it’s clear how to define it, but in other cases, like this one, it really isn’t.

I also usually have a problem with food-based metaphors for sex because of the idea that having sex is a need, in the same sense that it is a need for humans to eat. I will admit that there is a need for people to procreate, but it is not an individual need, it is only a collective need. Every individual member of a species does not need to procreate in order for the species to survive. However, every individual must eat in order for the individual to survive. So you really have to be careful not to take a comparison of sexual desire with hunger too far. In this case, though, I think the metaphor of sex as eating pizza works okay, on that level, because it refers only to a specific kind of food, and not to food in general. People who don’t eat pizza can thoroughly enjoy other foods, and that’s not weird at all. Likewise, people who don’t enjoy or engage in sexual activities can get plenty of fulfillment from other activities in life!

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Edit from the future: For further reading, check out this post by figleaf.