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Shaming Sexism Isn’t Prudery

Saturday Evening Post

David Foster has, correctly, received a lot of criticism for his comically misguided column in the Guardian, in which he appeared to argue in favor of women accepting direct sexual propositions as the harmless, and ultimately positive, result of sexual liberation. Pack up your bags and go home, feminists, your work is finished!

His particular critique is of the Everyday Sexism Project, a ghoulish catalogue of women’s experiences of being attacked, followed, berated, threatened, and assaulted for refusing sexual advances. Foster concedes twice that most of the examples recorded there are offensive, but then claims, “by lumping together sexual assaults and genuinely threatening behaviour with casual propositions, the campaign risks conflating deplorable and even criminal acts with sexually liberated expression.” He thinks there are bright lights of liberation hidden within that swamp of vile misogyny. Don’t throw away the bad with the good, ladies! There might be a toe-curling one-night stand hidden in that cesspool. A feminist, even anti-capitalist one-night stand!

Saturday Evening Post

From the Saturday Evening Post, 1941
Via Cliff

Foster further asserts that, “there is a risk of comparing offensive and clumsy sexual remarks with respectful, courteous sexual advances.” So in the same breath that he condemns the “sexually repressive, patriarchal ideology that feminism strives to counter,” he condescends to women by suggesting that the problem is that they simply can’t tell the difference between the two types of approaches. But, of course, women can tell the difference. They can feel the difference as they instinctively recoil in fear at leering eyes and vulgar assessments of their bodies. And women are likely to trust their bodies more than amorphous ideologies about unshackling themselves in an ecstatic fit of liberation.

As Mychal Denzel Smith rightly pointed out on Feministing, the street overture for sex cannot and never will be about sexual liberation:

. . . harassment is about power, not about sex. When making lewd comments to a woman he doesn’t know on the street, a man is not flirting. He’s asserting his dominance. He’s reminding that woman of her “place.” He’s performing a masculinity based on control. This isn’t sexual liberation.

What Foster’s argument also assumes is that all women who are being directly propositioned are, or ought to be, sex-positive feminists. They’re not. They don’t have to be. It is not the prerogative of feminists to force liberated sexual mores on those who do not share their values. Nor is it anyone’s job, particularly any man’s job, to drag a woman screaming into his fantastical vision of an orgy of unencumbered come-ons.

The many advantages of human sentience include being able to understand social cues and read body language. Inappropriate remarks about female bodies in public are often not the primary issue, in fact. The problem is often the hostile reaction the man gives to her rejection of those remarks, or to her choice to ignore him entirely. If Foster could empathize with the daily trauma of that hostility, perhaps his approach would be more . . . nuanced.

Let’s compare a man saying “I want to fuck you” to his saying “Hello, may I talk to you?” The first approach simply asserts a male desire, while the other invites female consent. If the first expression is unwelcome, but the person expressing it proceeds anyway, this moves toward being a criminal act. If the second is unwelcome, though, it’s nothing but an annoyance. The latter can ultimately lead to a sexual proposition, as well, but only after mutual interest and attraction are verified.

This may seem like a long, onerous process, but really, this encounter can take only a few minutes. And hey Foster, it’s a long life. So do women a favor and give them this time, space, and agency. If she declines, it’s not because her feminism has failed her. It’s just your bad game.