Joseph J. Fischel’s book, Screw Consent, has brought up some nice challenges to our notions of sexual consent. I would serious recommend this book to anyone who wants to know more about sexual autonomy, sexual consent, and our sexual culture at large.
Toward the end of the book, Fischel remarks on the #MeToo movement and he argues that what makes the movement standout isn’t necessarily that men sexually assaulting women are finally getting their comeuppance due to discrimination and harrassment. After all, the Aziz Ansari case is tricky in that it isn’t really sexual assault, or at least not a paradigm example of sexual assault. Nor is the movement necessarily about how we ought to pay attention to sexual consent. Again, the Aziz Ansari case is a good example where “Grace” wasn’t coerced. She may have been pressured, manipulated, or “didn’t want to make a scene.” And this leads to what Fischel’s point is: the #MeToo movement is more about how men are in powerful roles and they took advantage of that power. They want sexual pleasure at the expense of the victim. This is what Fischel calls undemocratic hedonism: there is an asymmetrical sexual access. The men try to gain the pleasure for themselves and sexual gratification by denying someone else’s. As Fischel puts it: “What if these #MeToo stories are not just stories of men abusing their power but also of men whose only card is their power?” (p. 181)
He asks how we can help less privileged people have more sexual access? How might we democratize sexual culture? How can we begin to form democratic hedonism?
I offer a small attempt on how to build a democratic hedonism. Because this is a complex idea that has multiple facets, I’m going to make this idea into three separate parts.
First and foremost, we really need to revamp or sex education. Sex education should definitely not be about “saying no” because many studies show that abstinence only education doesn’t work, and that it just reiterates heteronormative standards. Sex education isn’t just about sexual mechanics or avoiding unwanted consequences; it is about dismantling heteronormative assumptions. Our sexual culture is problematic in that we often hear that men are always desiring sex, women don’t want sex that often, “real” men try to sow their oats before they settle, and women are the gatekeepers of their sexuality. What we need is a sex education that develops our sexual subjectivity and respect others’ sexual subjectivity. Moreover, without a sex education to undermine these gendered norms, sex education is weak and reinforces undemocratic hedonism.
With that in mind, I take three features that touch on ways to help build a democratic hedonism. The three features our our sexual emotions, our sexual mind, and our sexual body. I’ll be focusing on our sexual emotions in this post.
Working on our emotions. In a sex education class, a good educator brings up topics in order to normalize discussions about sexual and relationship styles rather than associating those topics with shame or guilt. As an example, there are many people who are disgusted by homosexuality, polyamory, transgender, and intersex people. We can ask the students to see why they are filled with disgust. I’m willing to bet that the main foundation of their disgust would come down to what they value.
Now these values have normative import where the students believe it has a wide or almost universal claim. See below. Students need to see what they believe and value and see if there is any basis to those values.
If they find there is no basis for the belief, they need to have the tools and skills to eventually discard that belief and have the correct emotional response. So what are the tools and skills to discard these disvalued beliefs? Philosophy, as I’ve mentioned in a previous post, is needed in sex education. But concretely, I think facing people who have different sexual expectations, values, and norms are ways to also challenge your values in a good way. Overcoming these barriers works best when students can actually engage with sexual minorities instead of thinking about the issue abstractly. By engaging with people who do not fit the sexual norm, the students may see that people’s sexual and relationship preferences are not threatening, which would help change the belief, which would thereby change the emotion.
How can this work? In the fall of 2013, I taught a one-credit honors class targeted toward freshmen. The class was about sexualities and relationships that were outside the social and hence, moral norms. In one of those weeks, I assigned readings that discussed polyamory. A large majority of the students found the practicing appalling, and could not see any value of it. The following week, I invited a polyamorous guest speaker to be part of the class discussion and to answer students’ questions. The students asked wonderful questions and really wanted to know more about polyamory. The interactions were concrete, and the students could get involved with another person who was polyamorous instead of simply engaging with the idea of polyamory. The following week, I asked the class what they thought of the presenter and polyamory in general. It was almost unanimous: the class considered polyamory as a legitimate mating style and not something to be shunned. I then suggested to the class that when we think about ideas abstractly, we often judge those ideas compared to the social norms. After all, critiquing an idea is not harmful if no one holds the idea. But now that they meet a person who not only holds the idea, but affirms it as part of her lifestyle, the students can see the idea in action and not just abstractly thinking about the idea.
I ask the students to ponder what sort of prejudices we have had in the past. Many of them say same-sex relationships. I ask them to consider what sort of ideas we hold true, but could be considered prejudicial in the future. And I ask if judging people who are ethically non-monogamous could be a prejudice. Most agree, even if they prefer to be monogamous. They were slowly coming to terms that polyamory could be a legitimate type of mating orientation or relationship structure. This realization may expunge their disgust or negative attribution toward ethical non-monogamy. Perhaps if they hear about polyamory either through friends or the media, they are not so quick to judge. Indeed, they may be more comfortable talking about the issue, or befriend those who are polyamorous. And if the disgust is expunged and replaced with a sense of justice, they may quickly call out those who do judge those who have different mating orientations. This exercise could possibly be done with those who are transgender: I would invite someone who is transgender; the students have a discussion with the person. This generates a discussion and they possibly recast their beliefs about transgender people as those who are legitimate members of society. By seeing a person who affirms that alternative relationship or sexual mode of living, students may see someone exercising their sexual self and expunge the prejudicial belief, which, in turn, can help expunge the negative emotional response.
Could we do the same for undemocratic hedonism? I think so. We need to form an emotional attitude that other people for sexual purposes are people with ends and that they should not just focus on their own sexual gratification but also on their partners. How so? This leads me to my second feature, which I’ll discuss in my next post delving into the sexual mind and discussing the “discourse of erotics.”