Yet Another White Man’s Burden (Normal: Redux)

Made some revisions to my recent major paper about magic, construction of sex and prostitution. Sharpened it up a little and addressed some  of the critiques people had made. Added a concluding paragraph because apparently people like those, and a couple appendices, because I like those — they let me laugh in the face of length restrictions; Appendix I is about privacy concerns and the erasure of identity. The other I’m including below.

Check it out! I think it’s pretty snazzy.

Appendix II: Yet Another White Man’s Burden

After the first time he had sex with a prostitute, Chester Brown felt that a burden he’d been carrying was lifted and has never returned. This offhanded remark, elaborated on briefly in his appendices, is very important, and is something in which I can easily see myself. The burden he describes is the pressure to initiate sexual interactions with women; it was lifted because, once he paid for it, there was no longer a need to seek it out in other ways. In this appendix, I will be looking not at the act of sex, but its pursuit. In focusing on my and Brown’s experience of difficulties surrounding sexual interactions, I do not mean to imply that ours are somehow worse than those of others. Our privilege as white heterosexual men in Toronto is not in dispute: I merely wish to explore one problem particular to our otherwise very advantaged sexual demographic.

Heterosexual men in this society are in a strange place when it comes to the pursuit of sex. On the one hand, we’re expected to do the “hitting on,” a vague, violent metaphor for “our role” in the mating dance. Many women who might be sexually attracted to us will still very much want us to “make the first move.” On the other hand, we’re vilified for doing so: we’re “pigs” who “only want sex,” and if we “hit on” the wrong person at the wrong time or in the wrong way we’re likely to be labeled as “creepy” and stigmatised, sometimes with disastrous consequences for our reputation and self image. Yet, rather than consensus on what the “right” time or the “right” way might be, we’re faced with many contradictory accounts. If I give the same description of a situation to two of my female friends, asking what they think is the appropriate thing to do, one might tell me to be sexually forward and the other insist that doing so would be invasive and disrespectful. So what are we supposed to do? This is further complicated by an awareness of feminist writing about sexual violence. Very few men wish to think of themselves as violent towards women, and yet most want to think of themselves as sexual towards women. So what to do with arguments from theorists like MacKinnon who suggest that sex is inherently violent?

Clearly men are not collectively paralysed by this. Most of us will proceed anyway in one way or another, evaluating social cues to the best of our ability to determine what is or isn’t appropriate in a given situation and finding ways of seeking out sexual interactions while minimizing the discomfort for everybody involved. Not all of us are always successful at this, nor do all of us even care that much; many men are profoundly inconsiderate, others downright abusive. But some of us both care, and are not always successful at navigating the complexities of social interactions. Some of us even have cognitive disadvantages here.

Aside from being white hetero male writers in Toronto, Chester Brown and I most likely also have something else in common: high functioning but undiagnosed autism-spectrum conditions. Those familiar with such things will likely spot it in Brown right away, in his emotional neutrality (one of his friends describes him as a robot) and atypical response to social cues, as well as in the particulars of his analytic style, but he’s old enough that even had he met all the diagnostic criteria of Asperger’s Syndrome as a child, he would not have been tested or diagnosed. Whether or not he meets the full diagnostic criteria, it’s very likely that he shares some of the key features, and thus is at a particular disadvantage in evaluating the appropriateness of any given social action, or in initiating social interactions and maintaining them without violating conversational expectations more generally. To maintain his self-image as a “good guy,” he then errs on the side of inaction much of the time, which typically precludes the possibility of sexual encounters.

As for my own experience of this, the simplest way to sum up my social philosophy is that I live by the anthropologist’s motto: “homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto:” “I am human, nothing human is alien to me.” No matter how you feel, it’s okay to feel that way – it’s just one way to feel, and we would all do well to strive toward an understanding of as many ways of feeling as possible. Social reality is unfathomably complex, and therefore we ought to be candid about our thoughts and desires rather than taking for granted that simplistic, inherited modes of interaction will be sufficient to inform our behaviours: through honesty we’ll discover compatibilities where they exist, and learn to avoid those interactions that are causing suffering. To me, this formulation makes perfect sense… but social interaction doesn’t generally work out this way. Even if I think I’m being totally candid, somebody may think that I’m implying a whole lot more than I meant to, or through my candour I may speak explicitly about that which they would have preferred to remain coy. Add to this a natural difficulty that comes with autism spectrum disorders to accurately assess whether or not you’re making somebody uncomfortable, and moreover an even larger difficulty guessing exactly why they are uncomfortable if such cues are noticed, and pursuing sexual interactions quickly becomes seriously problematic. Thus, over time, I’ve become more and more hesitant to express myself sexually towards people. Although the number of women with whom I’ve had positive sexual interactions exceeds the number with whom I’ve gotten into a truly awkward situation, the few bad situations have been sufficiently traumatic as to make me afraid of repeating them, and therefore, like Brown, I’ve learned to err on the side of caution. This may be for the best, but when combined with the rest of the above, it leaves me with a strong desire for sex, social expectations that I’ll be the one to seek it out, and the incapacity to actually do so.

Brown evidently used to suffer from the same problem. He mentions various times when women called him “cute” or otherwise reacted positively to him on the street, which perversely resulted in insecurity. Feeling that he may have missed rare opportunities for sex, while at the same time fearing causing discomfort by wrongly assuming that they were okay with being approached sexually, he would endlessly obsess over his inaction: this was his “burden.” This is a regular occurrence for me, and I still haven’t figured out what to do about it. I absolutely do not feel comfortable hitting on somebody simply because they were being friendly toward me… it could mean too many things, and I don’t want to immediately sexualise every encounter. However, I do want to have sex, and I also know that many women do find me attractive, so presumably some of those who are friendly towards me would like me to hit on them. But what ought “hitting on” even consist of, if I’m to transcend the violent model of sex? I have no solution to this right now other than to wait for the “right” situation in which things will seem natural and it will be clear that everybody’s comfort levels are being met. Because I’m young and reasonably attractive, chances are good this will work out for me, but what if I was older and uglier? My refusal to play the game isn’t really much of a solution except for a desirable few, and I don’t know how we as a society can adequately deal with this. Chester Brown claims to have found the solution: by paying for sex, we make the arrangement explicit, and the difficulties of pursuing interactions and assessing appropriateness diminishes remarkably.

I must say, there’s something compelling about his solution. I have never paid for sex, but I’m probably a lot more likely to now that I’ve read his book, and I know I’m not alone in that: a male friend of mine just yesterday told me that reading it made him think of calling an escort. This is what I was describing as sorcery in my essay: through what he wrote, Brown has influenced patterns of social behaviour in non-trivial ways, and brought us closer to the society he envisions. Like anyone else, of course, I have friends who insist that prostitution is always exploitative, but I can’t accept this. If I were to pay for sex right now, the most likely person I’d pay would be a female friend who occasionally escorts and who, due to the nature of our relationship, is likely to be sexual with me at some point in the future even if I don’t pay her. However, she’s very busy, and has other partners, so if I want to sleep with her tonight, not “likely… at some point in the future,” calling her and offering money I know she could use would certainly speed up the process. If I need the sexual release badly enough, why not?

That does not, however, mean that I’m ultimately convinced by Brown’s approach. The world he describes in which paying for sex is seen as normal and common seems completely unrealistic to me… it doesn’t seem to acknowledge the complexity of either social or economic life, particularly in the context of global systems of domination and discrimination, and it exaggerates the agency and independence of the various social actors. That’s not to say it won’t be an excellent solution for some people… it may well be. Though I don’t doubt it was an excellent solution for Brown, it will not be so for everybody. I have no moral qualms about paying for sex, but that doesn’t mean I actually can afford to start doing so, for one thing, and even though I know my friend is not opposed to either sex with me or sex for money, that doesn’t mean that entering into a financial arrangement wouldn’t complicate, even compromise, certain aspects of our friendship. What if I pay once, and then invite her over another time just to eat dinner and hang out? Will she assume I’m going to be paying her, or that I’m after sex? Employer/employee relations can easily become problematically unbalanced. Since we’re both intelligent adults, no doubt we could mitigate such miscommunications by talking it over, but the bottom line is that sex and affection create highly charged spaces which not everybody is equally capable of navigating effectively. Brown’s solution makes that space easier to navigate for one group who otherwise are at a marginal disadvantage: men who lack social skills but have money. Hopefully, as scholarship in gender studies continues to produce material about masculinity, and we do more to collectively negotiate the meaning and value of romantic, intimate and sexual relations, more alternatives for sexual fulfilment will emerge – not just for the privileged, but for everybody.

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