Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Another image: What is it selling?

Unclear expression is sometimes the product of poor execution. Most of the time, though, the problem is that the thinking behind the execution is confused. Again, sometimes, all we need to do is revisit our thinking and straighten out the concept. Other times, and these other times happen humiliatingly often, we revisit your thinking and discover that the reason it is confused is because we were intellectually dishonest or morally lazy in the way we approached the issue in the first place. That is what went wrong with the ad campaign above.

This is the most recent in a series of ads that have appeared on local buses. This one was strategically placed on one of the buses that serves one of the four universities here in town. It's dishonest in the way that most anti-rape campaigns are in that it assumes the problem is men in general (one of the lines accompanying the image is, "Don't be that guy"), as opposed to specifically rapists, but it has other problems as well.

We can get at the deeper problems if we ask ourselves what difference does it make that she is wasted? What is going on in the picture is obviously assault and would still be assault even if she were sober. In fact, the very same picture could be used more credibly (although no more effectively) for a campaign against violent rape. Drunk or sober, the woman is clearly unhappy and unwilling.

And the guys ... well, there are two of them for starters. And they are using force.

Here is the other slogan that goes with the ad:

Sex with someone unable to consent = sexual assault

And that's the problem right there. If you were unclear about what it means for someone to be unable to consent before seeing that ad, you wouldn't be any better off after seeing it. That image tells you that aggressive predators find it easier to overpower a woman when she is drunk, which is true enough, but it tells you nothing about why being drunk might render her unable to consent.

The point would be clearer if the woman was passed out and a guy was moving in on her clearly intent on doing something sexual. I'm not sure how you could make that clear in an image and that is a big part of the problem here: an image is simply not a good choice for conveying a message about consent. To use words instead of an image might have helped in that it would also have forced the people behind the ad to think the concept through more carefully. (You would think, by the way, that the limitations of using an image in a campaign like this would be obvious to the people who tell us over and over again that men should explicitly ask women for verbal consent because her behaviour or dress cannot be taken as consent.)

But, again, the case of a passed out person wouldn't help us understand why consent would be an issue because a passed out person too obviously does not consent—a passed out person cannot act or speak. The message that needs to be put across is that there are some times when we should refrain from having sex even though the person we are interested in having sex with says things and acts in ways that normally could be taken as consent.

Let me take you back seventy three years to the movie The Philadelphia Story to see how they handled the issue. Tracy Lord was very drunk the night before and she is worried that she may have done something sexual and the dialogue below ensued. It was a less-enlightened age in  many ways and we see this in the way the movie treats the issue as a matter potentially to the woman's shame rather than as a potential crime on the man's part. But it is also is more enlightened in that it is willing to confront the possibility that people might agree to things drunk that they would not agree to sober.
Mike: Mr Kittredge, it may interest you to know that our so-called affair consisted of exactly two kisses and one rather late swim both of which I thoroughly enjoyed and the memory of which I wouldn't part with for anything. After which I returned here, carried her to her room, deposited her on her bed and promptly returned here which you will no doubt remember.
George Kittredge: That's all?
Mike: That's all.
Tracy: Why? Was I so cold? So forbidding?
Mike: Not at all. On the contrary but you were somewhat the worse or the better for the wine and there are rules about such things.
There are rules about such things. Well, there should be. One of the things that the writers seventy-three years ago recognized, and that we are less willing to face today, is that moral sexual behaviour requires us to recognize that we sometimes do not and cannot know what the other person really does or really does not want. And that means deliberately erring in the direction of caution; which is to say sometimes deciding not to have sex "just in case". This, by the way, is a pretty normal and unexceptional event for a man in an established relationship, a point I will return to.

Thirty years ago, the head of the women's centre on my campus told me that men are often put in a difficult position because they will be mocked by women for failing to be aggressive enough. I've never been mocked but a few women I knew in university made a point of telling me after the fact that they were disappointed that I held back from sex. The problem here is a sort of moral narcissism that tends to take hold of people when we are horny: the other person stops being an independent being with their own hopes and fears and becomes merely a bit player in our sexual adventure. For these women, I was supposed to play a certain role in the adventure as they imagined it playing out and they simply forgot that I might be full of doubts.

BUT!!!! it is essential to recognize that there is a huge difference between male and female experience here. A man faces the possibility that he might miss out on sex. Worst case scenario for a man is that he gets mocked by a woman for failing to act. For a woman in such a situation, she sometimes ends up having sex she didn't want to have! That's a deeply intimate and invasive experience.

But this is also an area where, if you'll pardon the expression, the lines are little blurred. A woman seeking experience might intentionally set out to get a little drunk to lower her inhibitions so that she will be able to have sex; "might" is understating the case as thousands in fact do every weekend. At the same time, there is a point of drunkenness where her judgment is so unbalanced that it would be wrong to have sex with her even if she clearly and unequivocally asked you to.

That's where the moral laziness comes in. The people behind campaigns of this sort are unwilling to confront certain basic facts about the college experience. These facts are not a secret and many writers are quite comfortable with them when they aren't talking about sexual assault. Consider for example, the attitude taken by Ashley Fetters of The Atlantic in an article about women who have their pubic hair waxed off:
Herbenick and Fitzpatrick both believe one demographic group has embraced the hairless-cat look more fervently than others: college students.

In theory, this should come as no surprise; The average U.S. state university actually has all the right features to act as a veritable incubator for anti-pube sentiments. Where else do youth, skimpy clothing, rampantly available pornography, and non-monogamous sexual habits all converge so gloriously? 
"Gloriously" is a telling word choice wouldn't you say?

Let's read a bit further:
And among women, Herbenick says, pubic grooming habits and preferences tend to spread among friend groups -- which leads to "clumps," she says, of women with similar grooming regimens. "Friends talk," she says. "So especially among teenagers and college students, when everyone is trying to be the same, 'the same' is what you get."

Herbenick recalls one encounter in which a popular, well-liked college student in a class she taught openly professed that he had never hooked up with a girl who had pubic hair, and would frankly be disgusted to undress a woman and discover a veil of genital fur.

"Some girls talked to me and wrote in their papers that they had always had pubic hair, and in a couple cases never did anything to their pubic hair," she said. "They never thought it was a problem. But when he said that, they went home and changed it. They really started to feel ashamed about their bodies."

Fitzpatrick, similarly, finds himself in a collegiate scene full of young women far too obsessed with the hair down there. "It becomes a compulsion," he says.
Hmm, many teenagers and college students are "trying to be the same". We used to call that peer pressure and introducing it into the equation changes things. For if we are willing to allow that thousands of women are going through the excruciatingly painful experience of having their pubic hair torn out by the roots because of pressure from men and other women, we should also ask what sort of pressure are they under to have sex?

The issue is further complicated by the pressure to have hook ups. For an established couple, nothing sexual has to happen "right now". They'll still be a couple tomorrow if either of them decides the signals they are receiving from the other are too ambiguous to act on. But someone who is under peer pressure to have sexual experiences outside of a relationship is operating under completely different conditions. If it doesn't happen with this person tonight, it's probably never going to happen with this person.

I should admit that hook up sex has low appeal for me. I did it many years ago now and repeated the experience several times even though I was deeply disappointed with the sex every time I did. That sort of sex, when it did happen, was a pale shadow of the sort of sex I have had in serious relationships and now in marriage. But I remember feeling compelled to do it once upon a time. Part of the feeling was raging hormones and part of was loneliness and part of it was the feeling that I wouldn't be a complete human being if I didn't have this sort of experience under my belt. For men and women in university, peer pressure amps this feeling up to levels where it is very difficult to resist.

Is it difficult to imagine a young woman with mixed feelings about sex also feeling like this is something she is compelled to do to get the respect of other women she knows? Is it difficult to imagine her going to a party to "see what happens" and deliberately having several drinks to lower her inhibitions? Is it difficult to imagine her willingly consenting to sex while drunk and then deeply regretting this sex the next day? I don't have to imagine it, most of the women I knew at university reported something like this happening to them at least once.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of young people flood university campuses determined to get not only an education but also the life experience that comes from living away from their parents for an extended period for the first time in their lives. Most of them enter university with little, and sometimes no, experience with sex or alcohol. And they are subjected to immense peer pressures to have sex while at university. Is that glorious?

For many, it's going to be a recipe for disaster. They are going to make choices and consent to things they are going to regret and regret deeply. Oftentimes, alcohol is going to play a part. Most students will experience this regret to some extent. A significant minority are going to regret a lot. A much smaller number are going to suffer something far worse:
... I focused on a danger that overwhelmingly affects women: rape. Because of the strong evidence that intoxication and sexual assault are linked and that a kind of predator seeks out intoxicated women, I concentrated on informing young women that avoiding incapacitation could help them stay safe. But there was extreme offense taken to the idea that women should change their behavior in any way to protect themselves. One college professor summed it up when she wrote to me, “to reiterate the old Puritan line that women need to restrain and modify their pleasure-seeking behaviors is a big step backward.” Apparently I was mistaken that it is common sense to acknowledge that part of growing up for all is recognizing dangers and learning to restrain one’s pleasure-seeking behaviors in order to better avoid them. 
That's Emily Yoffe of Slate responding to critics who thought her suggesting that women entering colleges might learn to control their drinking for their own safety. Yoffe, unlike the creators of the ad at the top of this post, is willing to honestly confront the issues involved. For example, she writes "a kind of predator seeks out intoxicated women". "Predator" is a good word choice for that is what rapists are. They are angry, anti-social men who are extremely unlikely to be influenced by ads like the above. The overwhelming majority of men are not, and never will be, that sort of predator so ads aimed at men in general will never have any impact on the incidence of sexual assault on university campuses.

Of course, that is assuming the creators of these ads had any such intention in the first place, which I doubt.


  1. Actually, the campaign is not just targeting heterosexual male predators. There's one with a man and a woman (just one of each) and a slogan something like this: "It's not sex if he doesn't consent."

    There's also one with two men and the slogan, "It's not sex if he says he doesn't want to."

    The only pairing I have not yet seen is two females.

    1. I've seen one or two others. They struck me as being fairly coherent so I didn't comment on them.

      One situation I'd love to see them handle is the woman who, to please her boyfriend, pressures her female friend into joining them for a threesome. That's a far more common problem than anyone realizes and all sorts of unfair tactics are used.

  2. This is a real problem, in part, because college students tend to like to do the things they see in porn. I'm not against porn, but somebody needs to tell these kids that not everything they see in porn is acceptable or even legal. There was a situation a few years ago at a respected university near here where three undergraduate men ejaculated on a woman who was passed out after a party. She had no knowledge of this (even though they made no attempt to clean her up after) until one of the guys sent her an email the next day telling her. She reported it, and the men were expelled, however they couldn't be prosecuted because there was no law here at that time making what they did illegal. The legislature since passed such a law. My point is their defense was that they had seen it in porn.