Thursday, August 26, 2010

Agency, Objectivity, and a Vision of Sexual Justice: Part Two, on Hookups

How do we define risky or inappropriate behavior? I think that sometimes we cast these categories too broadly. To explore this question, I will return to the issue of hooking up that I previously addressed through my comments on the work of Shannon Boodram and Nancy Bauer.

In responding to the chapter in Boodram’s book about “Hookups that Fell Down,” I expressed my feeling that many of the experiences described in this chapter include evidence that suggests they were sexual assaults, not simply bad hookups. Although I could defend this statement further using the examples in the book, I've actually chosen not to explicate these stories on my blog at this point because it is not my desire to place labels on someone else's experience.

More specifically, I'd like to refer to the disagreement as an example of what I see as the need to be more specific about the boundary of the categories that we're using to discuss sexuality. The title of the chapter blurs the line between hookups and assaults, including many assaults under the category of a bad hookup. I think this is dangerous because it fails to recognize the role of human agency in our sexuality. Having a sexual experience that “falls down,” or that one later regrets, necessitates having made a choice initially to engage in sexual activity. On the other hand, when a person is pushed, pressured, tricked, or otherwise made to engage in un-consensual sexual activity, that is sexual assault.

In Bauer’s work, I find the opposite tension. She critiqued all hookups as objectifying and violent—no hookup, it seems, could then be entered out of one’s own agency. I fear that clumping all hookups together as inherently unhealthy and inevitably unhappy experiences makes it so much harder to differentiate between hookups and sexual assaults. Furthermore, if we state ahead of time that all hookups are objectifying, then we are laying the groundwork for victim-blaming when someone does in fact experience sexual violence during the course of pursuing a hookup.

Unhealthy, unhappy and nonconsensual after all too often come hand-in-hand. Furthermore, we justify blaming the victim by lowering expectations below the line of respectable, consensual treatment.

Assault, objectification and manipulation come in all shapes and sizes. What we label every hookups as negative, and when we dismiss nonconsensual hookups as normative, we blur our vision and sacrifice our ability to identify violence, on the one hand, and strive for consensual pleasure, on the other.

Maybe no two people on earth have ever successfully had a healthy, positive, safe hookup together that both of them still, to this day, remember with a joyful smile. Maybe such a hookup has never happened. I think it has happened and does happen, but even if it has not, we need to believe it to be possible. We need to believe in this high standard because without this high standard, we blind ourselves. If we set this high standard, we broaden the spectrum on which we can understand hookups and we increase the number of ways in which we can describe hookups, acknowledging them to have either been amazing, pleasing, fun, sweet, mediocre, a bummer, a regret, inappropriate, not consensual, traumatizing, violent . . .

I want a way to talk about different hookup experiences not just in terms of the stereotypes we've used so far, but in terms of a vast range of real experiences and a fabulous image of safe, consensual joy. I’m frustrated by what feels to me like a lack of differentiation and a turning away from the challenge of enthusiastic consent.