Friday, May 15, 2015

Privilege on the Boardwalk: Myths About Sexual Power

I'm walking down the beach boardwalk a couple blocks from my home. Sand crunches beneath my flip-flops and a light breeze takes the edge off the bright sunlight. In this weather, there are lots of neighbors out for a stroll. Kids bike past and two teen boys yell, "Hey girrrrrl." I shake my head and walk on.

I pass two women too deep in conversation to notice me. I pass a husband and wife and we flash brief smiles.

My third encounter is with an older gentleman. I give the same brief smile, but he angles toward me and says, "Have you been up in a plane before?" I fasten my gaze back on the horizon and hurry past before he can get in front of me and force me into conversation.

A mom jogs by in running gear, pushing a stroller. Two men sit on the sand-swept bench by the side of the boardwalk, watching me approach. I don't bother flashing them the smile and deliberately make no eye contact.

In that scene, the boys on the bikes, the elderly man with the bad pick-up line, and the men on the bench are similar to men I meet almost every day. Those are three real encounters that happened all on the same day.

My women readers are nodding their heads. This is normal.

It's annoying more than threatening. I don't feel my bodily safety is at risk. Nobody is going to rape me in broad daylight in front of a hundred other people. I only once had to worry that someone might follow me home, and it was an elderly man I easily outstripped by speed-walking.

I know many of my neighbors. I can punch pretty hard and run rather fast. None of that is the problem. The problem is I'm aware of all of this, constantly, persistently, every day of my life.

Now let me describe another scene.

I'm walking the boardwalk with my husband. We pass the chatty ladies, say hi to neighbors. Some boys--I swear it's the same ones--bike past and don't give us a second glance. The men walking by just smile in a friendly way and keep going.

That's when it hit me: this is what it's like for a man walking alone. This is male privilege. No worrying about how to cut off unwanted conversation. No avoiding anyone's eye so you don't have to see the leers. You just walk.

As a woman, that privilege gets extended to me in my husband's presence. Any girl who is out with a man will find herself protected from advances. Male privilege doesn't just cover the man: it covers "his" women.

We all know about the Male Gaze and why it's problematic. But we often forget the source of the problem rests on centuries of history regarding how we view sex.

There is a subconscious belief that male sexuality is potent and female sexuality is impotent. Men are active; women passive. Men are the driving force in sex and have the power to sexually harm; women just receive sex and cannot hurt men.

Thus we have Male Gaze but not Female Gaze. Women don't usually leer at men because for centuries we were taught we couldn't. Libido was a male thing. Men were the ones who thought about sex, initiated sex. Men "plowed the field" and "sowed the seed," while women just lied there.

This is why we believe that women are incapable of violating men. Male victims of female rapists are laughed at. Few ever tell their stories. Just look at how we treat the female victims of male rapists: with doubt and slut-shaming. "Why didn't you scream? What were you wearing?" That awful treatment is far worse for men who've been victimized by "impotent" women.

No wonder the lie persists that being raped makes a man gay. If a man is raped, his power is taken away, same as for women. But since men are defined by their power, this makes him feel he's not a man.

Which leads to another problem: the idea that gay men aren't masculine. The bottom is especially looked down on since he submits to a powerless, feminine role. His sexuality is perceived as being impotent like a woman's. He's not a "real man" anymore. To bigots, that makes him the ultimate abomination. This is why gay men have the second-highest homicide rates of LGBTQ groups.*

The problems continue. We persistently believe women don't desire sex, or desire significantly less. We say men "can't help it" when it comes to sex. Purity culture enforces the idea that women should bear the brunt of responsibility for saying "no," since women supposedly resist temptation more easily. We tell wives to just "give it to him" even if she doesn't want to, as if sex were about men's needs, with women's needs less urgent or less important.

Or perhaps we've swallowed the lie that female pleasure comes as a result of male pleasure. Thank film and literature for that. I'm excited that media portrays more women initiating sex, having desire, and being active in sex. But the bed only squeaks once in those scenes. The (always heterosexual) couple orgasms together because his pleasure is what sends her into paroxysms of joy. It's easier to tell a narrative where straight men are born with the skill of pleasing women and don't have to--or get to--figure out how women's bodies work.

Women's sexuality being labeled as impotent
 has an ironic flip side: lesbians often fly under the radar. If women have inactive libido, can't initiate, and can only respond when a man causes her to, then two women having sex just won't happen. The idea that a woman could orgasm without a man was often laughable, allowing women to be secret lovers with less fear of discovery. So at least one good thing came out of it all.

But this should be a call to action. A call to righting our wrong beliefs, teaching the next generation the truth, and changing the narratives that are perpetuated in media, books, and even the jokes we tell.

The privilege I get as a married woman walking down the boardwalk with my husband--and the Male Gaze I experience when I'm alone--are symptoms of a larger issue. We're dealing with deep-seated beliefs about male and female sexuality. About our bodies, our thoughts, our pleasures, and our abilities. We cannot stop men accosting women on the sidewalk until we overturn the lies we've internalized about who we are as gendered, sexual individuals.

That's when we'll find our way to equality.

Word count: 1,107.

* The first highest belong to trans women, for much the same reason. Trans women are perceived as men who violate the very core of what it means to be a man. There's a particular problem of this in the black community because black men used to be emasculated in the Jim Crow South, and seeing a black trans woman can trigger negative associations.