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13.1.06

Consensual Promiscuity

Hugo Schwyzer has a post up arguing that pro-feminist men can't be promiscuous. I won't bother responding to Schwyzer's post, since he manages to write 11 paragraphs without ever offering any evidence or arguments in support of his central idea that one cannot see another as "extraordinarily precious" in the context of a short-term sexual encounter. More interesting -- in part because it has echoes of the theory of structuration, and in part because it does not seem vulnerable to the charges of paternalism leveled against Schwyzer -- was a reply by commenter AB, who offered an alternative pro-feminist argument for why men should refrain from consensual one-night stands.

I'll restate AB's argument in more general terms, since I think it's potentially applicable to many cases of interactions bewteen dominant and oppressed groups. In AB's comment, "group A" is men, "group B" is women, and "X" is "use solely for short-term sexual gratification."

(1) In our current society, group A feels entitled to do X to group B.
(2) In many cases, members of group B do not consent* to having X done to them.
(3) Anytime a member of group A does X to a member of group B, it reinforces (1).
(4) Therefore, any member of group A who sees (2) as being bad is obligated to try to undo (1). Given (3), then, such a member of group A is unable to do X to a member of group B -- even a consenting one -- until such time as (1) is eliminated.

The crux of the argument here is the word "any" in point (3). Is it truly the case that consensual use of a woman for sexual gratification reinforces the belief that many men have that they are entitled to use women for sexual gratification even without consent? It all depends on how people define their categories of thought. If a consensual one-night stand is percieved to be basically the same sort of thing as a nonconsensual one-night stand, then the practice of the former will reinforce the practice of the latter. If not, not.

AB's argument may become easily overbroad. After all, one could easily create an argument against all sex on the same lines. Having a long-term relationship is certainly no guarantee that the man won't feel entitled to sex. And I see no reason to think that consensual one-night stands would be interpreted as endorsement of all one-night stands whereas consensual marital sex would be interpreted as endorsing only consensual marital sex.

What AB's argument gives us is, I think, not so much an argument against one-night stands as an argument for being attentive to how our acts are framed. Insofar as we carry out acts that resemble acts we despise, we must emphasize the criteria that make the meaningful difference.

*Here "do not consent" covers not only overt acts -- in the case of sex, rape -- but also situations in which group A uses its superior power to trick, entice, pressure, or otherwise push unwilling members of group B into giving formal consent.

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