Monday, January 1, 2018

Sexual Coercion, Category Clarification, and Isabella

These days we could do with some reasonable definitions of flirtation, consensual erotic activity, and consensual sex. All these are things that happen between two people. (Sorry, I'll only be talking about pairs here.) Flirtation happens between pairs who are interested in erotic intimacy, as well as between pairs only one of whom is interested in erotic intimacy while the other just feels like flirting. Consensual erotic activity can include not only flirting, but touching implemented by one person and not rejected by the other. A pass can be accepted or deflected. If it's not deflected, it's accepted. Hopefully it's enjoyed, but acceptance doesn't mean enjoyment.

Sex occurs between people who both want to have sex, as well as between pairs of whom one wants to have sex and the other doesn't feel like it but does it anyway, or is ambivalent but has decided to do it anyway, or is enthusiastic about it at the time although s/he will be disgusted by it later. (Shakespeare wrote a sonnet about that. Such sex is "past reason hunted," and then "past reason hated.") Consensual sex also happens (a lot) when one person is agreeing to it only because s/he is
somewhat drunk (as opposed to passed out or completely mentally incapacitated by alcohol or drugs, which would put the action in the non-consensual category). These are sane definitions, though insane ones exist, and even flourish, in our current culture.

Those who are harassed, who are assaulted and escape, or who choose to have sex out of fear of bodily harm should they fight back, are innocent victims. They do not consent.

In contrast, those who choose to have sex out of a belief that their job prospects or career will be foreclosed if they refuse are parties to the transaction. They make the devil's bargain.

Imagine that you need money to pay for your kid's operation which you can't afford, and a friend tries to convince you to rob a store. You go along reluctantly. You help rob the store, even though you don't enjoy it. Then the pair of you get caught. Your friend, who persuaded you and engineered the scheme, will probably get a heavier sentence than you. Because of your extenuating circumstances, both jury and judge may show mercy to you. But you will get a sentence. Now, having even creepy sex isn't a crime, though it sometimes brings punishments. But even so, agreeing to sex or accepting harassment only in order to get something, whatever it is, and however important it is, is kind of like reluctantly robbing a store. You may be doing it for a good reason, but you're still doing it.

This point came home to me recently when I read an essay about Shakespeare's Measure for Measure. The essay's author compared the problem expressed by many contemporary women who have been harassed, or worse, by powerful men, to the situation of the maiden Isabella in Shakespeare's play, where the treacherous (and well-titled) vice-duke Angelo tries to bargain with her. She must sleep with him or else he'll execute her imprisoned brother. When Isabella protests the injustice, saying she'll reveal his corruption to the world, Angelo asks, "Who will believe thee, Isabel?" In soliloquy, she echoes this thought herself. "To whom should I complain? Did I tell this, / Who would believe me?" Not only Angelo's high place but his heretofore spotless reputation -- undeserved, as we find -- will argue on his behalf, and it will be pointless for her to accuse him. She might as well cave, and do the deed.

Very Harvey Weinstein-ish, this essay implied! But what the author left out was the fact that despite Isabella's difficult situation -- and unlike many contemporary women who speak of having been forced into unwelcome sex -- Isabella refuses. She worries about how to get Angelo punished, but she does not even consider accepting his proposition. Because of various bizarre plot twists, her reputation is tarnished anyway, but this makes her a victim of slander rather than a victim of sexual coercion. She has a choice, and she makes it.

My point is not that she makes the most virtuous choice. In fact, since she really believes Angelo will kill her brother if she doesn't sleep with him, she seems to many to make a selfish, cold-hearted choice, preferring her own body's purity (as she sees it) above her brother's life. So perhaps she's not admirable. But she shows, in her behavior, that choice in such a situation is possible. Much more is it possible when what is at stake is not a life but a job. And still more is it possible when what's at stake is something less specific: a hazy and fearful idea that one's career prospects will be jeopardized if one says no. This formulation of the choice, by the way, is an interesting inversion of the traditional idea that one's career prospects may be enhanced if one says yes. The newer way of describing the situation obscures what the traditional account kept plain: that this is the devil's bargain.

In Measure for Measure, Shakespeare (in his own fiendish way) was clearly interested in creating a devil's bargain that couldn't neatly be called such, since what Isabella is offered in exchange for sex is not a benefit for herself, but a benefit for another. Shakespeare called the would-be seducer "Angelo" in order to heighten the irony of the situation, since the angel whom Angelo most resembles is Lucifer. We recognize the devil in him (and so does he), but we'd have to be blind to see a saint in Isabella, who cares more about her chastity than she does about her brother's life, and says so. What should she do? Shakespeare puts Isabella in a tough situation. We wouldn't want to be her. She gets our sympathy. Yet, through her haughtiness ("More than our brother is our chastity"), Shakespeare seems to be mocking the idea that refraining from sex is, for a woman, somehow the purer choice.

Here's a thought this play gives me. In our current time of accusations and traumas after-the-event, it might be good to do two things differently. We could more accurately describe certain "harassment" or "coercion" situations to reflect the power women wield within them. (It's no service to women to do otherwise.) And we might also stop using a vocabulary of violation to describe sexual encounters even if they are un-thrilling at the time or cringe-inducing later. Describing women who have decided to have sex for career reasons or because they were sort of drunk or peer-pressured as "violated" is a two-edged sword. That word, and others like it, suggest that a woman's body is a shrine (or, as Angelo says, a "sanctuary") which is purest when least sexually active. This is how both Angelo and Isabella think. It's also how White House Chief of Staff John Kelly thinks, because he said that in the good old days women were "sacred" (Whaat? When?). Anyway, it's better to think like Shakespeare than like any of them. As far as we can tell, Shakespeare was all in favor of powerful women, but thought a preoccupation with chastity a dangerous thing.

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