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A Shot At Agency

October 15, 2010

A great deal has been said about what a Los Angeles judge did to Tila Tequila, and instead of recap the whole thing (which was covered by Miriam here and by the Ms. blog here), I want to focus on one specific thing. No choice that Tila Tequila makes in how to display or use her body or sexuality ought to be treated as invalidating her agency. The idea that showing something means she loses the right not to, is deeply rooted in the commodity model, where consent is not a process and she’s waived her rights. That thinking is foundational to rape culture.

Folks familiar with my essay Toward A Performance Model of Sex in the Yes Means Yes book know that under the Commodity Model we live in, sex is a thing, bought or sold or traded. The Court treated Tila as having already signed away all rights to the public presentation of her sexuality because she has a history of monetizing sexualized displays. Many people have already written that this is an “asking for it” approach. It is, and it’s a specific kind of “asking for it” approach, the one that says that if a woman says yes to one thing, or to one person, she’s deemed to continue in a state of “yes” — to that, to other things, to anything, and sometimes even when she explicitly says “No!” That thinking supports rape and defends rapists.

Here’s how I look at it: Consent is a process. It’s not the absence of no, it’s the presence of yes. If Tila Tequila wants to show her breasts in one context, to one audience, it’s not the same as showing her breasts to every audience, in every context. Even if she chooses to fuck on film, with one partner, for public consumption, it doesn’t mean she has to let everyone see her fuck on film every time and with every partner. She consents to what she consents to, and not more, because she’s a human being and that’s sexual autonomy 101.

There’s not a lot of conceptual distance between arguing that if Tila Tequila is publicly sexual in one context she has no right to decline to be in any other, and arguing that sex workers are unrapeable. Or between deciding that if a woman had sex with a man once, she consents to sex with him forever after. And, in fact, too many people think exactly those sorts of things.

I’m going to say here that there is a complete continuum between the vile things people say about sex workers, and they way people treat female celebrities and sexuality. Remember the people who argued that Erin Andrews brought it on herself by using her attractiveness to become a sports journalist? As if she consented to be illegally filmed naked just because being attractive was part of her job? Remember when Judge Deni said that the gang-rape of a sex worker was “theft of services”? Essentially the same argument.

This judge has undermined het men, too, because the edifice of slut-shaming as social control, which he supports, has the effect of suppressing women’s sexuality. If what he’s saying is that being publicly sexual waives the right to determine the limits — and that is what the decision means, effectively — then a lot of women who might otherwise be sexual in ways they’d find interesting or hot, won’t. Who is that good for? Only the anti-sex league. It’s bad for all women, who lose rights, it’s bad for het and bi men, who have an interest in women having the freedom and protection to be exactly as sexual as they want to be with exactly who they want. (It’s bad for all non-het men, for more oblique reasons having to do with cultural reductionism around sexuality, and it’s bad for non-binary folks for several different reasons, probably not all of which I understand. Also? I think probably bad for asexuals, though the reason is not so obvious. Anything that compels disclosure of sexual practice makes it easier to marginalize asexuals.)

NB: I have it in my head that Lena Chen wrote something noteworthy about the difference between the things she chose to publicize about her sexuality and the experience of having that choice taken away from her, but I can’t seem to find it. If readers know what I’m thinking of, please link in comments.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. 300baud permalink
    October 15, 2010 4:45 pm

    Perfectly put. I appreciate you saying this, and hope you’ll continue to say it as often as you feel it needed.

    I think one error that apologists for sexual assault are often in the grip of is the naturalistic fallacy, confusing what exists naturally with that which is morally right. E.g., an anthropologist might observe that if you taunt people about their families, X% will become angry enough to hit you. Even if true, that still doesn’t — and can’t — say anything about the morality of violence. We must decide that for ourselves.

    I think the naturalistic fallacy is pernicious for all sort of reasons, but a big one is that it’s self-reinforcing. All it can do it justify the status quo, deepening the appearance of inevitability. Which is why I really appreciate your efforts to prune back this giant hedge of rape-justifying bullshit and describe the better world we seek.

  2. October 19, 2010 3:50 pm

    Is this the link you’re thinking of?

    “I was never ashamed of my body or of people seeing it,” Chen later wrote about the experience. “I felt victimized because I had been exposed without consent and doubly victimized by those who wrote salaciously about the incident.”

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