Safe Like C-4
I’ve never heard anyone criticize C-4 for being too safe. (As I often do, I am starting with the metaphor and working my way back.) It’s amazing stuff. It’s totally pliable. It can be shaped and molded and squished and squeezed, dropped, thrown, bounced, and nothing bad will happen. You can put it in the microwave. You can shoot bullets into it. You can roll in up in a ball and throw it off a building and nothing will happen. You can light it on fire and use it to light candles with, and it won’t go off. It’s meant to release its energy under specific conditions, both heat and pressure, which generally requires a little shotgun shell-like device called a blasting cap. C-4 doesn’t do what it does best by accident, but only when it should. And for what it does best, it is the very best. Its safety is not a bug. It’s a feature.
So it seemed very weird to me that Stephanie Zvan, guesting at Carnal Nation, was saying that being “safe” is a bad thing to be, that it meant being toyed with. Zvan seems to think it’s a bad thing that, in certain relationships, women have boundaries with men and rely on men to accept those boundaries. In parts of this essay, I think she has the kernel of a good idea, but keeps going the wrong way with it.
I read this piece, and in part I thought that she had gotten mired in a framework of fixed sex roles. The roles she sketches in her piece (which is written from a ciscentrist and heteronormative stance) are a bit different than the traditional man-as-pursuer and woman-as-prey script, but ultimately not really very different. In Zvan’s script, women are deciding, without men’s input, when men are “safe” and then using then as practice-flirting objects like a cat uses a scratching post. Here’s what she says:
This is the phenomenon in which a (generally young) woman dismisses her behavior around a guy as “Oh, that’s just so-and-so. He’s safe.” It always sounds like it’s meant to be a compliment, but there’s very little like it to bring out the bitter in a guy even decades after the fact.
None of the “safe” guys I’ve been talking to are asexual. None of them are even close. … And being declared safe is going beyond saying there will be no sex in the relationship. What it has done is put them in situations in which they were flirted with, snuggled up to, asked for advice on what is sexy and what is acceptable sexual behavior, regaled with details of sexual exploits and problems–all without any permission to respond in kind.
Is it bad that the women flirted without wanting more?
Absolutely not. Flirting in safe situations is learning without risk. It’s testing sexuality and figuring out what’s fun in a low-pressure environment. More people, men and women, should have the option of doing this without feeling that they’re making promises.
So what’s the problem?
The problem is that the women are designating the men as safe without any input from the men.
I’ll stop here. This is where the limitations of her thinking become obvious. The only way that these men are designated anything without their input is if they are either unable to talk about the relationship because of the social constructs around manhood, or because the women shut down clear communication. The latter is really prevalent, and needs to change. The notion that men are always “up for it” is something I’ve written about before. If guys can’t say, “hey, if we’re not going to be sexual, I don’t really want to have a flirting, teasing relationship with you,” that’s the problem we have to change. We have to permission that conversation, not dictate how women (who play with men) interact with their men (who play with women) friends.
If the problem is that this woman’s friends are really setting out to tease guys and shut down the conversations where guys say, “if you’re not interested stop teasing,” well, then her friends are awful little shits and she should call them on it.
She’s on the right track when she says:
The men aren’t being asked whether they have any sexual interest and whether they’re okay with it being put on hold. They aren’t being asked where the limits of their comfort with the women’s behavior are. They don’t have an option to say, “No,” except by walking away from the situation. These guys might still choose to engage in flirtatious relationships for the fun, but the choice should be theirs every bit as much as it is the women’s. With the unilateral declaration of “safe”-hood, it isn’t.
There’s a complete solution there, but it’s not the one she proposes. The cure is communication. “Are you just flirting or are you interested?” Eight words. That fixes that. But Zvan never actually proposes communication as a solution. She identifies, rightly, a problem of unilateral action, but never says that communication is the way to fix it. And as I will get to, the real problem is that her essay ends up suggesting that, rather than discuss the boundaries, women change their behavior.
The author quotes a friend who says this, which makes clear that this woman and I operate from some very different assumptions:
I found myself in a situation where an attractive man who was not my husband was watching me pick out frilly panties. I found this awkward, again because those old taboos told me that you don’t show other men your panties, and “Oh, noes! I might induce him to have unclean thoughts about me.”
So what did my brain do? It tried to convince me of something along the lines of “It’s XXX. He wouldn’t be thinking those things” as a comforting strategy. The equivalent of “He’s safe,” even though I don’t actually think of him that way.
There’s so much wrong with this that I need to unpack it a piece at a time:
I found myself in a situation where an attractive man who was not my husband was watching me pick out frilly panties. I found this awkward
There are a whole lot of assumptions packed into that. I take it that we are to understand that her friend’s marriage is monogamous, for one. Further, this passage only makes sense if this woman is not comfortable with a certain amount of sexually loaded exchange with this man. Those are assumptions that hold for many married people but certainly not every married person. Presumably, if he’s this woman’s friend, she can communicate with him about those things. How about, “hey, this is kind of awkward because I feel weird about picking out panties in front of you.”
Oh, noes! I might induce him to have unclean thoughts about me.
She can’t control and can’t even know what he thinks. Really, it’s none of her business. What he expresses is what she can know, and what he’s responsible for.
It tried to convince me of something along the lines of “It’s XXX. He wouldn’t be thinking those things” as a comforting strategy. The equivalent of “He’s safe,” even though I don’t actually think of him that way.
Here’s where it goes completely off the rails. If “he’s safe” means that he’s not going to do anything sexual to her without her consent, then he fucking better be safe. Showing him panties that she’s thinking about buying is damned sure not consent to put his hands on her! Zvan recognizing this; she wrote, “We have a right to an expectation of interpersonal safety.” Yes. Yes, we all have a right to an expectation of interpersonal safety. Underwear shopping does not change, vitiate or condition that in any way. There is no implied consent in underwear shopping. This is not debatable.
If the woman Zvan is quoting is only worried about this guy’s thoughts, and not his actions, if she needs to be safe from anyone fantasizing about her, then she needs to be a recluse and live out of sight of other humans. No one person gets to tell any other what they can fantasize about. I don’t get to declare myself off limits to the fantasy pantheon of any of the people I walk by between here and the subway station, and neither do any of us.
(If she’s concerned neither that he’ll touch her without consent nor about his thoughts, but rather about what he’ll say … well, what is and isn’t okay to say between friends is a widely varied area, and the only way to work it out is to talk it out. I have some friends who are kinksters like me who are not comfortable talking details, and some friends who are not kinky who will talk with me about sex right at the which-lube-did-you-use level of detail. )
Zvan falls further down that same hole in her response to the underwear shopping story:
“Now, it may sound as though I’m adding to the chorus of voices telling women that they are responsible for the world’s sexual decision-making. No. Women are not responsible for men’s decisions, even those decisions made in response to women’s decisions, but neither does freeing women from that particular unfair responsibility free them from all responsibility. And that’s what declaring a man safe does; it abdicates a woman’s responsibility for her sexual choices with respect to that man. It says that her decisions and her behavior don’t matter. More than that, it says that they don’t matter because a particular quality of the man in question—his safeness.”
This is where Zvan’s limited model prevents her from seeing where she’s ended up. She’s saying that women are responsible if they are deliberately sexually provocative towards men, because it may make those men bitter and frustrated. But this assumes that the men themselves are automatons, capable of predictable biological reactions but not agency. She’s not assuming that the response women will provoke will be rape, but that model of behavior ends up there anyway. If men have no ability to negotiate boundaries and deal with their own emotional responses, why would we assume that their reaction will be bitterness and frustration, rather than rape, as the rape apologists assume?
A worldview in which men can’t control their responses is always one in which they are not responsible for their responses, and that always ends up the same place. I’m not for that. I’m for the other version, the one in which men are people. People can’t be responsible for others, only to others. But people can be responsible for themselves. If I’m being teased and I don’t want to be, I have options other than bitterness and frustration (and other than aggression). My other option is communication. I can say what I want. I can say, “please stop teasing me.” I can say, “please stop teasing me unless you’re interested.” Those are two very different things. Or I can say, “tease all you want, but I’m not available.” (Which, for me personally, is generally the case.)
In feminism we talk a great deal about disappearing men and their responsibility. This is the space where we need to fix that. Policing women’s sexual expression because it might be some kind of unfair tease, out of a misplaced sense of responsibility to men, is first cousin to the policing of women’s sexual expression that aready goes on, the kind that assumed a woman consented to be on Girls Gone Wild topless, even though she said outright that she did not.
Zvan wants women to plan two and three steps ahead for who might think what, a sucker’s game of overthinking just to keep men from having to engage in some responsible communication. That’s a fucked up and bad way to go about it.
Near the and, Zvan says:
“Women don’t make progress by moving from not being allowed to make decisions to pretending there are no decisions to be made. We get where we want to go by accepting responsibility for the consequences of our actions and acting like the adults we’ve demanded we be allowed to be.”
She’s got that wrong. She could have said that what women should do is be clear about their boundaries with guys, so that they’re not assuming permission to tease a guy who is uncomfortable and frustrated. But she never says that, and it’s clear from context that her idea of taking responsibility is for women not to flirt without intent. That’s the wrong solution. A woman who teases me isn’t pretending there’s no decision to be made. She’s making a decision to tease me. But she’s not emasculating me by assuming I’m “safe”, either. I just don’t know yet what exactly she means to do, and we’re going to need to communicate to find out. I don’t want to go off by accident. I respect boundaries. I am safe. I don’t just explode at the slightest provocation. What I need to know is if she’s just bouncing me around a little bit, or if she wants to stick in a blasting cap and make me go “Boom.”
[Edited to add: the piece is also up elsewhere, and Zvan’s comments on that thread show a grasp of some of the stuff that I thought ought to be in the essay and was not.]