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Power, Choice, and the Household Staff

May 19, 2011

It is both stunningly obvious, and frequently ignored, that “yes” is not a choice where “no” carries a terrible cost.  Renee at Womanist Musings reminds folks that the least-discussed aspect of the Monica Lewinsky story was that there’s never an unconstrained response to a boss’s sexual advances:

When Clinton engaged in his extra martial affair with Monica Lewinsky, she was demonized by the press, in much the same manner that Baena is now; however, feminists at the time attempted interject an understanding of power into the public consciousness.

And that’s true again with the Arnold Schwarzenegger story, though Renee notes that it hasn’t been said (her post is not long and merits a full read), and I have not really seen it said either.  Nobody is just as free to tell the boss, “not interested” as they are to say, “yes.”  That’s my first and overwhelming reaction to the story.  He’s the one who was free — completely free — to not go there. 

I’ll segue into another idea here that I won’t close the loop on due to time constraints: what I’ll call the Weather Theory of male sexuality (I have no idea if that term is someone’s, but the idea certainly isn’t new, and I’m relying in part on some of my own prior writing — if there’s a real origin for these ideas point me to it and I’ll update).  It’s the idea that men’s sexual urges are uncontrollable.  Even sensible people fall for this shit, in fact, it underlies some of Ryan and Jetha’s fascinating Sex at Dawn. (Regular readers may recall that I’ve promised to review that one of these days.  Probably I still will.)  It’s just not true.  However little we control what we want, we do control how we express that want.  If we didn’t control how we express desire, men would blurt out come-ons in all sorts of circumstances that would get them in trouble; instead, when men don’t control how they handle desire, they usually do it in circumstances where the relations of power are such that they have a privilege that they think will let them away with it.  And that, for them, is not a relatively constrained choice.  It is almost entirely a free choice.  Arnold had plenty of ways to express desire and get his needs fulfulled; that he chose throughout his life to direct sexual attention toward women who didn’t like it or who were not in a position to express a view, that tells us what he’s all about.

Men who have sex with women (and I’ll confine my remarks that way because kyriarchal dynamics get different enough that I feel I should) shouldn’t make sexual advances towards or have sexual relationships with women they hire, fire or supervise.  Those are not chosen power dynamics, those are real world structural inequalities that can (and often do) vitiate consent.  If you want to fuck the hired help, that’s what roleplay is for.

A closing note on her appearance, which people seem obsessed with:  utterly irrelevant to anything I’m interested in talking about.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Jen permalink
    May 19, 2011 3:45 pm

    This is kind of tangential to your main point, but I think it’s an interesting idea: namely, that choice is not a purely binary (on-or-off) situation. Many contexts make choice more complicated, such that a choice could be more or less “free.” Somehow, that nuance seems important to me as we respect (or at least, ought to respect) the choices of others.

    • May 19, 2011 4:27 pm

      Yeah, the fundamental tension between liberal and radical models of the world is this, right? Except for Randroids and extremist libertarians we all recognize that the model of atomic individuals rationally maximizing self-interest isn’t an accurate way of modeling the world and choices are more and less constrained such that “voluntary” and “coerced” are ranges and not simple check-boxes. But to model the world as a series of power relations in which our ability to determine and act on what we want within the range of available options is viewed as at best a marginal factor erases agency and produces solutions that most of us don’t want to live with. Both are wild-ass approximations, and neither adapts particularly well to attempts to fashion a middle-ground — though there are attempts. It’s a tangent, but an interesting one.

  2. May 19, 2011 9:52 pm

    To me, your well-argued post boils down to:

    “If you want to fuck the hired help, that’s what roleplay is for.”

    Love it! I’d post is as my FB status (slightly bleeped out but with attribution and link) if you don’t mind. The Grubinator had sooo many choices, and he seemingly gravitated toward those who were at a disadvantage if they say no. Hmmm … hardly a testimonial to masculine sexual confidence! No wonder he worried so about keeping “girly-boys” at bay.

    I do feel bone-deep sad for the child of his dalliance, and for all of his children. None of them had a voice in this matters.

  3. Matthew Brown permalink
    May 20, 2011 8:03 pm

    I’d found myself unsatisfied with the discourse about this and not had the time to dig out why — thanks to Renee for that post which laid out at least much of it, and for your response to it that got linked places where I read, and expanded on it.

  4. May 21, 2011 8:14 pm

    What I find interesting about the whole idea that men’s sexuality is uncontrollable is the fact that self-control is also usually categorized as a masculine trait.

    But yeah, good post.

    • May 22, 2011 12:14 pm

      Hm, good point. I’ve never made that connection.

  5. August 10, 2011 12:26 am

    I agree with Matthew….. I am also bit unsatisfied with this………..

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