Saturday, January 29, 2011

On the Importance of Perspective

How is our sexual freedom compromised by our ignorance of some information about our sexual partner? Is there a basic set of facts that should always be assumed to be important? How does each partner know what would make the the other one reject them if they knew it? Does it make any difference if there is deliberate deception, as opposed to simply not mentioning something that the partner felt to be important? There have been stories lately which hinge on the role of identity in giving consent to sex. I’m not going to offer any opinion on Julian Assange and Wikileaks* because the whole thing is a lot of 'he said she said' which may or may not be clarified to some extent in court. The case of the hippy who claims to have been sexually assaulted because her lover didn’t mention what he did for a living is much more clear cut, and thus can serve as a springboard to what I really want to talk about.

The woman clearly believes that being a policeman is such an important part of the identity of her sexual partners that he should have told her, and he should have known that she felt that way. But why would he have known that, or imagined that it mattered, more than any of the other things that he, or she, didn’t get round to mentioning? The woman feels that her ignorance of this point meant that she had sex with someone who had tricked her into believing he was someone else (I interpret fairly liberally, here), and her feelings may be genuine, but would a reasonable man be expected to know that?

Well, I’ll leave the courts to work that out. The general question is of more interest than the specific one. Some commentators are saying that being called a rapist and locked up for a few years is a fitting punishment for the deception that the policeman is felt by the woman to have practised. What, then, is a fitting punishment for someone who obtains sex by quite deliberately pretending to be a woman? On the scale that has been set in the previous case by the more excitable commentators, is being beaten to death about appropriate?

I think not. Gwen Araujo was beaten to death by a group of young men, some of whom she had had sex with, when they discovered she was in fact a man. Her death wasn't a result of an extreme reaction to the discovery, it didn't occur in the heat of the moment; it was a premeditated act of revenge, carried out over several hours of repeated beatings, at the end of which she was finished off. It was a quite indefensible act for which the young men were convicted and jailed. The details are in the link if you can stomach them.

I refer to her as 'she', because that is my instinct, for some reason. (Not politics or anything else, if the first pronoun had come out as 'he' I would have left it that way). But in fact she was not a 'she', and that's what cost her her life.

Her mistake was, simply put, to exaggerate the importance of her own sense of herself. We all do it, we all see things from our own point of view, and assume people know about, and care about, what matters to us about ourselves. For most social purposes we learn to understand that this is not entirely so and we are able to moderate it, but not all adults learn this particular skill, and children on the whole don't have it.

My teenage pupils will talk among themselves about their concerns, sometimes quite intimate things, in my presence, because as far as they are concerned I'm not there. I don't exist in their world, even, in my case, as a threat to it, unless we are interacting in class, and even then they see it more as them entering my world than me entering theirs.

Gwen Araujo was a teenager, and as such was very much enclosed in the world of her own private concerns. But she also had much more serious problems of identity than most people her age, and so was very likely to be more self-absorbed than most. She felt herself/wanted/believed herself to be a woman, she lived as a woman and as far as she was  concerned she was a woman. Those very few people around her who had some understanding of and sympathy with her position would have thought of her in the appropriate terms, but to everyone who was not deeply interested in what went on inside her head, including the boys she had sex with, a simpler term for pre-operative trans-woman, is 'man'.

While the revenge taken against her by the boys was, as I have said, indefensible and so far beyond a reasonable reaction as to be little more than cold-blooded murder, it is easy to understand the shock, horror, disgust and anger that the young men would have felt on discovering that they had been tricked into having sex with a boy. If any man, however reasonable, discovered such a deception the result would be ugly. Given that this lot were a bunch of thugs, the revelation of this outrage against their, doubtless also a bit precarious, sexual identity, it should have been obvious that she was in real danger. She did not have the social skill to understand this. She assumed that, at least to some relevant degree, they saw her as she saw herself and understood what they were doing. It cost her her life.

If she had lived, could the young men have had her tried for tricking them in that way. Does California have laws that might cover this? Should such laws exist?

*Beyond pointing out that he might have dumped all the documents on his site because he knew he was going to be arrested, rather than the arrest being a response by the CIA or whoever to the leaks. Who can say.


Vincent said...

In such matters I take the view that every adult without mental disability must take reasonable steps to keep safe, and if those reasonable steps have not been taken has no intrinsic right to claim sympathy or compensation.

A sexual encounter entered into voluntarily by both parties is intrinsically risky from many points of view, and it ought to be the aim of sex education to warn children appropriately.

Each partner is at theoretical risk of being subsequently denounced for sexual assault; or of catching disease; or of bearing the consequences of a pregnancy. (A man is at risk of his lover becoming pregnant by another man, and then saying he is the father.)

So I would say to my children or pupils, "Take great care of yourself. Get to know your lover over a period of time before any sexual encounter. Beware of drink and drugs which could make you more vulnerable and cloud your judgement. Consider carefully the company you keep and the places you go. And if it goes wrong, accept the consequences, emotional, medical, psychological and legal."

And I would not want to discuss with them their ideas on what a court should decide, what rights anyone should have and how they should be allowed to behave. As you say, they talk among themselves and that is their business. But it is not for parents or teachers to give them the idea that they can redefine the world they are growing up into. It's a big enough task to survive in it.

I think there are too many people being amateur judges, and there is too much of a symbiosis between commentators provoking reaction and people who love to have extreme reactions.

CIngram said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
CIngram said...

"Take great care of yourself. Get to know your lover over a period of time before any sexual encounter. Beware of drink and drugs which could make you more vulnerable and cloud your judgement. Consider carefully the company you keep and the places you go. And if it goes wrong, accept the consequences, emotional, medical, psychological and legal."

Wise words. Now if only the teenagers today paid as much attention to their elders as we did when we were their age!