Saturday, 13 October 2018

Signals and messages

Right at the outset I should say that my thoughts are still forming and developing on this. Then, this is not making a point or a statement, more musing aloud, and to see what you think.

So, this is further to the earlier two posts I wrote about rape culture and the one about clothing as a social and political message.

I've been thinking about behaviour and signals, with regard to how we dress, both with reference to rape culture and life generally.

About rape culture, I want to pick up something Buzzfloyd says in this comment thread: "What you are asking essentially treats rape as a point on the spectrum of sex. I would suggest that rape is not sex at all. Rape, as I'm sure you've read just as I have, is about power."

Thank you for bringing that to the fore, Buzz — it's a really important point that should not get lost. A horribly clear evidence of that is rape on a grand scale being used strategically in war. That's an extreme example for sure, but it's true of all rape culture — all kinds of sexual harassment and assault are about power, even when they are not intended, or the perpetrator has not seen them as assault. It is the casual assumption that it is one's right, and socially normal, to treat people this way, that really defines rape culture. 

Perhaps, then, what I want to look at today has to do with people trying to conduct ordinary sexual relationships within the context of rape culture, rather than rape culture itself. Inevitably, as Buzzfloyd pointed out in her comments regarding what I had to say about women's very high-heeled fashion shoes, "Oppression cannot work if the oppressed do not internalise the rules of the oppressor. . . . I don't think it's surprising that the oppressed internalise their oppression and actively construct the culture that damages them."

So we reach the bewilderment of a scenario in which a man and a woman (let's assume a straight couple for the moment or all my sentences will get even longer and more convoluted) are both socially conditioned by rape culture, both want to break free, yet both perpetuate it because, as Buzzfloyd put it, "the fish can't see the water."

How, then, to distinguish between a (reasonably) healthy sexual relationship or encounter, even though both parties are conditioned by rape culture, and a relationship or encounter which rightly belongs to rape culture — the unthinking exercise of male privilege in dominating women? Actual rape, plus torture and war crimes etc are already criminalised, so I don't mean that. I mean the encounters people argue about, where some of us are outraged and some of us can't see the problem.

So in my thinking, I've been considering the whole business of messages and signals, homing in on two separate issues.

Firstly, the reading of body language and choice of clothing. It is very frequently misinterpreted. 

If I was captioning this picture:

I'd call it We all belong to the same group. It seems to me that in choosing their attire, these women want to make it abundantly clear that they belong to each other and are separate from the rest of us, because they are all dressed both identically and distinctively.

That seems self-evident to me. Even so, I could be wrong. For instance, they might all be bridesmaids relaxing at the end of a wedding, so what looks to me like a determined cultural distinctiveness might not be a cultural message to the wider world, but a celebration within their group of their chosen status as the bride's companions. 

Then there's this picture:

When I examine this, the women look to me reluctant and a bit grumpy, like they didn't want to be there and are rather annoyed about something. I fairly often see that facial expression on members of my own family when they feel forced into the public eye or in some way put on the spot.

But I could be quite wrong. I think it's possible they are just cold, and the sun is in their eyes, and they are waiting patiently for the song they're getting ready to sing

In all human interactions, we rely heavily on the signals and messages of body language, including dress. The more casual and fleeting the relationship, the less that matters — well, maybe. Even then, consequences arise. But surely in the profound, intimate and transformative territory of sexual relationship it has to be important that we talk, that we check, that we make sure what we thought was signalled actually was intended. Making sure, as my husband puts it, that what was being broadcast is the same as what was received. Especially now that we've all been sustainedly alerted to the pervasive reality of rape culture, it is incumbent upon us to secure the "enthusiastic yes" people talk about. And by "secure" I don't mean coerce or threaten or shame to bring about acquiescence; I mean check. Communicate. Properly. And yes, that can take years. I've been in my present marriage twelve years and still the two of us often find a mismatch in interpreting what each other may say or do. And yes, we will make many mistakes along the way. But I think we really do have to make the journey. 

Then, there's a second aspect to this interpretation of messages, that I think of as "taking this personally". I've come across this causing misunderstandings between women and men repeatedly.

Let me give you an example.

When I was sixteen, I had to walk along a country lane several hundred yards every morning to catch the school bus. One morning a car pulled up on the opposite side of the road, a young man in his twenties got out and asked me for a date — to go for a drink with him. In those days, a fervent young Christian ever on the look out for opportunities to share the Gospel, trusting fearlessly in God, I cheerfully agreed. So he and I met up at a pub somewhere in the evening. 

For me, the encounter on the road had come right out of the blue. I'd never seen the man before in my life. Not for him. It turned out he'd seen me every day on his way to work, formed the impression that I was looking at him just as he was looking at me, and felt sure that a silent relationship was evolving. He found it almost too much to swallow that he could have imagined all this — or that I would have agreed to go for a drink with him unless the imagined connection had in reality been established.  I hadn't even noticed the car going by; I certainly hadn't seen the driver. A driver can see a pedestrian more clearly than a pedestrian can see a driver, because of the reflections on the windscreen. Happily the man wasn't dangerous, just disappointed, though the angels that watch over me may have felt a little anxious at some point.

Another example from another time and place.

As I sat in the passenger seat of a car stationary at the traffic lights while we waited for the green signal, the male driver remarked idly on a passing teenager something to the effect that she certainly knew the impression she was making. I looked. All I saw was a girl walking down the street. She was normally dressed for a teenage girl in our area — long, loose hair, tight jeans and t-shirt; and she was just . . . walking. But my male companion, finding her attractive, assumed that she intended him to

Now this is where I think men and women very often get their wires crossed. I'm sorry if this sounds rude, but I think a characteristic of male privilege is that men often mistakenly assume things are either about them or for them. They, in general, see themselves as more central and more visible than women see themselves as being. 

Therefore, it quite often happens that a man will think a woman has signalled a sexual invitation, when in reality she's just playing tennis or getting water from the well or serving coffee. So she feels assaulted and he feels rebuffed.

The tendency to rely heavily on body language, implication, inference, glances and dress in establishing sexual connection, only compounds this confusion.

So, especially where sexual intimacy is concerned, if you mind very much being misunderstood, take the time and trouble to make things verbally clear before proceeding.

Some people actually don't mind as much as others. The same young man I encountered on the way to the school bus became a long-term suitor of mine. I was not sexually attracted to him, but he did persist — even joined our youth group and sent me bunches of flowers. My interest in him was as conversion material; I thought he ought to know about Jesus. One evening, sitting with him in his apartment, I'd been telling him a long time about Jesus, warming to my theme, when he kissed me — rather passionately. Being the kind of teenager I was, I allowed this to happen. Then he wanted to know if we would now be "going out together" as we used to put it in those days: partners. I said no, we would not. He wanted to know why, and I said because I didn't fancy him. He then wanted to know why, if I didn't want to go out with him, I had let him kiss me. I said, because it seemed rude not to — I didn't want to hurt his feelings. He found that hard to believe. But because I am appallingly truthful and he had the sense to ask and check, we got things clear. Had we not taken the trouble to have the conversation, we'd have got deeply mired in misunderstanding — for instance if he'd assumed I was now his girlfriend, while I'd knew I was just being (as I thought) kind.

But if some of people's stories I've since read are anything to go by, there are many girls who would feel assaulted, shamed, humiliated, threatened, frightened and besmirched by that kiss. But I didn't. Not everybody feels that sexual encounters are a big deal. Oh — a passing thought, since this is the world wide web — if you are reading this and wondering if despite my advanced age I would be happy to have a sexual encounter with you, let me take a moment to assure you that, unless you are my husband, I would not. Always worth clarifying. I am not advertising intimacy, just pointing out that some people are more casual in their attitude to sexual encounters than others. 

So, as a rule of thumb, it's wise to talk things through not rely on assumptions, and one should never assume that strangers spotted in the street are behaving as they are to secretly signal a desire for personal connection. This is overwhelmingly likely to be a mistaken inference; in reality they are only taking back their library books.

One last thing about social messages, this time not about sex but more general scenarios, but it still can be applied to sexual contexts: we tend to interpret social situations in terms favourable to ourselves.

So, for example, the parent with children who behave inappropriately in a restaurant, rolling about on the floor and knocking things off the table, may describe that restaurant as "not child-friendly" if asked to leave. The odds are that the parent is less likely to conclude the children are "not restaurant-friendly".

Likewise the teenagers larking about in the street, shouting and laughing and falling around in other people's way, are more likely to see the old lady (me) glaring at them as "judgemental" rather than themselves as "anti-social". It's quite possible that both may simultaneously be true, of course.

It seems to me that with sex, with dress codes, with behaviour in public and at home, if we always say the other person is the one with the problem, who must change to accommodate our view of life, then difficulties tend to become entrenched. If we are willing to either meet the other person halfway, or if that is intolerable then leave the situation, life goes more smoothly. 

I gained some insights from my father with regard to this. I was going to say a I learned a lot from him, but I think that may be overstating the case. He was an odd mixture of humble realism with obnoxiously overt racism and homophobia. When you put those two characteristics together, the result was such memorable comments as, referencing a political régime where homosexual men were put to death: "I think homosexuals should be shot, too; but I understand the homosexuals don't agree with me."

And I think he put his finger on something of great value there — about learning to disagree even when our outlooks are extremely and radically opposed; irreconcilable  That somehow we have to let the world be big enough for all of us. We can maintain our distances and separations, establish our agreed norms, and there is room for that. We can be "holy unto the Lord" in the sense of splitting off from other people if that's the way we see things — like the Strict Brethren in my town who will only buy detached house, not row houses, so they aren't yoked together with unbelievers: well yes, it's a point of view. But to end war and allow the shalom of God to flourish, there must also be respect well-laced with kindness; the willingness to give the other person the benefit of the doubt, to help them be their best selves so far as I can, to accept that there exists a remote possibility that I (even I) may be wrong, and to remember not to take everything personally merely because it's taking place in the same area as I happen to be. While it is no doubt conceivable that other people's behaviours are all actually intended as a slight, an insult, a warning or an invitation to have sex, on reflection one has to concede it's overwhelmingly unlikely.

Or that's what I think anyway.

Sorry this is so verbose, so extremely prolix. Are you still alive?


Ganeida said...

This is such a complex issue & as much about families as anything else. I say this because I was raised with brothers in a male dominated atmosphere where even my mother was sporty as well as academic. As a child/teen I sailed [as a skipper ~ almost unheard off back then] ~ a sport heavily male dominated ~ so even now I don't think of males as sexual beings & I relate to them as I would my brothers. Naturally most males see themselves as sexual & have misinterpreted my interest in what they do/are as interest in them! Uh, no...On the other hand I have known the offspring of all female households to be very *boy crazy* & only see them in a sexual light. It is not just cultural expectations but how we see ourselves & where our personal boundaries lie. As that is different for everyone there is much room for great confusion. It's a wonder any of us partner up at all!

Pen Wilcock said...

Yes, the family is a micro-cosmic culture that may be at odds with the wider prevailing culture. Perhaps here you've identified our clue to addressing these social problems like rape culture. In the family we can start with a new being and offer the opportunity to do things differently. One thing I found when my children were growing up (I was put on to this idea by one of the books I'd been reading but forget which — John Holt, I suspect) is that if children are exhibiting a behaviour parents don't like (eg selfishness, unkindness or being quarrelsome and argumentative), then the best approach is not to scold or punish, but to strongly model something better. It's by example we learn best. When I tried this, I found it worked well.

Suzan W said...

Sadly I am thinking heavily of a lovely young lady I know who went to a party and drank too much. While she was under the influence a young man used her shall we say. She only found out later. She is worried about being pregnant. I am worrying about STDs, why she drank so much ( and I am not using that today she asked for it) and finally why did she not report this? I am so concerned for her. I wish our society was not so complex and that these things did not happen.

greta said...

i've hesitated to comment on this series of posts about rape culture because i am struggling with the memories that have resurfaced after the recent supreme court hearing here in the states. i was raped many years ago, thought i had dealt with it, thought that i was 'over' it. that has turned out not to be true at all. it's as if a new wound has been inflicted and the pain begins again. in my case, it wasn't a 'misunderstanding' or a 'miscommunication.' it was a carefully planned assault that, as a naive 18-year-old, i had no way of foreseeing. i'm glad that you used the words 'male privilege' because there's a lot of that about. while i have permanent scars from the assault, i have no doubt that the attacker went on quite blithely and never gave it another thought. i feel sure that this wasn't the first time he had done this nor was it the last. if you asked him now if he had assaulted a certain woman at a certain time, he'd undoubtedly say no. it was of no consequence to him; he wouldn't even remember it. i'm not even sure what i'm trying to say here . . . there's an attitude in certain groups of men (certainly not all) that they have some sort of right to do whatever they want. brett kavanaugh and his friends being a prime examples. as women, we have to be very clear with the men in our lives about what is unacceptable to us, whether they understand it or not. that means being direct and verbal about things that we aren't always comfortable discussing. we have to speak our truth, shout if necessary and stand our ground. there is a place for anger when it is used wisely. most of all, we have to support one another and the men in our lives have to support us and stand with us.

Pen Wilcock said...

Suzan — I wonder if she didn't report it because she thought people in authority would say that if she was drunk it was her fault? We have this blame culture as well as rape culture, don't we — instead of focussing on how to really stop bad things happening, we look for who to blame for the bad things (and often, as we know, blame the person they happen to). I personally feel one should avoid getting drunk because a) it impairs one's judgement and one does silly things, b) it impairs one's vigilance and makes one more vulnerable to people taking advantage, c) it makes it harder to get a conviction when someone has committed a criminal offence like sexual assault, and d) it encourages others who may be present to get drunk as well. That said, getting drunk may be unwise but it isn't a crime and rape certainly is! Part of the reason modest dress, and a teetotal culture (people having a glass of wine over dinner at home doesn't bother me, but I prefer gatherings like parties and church lunches to be alcohol-free) are important to me is because I personally believe that they contribute to the formation of a social culture in which respect and wise conduct can flourish. Which is not the same as saying if a girl dresses immodestly it's okay to rape her — not the same at all! I'm glad that young woman told you about what happened; it must mean a lot to her to have your understanding and support.

Greta — I'm so sorry about that awful experience you went through, and that recent events have brought all the suffering to the surface again. Indeed these things do not go away. I think that is a message in the resurrection Jesus — showing the wounds of crucifixion as evidence of who he was, making his torture into the badge of his identity thereafter; nobody just 'gets over' these things that are done to us. Some people find ways to turn such experiences to good, but they remain part of who we are for ever. Reading through what you'd written, I was so very glad of the last sentence — my heart said "yes!"
Yes, also, to the bit about the importance of being very clear with the men in our lives. I have not found that easy to do — speaking up when I know what I have to say will be unwelcome and meet resistance is something I find very difficult; but I agree that it is vital, especially about such issues as these. Well done, for your courage in rebuilding your life, and for speaking about it now.

greta said...

thanks, pen, for reminding me about the message of the resurrection. that's exactly right; through the grace of God we rise again and shine more brightly, wounds and all!

Buzzfloyd said...

I agree fully with your thoughts in this post. I think communication is important, and part of what is being achieved with the 'me too' movement is getting men to understand why the burden of clear communication cannot be placed entirely on women; it is far harder to communicate clearly when you are the one more at risk of being 'punished' for doing so. It seems a pity that the 'enthusiastic yes' concept should be necessary, in some ways, but no more than it seems a pity to have to wear a restrictive seatbelt because driving in cars has become so hazardous.

I agree that blame culture is a big part of the problem. I also think that Greta's story underlines the issue of commodification, that I think is even worse in the US. Sorry your bad memories have been stirred up, Greta. Thank you for sharing your story.

Pen Wilcock said...