Notes on Freedom

Libertarian, humanist social theory, by Josie Appleton

How #MeToo undermines sexual morality

imagesOne of the defining aspects of the #MeToo movement has been the refusal to make a distinction between acts of different nature, intent, or gravity.

Everything is placed in the same category of ‘harassment’, including come-ons, chat-ups, even acts of tenderness, and acts of violation or violence.

When Matt Damon said that ‘there’s a difference between patting someone on the butt and rape or child molestation’, he sparked a twitter storm:

‘It’s the micro that makes the macro.’

‘How about: it’s all f****** wrong and it’s all bad, and until you start seeing it under one umbrella it’s not your job to compartmentalise or judge what is worse and what is not’

The attempt to distinguish between degrees of severity, or differences of intent, is considered to be offensive. There is an ethical imperative to think of varied events as being substantially ‘the same’, requiring the same words, the same response, the same punishment.

Yet there cannot be a sexual morality, or a legal judgement, unless we make distinctions. Relations cannot be guided, checked, punished, approved or disapproved, unless we weigh the gravity of acts, and judge the intent of those who carried them out.

After all, precise distinctions are at the very basis of legal codes, and the means by which offenses can be defined and prosecuted. Primitive law had only very vague notions of crime, and punishment was ‘fitful, governed by chance and personal passion’ (1).

The first criminal codes (at the time of the city states in ancient Mesopotamia) laid out for the first time what, precisely, should be considered a criminal act, and what should be the punishment.

Ancient legal codes calibrated degree, the grades of severity of an offence. If someone had been hit on the head, for example, ancient Germanic codes gave different punishments according to whether there was no blood, blood ‘falls to the floor’, or if the brain appears (2).

There is a difference between a strike that produces no blood and blood that falls to the floor. The wound is different, and so is the crime, the degree of violation committed. Criminal law is built on this objectivity – this standing aside from the act, and asking does the blood fall to the floor or does the brain appear.

Later criminal codes established the grades of intent, making distinctions between: a pure accident, an intentional violent act, an act done in self-defence, and an accident that should have been foreseeable and was therefore negligent.

The first developed sexual moralities were equally concerned to make distinctions between different kinds of acts.

(A sexual morality guides how free people pursue the game of love: it is concerned only with free relations, and not with arranged marriage, customary sexual obligations, etc.)

Arguably the first sexual morality developed in ancient Greece, governing love relations between adult men and youths. People subjected their conduct to scrutiny and discussion, and developed a finely tuned framework through which acts could be weighed and judged.

How should the lover pursue the boy? Which gifts and inducements were acceptable, and which were not? For the boy, at what point should he yield, and how often, and in what manner? What should be the relation between lover and beloved?

Another sexual morality developed in the Middle Ages, in the times of chivalrous love. ‘Courts of Love’ passed judgements on cases, pronouncing on what love was, how one should go about it, and the rights and wrongs of conduct.

Should a knight, having been rejected by his lady, be free to go off and attach himself to another; or should the lady have powers to bind him, though she did not love him?

The court of ladies issued its judgements with gravitas:

‘May this judgement, which we have delivered with extreme caution, and after consulting with a great number of other ladies, be for you a constant and unassailable truth.’

Why, then, is there such a current aversion to distinctions? Why is it unacceptable to say that one thing is worse than something else; or to apportion blame and fault as they appear due, on two sides? Why cannot we distinguish the good and the bad, or the criminal from the rude?

The reason appears to be that #MeToo is based on a single model of human conduct: that of the abuser-victim. In our times, this has become the archetype for all human relations: between men and women, but also between adults and children, or even children and other children.

It is the uniformity of our model of human relations which means that no distinctions can be made between acts. Acts are seen as important, and meaningful, only inasmuch as they represent the abuser-victim archetype.

There is a deliberate attempt to eclipse different points of view, or different narratives of human conduct. ‘You men are all the same’, said the woman who accused Aziz Ansari of sexual misconduct (though she was the one who pursued him, and she didn’t at any point say no to sexual acts). ‘How about we NOT celebrate men who are simply decent human beings’, said one of Matt Damon’s critics: she doesn’t want to hear about the good men. Here is the pursuit of sameness, of uniformity of narrative.

It is because #MeToo represents an archetype, that you join it simply by saying the words ‘Me too’ (as Ellen did). You need give no details, no proof – merely the two words, which enact a subsumption of one’s own experience under the universal umbrella.

(The claiming of exception – for example, saying that you have not experienced something you would consider harassment or abuse – is met with incredulity: they do not believe you.)

#MeToo cannot make distinctions, because to make distinctions you need polarity – notions of good and bad, innocent and guilty.

In ancient Greece, there was the polarity of noble and ignoble, and this was the question they asked of their conduct: was it noble or ignoble? A lover should not lose control or self-possession, and he should not degrade the boy or make the boy his object (3). They should meet each other freely, equally: the goal was to unite reciprocally but to remain self-possessed.

In the Middle Ages, the judgements of the Courts of Love were guided by an ideal of love, and wrong behaviour was marked out precisely as a violation of this ideal.

For us, there is no ideal to hold against the bad, in contrast and in measurement. There is no notion of what we are seeking to realise in our relations with one another.

One result of this is that an act such as violent rape loses its shock as an extreme and unusual act – as the extreme violation of how we should be relating. The rape becomes merely an example of a general model, and so loses its status as an exception, an inversion of mores, as something outside the normal course of conduct.

#MeToo may breed nervousness and anxiety among men, or it may breed antipathy and resentment. But these consequences will be lawless, amoral. The movement will not lead to a guiding and civilising of sexual relations – which requires judgement, and it requires distinctions.

References:

(1) Crime and custom in Savage Society, Bronislaw Malinowski, 1932

(2) Sources of Ancient and Primitive Law, Albert Kocourek, 1915

(3) The Use of Pleasure, Michel Foucault, 1985

In defence of binaries

2000px-toilets_unisex-svgOur age is against binaries: it is against the division of things into opposing categories or elements.

In Jacques Derrida’s view, any binary is a ‘violent hierarchy’, where ‘one of the two terms governs the other’. To say man or woman, black or white, life or death, is to create opposed camps, composed of dominating and dominated parties.

Even the binary of the toilet door, the signs that say ‘male’ or ‘female’, which divide a social group into two separate lines – even this most common-place and incidental binary is seen as problematic.

The vice president of St Catherine’s College, Oxford, got the signs changed on toilet doors:

After about two years and many long and testing conversations with old men about the concept of gender non-binaries, gender neutral toilet signs have finally arrived in Catz.

The liberationary figure today is the non-binary, the trans; the position staked outside binaries, against them. In literature and cultural studies departments, binaries are deconstructed: made conscious, then reversed, then made to collapse under the weight of their internal contradictions.

There are insights in all this about the rigid and restrictive nature of certain binary forms. And yet binaries should not be thrown on the scrapheap: they have a fundamental role in human thought and social organisation. If we want to say anything at all, we must use the binary.

1. The primitive binary

The binary did not begin with Western civilisation: primitive thought is primarily concerned with oppositions, with the division of the world into opposing elements. These commonly included things such as high and low, day and night, left and right, summer and winter, male and female, earth and sky.

Faced with the mass of sensory experience, the waxing and waning of forms, the human mind fixes on the cardinal points: east/west, hot/cold. It fixes on the essential polarities, the extremes, the points of contrast, in relation to which the gradations of experience can be oriented. It is the distinction, the polarised difference, which strikes the human mind as meaningful.

Common primitive binaries
high / low
day / night
right / left
sacred / profane
summer / winter
male / female
sky / earth
land / sea
odd / even
peace / war
stability / movement

In The Savage Mind, anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss showed how a society’s ‘logical structure begins with a simple opposition’. A conceptual system is composed of related oppositional pairs, encompassing microcosm and macrocosm, society and nature: so men could be related to sky, summer, and right; women to earth, winter, and the left.

The binary system of the Solomons uses two birds (the wild cock and the hornbill), two insects (the pharma and the mantis), and two divinities (Mr Wise and Mr Clumsy).

The binary system of the Solomon Islands
wild cock / hornbill
pharma / mantis
Mr Wise / Mr Clumsy

Among the Kiwai in Papua New Guinea, the opposition between the sago people and the yam people corresponds to the emblems of a nude woman and a bull-roarer, and is also related to different seasons, and opposing directions of wind.

Here, elements are given a polarity, and so made different or similar to other things. To us, it appears that there is no common charge between the sago people and a nude woman and a particular direction of wind. To us, it appears that false polarities are being set up, such as between two insects, or between the use of the right or the left hand.

And yet, in these simple conceptual systems, we can see the power of human thought in its early stages.

To make a phenomenon part of a binary, is to give it a sort of positive or negative charge. The polarity is its self-definition: the sign that it is not something else, that earth is not sky, that the wild cock is not the hornbill. The polarity is also its relation to other things, the thread that ties sky to men, the left hand to women. Things are placed in a web of dissonance and association.

It is not that the wild cock and the hornbill truly have an oppositional charge in relation to one another. Instead, the charge comes from these animals transformed into elements of human thought, when they are given meaning as part of a conceptual model of the world.

2. The fluidity of the primitive binary

The primitive binary is non-hierarchical: it contains elements that are antagonistic, but complementary. It is not a question of the dominance of one over another, nor is it a contrast between elements that are seen as essentially outside of or apart from one another. The primitive binary is the two sides in a relation, two contrasting aspects of the same totality.

The two sides of a pole act in correspondence with one another, and cause the changes seen in time: summer moves to winter, life moves to death. This can be seen in the Chinese system of Yin and Yang, which brings phenomena under one or another of these two opposing forces.

Yang and Yin
light / dark
active / passive
hot / cold
dry / moist
beneficent / malignant
positive / negative
masculine / feminine

This distinction is not one of superiority and inferiority, nor it is given the moral sense of good and evil. Yin and Yang are present in all things, and exist in a constant flux in time, first one predominating, then the other. One expert on Chinese thought said that the world represents:

‘A cyclical totality constituted by the conjunction of two alternating and complementary manifestations.’ (1)

In the philosophy of Tao, the aim for the adept was to perfectly integrate the elements of Yin and Yang within himself. In this manner he became equivalent to the primordial situation, and achieved the desired ‘fullness of life, spontaneity, and bliss’ (2). There was an interest in artistic forms that contained both Yin and Yang, such as bronze figures of owls with solar eyes: the figure of night contained its contrary.

Therefore, the primitive binary exists as:
a. A complementary relation, between two sides that are necessary to one another;
b. As part of the single totality of life; and
c. In constant interplay: the two elements meld together, in sequence or in single objects, causing the varied forms of things.

3. The truth of the binary

Thinking in binaries grasps an essential truth, which is that nature, and human life, proceed through the dynamic of opposition: there are conflicting forces, opposing elements, which play out beneath the surface of things. After all, nature itself contains poles: of positive and negative, attraction and repulsion.

It is for this reason that Greek philosophy – which made great gains through leaps of the mind, overreaching a still very limited technology – was also based to a large extent on binaries. Aristotle was largely concerned with marking the distinctions between definite things, and seeking balance between opposing elements.

Some of the Pythagoreans employed a sort of mathematical version of Yin and Yang, believing that ‘the opposites are principles of entities’, including (3):

Pythagorean binaries
limited / unlimited
one / many
right / left
male / female
still / moving
straight / bent
light / darkness
good / bad
square / oblong

So while primitive thought may be mistaken about the content of its binaries, which are arbitrary or fantastical, it is correct in seeing the world as composed of opposites – fluid elements existing in relation to one another, in a constant process of motion and change.

4. The rigid binaries of industrial society

The binary became something quite different in modern industrial society (a society that has precursors in the ancient world, but was only definitively achieved with the industrial revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries).

New binary categories developed, which were tighter, more logical than before: they had lost the arbitrary, mutating qualities of the primitive binary. Yet, whereas the primitive binary flowed, and interacted, these modern binaries were highly rigid, hardened like bone. They appeared to be made of entirely different substances to one other: to be outside of one another, and not naturally relating. In many cases one side of the binary was dominant over the other.

Polarised distinctions that were set up in philosophy (and about which deconstructionists complain) included those of subject and object, existence and non-existence, reason and the senses. The subject and the object were seen as essentially unrelated, and a great deal of thought went into the difficulty of bringing the subject into a true relation with the object, and the impossibility of ever truly knowing the world.

The binaries of modern philosophy
subject / object
existence / non-existence
reason / senses
body / soul
subjectivity / objectivity
idealism / realism

Hegel criticised the separation of body and soul:

‘If both (body and soul) are presumed to be absolutely independent of each other they are as impenetrable for each other as any material is for any other and the presence of one can be granted only in the non-being…of the other.’ (4)

Here, body and soul – the two aspects of the human person – are split asunder into different materials, which do not relate, or intermingle, or form two sides of the same universality. Philosophy then picks over these different materials, puzzling that the same person could be both a body and a soul, or both a particular person and a rational universal being. It is unable to bring these two thoughts, these two elements, together.

In the social world, too, all of life appeared split asunder, divided into polarised spheres, such as art and science, or individual and society:

The binaries of industrial society
art / science
individual / society
town / country
public / private
high / low culture
subjectivism / naturalism
intellectual / manual labour
male / female

(These are the rigid binaries that Susan Sontag complained about in her Rolling Stone interview).

The different spheres seemed to be one-sided, to contain only one side of thought or action. So philosophy was pure reflection, estranged from action; industry was the rote performance of action, estranged from reflection. Science was mechanical and mathematical; art was purely aesthetic and indifferent to practical life.

(These divisions had not existed a few centuries before, in the Renaissance, when artists designed siege defences for towns and conducted scientific experiments and dissections.)

Some of these binaries were hierarchies, dividing into owner and owned, master and servant, as was the case for the binaries of male and female, town and country, rich and poor.

Therefore, deconstructionists are correct in the insight that certain Western binaries had become ossified and hierarchical. But they see the rigid hierarchical binary as the model for all time, and the model for human thinking as such. They did not have the energy of transcendence, the fluidity of thought, which people had previously brought to this problem.

5. The transcendence of binaries

There has always been a power associated with the integration of binaries, the figure who is 2-in-1, who includes opposing elements as different sides to himself. The bi-sexual or hermaphrodite god exists in many cultures, as a vision of a supreme creative power at the beginning of time.

Primitive ideas of transcending binaries tend to be posed as a return to the beginning of time, before the distinctions of the world were created.

In modern times, people sought a synthesis of opposing elements, deliberately bringing them together as two sides of the same figure. The synthesis, or transcendence, is now a future imagined state, brought about through battle and effort.

Within philosophy, there has been an effort since the early nineteenth century to transcend the subject-object division, started by philosophers such as Hegel. The distinctions of subject and object, presence and absence, mind and body, were not seen as ossified or abstract elements, apart from one another.

Instead, Hegel sought to show how these distinctions existed within a fluid, unified reality: subject and object determine one another, penetrate one another; presence was becoming absence, absence becoming presence.

‘The abstractions of existence and non-existence both cease to be abstract when they acquire a definite content; existence then becomes reality.’ (5)

It is not that binaries are dispensed with: this is still a philosophy of opposites, of contradictions and sharp polarisations. Only these distinctions exist within a moving, pulsating whole, like a living organism. A living thing only stays still through constant movement – of growth, repair, breakdown, the movement of blood and fluids. Once reality is looked at as a thing alive, then there are no fixed distinctions (of life/death, stillness/movement), no eternal opposites set up for all time.

The transcendence of rigid binaries came when philosophers sought to think, to live, more dynamically.

If you touch the world, and change it, you no longer feel that there is an unbridgeable void between yourself and the world of things. If men and women are free to develop their individual character and talents, when gender is something to occupy rather than a straitjacket, then there no longer appears that there is an iron divide between the sexes. The different poles are continually being brought together, related to one another.

This is not the abolition of distinctions between art and science, male and female, body and soul, individual and society. These things are different in quality, in make-up, in scale, or in logic. Rather, it is to see these distinctions as essentially related, as part of the same person, or the same common human world.

6. The errors of our non-binary moment

People now say that they are against binaries, and think themselves to be superior to everyone else who is trapped within old systems. But it transpires that it is they, the non-binaries, who are trapped within reified binaries: it is they who cannot think fluidly about opposites, and so oppose them on point of principle.

They take a stereotype of hierarchical binaries, of male/female or black/white, to stand for the whole enterprise of making distinctions. For them, opposites can only exist as rigid, stereotyped and dominating.

Having lost the element of transcendence – the energy, fluidity, action, hope, that fueled attempts to transcend or synthesise binaries – they are left merely with the shells of the past, which they turn against.

The non-binaries are therefore highly dependent upon these old, rigid forms: these are the adversary, the material upon which deconstruction can work. If there are no hulking frameworks, there is nothing to take apart; if there is no binary, there is no basis to the non-binary, which exists only as much as it is not-that.

In truth, it is only through the binary, the distinction, that we can think and organise our world. It is through the polarity that we can model the dynamics of nature and of history.

At the same time, we can be for the transcendence of rigid binaries – so that distinctions and polarities can take their places as different parts of the same active, curious human person.

 

References:

(1) La Pensée Chinoise, Marcel Granet
(2) A History of Religious Ideas, Vol 2, Mircea Eliade
(3) Aristotle, The Metaphysics
(4) Quoted in Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness
(5) Quoted in Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness

 

The liberation of porn, the criminalisation of groping

young-people-008Teens and pre-teens now partake in commercial sex culture: sexy selfies, sexting, porn. Yet if they touch each other, or play a sexual game, they could end up with a criminal record.

These fumblings, sloppy kisses, explorations of each other’s bodies, have long been part of childhood and adolescence. Now such things can lead to investigation, expulsion from school, even prosecution.

The UK Sexual Offences Act criminalises ‘sexual touching’ between under 16-year olds. I know of a 12-year old boy who was put on the Sex Offenders Register for ‘inappropriate touching’, while playing with a girl his age.

In America, children as young as 10 have been put on sex offenders lists, or in some cases removed from their home, for play-acting sex with their peers.

A new paper by Danish researchers (1) finds that the country’s traditionally liberal attitudes have been replaced with suspicion and restriction. Where children once bathed naked in summer, they now wear swimming costumes. The kids’ game of ‘playing doctor’ is now seen by nurseries as a ‘trespass upon a child’s boundaries’, and is highly restricted or banned.

One interviewee observed:

‘There has been a drastic shift in the views of children’s relations to one another. Exploratory behaviors among children are, sadly, often interpreted as abuse.’

The authors concluded that:

The fear of (child sexual abuse) seemed to be the sole rationale for speaking of childrens games as abusive and for using the theme ofboundaries to teach children to defend their bodies and to respect other childrens bodies.

This taboo over contact between children occurs at a time when the commercial sex world has never been so available to them.

11- and 12-year olds twerk: this is the way they dance. A girl of 11, in her selfies, looks as if she is inviting you to sex, all sultry and come-on. She doesn’t yet have breasts but adds them, along with hips, with the phone app. Boys consume porn and take photos of their penises.

It is overt, this commercialised game of sex: everybody is always pretending to offer and receive sex.

Yet the real human relation – the real hand on a real body – is seen as toxic and dangerous. Kids are told that touching is a violation of ‘boundaries’, a potential crime, and that they need pseudo-legal consent for every act.

While the commercial porn world is freed, the human relation is cramped and criminalised.

And so young people’s sexual initiation occurs through porn culture, through stereotyped ways of acting towards sex objects – instead of the fumbled kisses, the awkwardness, the tingling in the belly, as they learn sexuality as a way or relating to another person.

(1) Children’s Doctor Games and Nudity at Danish Childcare Institutions, EB Leander et al, Archives of Sexual Behavior, February 2018

My book Officious – Rise of the Busybody State, is published by Zero books.

Demi-boys and the new enslavement to gender

It is increasingly common for young people to identify with ‘non-binary’ genders: to locate themselves on a ‘gender spectrum’, or align with one of the dozens of new gender categories. Here are some observations about this phenomenon:

original1. For non-binary teens, the search for the self is taking the form of a search for a gender category.

That is, the question of discovering themselves as a person – and leaving behind the world of childhood, parents and family – becomes a question of finding a new gender label.

‘I’m gender queer, and I’m starting to explore the possibility of identifying as trans.’

‘I’m not exactly sure what (I am) yet, somewhere between agender and androgine.’

They chart their biographies and life experience as movement through gender categories:

‘I came out as a tomboy at 4. Bisexual at 17. Lesbian at 18. Queer around 22. Genderqueer/non-binary at 24-ish.’

2. People who are ‘gender questioning’ are much more defined by gender, than those who are not.

Non-binary people put a lot more store by their gender than others; the gender category is the thing that ‘supports’ their identity, and makes them feel ‘secure’. Non-binary twitter profiles tend to mention gender identities before any other interests:

• he/they • nonbinary/transmasculine • aro/ace (aromantic/asexual) • Disney obsessed • booklion • usually over-caffeinated •

By contrast, those who are an ordinary man or woman need not think very much about their genders. The gender binary is now something that can be worn lightly, without implications for the lives we will have or the people we will become.

3. New gender categories are still based on the idea of a naturalised ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’.

This is most obvious when somebody describes their identity as a particular point on the gender spectrum, and therefore as a sort of chemical formula, an admixture of the masculine and feminine:

‘I am 2/3 boy and 1/3 girl

‘You could fall anywhere along this (gender) line, for example, you could be 78.25 male

This is also the meaning of many of the new gender categories. For example, a demi-boy is someone who is mainly male, and a bit female.

Bi-gender is someone who feels male and female (either both at the same time, or one after another).

Therefore, in effect, the traditional elements of masculinity and femininity have been preserved, only these have become like free-floating gender substances, which can be mixed together in various combinations.

4. Even very fluid gender categories have a naturalised, pseudo-physical basis.

It is no coincidence that gender categories are often described as one might a physical waveform, or a mutating substance.

Crystagender: gender randomly changes, often feels broken or fractured between mulitple genders

Antegender: A protean gender which has the potential to be anything, but is formless and motionless, and, therefore, does not manifest as any particular gender

If gender is unknown, or confused, this takes on the significance of some unknown (perhaps as yet undescribed) gender substance. For example, the category elissogender has been represented as a waveform:

elissogender_by_pride_flags-d96xt63

Elissogender – a term used to describe a gender which vaguely moves around with no direction.

(Pink is femininity, blue is masculinity, black is agender, grey is the confusion or grey area amongst genders, yellow is unknown).

5. Non-binary individuals are very hostile to the idea that they might be defined in any way by other people.

There is a hostility to social ascription, to the idea that they would be put in a category by society or other people.

‘The very first thing doctors tell parents is if their baby is a boy or a girl.’

Being a man was the norm that was placed on me, but I don’t identify with that.’

Their objection is not so much to any particular arduous consequences of being a man or a woman, but to the very social act of naming, or making a distinction. The new gender categories are therefore anti-social on principle.

6. Freedom from the traditional gender binary does not mean freedom to be your own person.

Being non-binary does not mean that a person is free to develop their vocation, character, self-expression in a way that is personal or undetermined by notions of gender.

Instead, to be non-binary is to enter into a private marriage with the gender category of your choice. The freedom of our age is to not be genuinely self-determined, but to choose one’s determination from a menu of options.

7. The reason for this is that we are free of the sexual division of labour, but we are not yet free.

We have seen the breakdown of the sexual division of labour, under which men and women were assigned opposing roles, destinies, and characters. People are free of social domination: their gender will no longer determine their profession, their legal rights, their dress, or the ways in which they talk or move.

Yet people do not yet feel themselves to be completely free to determine themselves according to their personal capacities and inclinations.

Therefore, the qualities previously tied to the sexual division of labour – the substances of masculine and feminine – become free floating, mixing in various combinations to form the new series of gender categories.

The naturalised elements of masculinity and femininity are not overcome, but translated into the terms of consumer choice.

 

 

#Metoo: The criminalisation of sexual passion

Love (hands in the air), Wolfgang Tillmans

Before a prostitute and a client have sex, they discuss in detail the acts that will take place. It’s a contract; there are clear boundaries that are established beforehand. Some of Harvey Weinstein’s assaults took a similar form: you do this for me and I will do that for you. This is a deal.

But the fallout from Weinstein, the #Metoo phenomenon, has targeted acts that have the precise opposite character: the unscripted sexual advance, or spontaneous displays of desire. Several people have lost their jobs because, at some point in the past, they came on to someone – they put a hand on their leg, or touched or kissed them without explicitly asking first. The defence minister resigned because he put his hand on a journalist’s leg 15 years ago. A freelance journalist lost his jobs because he ‘lunged’ to kiss a woman outside a pub.

These events are not just about men and women, and it is not just now. A couple of years ago an LGBT student representative, Annie Teriba, resigned after she was accused of non-consensual sex with another woman. She confessed: ‘I had sex with someone. The other party later informed me that the sex was not consensual. I failed to properly establish consent before every act. I apologise sincerely and profoundly for my actions.’ Teriba also admitted some ‘inappropriate behaviour’ in a nightclub two years’ previously, ‘where I had touched somebody in a sexual manner without their consent’.

We are seeing a new model for sexual relations, as aseptic, cool and contractual, not unlike that of a prostitute and her client. Everything must be discussed in advance and explicitly agreed, and the sex act becomes a playing out of the ‘deal’. The University of Michigan teaches that consent must be ‘verbal or oral, sober, and enthusiastic’, and must be continually obtained: ‘Each of us is responsible for making sure we have consent in every sexual situation… it is important to clarify what your partner feels about the sexual situation before initiating or continuing the sexual activity.’

People are seen as separate, bounded atoms, who do not naturally touch or relate. The ordinary sex act is conceived as a violation, a breaching of these boundaries, which is why it must be agreed so explicitly:

At the heart of consent is the idea that every person has a right to personal sovereignty – the right to not be acted upon by someone else in a sexual manner unless they give that person clear permission.  It is the responsibility of the person initiating the sexual activity to get this permission.

By these accounts, it is the person ‘acting upon the other in a sexual manner’ who has the obligation to get consent. This is not just an assumption of guilt – though it is that. It is also an assumption of separateness, the separateness of people and the contradiction of their interests.

This relieves the woman of responsibility for making it clear when she is not okay with something. There is a generation of wilting maidens who seem incapable of saying no: they say nothing, then they feel violated and write about it on social media afterwards. The woman who accused the journalist Sam Kriss of assault gave a detailed account of the evening in question, and at no point did she say ‘no’. She kept saying ‘not here, other people can see’, even ‘we might make the old folk jealous’, but she never said ‘no, I don’t want to’.

The turn against passion is not about prudishness: the contractual model is compatible with extreme sexual acts. Grindr arranges clear and explicit consent between gay men, with photos and specifics about preferred sexual acts. You can see what is on offer and discuss it beforehand. Similarly, the habit of men sending penis selfies to women as a chat-up line is a way of being explicit about their wares: this is what I’ve got, how about it?

Those accused of sexual assault for come-ons always admit a sinful and shameful lapse, describing it as ‘suboptimal’ or ‘absolutely unacceptable’ or ‘falling short’ of standards. Annie Teriba said:  ‘It is clear that I lack self-awareness and become sexually entitled when I am drunk’. What probably actually happened was that she got carried away: she wanted someone and that person may not have wanted her, but they did not make this clear to her. Yet her one-sided passion is posed as a sterile ‘sexual entitlement’, a sense of rights over another person, who is merely a means to the satisfaction of her sexual needs.

What is being lost here is the ideal of sensual unity – of romance, seduction, captivation. Since the discovery of love in ancient Greece, sexual desire gained this new possible meaning: as an act of devotion and entrancement. On the plane of passion there is a loss of separateness, the spiritual uniting of two people.

This new meaning of desire was quite different from the brute expression of the sex drive, whereby the other is a means to one’s own satisfaction. Passion is directed at a person, in their autonomy and integrity; the Greek suitors sought to win their love object, not to force them. When Homer’s Gods came down to Earth to ravish maidens, it did not matter whether the maiden wanted it or not, just as nobody cared what the slave girls thought as they were passed around and fought over like booty. By contrast, in classical Athens, the love object (generally a free-born courtesan or a beautiful youth) was not seized or ravished, but courted, seduced.

This distinction is the key one in defining sexual assault. Assault is a knowing violation of another; it is treating the other as an object, a means to satisfaction of your sex drive. (Indeed, it is sometimes independent of sexual pleasure and is a mere act of violence, or violation, where what is enjoyed is the reduction of the other person to the status of an object.) This was the manner in which Weinstein and other assaulters went about their business. This has nothing to do with passion.

After Greece, the realm of passion continued as a thread in social life, generally in the secrecy of extra-marital affairs, in the knight and his lady, or courtly love.

Wolfgang Tillmans, The Spectrum / Dagger (2014)

In spite of the current wisdom, sexual desire still has this meaning in spaces today. The artist Wolfgang Tillman’s photographs of nightclubs show how, within the four walls of a club, people are transcending their separation. There are hands everywhere – on someone’s bottom, between their legs, hands touching hands. In the sensuality of a nightclub, bathed in drink and music and light, people are no longer atoms. There are no longer boundaries; their separateness is transcended.

This is a beautiful thing. So no, people shouldn’t always ask before they kiss, and they shouldn’t apologise for wanting someone. If you don’t want to be kissed then say no, and that should be the end of that. Don’t post about it online. When you post, you are violating the space within which passion occurs: you are ruining it for the next time when you do want to be kissed.

We should be for the ideal of desire – and against the aseptic contractualism which is turning every man into a pimp and every woman into a prostitute.

My book Officious – Rise of the Busybody State, is published by Zero books.

Let the climate treaties burn

At the UN climate change conference this week, Syria announced that it will sign the Paris Agreement on climate change. The Syrian government has not quite finalised targets for cutting greenhouse gases, but will do in due course: ‘We are in the process of becoming part of the agreement. We will have our commitments and targets.’

The territory formerly known as Syria is currently under control of at least five military factions, including Islamic State in the east, the Turkish army in the north, and anti-government forces just outside Damascus. Major cities are entirely destroyed; there is no national economic plan and no national economy, yet, shortly, a Syrian representative will submit targets and commitments for the cutting of CO2 emissions.

This case shows how climate change agreements occur in a separate, estranged world, isolated from the realities or needs of peoples on the ground. A CO2 target can come before there is a national economy; spokespeople can make climate change committments before there is a country to speak of.

When they enter into climate change negotiations, leaders leave their populations behind. They enter a different sphere and a new way of doing politics, which deals not with human needs or priorities but with technical or naturalised targets. Climate change provides a post-political and technocratic language, through which deals can be done and relations negotiated. To sign up to the Paris Agreement, or to support the ‘2° target’, is to enter into an intra-elite pact. It is like an initiation to an exclusive society, where you assume different priorities and take on a different worldview. Your loyalties to your secret society (your international obligations, international contributions) take priority over and occlude one’s obligations to domestic populations.

The international sphere now has some similarities with the situation for absolute kings in ancient times: the political relations are those between leaders, not between leaders and populace. The international sphere is a plane for political relations between leaders, which occur relatively independently of their respective peoples. Climate change features as the ideology of this sphere, not because of a natural emergency, but because the issue represents, in essence, the negation of the national political sphere. It is global not national, natural not political.

Countries’ submissions laying out their planned CO2 cuts (their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions) make strange reading. A country is described – its geographical position, economic resources, industries – but the framing is from an estranged, alien point of view. Elements of human and geographical reality are described only for the reason of explaining targets for the reduction of CO2. All of a national reality is viewed from the point of view of the amount of gas produced; it is seen from the skies, from a perspective that would not be recognisable to the people in that country.

A country’s ‘contribution’ to the world becomes, not its inventions or production of ideas or products, but its limitation on the production of a gas. CO2 becomes the mediator in international political relations: it is the asocial currency, the means by which one national reality is made comparible with another.

This worldview is not just indifferent to people’s priorities; it is, loosely speaking, the opposite of them. Fiji’s contribution document regrets that the ‘addiction of modern society to individual transport options’ has led to an increase in car ownership, and that ‘engine size distribution is moving in the wrong direction for energy and emissions savings’. A country with a per capita GDP of US$4000 dollars sees the modest increase in the private motorcar as obstructing its ‘international obligations’.

Of course, there is horse-trading over economic interests at the climate change conference. The world is divided into two groups of countries: those who must contribute towards the Green Climate Fund, and those who receive these funds. Poorer countries are pushing for more climate relief money and for a review of richer countries’ failures to meet past climate targets. Richer countries are resisting. Turkey is complaining that it is in the wrong group, claiming that it should receive climate funds rather than be asked to contribute.

Yet here, socio-economic problems or goals are discussed only indirectly. Relations of economic competition, or exploitation, can only be understood through the medium of CO2. Countries relate through the intermediary of the skies, as the emissions from one part of the world rain down in the form of hurricanes or flooding on another.

Human ends are only sought as the side-effect of natural ends. Aid becomes ‘climate relief’, not tackling human need but tackling the ‘effects of climate change’ on poorer regions. The countries thrust to the forefront of negotiation are those who, through accidents of geography, are exposed to earthquakes, hurricanes or flooding. The poverty of those on higher or firmer ground is not so interesting: it has not been touched by natural intermediaries, but only those old profane socio-economic forces about which we have very little to say.

National domestic interests are not expressed or dealt with directly: they sit there silently, sullenly, at the back of the room. Germany is embarrassed by the fact that it can’t close its lignite mines or penalise its car industry. The things that matter domestically – cheap energy, jobs – are not the things that matter in these negotiations. Domestic economic interests are things to be whispered about in private. When the French president travelled to India, the leaders gave a joint press conference about the need to back the Paris Agreement and tackle climate change; then they retreated to private discussions about the export of French war planes. There is a public face and a private face.

There is nothing wrong in principle with an international negotiation about the global environment. One could imagine a situation, in some future world, where a committee representing the whole of humanity could come together to make decisions about the earth’s climate: to reduce CO2, to seed rain, to increase or reduce temperatures. These representatives would bear the wills and wishes of their respective sections of humanity, and the conclusions would be the outcome of these accumulated wishes.

This is not what we have. International climate change negotiations provide a new post-political sphere, which is not an offshoot of national peoples, but a different plane, insulated from and set against them.

A meaningful discussion about our collective influence on the climate could only be based on the realities and wishes of the world’s populations. Scrapping climate treaties would be the first step in bringing politics out of the sky, back down to earth – to the profane and solid ground of human need, reality and desire.

On the narcissism of trans activism

Is it ‘transphobic’ for lesbians to refuse to sleep with trans women? Should radical feminists be forced to see trans women as ‘real women’?

The growing conflict between trans activists and lesbians/radical feminists shines a light on today’s strange new breed of identity politics.

In a YouTube war, NeonFiona, a bisexual woman with a trans girlfriend, said that lesbians were downright bigoted for refusing to date trans women. Lesbian YouTubers and writers such as Arielle Scarcella and Taylor Fogarty responded with videos arguing that ‘Nobody should be coerced into having sex with anybody. If someone does not want to fuck you, it does not invalidate your identity.’

Meanwhile, radical feminists have been labelled TERFS (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists) for not seeing trans women as real women, a conflict that occasionally spills over into real violence. At a recent feminist Hyde Park rally, a 60-year old feminist was punched and grabbed around the neck by an apparently male-bodied trans woman. The ‘punch a terf’ meme is a theme on Twitter, where TERFS are compared to Nazis: ’deck a terf’, ‘punch terfs. transpobes suck’, ‘have you punched a nazi or a terf today?’.

Trans people have been part of the gay movement for decades: this is not about transgenderism per se. Nor is it about most trans people, who don’t want to punch anyone. Nor is it about the misunderstandings that can occur when straight people change sex: these situations are not unprecedented. At my college LGB Society 20 years ago there was a woman who identified as a gay man. Everyone was welcoming of him but the gay men were not interested; they wanted men, biological men. The situation was a bit awkward but nobody made a big deal about it: it just was what it was. Sometimes in life people miss each other.

Now this same situation has become a political line, a matter of political principle, the source of demands and recriminations. Gay women’s rejection of trans women is treated as an invalidation of trans identity, based on prejudiced ‘cultural conditioning’ and irrational fear.

Today’s trans activism involves a kind of narcissism, a failure to distinguish between your own and other people’s point of view. Self-ascription is treated as an absolute right: you can call yourself whatever you want to, and people have to mirror and affirm it. If you say you are a woman then it is harmful for other people to not treat you absolutely like a woman in every respect. ‘It’s harmful to trans folks to associate lesbian with “vagina only”’, tweeted one activist. ‘You’re not an LGBT advocate if you think trans women who don’t have surgery or take hormones are not women.’ In the demand for recognition, there is a denial of the independence of the other person’s point of view.

But the truth is that the world is independent of us: it has its own eyes, its own logic. We may wish to be seen as a woman or man, just as we may wish to be seen as funny or attractive, but this cannot be demanded as a right. In reality, we are very rarely seen as we wish to be seen, and indeed this is not a bad thing. It is a reality check. It is just life. We can work to earn other people’s opinions but we can’t demand them.

Today’s identity politics demands that the world be a perfect mirror, that it reflect your self-ascription, that it never present a denial, discomfort or refusal. The argument that lesbians should have sex with trans women even if they don’t want to (that they should want to want to) shows how this demand for affirmation represents a violation of the bodies and wills of others.

There is a questioning of lesbians’ ‘preferences’ for the female body. NeonFiona’s video put ‘preferences’ in quote marks, which she made with fingers over her head. ‘”Preferences” are super transphobic’, read one tweet. The message of the video is: question your preferences, ask why you prefer the things you do, because it could just be pure bigotry. An article on Slate discussed lesbians’ ‘knee-jerk resistance’ and ‘feelings of fear or disgust at the idea of a partner who they perceive as “really” a man – feelings that are rooted in transphobic cultural conditioning’. It said that lesbians were even worse than cis-men for a ‘freak-out’ or ‘yuck’ reaction when they discover that the woman they are dating has male anatomy.

Here, people’s feelings and desires are placed in quote-marks, as prejudiced, conditioned, in need of re-education. It becomes legitimate to ask why you prefer the people you prefer. Why do you never date trans people, or black people, or disabled people? As if your love list should correspond to a diversity chart in order to be entirely even handed. The intuitive, personal issue of sexual attraction becomes something for others to comment upon and judge. As Arielle Scarcella put it, activists can be ‘aggressive in telling lesbians how to define their sexuality and how to feel in their attractions’.

Ultimately, the narcissism of trans activism comes from the fragile nature of the contemporary self – its lack of independence from the world. The person demanding recognition as a perfect mirror has no place apart from the world. This aborts the efforts in Western philosophy over the past 2000 years, which has sought the independence of the self from the world. In his Meditations, Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius told himself not to be affected by other people’s stinky breath or the stupid things they say about you. The Stoic’s aim is remaining rooted in your person, master of your ship, regardless of what others say or do around you.

Self-identity now is reduced to the single dimension of a social mask: how you are seen, what you are called. This is why non-recognition can spark such upset and rage. ‘When terfs attack, we fight back’, tweeted one trans activist: feminists’ refusal to see trans women as women is experienced as a kind of attack, which calls for violence in return.

But behind the aggression and accusation lies the fragility of contemporary identity, which has no point upon which to stand.

I will be discussing ‘Diversity – Does it Matter?’ at the Battle of Ideas in London on 28 October.

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