Notes on Freedom

Libertarian, humanist social theory, by Josie Appleton

Category: Sex/intimacy

#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.

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.

‘Just call me “ze”.’ The trouble with gender-neutral identities

Genderimage A friend’s 14-year-old son goes to a south London comprehensive. Two of his classmates identify as neither male or female: one has two personalities, between which he alternates; the other is a ‘non-binary non-cis-gendered woman’.

There is nothing wrong, of course, with people going against their gender or primarily considering themselves a person or a human being. Nor is there anything wrong with androgyny. There is more freedom than ever to be or look androdynous: women can wear suits, men can wear sarongs and jewellery, with hair as short or long as you like.

But the gender-neutral identity is quite different. It is not an indifference to categories, just being yourself, ignoring demands to fit in with models or roles. Instead, there is an obsession with categories (gender neutral, genderqueer, gender fluid, gender questioning, agender, bigender, or many many others). The quest for the right category is the quest to establish a basis for the self. Your identity box and pronoun become as important as your name. One formerly gender neutral man introduces himself: ‘Hi, my name is Sam. My pronouns are “he” and “him”, how about you?’

This means that the formation of the self plays out not in an interior world, nor in relation to close others, but in relation to reified categories that a person has invented or found on the internet. People go in search of an identity box that ‘fits’, in the way that in the past they might have sought a religion or vocation.

When Facebook announced 71 different gender categories for UK users, an adviser said that Facebook ‘will finally allow thousands of people to describe themselves as they are now’ and ‘allow future generation of kids to become truly comfortable in their own skins.’ Your feeling in your own skin; a website’s drop-down menu: there is no difference.

Traditional social categories, such as man or woman, or nationality or class, were based on some generally accepted physical distinction or division within social structure. The new categories, by contrast, exist apart from someone’s position in society or the social relations they enter into, as well as their physical reality. Your identity box can be independent of your appearance: you can identify as black though biologically white (as with Rachel Dolezal, who claims to be ‘trans black’); or identify as a woman though you have the body of a man. Your identity category can even be independent of your relationships, with one woman saying that she identifies as queer while in a long-term relationship with a man.

Gender-neutral websites always advise on never assuming someone’s gender, never assuming anything about someone on the basis of how they look or who they are with. The identity box is only incidentally related to social or biological reality. The box is both arbitrary – someone can choose anything they want – but also strangely naturalised as if they haven’t chosen it at all. Therefore, it is a private relationship with some sort of external determination.

Gender neutral identities involve a kind of grating at the social, an objection to being touched by anything social or universal in content. After all, a regular pronoun describes an individual as something general: to be called ‘he’ is to say that this person, Tom, is something universal, a man. The new identities express a dislike at being part of any general group or category, at being touched or judged by frameworks that are commonly accepted. One gender-neutral student said:

Every time someone used ‘she’ or ‘her’ to refer to me, it made this little tick in my head. Kind of nails-on-a-chalkboard is another way you can describe it. It just felt wrong. It was like, “Who are you talking to?”‘

The gender-neutral pronoun is a violation of language and the meaning of words. To ask other people to use ‘they’ or ‘it’ rather than ‘he’ or ‘she’ is to make them twist their tougues into unnatural shapes, and use words in ways that violate their actual meaning. A person is called either a plural, or an object. It is worse with invented pronouns, such as xe/xem, zie/hir, e/em, fae/faer, and co/cos, because people do not understand what they mean. People are asked to use words that don’t mean anything.

(The problems are accentuated in gendered languages such as French or German, where things such as job positions are also gendered. A Humbolt university professor uses ‘x’ instead of gendered endings, replacing Professor (male) or Professorin (female) with ‘Professx’. Another man complains that his gender-neutral German pronouns are not being understood: ‘By using “xier/sier” most people think that I try to say “sie” with a bad German pronunciation, and if I use “nin” (although I quite like the sound of it), no one understands anything.’)

The pronoun-based identity is something that can only happen in public, through requesting a particular, unnatural treatment from the world. You find yourself by asking people to call you something different. One man says: ‘For two years I used “ze” and “hir” pronouns, and it’s kind of a process of trying them out and having other people try them out to see how it feels and sounds.’

A man (not a ‘cis-man’, just a man) can be relatively independent of his pronoun. His pronoun can be incidental to him; he does not think about it, which means that the individual is free to go his own way and do his own thing. In accepting a general category, the individual can go their own way as something distinct from this. Indeed, early philosophies of individual independence encouraged an indifference to the outside world: Stoicism, for example, recommended remaining steady on your inner axis through a cultivated immunity to anything anyone said about you or anything that happened.

The gender-neutral person has no point of independence, no point apart from the world on which to stand. They are their identity box; they are their pronoun. And the content of this identity box is nothing but the violation of the commonly accepted category. It is an identity founded on the negation of the categories of social life, declaring them ‘binary’ and null and void.

Therefore, the gender-neutral identity means the effacement of the independent individual, as well as the universal social category – both of which are collapsed into the drop-down menu and the pronoun ‘ze’.

Josie Appleton is talking about ‘Self, society and alienation’ at The Academy on 15 and 16 July.

Sexting and the pornification of intimacy

What is worrying about sexting is not that people pass nude photos around their friends or post them online. It’s far worse that they were supposed to keep them secret: that these photos were supposed to have the status of a private, intimate exchange.

To send a sext is, basically, to objectify yourself, to make yourself into a porn object. Porn deals with a stereotyped, abstract sexuality; it is a question of organs, arousal, acts. Sexting has the same objectified language: it has the same focus on isolated organs, showing the penis or breasts without the face. Or it has the same stereotyped poses, pouting and sticking your bottom out; or the pre-fab lists of ‘sexy’ things to say.

So, on recieving a porn photo, it is not surprising that someone might pass it around their friends – have a laugh, post it online. It looks like a photo for general consumption; there is nothing intimate about it. To pass it around is the natural thing to do. It’s especially not suprising that young people do this, since at this age sexuality is largely a question of exploit and bragging to their peers, rather than of a close or trusting relation.

What is less natural is that sexting should be considered part of an intimate relation; that people should relate to one another through penis and breast shots.

Here, the sexual relation loses its quality of closeness, a private language and mutual sensuality. With sexting, the one-to-one relation is mediated through the exchange of photos and texts, through the production and consumption of images. The private sexted photo makes a gift out of your objectification (I did this for you) and also shows off (look at how big it is/how desirable I am). The other person then consumes this image.

The exchange of sexting occurs at a different pace and on a different plane to a real relation. In some cases, naked selfies are a prelude to a relationship: whereas once boys would want to touch a girl’s breasts (and brag about it to their friends) now they ask for a photo (and send it around). The photo is a prelude to, and temporary substitute for, someone else’s body. People relate through images before they relate through touching – some online daters make cyber sex a prelude to real sex.

As well as being more objectified, sexting is also a more privatised relation – it is the realm of private fantasy, the private relation between a person and the sex image. This means that sexting proceeds at the pace of fantasy rather than a real relationship. Women report that they meet someone nice and go to dinner – then, ‘bam’, receive a penis shot. It goes from talking, to penis shot, with nothing in between: ‘how am I supposed to respond?’ This isn’t the slow build-up of intimacies, but nor is it like jumping straight into bed with someone. Instead, the leap straight to the penis shot is a leap to the one-way offering – the objectified private fantasy.

One woman says that her ex-boyfriend broke up with her but keeps on sending filthy texts; he finished the relationship, and has no interest in seeing her, but continues sexting. Here, the person reading the texts is playing the role of mediator for someone’s private fantasy, a conversation he could be having in his head but is instead acting out through his phone.

So while most of the discussion is about young people sharing naked selfies online, this is actually the least significant aspect of sexting. What is more significant is its spread into intimate adult relations, such that intimacy starts to be mediated through the exchange of porn.


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