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Intimacy Always Creates Entanglements
The limits of a contractual approach to sex
This is the last regular week of Other Feminisms for 2021. I’d like to thank everyone for their support and conversation, and I’ll be back in the New Year. On Thursday, I’ll have a roundup of your comments on the Dobbs case and whether abortion is the entrance price for our society.
Maggie Nelson had my attention for her new book the moment I saw the title. On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint could in some ways be the subtitle of Other Feminisms. Nelson and I agree on some things, disagree strongly on others, and she weaves in more questions about art and appropriation than I tend to write on.
I dogeared a number of pages when my (digital) library hold came in, and this was one passage that particularly stood out to me:
Some years ago, I found myself emerging from the Astor Place subway into a Slut Walk in the East Village of Manhattan. Generally speaking, the spectacle was a delight. Nonetheless, in the years since, I have found myself musing on the first thing I saw up on the street, which was a group of young women wearing pasties and low slung jeans carrying a banner that read "my body has nothing to do with your body." While not unfamiliar, the slogan seemed so patently untrue in this context that it struck me as almost comedic. For starters, the banner needed about five women to hold it up, so five bodies were united in the service of an announcement that the bodies at hand had nothing to do with each other. Also, the announcement was being set forth at a march very much intended to show how bodies have to do with other bodies, via a public amassing of scantily clad flesh capable of drawing attention and stopping traffic. I knew the "your body" on the sign was supposed to refer to some imagined enemy or intruder, but given that anyone reading it was likely to feel interpellated by its call, the banner had the weird effect of pulling you into an exchange only to insist on your irrelevance to it. It reminded me, perhaps a bit sadly, of sex itself, wherein an activity ostensibly about two or more bodies "connecting" can shimmer in and out of a drama of those bodies asserting their independence or alienation from one another.
Living for a while in New York City, I had experience dodging three kinds of people in Times Square: the comedy club hawkers who tried to foist tickets on you; the people dressed in pop culture costumes trying to get you to take a photo with them (and pay for the privilege); and the desnudas—women who were almost entirely naked, save for thongs and body paint.
The latter were the easiest to avoid, since their feathered headdresses could be spotted above the crowd. And certainly one premise of the Slut Walks held—no matter what the Times Square ladies were wearing, nothing could erase their dignity or justify anyone treating them disrespectfully.
But I’d agree with Nelson in questioning the other premise: “My body has nothing to do with your body.” Nudity is jarring—like a loud car alarm (or the garish lights of Times Square in the first place). It isn’t something passersby can take or leave—self-disclosure creates a relationship, even at a distance.
I got to read an early copy of Christine Emba’s forthcoming Rethinking Sex: A Provocation, and I’d say the main thesis of the book is that consent is a floor for ethical sex. It’s necessary, but not sufficient.
And a lot of angst and pain in the current dating culture comes from people not knowing how to say that sex made them unhappy if it wasn’t unconsensual. Instead, a number of the people Emba interviews blame themselves for not being more sex-positive, for wanting something beyond the physical act itself, for breaking an implied contract that “my body has nothing to do with your body.”
A little further past the section I quoted above, Nelson writes:
On the one hand, it makes sense to think of sexual freedom, as Janet Jakobsen and Ann Pellegrini do in Love the Sin: Sexual Regulation and the Limits of Religious Tolerance, as "the freedom to form human relationships"—in other words, as the freedom to do something, make something, be something, together. On the other hand stands the fact that, in the United States, many of our most basic and hard-earned sexual freedoms (such as the right to use contraception, procure an abortion, or engage in sodomy) are legally dependent on principles of individual liberty derived from a "right to privacy," cobbled together from constitutional amendments and backed up by court cases in which the protected relationships remain quite narrow (e.g. a married couple, a "woman and her doctor," a "same-sex couple"). This conundrum has led many to wonder how our conception of sexual freedom might differ were the etiology of Griswold v. Connecticut, Roe v. Wade, and Lawrence v. Texas derived from different legal bases (if they are overturned, we might someday find out).
It’s a good question. How much are any of these relationships primarily about privacy and individuals rather than relationship and the loss of a certain degree of control? Intimacy always connects to vulnerability. That vulnerability isn’t an invitation to abuse, but to a heightened attentiveness and care.
In a world where you expect vulnerability to be treated as a target, it makes sense to begin by beating the bounds of basic respect. Hence the focus on consent and the fact that nothing can deprive a woman (or a man) of the right to give a “no” and have it listened to.
But focusing only on that negative freedom can lead us to neglect what positive freedom we think sex and relationships are ordered to. Intimacy is not directed to private satisfaction—by its nature it invites entanglement.