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Duty vs. desire

By Amanda Marcotte
Thursday, November 19, 2009 16:52 EDT
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Here’s an ethical dilemma thought exercise that’s being kicked around the feminist blogosphere I thought the Pandagonians would appreciate. It all started with this horrible column by Lesley Garner, a British advice columnist. The story is simple: A woman is raped by her boss, and becomes pregnant by him. She decides to get an abortion. Her husband refuses to go into the abortion clinic with her, which probably has a lot to do with why she freaks out and decides not to get an abortion. The husband refuses to raise another man’s child and leaves. The letter writer wants to know if she can try to get him back, 7 years after the fact.

Garner, competing for the title of the worst person alive, suggests that the victim of the rape is lying, and that her decisions about her body belong solely to her husband, and that this is all her fault. She and the ex-husband have been roundly condemned by feminist bloggers for being dickwads. The question that I present to you is, “Yes, the husband is a dickwad, but what kind of dickwad exactly is he?”

Hugo writes about how the husband violated his duty to stand by his wife in her time of need. I flinched, because I’m sensitive to the idea that anyone should ever be in a romantic relationship out of duty—it violates my strong, though obvious radical commitment to enthusiastic consent as the minimum standard when it comes to sexual, and therefore romantic, relations. I suggested in comments instead that, assuming that the husband in this case wanted to have children at some point in time, then the problem is that he had a heart too small and probably never really loved the woman in the first place. In fact, I’d swear by that, because even when he believed she was making the choice he wanted—to have an abortion—he offered no support. To my mind, if you love someone, you want to offer that support. I’m not saying it will be easy, or that you won’t have an internal fight over your urge to stay out of it and your desire to give support, but you will give it out of desire to be loving and supportive. The way this guy behaved makes me think he belongs to the school that believes that women are sex-and-housework-providing appliances, and he didn’t give her support when he dropped her off at the abortion clinic because that makes as much sense as stroking your car with concern after you drop it off at the mechanic to get the clutch fixed. He was just dropping her off for repairs, in other words. But I flinched at the duty talk. Love that’s not offered freely isn’t love, and I don’t actually think that it’s much benefit to a woman to have the “support” of a man who is radiating non-support because he doesn’t actually love her.

This might seem like a distinction without difference—the non-dutiful vs. the non-loving husband—but I think there’s a lot of value in teasing out the difference. I think absorbing the idea that someone who refuses to even try to come through for you simply doesn’t love you makes it easier to move on. When it’s framed in terms of duty instead of love, then you’re suggesting that all that needs to be adjusted is behavior, and all will become well, and that creates false hope. It also means writing off the person involved, which I think makes a lot of people flinch, because we’d like to believe everyone’s redeemable. And I think that a man who cannot love women might be redeemable, but he has to change his attitudes towards women in a deep way. He has to learn to think of them as full human beings, people he can love and respect, and not as appliances. That kind of attitude change cannot be met with merely absorbing the idea that one has a duty to stand by someone you don’t love. If anything, pressing upon someone that they have a duty to continue with relationships that make them unhappy is going to result in them rebelling.

But I figured I might be off the mark, because of my strong aversion to the idea of romantic duty, and belief that love is rooted in desire (not just to have someone, but the desire to be there for them). There’s a whiff of coercion to demands that one does their duty to their spouse. Suggesting that being a good person is about cultivating the right desires, on the other hand, sounds weird in a culture full of personality tests and taste measurements, that believes that there’s such thing as an essential You that is immovable and unchangeable. But I have more faith that people can change who they are than they can make surface changes to their behavior, if that makes sense. In our moments of stress and weakness, the person we are inside comes out. But if you make that person a good person, then there is much less to worry about.

Or perhaps I’m overthinking this. Thoughts, Pandagonians? I think we can all agree that the letter writer is better off without the guy.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
 
 
 
 
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