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Buyers and sellers

By Amanda Marcotte
Wednesday, July 20, 2011 14:09 EDT
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We feminists are big on talking about double standards, with the stud/slut dichotomy being a particular favorite, in fact often referred to as the double standard.  But I think one that we tend to circle around in discussion around sex, consent, sex work, etc. is the way that the continuing model of heterosexuality is based on the he's buying/she's selling model.  That's the most obvious when it comes to sex work, where men are literally buying and women are literally selling, but I think that the assumption that men are the choosers and women are the chosen is the functioning one in even more liberal circles.  (And in misogynist circles, the assumption isn't concealed in neat little euphemisms, and the free market ideology causes them to whine that minor girls aren't legally available for sale.)  But generally I don't see feminists tackle this problem directly, unless they're Twisty Faster, and obviously she's talking on an experimental plane that is interesting for provoking thought but doesn't have a whole lot of bearing on the lives of those of us who aren't playing footsie with a separationist kind of thing.  

I'd really like to see more discussion of this double standard as a double standard.  I think that it underpins a lot of rape culture and creepy demands from so-called Nice Guys®, because the women are selling/men are buying model of heterosexuality has the side consequence of convincing the public that men are entitled to partner sex.  After all, in our economic systemm, as long as you have the money, it's unheard of to turn you away as a customer, often because of non-discrimination laws.  Now, the price in the heterosexual dating system isn't always money—this is a metaphorical, not a literal economy—but consider the whine of the Nice Guys®.  They paid the price of giving a woman attention and pretending to listen to her, and now she has to sell, right? Most interestingly, since women are considered a product and men the buyers, women are also considered a resource, and arguments about equitable distribution come into play.   

Women, on the other hand, are the sellers in the heterosexual economy.  Our job is to make sure the product is worth buying.  We are no more entitled to partner sex than a company is entitled to move all its widgets when customers aren't buying.  

Dating advice tends to get gendered along these lines.  When women aren't getting any action, it's pretty much standard to tell them to look at themselves and see if they're charging too high a price for the product they have on offer.  The advice from there is to either improve the quality of the product or lower the price.  Granted, upbeat American society being what it is, most of the advice industry aimed at women is about improving the quality of the product.  

But you definitely get your share of people griping that women are too full of themselves and think they deserve more than they do, i.e. that they charge too high a price for a crappy product. Advice to settle isn't as rampant as advice to learn how to suck cock better and tighten those abs more, but it's definitely out there.  The assumption in a market view also is that the seller really has to sell, but the buyer has an option not to buy.  Thus, in our heterosexual dating model, women are often cast as so desperate to get the man to sign on the dotted line and drive off with his new car-wife.  Men are buyers, of course, and therefore are cast as hesitant to spend the money, and thus commitment is seen as a tense negotiation between a woman trying to move product and a man worried that he's paying too much.  Many conservatives warn that because women are willing to have sex outside of marriage now, that has made it all the much easier for men not to buy at all, much like the way that an avid bicyclist is probably going to be that much harder to sell a new car to. 

Men's sex and dating advice tends to be more on the grounds of being a better consumer.  Pick-up artist books and websites aren't interested in teaching men how to improve the product so more women want to buy.  Seriously, PUA guides read like guides on buying a car—show up looking like money, demonstrate to the salesman that you fill out the checklist of requirements to get a car, talk down the price (which PUA guides suggest you do by insulting women, hoping the loss of esteem in their product will cause them to sell at a lower price), and you're done.  Actual improvement of one's self is as strange an idea as suggesting that you have to have good character and a tight waistline to get a car.  You just need to have the cash, the credit rating, and a solid ability to bargain. 

So much of what causes strife and 500 comment threads on heterosexuality online is when feminists challenge this model of heterosexuality, though again,  I think we usually peck at various manifestations of it as opposed to directly attacking this metaphorical understanding of dating. Elevatorgate caused strife for this reason.  In the market model of dating, men are allowed to drive a hard bargain, just like consumers are allowed to haggle. Offense at being told that this is scary resembled the offense one might take if one is thrown out of a car dealership because you weren't wearing a suit—hey, you don't know if he  has the money!  He should be allowed to at least make an offer!  The reason feminists flinch when using the "I have a boyfriend/husband" strategy to get a pest off them is because that's basically saying that you aren't for sale, because someone has already paid for you.  

And of course, the reason that threads about men who buy sex blow up to epic proportions here is that there's always a handful of guys pushing the Sad Unfuckable John myth, i.e. the belief that men who go to sex workers are just sad sacks who can't get laid through normal means and so are forced—because men are entitled to partner sex—to pay for it.  The fact that women don't turn to paying men for sex if they can't get it through normal means isn't even acknowledged.  After all, women are the sellers, and sellers don't have the right to sell in the way that buyers have the right to buy if they can get the money together.  Feminists are told we're supposed to sympathize with the largely mythical (in reality, most johns have wives or girlfriends, don't actually enjoy the paid-for sex in and of itself, and are mainly shoring up their masculine bona fides by proving they can buy and control women) Sad Unfuckable John, because you know, women are a resource and as good liberals we should want more equitable distribution. 

A lot of us feminists who came up online have been promoting a model of sexuality called "enthusiastic consent", and I think that one thing that could strengthen this is tackling the market model of heterosexuality.  Because, to put on my Twisty Faster hat, if we cast men as buyers and women as sellers, that means that women are assumed to be in a perpetual state of consent just as that gallon of milk at the store is assumed to be on sale for anyone who can cobble together the $5 to buy it.  As long as the market model of heterosexuality is in play, the notion that sex should be a mutual exchange between two individuals will not make so much sense to people.  

What brings all this to my mind was reading Tracy Clark-Flory's examination of when "violent sex", aka sex that involves violence without enthusiastic consent, is okay.  To those of us who don't buy into the market model of heterosexuality, the answer is simple: never.  It's  never okay to have sex with someone who isn't saying yes, and it's especially never okay to make someone feel afraid or threatened.  If a man can't get enthusiastic consent for rough sex from an equal, well, too bad.  Clark-Flory comes to these conclusions, but it was heart-breaking to see how much the idea that men are entitled to partner sex infects our ability to see the ethics of these situations clearly.

How should rough (or "brutal") sex be appropriately negotiated? What should we call an encounter where brutality and dominance is not requested, but also not objected to? Is it the responsibility of the aggressor to OK it with their partner, or is it the "receptive" partner's responsibility to object if it's undesirable?

For those of us who don't believe men are entitled to partner sex, but that it should be a mutual exchange between enthusiastic partners, these aren't complex questions: 1) By open communication between two people who put each other's safety first.  2) It's always wrong, and it's often straight up rape. 3) The responsibility is on the person doing the asking, always. People speaking up for themselves is good, but it's not required.  Making sure you aren't assaulting someone is the responsibility of the person pushing for more. 

All of this is obvious if you don't believe men are buyers and women are sellers.  The notion that she's consenting until she says "no" is ridiculous when applied to other social situations.  For instance, we invite people to parties.  We don't tell them where to be at what time and expect them to work up the courage to say no. We especially don't lure people into our homes under false pretenses and then bar the door and demand they plead a little before we let them out. We don't show up at people's houses uninvited, bags in hand, and start making ourselves comfortable unless they throw a fit and toss us out.  Sex is a social situation, and should be treated as one. But instead, it's treated like a market and so we all have to wonder if it's acceptable to pressure an unwilling person as long as that person isn't fighting back.  

Of course, people are notoriously bad at actually communicating during sex — whether it's outright stating what they want or asking what their partner wants.

I think that this sentence is a clear example of how the notion that men are entitled to partner sex can creep up even on feminists.  Some men are bad negotiators!  Feel sorry for them!  We certainly can't tell them that it's just too bad if they can't charm someone into having enthusiastic sex with them, because that implies they aren't entitled to partner sex.  To be clear, that's not what Tracy's saying by any means.  But the stance of pity towards a man who struggles to get things like consent is rooted in the largely unexamined male entitlement to women's time and affections. 

I actually would say that my ideal is a world where everyone is kind of selling a little, but no one is cast as a buyer.  I think that people's friendships work this way, in fact.  People shouldn't feel entitled to have the time or affection of others, but instead should assume the responsibility of being charming enough to have people give it to them of their own free will. I do see a turn towards this in our culture somewhat, with men actually starting to think a little harder about being what women want instead of just meeting the metaphorical price tag that they are socialized to think is hanging off women.  We just have a long way to go. 

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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