Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Barrel shooting: sex week

I have long been a skeptic about histrionic college shenanigans like Sex Weeks, but having read the recent Crimson coverage of its own Sex Week, I must say, I was not only convinced but inspired:
The more that people know about consent and the importance of respect in sexual relationships, and the more that sex is seen as a positive, affirming thing, the more likely people are to practice consent and respect.
Ok then! Drawing on this, I have created the official advertisement for Miss Self-Important's forthcoming First Annual Drunken Brawling Week:
The more that people know about fist-fighting and the importance of violence in social relationships, and the more that drunken brawling is seen as a positive, affirming thing, the more likely people are to practice fist-fighting and violence.
Incidentally, Drunken Brawling Week will also feature an event called "Unsupervised." I will leave you to infer what will take place at this event. The spokesperson, however, will take her cues directly from the quoted Planned Parenthood staffer and will provide the following reassurances to the audience at the event:
“We, as a culture, are not comfortable about drunken brawling. We are violent beings; it’s part of our nature...Drunken brawling is not bad, it’s not evil, it’s just risky...One out of four drunken brawlers in our country have a broken nose. ”
All of this is entirely true, and also value-free. We organizers of Drunken Brawling Week, we are not judging you and your drunken brawling proclivities. We just provide information and raise awareness. It's up to you to do what you will with it. We want you to have a good time, but a safe good time. Remember to drink lots of water and wear padding.


David Schraub said...

I am confused by this analogy. It is trivially true that if people were persuaded that fist-fighting and violence were important and that drunken violence was a good thing, they'd be more likely to engage in those activities. I could also use "saving money" ("the more people know about the importance of saving money and planning for their financial future, the more likely they will be to make financially responsible choices" -- yes, awesome!) or torturing animals ("the more people know about the importance of viciously attacking smaller creatures and how to effectively maximize their pain, the more likely they will be to mutilate them on a regular basis" -- yes, but terrifying).

So yes, there is a value judgment being made here that "consent" and "respect" are good things while "violence" and "fist-fighting" are not, but that doesn't strike me as a particularly controversial assertion, and one that can presumably be applied to any program that seeks to educate people about the importance of X and Y in the hopes that they'll incorporate them more in Z.

Miss Self-Important said...

I'm just mocking the circular logic of the op-ed. Sex week is good b/c by teaching and affirming consent and respect, we get people to practice consent and respect. By teaching people anything affirmatively, we get them to do it. But are we really concerned that there are many students at Harvard who don't already know that respect and consent are good and rape is bad? Is that really why we're having Sex Week?

David Schraub said...

I mean, yes -- by teaching people that X and Y are important elements of Z, we are more likely to get them to do X and Y as part of Z. So it sounds like your objection is that you think there is minimal marginal return at this point because people already understand X and Y (respect and consent) are important parts of sexual relationships. But I think there is a decent amount of evidence that would belie that confidence at least with respect to how sexuality is practiced on your typical campus (I don't know about Harvard particularly).

Sigivald said...

Me, I'd think that the actual effect of "sex week" rounds to zero.

Mainly because the sort of people who aren't already aware that sex needs consent and some form of "respect" ... are exactly the ones who aren't going to participate in the activities.

They're preaching to the choir - those in the Sex Positive Community(TM) are the audience - and the ones who don't need the message in the slightest.

But, hey, it feels good to do a thing, even if it's ineffective posturing.

Miss Self-Important said...

David: I'm not sure that the persistence of disrespectful and nonconsensual sex is also evidence for the efficacy or necessity of sex week. College students know that they are expected to believe in respect and consent and all that, whether or not they choose to practice it. Some people just aren't into respect, and we also have to respect that. Or is rape simply a crime of ignorance or, as the Crimson puts it, "sexual illiteracy"?

So do you think this a basically strong and honest argument for sex week, even though the substance can be replaced with an argument for punching people in the face and still be equally true? You don't think this is a clinical, value-neutral pose taken for the purpose of conveying quite a number of undefended values? It assumes that any hesitation about sex is not based on moral apprehension, but simply on the fact that the kids' crummy high schools failed to educate them about the mechanics. Once they have the right information, they're good to go. Evading moral questions - should you be having sex? why? with whom? - by replacing them with technical questions is exactly what makes this argument so easy to put into the service of any vaguely questionable activity.

As with sex, punching people is a common and pretty natural phenomenon and it can also be fun, so there is no reason we can find in any of these arguments that mitigates against promoting it among the student body. Sure, it can result in a little bit of bodily harm, but so can sex, after all. So why not come out and say that you think undergraduate sex is morally good and healthy and why that is? Why all this evasive clinical rhetoric? You will pre-empt Drunken Brawling Week, for one thing.

Sigivald: Well, we could improve things for everyone by making the events mandatory.

David Schraub said...

I think certain forms of rape are based on a genuine, observable lacuna in some people's understanding of sex, respect, and consent (e.g., sex as a competitive game; consent being presumed based on what a person is wearing or the fact that she's been drinking, etc.). Assuming that the people with that gap aren't simply sociopaths, it is possible that education on these topics would have an impact.

I'm also not sure just how controversial the "undefended values" at issue here are (of course, virtually any statement with any normative salience whatsoever will have "undefended values" imbued in it -- that's unavoidable and transcending it is not something I expect from an event synopsis of all things). Presumably you don't actually think "consent" and "respect" are bad; it seems like you're attack is on "sex as a positive, affirming thing."

That statement might be a touch more controversial, but not by too much -- even persons with more conservative views on sexuality usually don't say "sex is a negative, horrible thing" -- they agree it is positive and affirming but think that for various reasons it should be confined to, e.g., a heterosexual monogamous marriage. Of course, the sex week message doesn't lack any import to that community -- for example, it is quite salient to the case of marital rape and exploring sexual likes and dislikes with a marital partner.

It just seems your objection is to the project of promoting particular prescriptions on the grounds that one could use the same structure to promote bad prescriptions. Which, well, yeah -- so what?

Miss Self-Important said...

Persons with more conservative views may also say that for the various reasons that sex should be confined to a heterosexual monogamous marriage, it cannot be promoted as an activity not confined to these contexts, which makes the entire project of sex week a touch more controversial than you suggest. Pointing out that the technical content of the sexual advice offered can also be applied to many different contexts, e.g. within marriage, and is not itself an endorsement of any particular context only underscores my point about the evasiveness of such rhetoric. If it's really the case that sex week is about helping the sexy people of the world do their sex better and more safely, without any regard for the context in which it occurs or any endorsement of certain moral choices over others, then why can't we also have Drunken Brawling Week, to help the aggressive people of the world do their aggression better and more safely? Every art and activity can be technically improved, even immoral ones.

Or you can just assume that everyone agrees with you, which is certainly true at Harvard, and rely on the self-evidence of the good of the activity at hand. That's not illegal or even objectionable, so long as you don't mistake your audience and no one asks for evidence of the self-evident. I assume that's really the heart of your legalistic objection to my parody? What Sigivald said - that it's obvious that the Harvard students involved in this already buy into the basic good of the premise, so it's unnecessary to defend the premise at this point? Well, yes, obviously. But that doesn't mean the premise is correct, or that their complacent expectation to be agreed with has improved their rhetoric.

David Schraub said...

The reason I'm baffled by your parody is that the core of its point appears to be nothing more than that the process of promoting certain behaviors could be cross-applied to promoting bad behaviors. If the Crimson was promoting "financial health week" -- urging people to plan their finances and live within their means so as to achieve financial security -- your parody would fit just as well (including the issue that some people, though not objecting to those values per se, would object to talking about something so gauche as money in public, and including the fact that some people reject the morality of the entire capitalistic enterprise). As framed, your problem isn't with "sex week", it's with people making prescriptive suggestions on any topic whatsoever (at least without writing a monograph establishing its foundational moral grounding first).

Miss Self-Important said...

Not exactly - the problem is with rhetoric that suggests you are not prescribing what you really are prescribing. During your proposed financial literacy week, would you have a problem saying that being a spendthrift is not good, even if you never actually go broke as a result? It's not illegal to be a spendthrift and we might even call it a "lifestyle choice," but it's not one that the organizers of financial literacy week would have a problem condemning. Same for being so tight-fisted that you refuse to lend your starving parents money. Again, not illegal, and probably actually good for increasing your savings, but no one is going to pretend that they're value-neutral about that choice. Nor would people such an event claim to be neutral about how you get the money you're now looking to secure.

Everyone already knows that what they do with their own money is, within certain legal limits, up to them, so presumably to inform them about that is not the aim of a weeklong campus-wide event about money. We no more need to "raise awareness" about the existence and ubiquity of money than about the practice of sex. The aim is to point them to what is good to do with their money, and what is not. We can perhaps imagine a financial literacy week that is so insecure about its mission that it can't get beyond the details of high school consumer ed, and for fear of offending anti-capitalists or whatever, says that both saving and wasting money, both working and sabotaging the system are equally valid life choices, that all choices related to money are actually valid so long as they don't explicitly break any laws. And if that happened, then wouldn't you find the spectacle comical?

David Schraub said...

I'm not really seeing the material distinctions. Obviously, within most financial literacy seminars, the vast majority of what one does with one's money is going to be considered okay, so long as you're not breaking laws, being exploitative, or doing something clearly self-destructive. There's a wide band of agnosticism paired with some boundaries at the poles. Same, I'd think, with sex -- a wide band of agnosticism paired with some boundaries at the edge (some of which are legal, but not all -- condemning "negging", for instance, as violative of the principle of respect even though it's not illegal).

None of this strikes me as uncommon, including the manner in which the week is thinly value-laden (in adopting this wide band of agnosticism and in adopting its polar objections), which strikes me as unavoidable.

Miss Self-Important said...

So what would you say is the purpose then of devoting a campus-wide week of thinly value-laden events to a wide band of agnosticism paired with some boundaries at the poles?

David Schraub said...

Presumably to see if it can translate values people widely accept into actual behavior. That is, while hopefully virtually everyone already agrees "respect is good", they may or may not be acting in respectful manners in their typical (sexual) interactions. Providing a more concrete between abstract values and specific acts may be helpful.

Similarly, virtually all Americans agree "racism is bad", but there is not widespread agreement about what acts are and are not racist, such that even persons who consciously and genuinely believe racism is bad may still do things that we might believe are rightfully characterized as racist. Taking actions to firm up "this is racist" in the minds of the public can make it less likely that would occur.

Of course, it may not work -- but "abstract values often need to be overtly connected to actual everyday practice" isn't so ludicrous of a supposition that I think it can be glibly mocked either.

Miss Self-Important said...

Is it a problem then that the values at hand are not being overtly connected to actual everyday practices, because this would be too thickly value-laden a task for our sex educators? What we learn from these articles is that sexual respect is basically consent, but consent to what? Presumably anything, including potentially even what you call "negging" when done in the context of consensual BDSM, no? Then what does it mean to speak of concretizing the widely held value of respect?

It's hard to see how an abstract value is going to be concretized within a merely agnostic band of bounded poles. Concretizing values requires that a committed rather than widely agnostic band be adopted so that instances of actual everyday practice can be decisively characterized as corresponding or not to the commitments of the band. And until that happens, I'm just not certain I understand how the situation of the thin and wide polarized agnostic band is too grave for mockery.

Sigivald said...

Mandatory? Dubious.

A) I don't think the Bad Actor class will be improved by being told "Stop being Bad, Bad person". People have a great ability to disregard being told they're Bad by others.

B) Those who are not Bad Actors will be at very least compelled to waste their time and quite possible (I know I might be) insulted by the idea that it's necessary to lecture them.

I can't imagine a way that "sex week" content is actually useful relative to its costs - at least when it's optional and done by volunteers there's no mass coercion and waste related to it...