Sunday, March 24, 2013

Sex and Avidya

This cute video has been making the rounds on social media.  A young lady is unconscious, collapsed onto a couch.  A young man tells the camera that she has passed out and says, "Guess what I'm gonna do to her?"  He then puts a pillow under her head, puts a blanket on her, and leaves a cup of water for her.  He then tells the camera, "Real men treat women with respect."  


It's a nice home-made video and yes, that's an important point, charmingly presented.  Commenters on social media tend to repeat the same remark over and over again: "Isn't it sad that a video like this is necessary?"

And yet when I watched the setup to the video, something clicked in my mind, and I did some internet searching. Sure enough, I found that on certain porn sites -- sites that feature short porn videos rated and reviewed by users -- there is clearly a market for videos depicting the fantasy of taking advantage of women while they are sleeping or intoxicated.  Non-consent is, in other words, an erotic fantasy for some.  For that matter, and ironically, there are women who consensually participate in fantasies of non-consensual group sex -- rape fantasy.  I won't psychoanalyze it here, but simply point out that for some of us there is something erotic about bypassing consent.  Transgression.  Conquest.  Maybe the fantasy of overcoming female rejection.  Another popular, and less violent, male fantasy represented in videos depicts a lady surprising her lover while he is asleep -- what is sometimes called the "Brentwood Hello."  Non-consensual at the beginning, but nobody objects.    To what extent are popular porn videos representative? 

Yes, I know.  "Honey, I was researching porn for my blog.  Honest."

"Uh huh."


The nice boy with the cute friend crashing on his couch is presenting a rare simple choice.  When it comes to sex and erotic feelings, the pitches don't always come so soft and over the plate.  Our hearts have lots of shadowy spaces, and there are great depths of often-unexplored feelings and impulses lying underneath sexual passion.

Just as the video above responds to the horrific case of rape in Steubenville, Ohio, some bloggers have taken a stab at writing about some of the issues underneath.  One of the major issues here is consent, and a few Buddhist bloggers (including me, I'm just slow) have been attempting to write about consent and sexual conduct from a Buddhist viewpoint.  The ID Project offers "Right Action as Consent," and Nathan Thompson writes, "Sex, Consent, and Buddhist Right Action."

Consent can be shadowy and ambiguous, too.  Even when it is clearly stated, even when it is "enthusiastic."  Nathan tells one such story from his own youth.

Two examples of my own:

A girlfriend to whom I felt quite devoted in my twenties returned to Providence after a long trip.  We had "welcome home" sex.  Her attention seemed to be divided, like something was on her mind, but she insisted all was well and our night together continued.  The following morning I learned what was up: she had a new lover, she was leaving.  Her consent had been divided for obvious reasons and I felt horribly violated on top of the grief over losing the relationship.

Years later, in Los Angeles, I attended a wedding with a lady I had recently started dating.  She had quite a bit to drink at this event and was far from home.  So I drove her to my apartment, which was closer by half.  I had to carry her indoors.  ("This is fun," she said as I hauled her up the hill to my Echo Park apartment.)  There was no furniture other than the fold-out bed I slept on, so I tucked her in and lay down on the opposite side.  In the middle of night, the lady partially woke up and, feeling aroused, proceeded to launch an amorous assault on me that was hard to resist.  Really.  It had been a long time for me and here she was and oooh la la. My sex drive was chomping at the bit, and my mind split in two: one voice insisting this would be fine, while my will said NO!  A person this drunk can't really consent to anything!

The two stories illustrate a point echoed by Nathan in his own reflections.  Consent can be an illusion manipulated by all sorts of sensations or emotions: guilt, loneliness, lust, drunken abandon, and much more.  Consent doesn't solve the problem.  As Nathan writes, "People consent to things that cause suffering all the time."  

This is not to minimize the importance of consent.  Here at the Burning House, we certainly agree with Caroline Contillo (who wrote the ID Project's article linked above) when she wrote, "To take a life, to take possessions, or to force sex upon another human being against their will is unwise and 'wrong' because it is selfish and creates suffering for all parties. Right Action is about using our intention and mindfulness to encourage a culture of consent."  A culture of consent is a beautiful idea.  In a sense, what the author is getting at is socializing the Four Noble Truths -- not as a Buddhist evangelism, but as a practical way of making awareness of illusion a conscious process we bring to all our interactions. Buddhism supplies a vocabulary for that.

To realize that, however, we need to dig a little deeper, and go underneath the matter of consent into the perennial issue raised by the Buddha at Sarnath: avidyā, the problem of nescience, or failing to recognize delusion or the process by which we make confused choices (consenting!) that lead to suffering.  It is usually translated as "ignorance" in English, but the problem with that word is that many people associate it with being called stupid.  Nescience sounds less "judgy" to my ear, while accurately describing the problem.


Stephanie said...

I might be completely out of line here, so if I am, please delete this comment.

I have been watching and reading about rapes around the world and I really appreciate you writing this post.

I was date raped when I was 12 by a guy who was 17. I say date raped because I knew him. He was a friend of my step-cousin. I refused to believe I was raped for almost 20 years. I was not sexually active at the age of 12. I had only experienced my first kiss the week before, but I refused to identify as a rape victim. It happened so fast, I didn't have time NOT to consent, by the time I said no, it was too late.

For about 20 years that timing was the reason I blamed myself. It was a therapist I was seeing after 2 consecutive breakdowns in my 3rd year at Trinity that shed light on the whole thing. When I refused to admit I was a victim, the therapist asked what happened after the incident - what did the guy say to me, how had he acted? The guy dressed me, because I was traumatized, and then he walked me half way down the block and bolted. His behavior after was awful. I had been so devalued by this guy that consent wasn't even an issue. Do you ask for the consent of your toys or your car before you use them? Do you care how they feel or what is done to them once they have no use to you anymore?

It's the same in a lot (not all) of date rape cases, when the line gets blurred as to what is consensual and what isn't, behavior after the event can shed a lot of light on the intent of the instigator. Even if sex is going to be a one night stand, it shouldn't be impossible to have a conversation afterward or in the days or weeks to come. More importantly, when a woman does consent to sex, she is not also consenting to being degraded in public afterward or treated like shit by her partner.

In Steubenville, those guys degraded her in such a shocking way after the rape that even if she had consented to the acts, their behavior afterward deserved some kind of censure. And in most instances when we act without consideration in the beginning, we have some sense of empathy when our transgressions against the other are brought to light. But that means that we have to care about the other to the degree that we see them as entities worthy of our acknowledgement.

Rape has far more to do with rage, destruction and hate than with sex or sexual gratification, that's why trying to figure it out from a perspective of sex often leads down rational paths that make sense but have no impact. I think we also equate sex with attraction. Men who rape women or degrade them, are as sexually attracted to them as you are spiritually attracted to the Westboro Baptist Church.

Algernon said...

Thank you for that contribution, Stephanie.