When Culture, Power and Sex Collide
LINDA MARTíN ALCOFF - June 8, 2011, 9:15 pm - The New York Times
The Stone is a forum for contemporary philosophers on issues both timely and timeless.
The recent events swirling about the ex-next-president of France, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, have revived old tropes about how culture affects sex, including sexual violence. Before this scandal, many continued to believe that Americans are still infected by their Puritan past in matters sexuel, while the French are just chauds lapins: hot rabbits. The supposed difference consisted of not only a heightened sexual activity but an altered set of conventions about where to draw the line between benign sexual interaction and harassment. The French, many believed, drew that line differently.
The number of women speaking out in France post-scandal calls into question this easy embrace of relativism. French women, it appears, don't appreciate groping any more than anyone else, at least not unwanted groping. A French journalist, Tristane Banon, who alleged that she was assaulted by Strauss-Kahn in 2002, described him as a "chimpanzee in rut," which draws a much less sympathetic picture than anything to do with rabbits. Still, some continue to hold that the French have a higher level of tolerance for extramarital affairs and a greater respect for a politician's right to privacy. But neither of these factors provide an excuse for harassment and rape.
Conventions of workplace interaction do vary by culture. In Latin America and parts of Europe, kissing is the normal mode of greeting, and to refuse a kiss may well appear cold. Kissing co-workers in New York, however, can elicit mixed signals, at least outside of the fashion district. One does need to know the relevant cultural conventions to be able to communicate with effective ease. In other words, one needs to be a cultural relativist to know when one is being hit upon.
The more thorny question is whether relativism is relevant to those domains we generally want to put in the non-benign category: harassment, sexual coercion, even sexual violence. Could it be that offensiveness is relative to the perspective of the recipient, based on her own cultural sensibilities? More troubling, could it be that our very experience of an encounter might be significantly affected by our background, upbringing, culture, ethnicity, in short, by what Michel Foucault called our discourse?
Violent and brutal encounters, even for sado-masochists, are unlikely candidates as culturally relative experiences. But much harassment and even rape is cloudier than this: date rapes, statutory rapes, and many instances of harassment can be subject to multiple interpretations, which has given rise to the new term popular on college campuses — "gray" rape. The writer Mary Gaitskill famously argued some years back that the binary categories of rape/not-rape were simply insufficient to classify the thick complexity of her own experience. In this netherworld of ambiguous experiences, can understanding cultural relativism be useful?
Feminist theory, some might be surprised to learn, has been exploring this possibility for some years. There is a great deal of work on the realm of fantasy, and desires approached through fantasy, as a means to understand the different ways women can experience varied sexual practices. Women's sexual responsiveness varies, and feminism has endeavored to honor the variation rather than move too quickly toward moral and political hierarchies of legitimate practice.
Fantasies can vary by culture and context, and they operate to create an overlay of meaningfulness on top of actual experience. The result is that fantasies provide projections of meanings that seem to control the determination of events, affecting the way we narrate and name our experience, and even the sensations we feel. This suggests a picture of an idea-body encountering another idea-body, with the fantasy projections rather than any physical characteristics of the encounter, controlling the production of experience.
Such an approach, however, can lead one to discount experience altogether. Whether workplace pornography is experienced as threatening or a reminder of the sexual power of women is simply relative to one's expectations and prior predilections, some might say. Those who take offense are simply operating with the "wrong paradigm." This has the danger of returning us to pre-feminist days when women's own first person reports and interpretations of their experiences were routinely set aside in favor of more "objective" analyses given by doctors, psychiatrists, and social scientists, inevitably male.
The slide toward a complete relativism on these matters can be halted on two counts. First, there is the question of the physical body. Sex, as Lenin correctly argued, is not akin to having a glass of water. It involves uniquely sensitive parts of the body around which every culture has devised elaborate meanings, from adulation to abomination. The genitals are simply unique in the role they play for reproduction and physical ecstasy, and no discourse can operate as if this is not true. A light touch on the shoulder and a light touch on the genitals elicit distinct sensations. The body is not infinitely alterable by discourse.
Second, there is the question of power. Differences in status and the capacity for economic self-sufficiency — not to mention the capacity for self-regard — compromise the integrity of consent, no matter the culture. Status differences can occur along the lines of age, class, race, nationality, citizenship and gender (all of which apply to the alleged attempted rape by Strauss-Kahn of an immigrant housekeeper). Power differences alone cannot determine whether something is benign or harmful, but they do signal danger. It cannot be the case that cultural context can render power differences completely meaningless. Obvious power differences in sexual relations should raise a red flag, no matter which color one's culture uses to signal danger.
While cultural conventions on power and sex may vary, the impact of sexual violence does not. Sexual violations should be universally defined, and universally enforced.
Linda Martín Alcoff is a professor of philosophy at the City University of New York. She has written and edited several books, including “Visible Identities: Race, Gender and the Self ” (Oxford University Press, 2006). More of her work can be found at her Web site.