Love in the Time of Coercion
Not long ago, I had a lover who was sensual, stimulating and South American, born in a land reputed to endow him with a genetic predisposition for passion. Yet he was, at times, polite to a fault, checking in with me frequently about whether it was ok for him to touch me a certain way, or even say suggestive things to me. I finally pleaded with him, ‘Please, express your desire for me without asking for permission. If I don’t like something I’ll tell you. But chances are whatever you do is going to turn me on.’
Recently, in the wake of Weinstein and Spacey and any number of other men who have let their power cloud their judgement, he wrote to me.
‘As a man, I deeply regret every time I have been sexist to a woman and objectified them. But I wonder, how can I relate to them in a sexually healthy way? How can I tell a woman that she is attractive when you fear that every word you say, every look you give, is scrutinised with the suspicion that you’re about to cross a line.’
My heart broke a little for this man, and so many like him, who are feeling nervous now about engaging erotically with women for fear that they’ll not only be rejected but accused. Conscientious men like him are not the problem. And yet he is scared.
To me the issue is rather simple: coercion and harassment are one-sided aggressive or intimidating behaviours that disregard the personal space, body language or unambiguous objections of another person. But what my old lover seems to be concerned about is the possibility that any erotic gesture, any expression of desire, say, an enthusiastic kiss that says, ‘Damn, I’m so into you.’ might suggest he’s objectifying a woman and in danger of being seen as a predator.
Liam Deacon summed up this fear in The Huffington Post,
“Rightly or wrongly, in the endless dance we call flirting, the man is often the proactive agent. So, he is far more likely to act in an unwanted manner if he miss-reads or miss-interprets the body language / situation. If every time a mislead sexual advance is rebuffed, we call it harassment, then men start to feel victimized.”
What Mr Deacon and my old lover seem to fear is that the pendulum of sexism is swinging back across the point of common sense and men will need to armour up to defend themselves against the possibly unreasonable accusations of the hankered-after feminist. However, I think they need not worry, not if they’re operating sober and with half a brain. (Add three or more units of alcohol and all bets are off. Just go home, Sweetheart.)
As I talked about in both How to be a Good Flirt and Sense and Sexuality, non-verbal seduction is a finely-crafted art that celebrates the fact that we find someone appealing and might it make a person feel good to know that? This should be a skill set that both men and women practice throughout life, never losing sight of being respectful of the other and yet learning to let go of the fear we harbour that we might be rejected if that admiration is expressed.
Rebecca Reilly-Cooper rightly emphasises that good seduction is a matter of honing in on ‘micro-behaviours’ whether those be the kind that encourage getting closer or those that signal you should back off.
“Flirting is a process of sending out careful, subtle, micro-behaviours signaling one’s attraction: slightly prolonged eye-contact, a quick touch of the arm, an exaggerated laugh at a joke that was really not that funny. And, crucially, flirting also involves having a heightened awareness to the micro-behaviours being displayed by the other, to try to interpret their signals about whether this attraction is welcome. Does he maintain the prolonged eye-contact, or does he quickly look away? Does she return the playful arm touch, or does she subtly inch away to discourage further touching?”
Sure, each of us is different. One person might want every physical expression to be, if not explicitly, than at least implicitly granted permission. For me however, flirting with the intent to seduce is a full contact sport. The first man to ever electrify my body with his boldness, pinned my wrists behind my back in the middle of a crowded bar and gently bit me on the neck within 30 minutes of our introductions. Had I objected to his behaviour, I would have made it clear his gesture fell outside of my comfort zone and would have expected him to politely tone things down. Had he not, I would have easily turned my back and left. But his move made me feel unabashedly wanted, and my own self-esteem was high enough to interpret this, not as lecherous, but as affirming my desirability. That’s sexy not salacious.
This isn’t rocket science, my conscientious lovers. Being a sexist jerk is not something self-reflective men need worry much about. Let’s not let our erotic lives become too transactional or timid. And let’s not second guess our intelligent ability to understand the difference between sensual banter and harassment. I’m back in the States now and aghast at how apprehensive American men are when it comes to expressing their interest. I’ve left a few dates here scratching my head and wondering if I’ve lost my congeniality mojo, yet come to find out later that Mr Milquetoast was undressing me in his imagination. Express yourself, I say! What’s the point of leaving me thinking you’re disinterested?
You don’t need me to explain to you the difference between good and bad behaviour. You do need me to reassure you that respectful expressions of desire need not be censored, obsequiously sought, or faint-heartedly given. Sexual harassment is real and it’s important we speak up about it. But lust and love need to be expressed, because feeling desired propels us to lovely, if only just ethereal, realms of joy.
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