Note: This post began its life this morning as a social media thread. It received a number of positive responses rather quickly, so I decided to compile it all here in one place, with a few edits, for wider dissemination and future reference.
Over coffee this morning, my wife told me about a debate she saw online concerning modesty. Some guy was complaining about how much skin women are showing, some leftie with an audience decided to shame him, saying it was his problem & nobody else’s. Pile on ensued.
But it got me thinking about consent.
Take religious morality off the table and just look at biology. It’s a known fact that men and women have different triggers for sexual arousal. You don’t have to take my word for it. The following screenshot is taken from this article at Nature. You can find others like it elsewhere, but I just grabbed the first one I saw. There’s nothing shocking here; this is common knowledge:
Think about this: young men experience “strong genital responses to visual sexual stimuli, which are usually accompanied by a craving for sexual expression or masturbation.” That’s just biology 101. Any red-blooded man can tell you what an agonizingly overpowering thing it is.
When women go around in “clothes” that show off their bodies, especially the secondary sexual characteristics that send men into a hormone-induced stupor, they’re essentially sexually arousing those who see them without their consent. And consent has become a big deal.
RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) says that consent is “an agreement between participants to engage in sexual activity”. It also notes that “Consent cannot be given by individuals who are underage”.
Teen boys walking around with “strong genital responses” can’t consent. Speaking from experience, they can find themselves like a deer in the headlights, faced flushed, blood rushing somewhere they’d rather it not be, with no control whatsoever over their physiological situation. One particular incident I recall came from a babysitting job I had when I was about 14 or 15, and I innocently watched a movie not knowing about a topless scene that was in it. When it unexpectedly came on the screen, I was transfixed. I felt like I’d been drugged. I finally got myself together and left the room, but it was an uncomfortable 30 minutes or so before the blood returned to my brain, the hormones subsided, and I felt like a human being with a rational mind again. It was both intoxicating and unsettling.
RAINN, like most of these groups, doesn’t seem to see (or care about) this aspect of visual sexual provocation. They state that we should not assume that someone “wearing certain clothes, flirting, or kissing is an invitation for anything more.”
The body doesn’t know that. The body just reacts.
There’s no question that everyone is responsible for self-control. Full stop. But the biological provocation of involuntarily seeing bodies we’re hardwired by evolution to want to have sex with is, I think, a violation of the boundaries inherent in modern notions of consent.
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We’re told we mustn’t assume that immodest clothing is an invitation for something more, but the state of undress we see everywhere these days is, biologically speaking, exactly that. It’s an incitement to involuntary arousal. It creates feelings & discomfort not easily resolved, at least not if one is uncomfortable with or morally opposed to masturbation.
“I’m showing my body to you in a sexual way but not because I want to have sex with you” is sending a crazy mixed signal. It’s like sitting in your driveway revving the engine to redline but innocently saying, “Oh, I didn’t want to actually go anywhere.”
I think women know this, at least subconsciously. Some are more self-aware. They use the fact that men are primarily visual in their sexual response to gain power and attention. It’s probably an intoxicating feeling. It’s also an incredibly shitty thing to do. I recall an incident in college when I was out at a bar. I was sitting at a table, having a beer while talking to a female acquaintance who was rather well-endowed. Suddenly, she pulled her sweater off, revealing a snug “wifebeater” tank top that revealed about six inches of cleavage.
“Time to go get a trucker to buy me a drink!” she exclaimed, and headed off to the bar.
This is the relatively innocent version of a story that plays out in countless situations around the world every day.
I know for a fact that television producers know this. They put naked women in most shows these days because it’s like lacing the show with cocaine. It produces a huge dopamine response. Men crave it, even if they have morals that tell them to avoid it. Instant ratings boost.
I’m not here to weigh in on the value of the modern discussion around consent itself, its pros and cons, etc. There are issues there, but that’s another discussion. I am here to say I think that for men, consent begins in how much of women’s bodies we agree to see. And a lot of folks really don’t like to even consider that.
“My eyes are up here” is a joke, but it derives from a more sinister reality. Baring half your breasts and then pretending to be surprised when men look at them because their amygdalae have taken control in exactly the way biology has programmed them to is an incredibly manipulative and dishonest thing to do. It can also be kind of cruel.
If a man doesn’t consent to seeing so much skin all day long because of the unwanted arousal it provokes involuntarily, that’s not something I think anyone who is concerned about consent would take seriously. But it should be.
At the very least, when a man says it bothers him to see women so provocatively (un)dressed, he shouldn’t be shamed for it. It’d be nice to have a bit more respect, instead of a response of, “Well, that sounds like a personal problem so just don’t look if you don’t like it.” As though the cocktail of hormones running through your body once you’ve already been aroused is a faucet that can easily be turned off.
People like to say, “don’t look if you don’t like it!” To be clear, the reason it “bothers” some men to see these things isn’t because they don’t like it. It’s because they do, quite a lot, and that works against their own desire for self-mastery and self-control. I think not enough people get that. It’s not because they’re weird, it’s because they want to be more than their animal desires, and it’s a difficult fight to win. They don’t want to be slaves to appetite. They’re not looking for an excuse. They’re looking for respect. If you’re not the kind of person who would shove a drink in the face of an alcoholic, why would your shove your breasts in the face of a man who is actually trying to look you in the eyes?
Predictably those who already agree with me will agree more; those who don’t will push back. Nothing will change.
Still, I think it’s worth saying.