I talk a lot about agency, though I often refer to it as "owning your shit". It's been my experience that life is a lot happier when a person has a sense of real agency, when they acknowledge the cause/effect nature of existence, and when they feel as if they directly affect what happens to them.
Some examples of peoples, both throughout history and in modern times, who lack and have lacked agency? Um...slaves. Peasants. Serfs. Plebes. Refugees. The impoverished. A lot of women in a lot of places in the world. And a lot of men, too.
Agency is important in order to feel like a self-actualized human being. Agency is what gets you all pumped up and proud when you made a sweet day trade and earned a cool $4000 in a few hours, because you are just that awesome. Agency is what also prevents you from blaming it entirely on the market, that idiot friend of yours who emailed you the stock tip, or asshole bankers if you lost money on the deal. Because dude, you're the one who bought the stocks, right? Nobody made you do it. And if you sank your life savings into it, well, the buck stops with you once your spouse finds out.
Agency is a double-edged sword. It isn't just about the right to succeed on your own merits. It's about the right to fuck up on them, too.
It requires individual liberty and individual power, as well as personal responsibility and accountability. It's not just the means to make your life kick-ass largely through your own talent and effort, it's the opportunity to fuck everything up and be stuck owning the steaming pile of crap that results. Whether it's a four-poster with tulle trim and Egyptian cotton sheets or a urine-soaked cot, you made the bed and you lie in it. Agency is being able to claim credit for your accomplishments, and agency is accepting blame for your failures. And for much of history, ordinary men didn't have it any more than women did, because for ordinary anyone, individual everything was constrained by social norms, economic reality, and very limited rights and freedoms.
Take sexual agency. This is something everyone wants, and something most of us believe men have always had, but let's examine the dynamics minutely:
1) Sexual Power--or the "goods".
Might surprise you all to hear that this is something women have always had. In fact, for many women throughout history, it was the only power they ever had, and it's always been rooted in their ability to bear children. In both social and evolutionary terms, sperm are cheap and plentiful, and eggs are scarce and expensive. An ejaculation is worth nothing unless it can find an adequate rental space to set up operations. As with anything in real estate, it's all about location, location, location. If men wanted to procreate in any socially acceptable way and have anything to do with their offspring, they had to get married. Women could be very choosy when selecting to whom they wanted to rent their uterus, and they still can.
It might also surprise you all to hear that sexual power is and has always been the weakest aspect of male sexuality. I understand, this does not jive with our collective cultural images of Matthew McConaughey, Jonathan Rhys Meyers and George Clooney all hanging out together drinking martinis, looking sexy and suave, and tripping over all the ladies who are dying to fuck them. News flash for you, girls. Most men are not Jonathan Rhys Meyers. Most men aren't even Steve Buscemi. They're Steve Buscemi without Steve Buscemi's fame, talent or money.
The difference between male and female sexual power is perfectly illustrated by this little clip.
2) Sexual Liberty--or the right to make decisions concerning your own sexuality.
Up until recently, only men had this option without risk of public shame and censure, and only if they were straight. This was because female sexuality was seen as a commodity, a woman's primary asset in life, and she was not to be trusted to make sound decisions concerning it. Her hymen went to her husband, and her fidelity was paramount within marriage, because in the days before DNA testing, the only assurance a man had that the kids he was hauling coal or digging post-holes to support were his was the fidelity of his wife. And while there have always been women who exercised a similar level of the sexual liberty allowed to men, they were women of disrepute, and unsuitable for marriage. Only those with sufficient wealth and social status in their own right could get away with such behavior and still hold their heads up in polite society, let alone hope to find a man willing to put his trust in them.
A man's peccadilloes were no one's business but his own, since he could easily assure his wife that her children were, indeed, her own. Of course, most men were more like Steve Buscemi than George Clooney, and the wife and legitimate kids had first dibs on whatever resources he had. So the number of men who even had the wherewithal to stray to any degree were pretty damn few. As you can imagine, though men may have had the freedom to dip their wicks wherever they wished, the majority of them had pretty much no real opportunity to do so without forking over a spare tuppence in exchange for services rendered. The only men with any meaningful sexual freedom were the wealthy rakes of historical romance novels.
3) Personal Sexual Responsibility--or guarding the treasure.
Men, by and large, have always been sexually responsible. Not only for themselves, but for their sisters, mothers, daughters, wives and to a large degree, any respectable woman they came across. For every cad who would dare to rape a woman, there were a dozen or more who would rescue her from his evil clutches. Men were just as aware of the rules of polite society as women were. While dressing to attract sexual attention has always been de rigueur for women, men were expected to restrain themselves at all time. They did so not out of concern for themselves, because they had no sexual treasure to guard, remember? Sperm are a dime a dozen--it's the eggs and uterus that are worth a fortune. Therefor there was no shame in being a womanizing rake, if one could actually manage it. Men restrained themselves out of concern for "decent women", and what decent women were worth to society. Decent women had a treasure to guard, and it was everyone's responsibility to help guard it. Rape was the direst crime a man could commit, because it was a crime against the warp and weft of the entire social fabric--a crime against man, woman and marriage itself.
Women who were not decent, those of disrepute? They were on their own. They had sexual liberty, but in exchange for it, they gave up any semblance of a traditional life, and the protection of society. No reasonable man would go running to defend her honor, because she had none. Nor did society see much point in protecting a woman's sexual value if she herself cared nothing about it.
Single, respectable women? Their only responsibility was to never do anything to bring their virtue into question. The circumstances under which they were permitted to interact with the world were very constrained--out of necessity--and the rules crystal clear. She need not exercise any form of personal, subjective judgment. The rules were such that no judgment was ever required, and as a result, in some cases the first moment a couple found themselves alone together was in their marriage bed. The higher social status the woman, the more valuable her virtue and the more closely it was guarded by everyone. An indiscretion could destroy a woman's prospects of marriage. A rape? Complete and utter social ruin for her, and often death by vigilante justice for the rapist. Rape was a crime against a woman's family, against her present or future husband, and against society--of all the injured parties the wronged woman was considered the least important of the aggrieved. If she and her parents were very lucky, the rapist was of reasonable social status and unattached and the rape not public knowledge, at which point they'd run him to the altar with a shotgun so that everyone in question could save face. And you thought rape victims were "punished" by society now, didn't you?
4) Sexual accountability--or "You break it, you bought it."
Ordinary men have always been stuck with it. Rich men could buy their way out of it, if need be. It wasn't that long ago in the grand scheme of things that a man who "got an unmarried girl pregnant" (as if he was the only one involved in said impregnation) was expected to step up, "do the right thing" and take responsibility for his transgression. Actual really and for true forcible rape? You know that dude is doing time, if the crime could be proved.
Because of the strict social mores that had, up until the sexual revolution, dictated, controlled and repressed sexual interactions between men and women, and because of outdated notions that a "fallen woman's" honor deserved no protection at all, women often faced an uphill legal battle if there was any indication she'd "misbehaved" in any way prior to the assault. Victim-blaming? Certainly. But a very great deal of the attitude behind it, IMO, was an outmoded thought process that still exists in many, many, many women today--that the sexual purity of a woman (at least in a traumatic situation such as rape) is a thing of great importance to her, to her future husband, and to society. And if a woman held that purity to be of no value--if she'd given it away willy nilly--there was no virtue for anyone to defend. It was not so much that a man had some right to rape a woman who dressed slutty or had slept with a lot of people, it was that the practical, real world value of her sexual purity was gone. A man who raped a slut was like a man who'd stolen the equivalent of a chocolate bar, not one who'd robbed someone of their entire life savings. Still a crime? Sure. A crime against man, woman and society? Not so much.
Women used to have sexual accountability, but it was expressed in very specific ways. And it wasn't much fun. Just think of that woman from the 1700s who'd been forced by her family to marry the man who'd raped her, and you'll get what I'm saying. The consequences she'd pay if she'd brought her dishonor on herself in any way? Absolutely life-destroying. A woman who'd put herself in a position where rape could occur was a woman whose behavior couldn't be trusted. At best, she might be foolish enough to do it again. At worst, she'd done it on purpose and her "rape" was actually consensual sex, in which case, she really couldn't be trusted.
I used to believe men had sexual agency, and perhaps a small subset of men--those who are/were the most sexually attractive--actually did and do. But remember, agency requires four ingredients: power, liberty, responsibility and accountability. For most men before the sexual revolution, the constraints of society and practical reality prevented sexual agency. And even now...well, the power to get laid when one desires it is not one that men possess as a class.
One of the few things that help ordinary men make up for their lack of sexual power is the healthy self-love lives they tend to unashamedly enjoy. Porn and masturbation are poor substitutes for real agency, but any port in a storm, right?
Men as a class were also missing another of the crucial ingredients: sexual liberty.
What's this, you say? But men have ALL the sexual liberty one could want! They always have. Except they don't--because liberty is worth nothing if one cannot exercise it. Men may be technically free to make any sexual decision they wish, to be studs without shame, but practical reality is another thing altogether. And for the Steve Buscemis of the world, sexual liberty often equates to the "freedom" to be repeatedly sexually rejected and to take solace in one's right hand. This has always been the case, and may always be the case.
Responsibility, on the other hand? And accountability? Men have those in spades, even more so today, because they're now held accountable for decisions that are not even their own. In the face of completely unrestrained female sexuality, men are expected to restrain themselves, and as unfair as this burden really is, the vast majority of men do it. That reports of rape have decreased by ~90% over the last 30 years is a testament to male sexual responsibility. Still, men are considered responsible, as a class, for the existence of rape, they are considered responsible as a class for eliminating it, are considered responsible for keeping their hands to themselves, their eyes on her face, never expressing interest that might be unwanted, and for saying "no" for both parties in many situations, even if a given woman is screaming "yes!"
And men are absolutely held accountable for their sexual decisions. There are teenage boys paying child support to the teachers who raped them. Slept with a drunk woman--even if you were also drunk? You've just raped her...maybe. I think. If she decides that's what happened to her, anyway. Conversely, if he feels violated by a woman--if he wakes up next to Alice the Goon with vague memories of the unprotected sex she pressured him into while HE was plastered? He's expected to stand by his drunken "yes", no matter how long a shower he needs to feel clean again, and just pray he didn't get her knocked up, because if he did, hello 18 years of child support payments.
Way back when, the question men asked themselves during the dance of courtship was, "Is her no really a no?" Now, he has to ask himself, "Is her yes going to stick?" There are men in prison right now for having consensual sex with their long term partners, because a woman's "yes" didn't stick when things got bumpy in the relationship.
A man's accountability for "ruining" a woman by getting her pregnant used to be an expectation of marriage, and she was expected to go along with the plan to restore her virtue. This has gone out the window. A man's accountability today--child support--is one that does not limit a woman's sexual liberty, though when you consider how important material success is to a man's sexual attractiveness, it certainly limits his.
If that's not sexual accountability for men, I don't know what is. He is considered the master of ceremonies, completely responsible for keeping all parties safe, happy and unregretful during sex, expected to never miss a red light even if it's actually green, and to stand by the consequences of his own "yes" even if he was coerced into sex, preyed on as an adolescent by an adult woman, or incoherently drunk.
Women, on the other hand...if anything, women have less agency now than they did before the sexual revolution. While before, they had a balance of all four aspects that was grossly restricted by the rules of society, right now, they have but two--liberty and power. The other edge of the sword is something they seem much more reluctant to embrace.
Well, ladies, I think it might be time for us as a gender to start growing up. Get some agency, because women are fortunate enough that sexual agency is actually possible for most of us, if we want it. But in order to have it, we have to acknowledge some fundamental issues we have.
Sexual liberty has always been a risky endeavor for men (just ask that Weiner dude, or Arnie, or any number of other men who've ended up fucking themselves over because of sex), and it's time for us to acknowledge that it is a risky endeavor for us, too. Sexual liberty can never be inherently "safe", because sex itself is not inherently "safe". Sex is gritty and it's intense and it's wild and it's fraught with all kinds of emotional and hormonal confusion and upheaval, before, during and after. Moreover, it has consequences, some of which we might not like, and some of which burden us more than men.
I hear all the time about how important it is for a man (never a woman, always a man) to make sure his partner is consenting. That many women don't actually have the wherewithal to say no, but that doesn't mean they're consenting. Women used to be expected to play a part in safeguarding their own virtue by following the rules of society and by saying "no" to, or resisting unwanted sex. Now? Nope. A woman who is in a man's bedroom, naked in his bed, is no longer even held responsible to tell him to stop if she wants him to stop. The onus for ensuring everyone really is into it is entirely on the man, even if it means reading her mind. And if both of them are drunk? Yup, he's still held responsible for saying no for both of them, even if she's saying yes.
Number one: some of us like drunk sex. Some of us think that a few of you girls out there are ruining it for the rest of us. There is no excuse for any man to have sex with someone who's passed out, or puking drunk, or incoherent (or for a woman to do it, either). But there's a lot of leeway between being drunk and being incapacitated, and if we expect people to drink responsibly when it comes to driving, we should at least be able to expect them--even women--to drink responsibly when it comes to sex. And if you don't think you should be held responsible for your sexual actions while drunk--that is, if your yes shouldn't be considered a yes--then WHY are men supposed to behave any more responsibly when they're drunk. We have a society that says a drunk man who rapes someone is still a rapist, but a drunk woman who said yes to sex can't be held to her "yes". Why? Because she's a woman and he's a man, so he should behave more responsibly? Are women babies now?
Number 2: ladies, please. If you do not have the sexual confidence and maturity to utter the word "stop" when you are lying naked in a man's bed after choosing to climb into it, then you had absolutely NO business climbing into it in the first place. Seriously. You've spent all evening moving from "maybe" to "I think so" to "probably" to "most likely" to "almost definitely" to "practically guaranteed" to "score!", moving out of the public eye (where you're safe) and into a private space (where I'm sorry, you're not), discarding inhibitions and bits of clothing along the way. The further along this sexual continuum you are, the more momentum has built up, and the more clear your 180 degree "no" needs to be. The closer you've come as a couple to the crease, the more definitive your save has to be if you suddenly decide you don't want the puck in the net.
Moreover, you're an adult. You're allowed to say no.
Moreover, sex is not a one-way street. It's something people share, and the responsibility for sex and for consent, for what does and does not happen wrt sex MUST be shared, too. You're there to have sex, not to have it done to you--you are a part of the entire process.
(Disclaimer: this does not mean that going up to a man's room means he is entitled to sex. What it means if you've repeatedly said "yes", by word or deed, all night, and you agree to go someplace private where you continue with your "yesses", you cannot rely on silence to convey a "no". I cannot stress enough, knowing a little about what turns people on and how they respond physically to stimuli--sex noises and pain noises are very similar, sex noises and pleading noises are very similar, sex faces and pain faces are very similar, women can be physically aroused and orgasm even while they're being raped, and when the momentum's been building all evening and everyone's excited and your body's signals can be so easily misinterpreted, the closer you are to "score!", the more you need to SAY SOMETHING if you've changed your mind. It is very easy to convey our "yesses" through our actions, but men AND women misinterpret those signals all the time. And if a guy misses those signals, well, no harm done, right? A "no", however, is a signal you do not want him to miss, and you have a responsibility to both of you to ensure he doesn't. Do you see how that works?)
Number 3: one of the things women absolutely MUST do is stop putting the responsibility on everyone else to safeguard our sexuality. It is not society's or men's responsibility anymore. We threw the rules that allowed society and men to safeguard our sexuality out the window, didn't we? Expecting men and society to do that job now is like expecting this guy to get this guy to the Greek. Which may be doable, but is less than fair. If we don't want unfair social restrictions put on our behavior, we need to be the primary agents in our sex lives and stop putting an unfair burden on everyone else to keep us safe from harm. Taking charge of our sex lives means taking responsibility for them, even when we don't like where our decisions lead us.
If we want people to stop judging us by the state of our sexual purity, we need to stop doing the same damn thing. Because the difference between a slut and a stud isn't just what James Jeffries so aptly put in his little bit of stand-up (sit-down?) comedy I linked to above. Another difference is that we, as women, still consider our sexuality to be sacrosanct in many ways, rather than a practical aspect of our lives and identities. This conflict of belief is no more apparent than in the insistence of women as a group that, "It's only sex. I'm not just my body, and how many men I've had sex with has nothing to do with my value as a person, and I can sleep with whomever I want because it's just sex, and how dare you shame me for being a sexual person!" because the moment a woman is raped, groped, or even stared at, we see just how deeply women as a whole truly believe their own rhetoric.
If women want society to place no special value on a woman's sexual purity as a function of her self-worth, they need to...well, grow up and stop placing special value on it themselves in the context of unwanted sexual attention. That rape is a crime and should be treated as such, I have absolutely no problem with. But that rape is still treated as an "extra-special, super-crime against the 'sanctity' of a woman's body, the worst violation ever, and one that should be treated differently than other crimes because it brings shame and a loss of self-worth to victims"? This is backward thinking in any sexually liberated society.
How individual victims feel after an assault varies widely, and yes, for many there are feelings of shame and devaluation as women. But right now, today, there is only one socially acceptable way for even women to feel about rape. Shame colors the entire public discourse on it. Frank discussion is routinely silenced out of a need to spare feelings, policies are in place that, while necessary to encourage victims to come forward, cannot help but reinforce the cultural notion that being raped is something a woman is supposed to feel ashamed about, and that it somehow diminishes her value as a woman.
As a matter of public and legal policy, we need to eventually pick one or the other, ladies, and stop insisting on having it both ways. Either a woman's sexuality is sacred or it's not. If having sex with a dozen men is nothing for you to be ashamed of and has nothing to do with your worth as a person, then being forced into having sex against your will--someone else's bad act, and one you had no choice in!--is really nothing for you to be ashamed of and nothing to do with your worth as a person. It's a violation of your bodily autonomy, a crime committed against you, and wrong wrong wrong. That it is often horribly traumatic and can kill a woman's trust in men and the world is perfectly understandable, for sure, just like any assault can. But an act of forced or coerced sex is nothing for YOU to feel ashamed about unless you're the one doing the forcing, and it's nothing that remotely--in any objective sense--diminishes your value as a woman and a human being. We're supposed to be more than sexual objects now, right?
There is nothing I would like more than for women as a group to reach a day when the most common reaction of a victim to being raped is: "I'm not just a body. I'm a sexual agent, not a sexual object, and my virtue and value as a person does not live between my legs. You took sex from me, but you didn't take my self-esteem or my value as a human being or a woman. You had no right to do what you did, but I'm not the one who did anything to be ashamed of, so I fucking refuse to feel ashamed. No piece of shit rapist gets to tell ME how to feel about myself. And now you get to sit in jail and think about that while I get on with my life, asshole."
But how are we to get there if we as a group don't start to own our own sex lives--our power, our liberty, our responsibility and the consequences of what we do.
Number 4: we need to start growing up and flexing our sexual muscle responsibly. Anyone who's been to see the strippers on ladies' night vs men's night and observes the behavior of the crowd will realize that men are held to a completely different standard of sexual responsibility and restraint than women are. What on earth makes any woman feel entitled to put her hands on a man in a way she would not tolerate someone putting their hands on her? I don't care how much you've had to drink. If you expect everyone to respect your bodily and sexual autonomy, you need to start respecting that of others' to the same degree. Because at the moment, women routinely get away with sexual misconduct, sexual assault and even rape, because no one is holding them to any kind of standard of behavior when it comes to other people.
This gender dichotomy is beautifully illustrated in THIS study, that determined forced and coerced sex among heterosexual couples was almost equal for both genders. How many of us, men and woman both, would consider a woman pushing sex on her partner as "asserting her needs and getting what she wants" while at the same time deeming the men in the study to be guilty of "spousal rape"? Likewise, that a sex therapist who dares to say "I've always said women have a right to say no, but men and women should think about the impact of rejection on their partners, and some may choose to say yes a little more often,'' could spark a feminist protest characterizing her as a supporter of spousal rape is also telling.
You as women have no more right to force yourselves on men as they do on you. You have no right to yell "hubba hubba" if you're going to get up in arms about whistles or catcalls directed your way. You cannot characterize viewing porn as "empowering" for women while judging it to be "creepy" when men do the same thing. You cannot feel entitled to grope a male stripper if you're going to get all offended at the idea of being groped yourself, or insist that female strippers are exploited because men dare to look at them.
Number 5: ladies, please oh please, take some responsibility for the quality your sex lives! I was talking to a young woman at work not long ago. She'd come to me to ask if, as one of the young male employees had informed her, her boyfriend actually masturbated.
Me: How old is he?
Me: Oh yeah. He masturbates.
Her: OMG, that is so gross! No he doesn't!
Me: Sorry to burst your bubble.
Her: But we have sex every day! Why would he masturbate?
Me: Because he can, yo.
Her, making gagging noises: Ewwww! How often does he DO that?
Me: If he's like most guys his age, every day. Maybe more than once.
Her: That's so disgusting! I would NEVER do that!
Me: Why not? It's your body, you have every right to touch it any way you want. Besides, if you've never figured out how your own buttons work, how can you let your boyfriend know what you like?
Her, blinking: Well, he's just supposed to know.
Um...okay. That a young woman in today's supposedly sexually liberated society can still consider masturbating a disgusting act she would never, ever engage in, that she is still placing the entire onus for her sexual pleasure on whatever man she's with...this only illustrates how conflicted women still are about sex and their own sexual agency.
The sexual revolution means we're all playing by different rules. This is a very difficult transition we are facing as a society, and women need to take some responsibility for where it's all headed. We're the ones who tossed the old handbook out the window, and we're largely writing the new one. In doing so, we've made the rules for men contradictory, unjustly onerous and insanely confusing...and for ourselves? Well, there are no rules for us, apparently.
We've reduced men's role in our collective sexuality to a mad scramble to get us all safely to the Greek, or else, no matter how out of control we are, and that's something that seriously needs to change.