Wait, they don’t love you like I love you… The confusing messages of Arndt #auspol #feminism

There are some conversations we can’t have.  The conversations are complex and tempt us towards uncomfortable thoughts — thoughts we suspect we ought not to have.  The conversations are nuanced and intimidate us with subtlety — subtlety we can avoid by sticking to our safe, black and white views of the world.

Do we really have rights?  Is the death penalty morally superior to life imprisonment?  Is procedural justice morally just?  Should unsustainable indigenous hunting practices be protected from change by western countries who are committed to protecting endangered animals?

These discussions are far too quickly hijacked by megaphones who fear a society which plays in greys.  It is easy to be absolutist about things.  It is difficult to accept that other people can disagree with us with sensible, reasonable arguments.

I think Bettina Arndt has situated herself in one of these discussions.  An Australian sex therapist, her articles and books have stirred controversy for decades.  In the 1980s, she was a cause for concern to the religious right for claiming — shock, horror — that there’s this thing called sex and it can be enjoyable.

Today, she upsets the left for claiming — shock, horror — that there’s this thing called sex and it can be enjoyable.

Ah, I’ve taken all the subtlety out of the leftwing and rightwing positions in order to ridicule them.  Everybody can see that.  What a poor analytical tool.

And yet this is precisely how I read most of the recent criticism of Arndt.  Don’t concern yourself with what she writes; she clearly means the opposite.  When she says that nothing excuses the poor treatment of women, she actually means that men have a right to treat women poorly… Or something.

The latest controversy surrounds an article written in the SMH: ‘Busted: the politics of cleavage and a glance‘.  The article uses a few anecdotes to stir a conversation about men in an environment of increased sexual liberty.

That’s the context that makes the constant just-out-of-reach titillation men now face confusing, irritating and even insulting. Yet many men are still trying hard to get it right, listening to their partners about why they hate men’s ogling. [Source: http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/society-and-culture/busted-the-politics-of-cleavage-and-a-glance-20120211-1sy7e.html#ixzz1mGnFuwqU]

It’s an interestingly subtle argument.  We have a culture which has moved in favour of sexualisation.  Television shows, advertisements, movies, music, &c., &c., all declare that only a sexy woman is a competent, healthy woman.  At the same time, the message to guys is that their reactions to a sexualised world are negative and make it more difficult for women to succeed as equals.

Arndt has published a few articles and books around this theme.  In What Men Want, Ardnt discussed the importance of sex to a relationship and the importance of getting both people on the same page when it came to expectations.  Her argument was that guys felt they couldn’t talk about sex openly with their partners.  Men receive the messages that their sexual desires were harmful and wrong, and should be repressed.

It’s not an outright silly thing to say.  At the same time, it’s not an unproblematic thing to say.

One of Arndt’s suggestions in her book for couples was for the less sexually interested partner (unfortunately identified as the female but, in a public lecture, she indicated that it could be either) to have sex even if they didn’t feel like it.  The point was to highlight the sexual needs of both partners and, too frequently, the partner who didn’t want to have sex ‘won’ by default.  This argument was characterised by the local women’s group as ‘Men have a right to sex’.  While it’s clearly not Arndt’s argument, Arndt doesn’t express herself precisely enough to defend herself against these claims.

Arndt is discussing an otherwise healthy relationship, with the lack of sex considered a dysfunction.  Is a lack of sex a dysfunction?  It’s not analysed.  Arndt is not discussing unhealthy relationships (or pseudo-relationships).  Nor is she claiming that sex should be non-consensual.  The question for her is how to get both parties to enjoy sex, and she sees not having sex as an obstacle.

But back to the ‘Busted’ article.

We see the same reasoning assumptions.  Women are buying into a sexualised culture which associates sexiness with success, but acknowledgement of that sexiness by men is discouraged.  Arndt’s argument is that a healthy society would provide a way for men to acknowledge sexiness without a) being creepy or b) feeling creepy.

From my perspective (straight, conservative, single guy), I can sympathise with that a bit.  If I’m out for drinks or whatever and I meet a woman I find interesting, intelligent, and attractive, I feel creepy if I acknowledge that she’s physically attractive.  It is far safer to keep my mouth shut.  Arndt suggests that in a healthy society, I wouldn’t keep my mouth shut, but would have a way of discussing the fact that I find somebody physically attractive in the same way that I can discuss finding them intellectually attractive.

But this is discussing a relatively healthy situation.  What it’s not discussing is the culture of objectification in unhealthy situations.  If you ignore the caveats throughout Arndt’s article, it can be read as justifying men’s reactions to women dressing provocatively.

But when young women stand in front of mirrors on a Saturday night, adjusting their cleavage, seeking ever greater exposure, maybe they need to think more about what they are doing. While there are women who claim they dress sluttishly just to make themselves feel good, the fact remains that, like the protesters, the main message sent is about flaunting women’s sexual power. [Ibidem]

Arndt chooses words poorly.  ‘Flaunting’ is particularly egregious.  Despite all the comments that she’s discussing healthy attitudes towards sex, her words lend support to ‘slut-shaming’ and ‘nice guys’.

If Arndt wants to discuss subtle, nuanced problems like unhealthy attitudes towards sex inside normal, otherwise healthy social interactions, she needs to be more careful with words.  Personally, I think she’s saying something important and prompting interesting discussions about healthy attitudes towards sex. It’s a shame it’s wrapped up so tightly in troll-bait.