I recently asked a woman if I could kiss her, and she told me “Not now. Thanks for asking though.” We were on what I was thinking of as maybe a second date, though I wonder what she would have called it. This exchange immediately put me in mind of the scene from High Fidelity where Rob asks Laura if she’d slept with Ian, and she says “Not yet.” Rob asks Barry how he would interpret the “yet,” in the guise of a question about Evil Dead II. Barry intimates that the ‘yet’ means that “you couldn’t have been desperate to see it otherwise you’d have already gone.” He then changes his mind, saying that the ‘yet’ indicated that “you wanted to see it, otherwise you’d have said you didn’t want to go.” I had no idea what she meant, and because I wanted her, and because of the different ways men and women approach romantic encounters, it mattered. The word ‘yet’ marks out a gap between intention, desire and politeness that makes all heterosexual romantic encounters fraught.
I asked my friends what that moment might have meant to them. One, who is recently single after a long time coupled and has decided to stake out her desires in an admirably uncompromising way, said, quite simply, if a guy asked before making a move it was the biggest turn-off imaginable. Another, also single, but less comfortably so than the first, said she liked it when men asked before doing anything. A third, happily married for a decade, said that she thought asking was a turn-off, but if a man said “I want (to kiss) you” before leaning in, it was a huge turn-on. The exercise — asking for advice on how to handle my own romantic life by asking my friends — was flawed because it assumed everyone wanted the same thing in that moment, but the breadth of answers — across only three people — was revealing.
In the middle of all of this, a close friend of mine was raped. The details do not matter, except that she came to me and asked me to help her make sense of the experience. She blamed herself for putting herself in the same room as her rapist, and whenever I even suggested the r-word she spun away from it. I got the impression that she was more scared of the consequences of calling it rape than she was with the consequences of telling herself she’d somehow caused it.
In talking through the experience with her, it emerged that she enjoyed a particular kind of sex and had developed quite sophisticated ways of finding partners who could deliver it. Most of the time she knew how to get what she wanted, and the occasions that she didn’t had been awkward but not traumatic. Apart from her understandable desire not to don the mantle of the rape victim, with all its cultural accoutrements and accessories, she had trouble accepting that he was a false positive. What she was missing was that the fact she was raped wasn’t due to the way she was approaching sex. The man who raped her walked and talked like someone she wanted, but he wasn’t.
Anna Krein describes this as the “grey zone” of consent in her book ‘Night Games,’ which explores the rape culture of various football codes. She describes it as the “glacial space between a man’s action and a woman’s reaction.” By “man’s action,” she means the hundreds of tiny, persistent erotic requests that a man makes of a woman, with his eyes, his words, his bodily proximity, his hands, his body. By “woman’s reaction,” she means a choice between acquiescence and refusal. “Is it a race?” she asks. “To see how far, how much he can get before she surfaces? Or is he also underwater? Must he become an interpreter of smiles? How many women and men are caught out in this grey zone?” I think Krien possibly sympathises too much with men in this gap. Yes, men must become interpreters of smiles if they will be persistent. With power must come responsibility. But the consequences of the gap for women are much worse. If each act of persistence is infinitesimal and yet part of a larger design, there is no obvious point to say ‘no’. Get it wrong on one side of the threshold of your desires and you risk an awkward moment, get it wrong on the other side and it might end up rape. And the worst bit is that up until it actually becomes rape, heterosexual relations in the glacial gap look exactly like ‘normal’ heterosexual romance.
Compare my three friends’ responses to my question about asking before kissing. Had the woman I had asked been like my first friend, my question would have quashed any desire she may have had for me. Had she been like my second friend, it would have only nourished that desire. Had she been like my third friend, it could have gone either way. And had she desired me not at all, my actions were irrelevant. But there were only two strategies available to me: persist and wait for a more definite refusal, or abandon the idea altogether (which I eventually did, some weeks later). I, like many men, am a rotten interpreter of smiles.
But my friend who was raped was very good at telling when the persistence would lead somewhere she wanted, and when it would not. On the night she was raped, she said ‘yes’ until she didn’t want to say ‘yes’ anymore, at which point she said ‘no’. She did not acquiesce in that moment, though she had acquiesced before — because that’s what the glacial gap demands. Everything looks like it’s going very well up until it fails.
I see the glacial gap everywhere. Quite a few articles on the idea of the “male feminist” have caught my eye in the last few months. Most of them revolve around the idea that there is a kind of male feminist who speaks about women’s issues only to convince women to sleep with them. I usually read these articles with a mixture of frustration, sadness, and occasional anger that I’ve been trying to interpret for a while. I still have a text message on my phone from a woman I dated for three weeks, three years ago:
“You’re just another guy getting his end in, you just frame it nicely, with a lot of smoke and mirrors. The system you’ve devised to get your pay-offs while still convincing yourself and others that you’re ‘not indulging your masculinity in a way that fucks over others’ is very clever. Clap, clap.”
I’m not going to claim she was wrong about me, nor am I going to admit she was right. The anger in this text message, which I recognise in these articles about men claiming to be feminists, is legitimate anger.
According to Kate Iselin, for example:
“men looking for feminist-sanctioned romance tend to fall in to one of two categories: those who use our attraction as a sign of approval and seek out trophy feminists to clear their conscience of any inherent patriarchal wrong-doing, and outright predators who employ a bare-bones knowledge of feminist discourse to target any young woman whose politics so much as graze the notion of sex-positivity.”
Iselin acknowledges that “It’s not that I don’t think men can be feminists,” but concludes that “while it may be correct to say #NotAllMaleFeminists, I would simply rather: not any.” Iselin’s response to the gap is that the only winning move is not to play. I don’t disagree with her anger, but I have even less faith in male feminists than she does. I think her two kinds of male feminist are really only one kind, and the word for that kind of male feminist is ‘a man’.
It feels like myself and the woman who texted me — and Iselin and her failed feminist dates — were caught in another glacial gap. There’s nothing wrong with men and women sharing an interest in the unequal power dynamic of gender. There’s nothing wrong with talking about those dynamics with someone you desire, when you’re locked in that very dynamic with them. But it’s a mistake to think that that conversation can somehow right the inequality on its own. Like the glacial gap makes it impossible to spot a rapist until it’s too late, the excited sharing of thoughts about gender equality in the heady intimacy of a new relationship means all men are “male feminists” when it’s all over. Kara Schlegl recently characterised male feminists as expecting “cake” — congratulations for their feminism, in the form of sex. Men saying they are feminists is another form of persistence. This is why I think men should not call themselves feminists. Or, as Schlegl puts it, men don’t deserve congratulations
“because you and your kind have benefited from the systematic and savage oppression of half the population of this planet for millennia, thus relegating your cake deserving status to very, very low.”
It’s also why I think the women who write these articles are right to excoriate “male feminists,” but the articles (though not the women writing them) are still unfair to the men in question.
The parentheses in that last sentence contain a qualification that seems to make no sense. Let me try to illuminate it with another example. While I was mulling all of this over an academic friend who writes about the ethics of consent gave me some of her work to read. One particular passage caught my eye. It dealt with the idea that sex could be both non-consensual and blameless; that is, that a man could gain a woman’s consent to sex in good faith, and yet there could be something about the sex — an unwittingly higher risk of STI transmission, for example — that invalidated her consent. This is rape without a rapist. I am misrepresenting the matter; I do not have a philosopher’s eye for detail here. But it felt like another way to explain the glacial gap. It described a way of relating in which you could never know what you were getting yourself into, and never be able to tell which infinitesimal act of persistence was too far. What I’m saying here is nothing new; Just as Iselin and Schlegl hint at the possibility that all men are potential “male feminists,” I’ve seen plenty of feminists write that all men are potential rapists. I’m trying to say that I agree with them.
The problem is that the gap between male persistence and female acquiescence is an unequal and gendered power dynamic. The glacial gap gives men the power to maintain or abandon persistence, and women the power to deliver or foreclose acquiescence. The gap equips up with a poorly-stocked toolbox containing only the bluntest of tools. We can’t step outside the gap except in the most rudimentary or clumsy ways. It feels like what Sheila Jeffreys meant when she described sex as “the eroticisation of power”. The problem is that power might be the reason men rape, but it’s also hot. It’s what leads us into the gap. This is the uncomfortable truth hinted at by my friends’ reaction to my question about asking permission before kissing someone. How much they wanted men depended on the ways those men persisted in their desire. This is perhaps less a problem for my friend who liked to be asked than it is for my friend who hated being asked. Men securing consent might be the most ethical position for them to inhabit, but what if it’s a turn-off? What if not asking is worse? The problem with heterosexual romance isn’t that men are all lying to get sex, or that women are all prudish erotic gatekeepers. Neither is true, and yet both are true all the time. It’s that both are caught in the gap together, and that’s not the same thing as equality.