Monday, September 21, 2015

Sexual Intrusion And Sexual Harm: How Bad Is Bad?

One time ages ago I was listening to a podcast, and this guy told a story about how his wife had been shown some pornographic pictures and how he, the narrator, had completely lost his shit.

As I recall it, they were at some kind of large event -- selling small items or something, at some large theme-oriented fair, or something like that. They'd been separated when the guy went to get food for lunch, leaving the woman in charge of their area, and a stranger, another guy, had approached the woman and started talking to her. Then, just a couple minutes in, the stranger had taken out his cell phone and said "look at this" and showed her some pornographic photos, including, if memory serves, some of naked men with erections. Then he had run off.

At least as the narrator told the story, the narrator's wife was very, very, very, very upset. She was frightened and disturbed. She felt violated. She felt like she'd been the victim of a kind of sexual attack. When the narrator found out what happened he flipped out. He tore off to find the culprit, with the intention of physically attacking him. 

The rest of the story was about how the narrator had come to terms with his rage before he hurt the stranger, and the point of the story was about anger and self-control and not hurting people. But the part that stuck with me was the part about the woman feeling so violated.

It stuck with me because I couldn't imagine feeling so upset about something like that. I'm not judging her reaction or anything -- she has the right to her feelings and worldview. It's just so different from my own feelings and worldview.

I just can't picture dirty pictures having that effect on me. I suppose if there were no people around and a guy did that and then stuck around I'd feel frightened. Certain guys in certain sexually charged situations can become scary pretty fast, as I wrote about in this post about being in a lingerie store with a nervous guy, because they give you the feeling they're going to fly off the handle. But this story didn't seem to have those aspects at all. They were in a big crowd. He showed the pictures and ran off.

Together my friend and I run the Society for the Philosophy of Sex and Love, and occasionally people send us things that are weird or inappropriate or whatever. One time someone sent a long series of photos of himself in various poses, in various themed bits of costume, showcasing his penis in a variety of moods. Far from being shocked and upset, I was inclined to view this email somewhat in the light of a gift: it made me laugh, and when I showed it to my friends it made them laugh.

The wide range of different reactions people have to things like this is, I believe, one reason we find it so hard to come to conclusions about the moral quality of actions like the stranger-with-the-phone. I mean, what he did was wrong, and not nice. Sure. But was it a little wrong? Or very very wrong?

I feel like people often a sense there should be some kind of general answer to these kinds of questions, like we should be able to work out a moral principle, with a clear and justified bright line, and apply it across the board. But I doubt that's possible, partly because what causes sexual harm to people is so variable.


Linda Palmer said...

Patricia, this reminded me of an incident. I lived in Japan for a year when I was 19-20 on an education abroad program. One day on the long, tree-lined drive on campus a teenager-looking dude wandered by on his bicycle exposing himself. I was all shocked and horrified and a little scared and outraged and when I went to report it the staff just laughed. They saw it as childish, immature, kind of embarrassing and not scary behavior. Thinking about this, it seemed like *because* they didn't think of it as that shocking or even really all that unusual or bizarre, then the follow-on thought natural to those raised in my culture -- what else might someone do, who would violate this social norm? -- wasn't there. And I think it's this follow-on thought that's actually so upsetting and frightening. To them he wasn't scary, just kind of pathetic and laughable. Maybe we could learn from this.

On the other hand, while Japan is (or was then) extraordinarily safe generally speaking - we had no fear wandering around Tokyo at any hour of the night - it was also true that you ran the risk of getting groped on the subway. That happened only once to me and it was pretty upsetting (the guy scuttled away, he was no threat - helps that he was smaller than me, maybe, but honestly a threat or fear of further violence isn't really part of that situation, as I think it would be in the US. Usually it happens when the trains are super crowded and there's a lot of body contact anyway.). They have a real problem with it. Maybe these go together, I don't know.

Not sure if this is related either, but there was also no fear generally of drunk people... guys don't tend to get drunk and aggressive and violent there; rather, people get - and expect to get, and are expected to get - kind of emotional and childish and goofy, maybe melancholic, maybe silly. Getting drunk is regarded as a kind of regression to childhood and drunk people are regarded with indulgence and amusement. Drunk people don't feel judged or get defensive and aggressive.

Not sure how all these fit together. But it seems related. Something something Puritanism.

Janet Vickers said...

Our fear has to do with the threat of actual harm - and if a man exposes himself, is he likely to go further and rape? Because our media loves violence we are exposed to so many stories of women being brutally raped and children sexually abused. And then parents who are afraid of sex education in school - afraid it will make them promiscuous.

In the seventies I remember talking to a group of girls in the office and one said women should not make eye contact with strange men because they may see it as an invitation, then another woman who accused any man who spoke to her as them trying to get her into bed.

Sometimes it's our fantasies that get us into trouble.