What David Foster got wrong in his commentary in The Guardian about sexual freedom.
By Alyssa Figueroa / Alternet
“Hey, baby, wanna ride?” a man said to me, just yesterday, as he hung his body outside of a passenger window while I waited to cross the street. My eyes darted left as the car passed right, and I then crossed the street when the coast was clear. By the time I got to the next block, the embarrassment I felt had worn off, and I didn’t tell anyone about my experience because it’s so common that, in some ways, even I have come to normalize the demeaning occurrence. And even though the feeling of humiliation, degradation, powerlessness and sometimes fear still emerges with every catcall, who is going to care if I talk about such a typical experience in women’s lives?
That’s what the Everyday Sexism Project is for — though its intentions were clearly confused by David Foster in his recent piece in The Guardian. The Project is a space where women could stop remaining silent about sexism.
The creator of the Project explained her goal in an interview:
Again and again, people told me sexism is no longer a problem—that women are equal now, more or less, and if you can’t take a joke or take a compliment, then you need to stop being so ‘frigid’ and get a sense of humor … Even if I couldn’t solve the problem right away, I was determined that nobody should be able to tell us we couldn’t talk about it anymore.
But Foster continued this notion that women need to stop being so frigid in a recent commentary. In some twisted logic, Foster wrote that the Everyday Sexism Project asserts that “directly propositioning somebody for sex is automatically condemned as misogynist.”
This is completely false — the Project does no such thing. Scour the Everyday Sexism site, which has now reached more than 50,000 entries, and it’s doubtful you’ll find any woman mechanically calling “misogyny!” on every male encounter. Instead, the Project allows women to report the range of sexism they experience everyday — from street harassment to sexual assault.
Foster, however, attempts to divide this spectrum of sexism women experience by distancing sexual assault from street harassment. He claims that the Project is guilty of “lumping together sexual assaults and genuinely threatening behaviour with casual propositions.” Foster completely fails to recognize that while sexist acts may vary in severity, they are still all sexist, stemming from the systematic oppression of women. Plus, giving street harassment a pass would only aid in sustaining a sexist culture that fosters acts of sexual assault.
But perhaps the biggest flaw in Foster’s argument is hisconflating of sexual liberation and sexual harassment. While Foster claims that the Project “risks conflating deplorable and even criminal acts with sexually liberated expression,” he fails to see his own mix-up. Direct sexual advances are welcomed … if they are welcomed. Consent is not just for the bedroom — you need consent to flirt as well. Otherwise it’s harassment.
Author Victoria Dahl once described the difference remarkably in a Tumblr post:
There are so many men who have a damaging and violating idea of what flirtation is. Flirtation is not aggression. It is not acting out and pushing until you find the woman who gives in to it. Flirtation is an interaction. …Flirtation starts out small and slow. A look. A laugh. A shared smile. And then you wait and see what the response is to that smallest of overtures. You wait for a second look or laugh. A tiny nudge that says, “We are in this together, isn’t this fun?” You wait for that tiny nudge…You err on the side of patience and care. In flirting, you don’t plow ahead. You don’t skip steps. … You wait. You watch. You respond to signals. You see if she reciprocates. …This is a conversation. Two people are involved. … When you skip steps of flirting, when you pursue, it is a warning to women. A warning that you don’t see or acknowledge resistance. … It is actually fucking scary. … It’s harassment.
Underlying Foster’s argument is the idea that women can’t perceive this difference — and he’s come to help us poor prudes figure it out. Or, he thinks we should just deal with the harassment because, as he writes, “behind some of the crude and boorish conduct catalogued by the Everyday Sexism project is repressed sexuality.” Foster, then, essentially proposes that women should feel imprisoned in their own bodies while men figure out how to properly behave for a sexually liberated society. Instead of calling for an end to patriarchy so a fully sexually liberated society could be reached, Foster wants total sexual liberation first and seemingly trusts men to simply learn to be more respectful.
Foster’s commentary has sparked outrage, and people have even taken to Twitter to mock the piece using the hashtag #notalldavidfosters to play on his ‘not all sexual advances are misogynist’ cry. And the anger is rightfully deserved. The Everyday Sexism Project pushes to end the normalizing of sexism by allowing women to speak up about it. Foster may not want to listen, but we’re still making our voices heard.
David Foster says
David Foster here.
I feel inclined to reply to this partly because the original San Diego Free Press, so Wikipedia informs me, was founded by students of Herbert Marcuse, the newspaper going on to “reflect in part Marcuse’s Marxist/Freudian ideas of cultural transformation”. Since Marcuse’s work underpins the thinking behind my Guardian piece, I would like to address the criticism put forward here by Alyssa Figueroa, which mostly misrepresents the argument I make.
First of all, do please read the blogpost I wrote addressing some of the response to the piece: davidfosterreplies.wordpress.com
Let me then address Figueroa’s main criticisms one at a time:
“But Foster continued this notion that women need to stop being so frigid”
No I didn’t. Nowhere in the piece do I suggest such a thing. If by frigidity, you’re talking about repression, then I contend, following Freud/Marcuse, that we’re all – men and women – sexually repressed. Of course, sexual repression is an enormously complex issue that isn’t explored at length in the piece, but the basic idea of Freud’s metapsychology – i.e. that the repression, deferral, and sublimation of libidinal energy is the sine qua non of civilized society – and of Marcuse’s challenge to it – i.e. his theory of a non-repressive reality principle –underpin my thinking around these issues.
“In some twisted logic, Foster wrote that the Everyday Sexism Project asserts that ‘directly propositioning somebody for sex is automatically condemned as misogynist.’ This is completely false — the Project does no such thing.”
Yes, this was the impetus for the piece, which was primarily based on some of the Everyday Sexism reports re-enacted in a video by Leah Green that consisted of polite requests to men to come home with her. If my claim is, as you contend, “twisted logic” and “completely false” – i.e. if the ES project, and by extension its many adherents, does not automatically condemn these sort of simple, courteous, direct sexual propositions – then, fine, we’re all in agreement, it was hardly necessary to write my piece, and we’re all arguing over nothing. However, it would appear to me that this is not the case.
“Foster completely fails to recognize that while sexist acts may vary in severity, they are still all sexist, stemming from the systematic oppression of women.”
No, despite the fact that the severity of the incidents reported on Everyday Sexism varies, I fully recognize that sexism stems from the systematic oppression of women. That’s what the piece is about! I’m a feminist, and the article is highlighting a risk, as I perceive it, of an aspect of the ES movement inadvertently propping up the systematic oppression you describe. As I say in the blogpost, such is the insidious nature of repression, we become complicit in its very operation upon ourselves. We internalize it, and hence we do the oppressors’ job for them. Of course, Freud wrote about this at length – it’s essentially what the superego, the internal patriarch, is (and in different ways it’s a recurrent theme in much great 20th century literature, particularly in Orwell and Kafka).
“But perhaps the biggest flaw in Foster’s argument is his conflating of sexual liberation and sexual harassment. While Foster claims that the Project “risks conflating deplorable and even criminal acts with sexually liberated expression,” he fails to see his own mix-up.”
No, I don’t mix things up or conflate sexual liberation with harassment. You don’t really make any argument as to how I supposedly do this. The piece is actually very clear on this issue and makes a simple assertion: that there is nothing inherently sexist or harassing about making a direct sexual proposition. I don’t suggest for a second that such approaches are automatically fine and dandy – I’m sure many, and certainly most of those on the ES project – constitute deplorable harassment and/or misogyny, as I’m at pains to point out in the piece. My argument is quite simply – and clearly – that there is nothing inherently wrong with making a direct sexual proposition, and on the contrary, such directness should be welcomed and encouraged. It should go without saying that I would utterly condemn, like any reasonable person, any approach that was disrespectful, threatening, unkind, offensive, lewd, and so on. I’ve said all this already in the piece.
““Direct sexual advances are welcomed … if they are welcomed. Consent is not just for the bedroom — you need consent to flirt as well. Otherwise it’s harassment.”
Ah, now this, finally, is where you’ve hit on a crucial point, and it’s tied up to hugely complex issues (like everything else) around behavioural codes in public space. I would agree that you do need (tacit) consent to flirt, and that obviously if somebody is giving you signals that they don’t want you to talk to them, and you continue to talk to them, then you would be entering the realm of harassment (although why anyone would persist at such a point is rather beyond me). What’s more, you would be unlikely to even approach someone without some level of tacit consent given by the other person’s body language. However, this takes us towards a rather different area concerning our increasing lack of interaction in public space and is somewhat beyond the purview of my original argument. My point still stands, that there is nothing inherently wrong with directly propositioning someone, even with little of no preamble – hence with little or no tacit consent – if done with the requisite level of respect, courtesy, and so on.
“Underlying Foster’s argument is the idea that women can’t perceive this difference [between flirting and harassment] — and he’s come to help us poor prudes figure it out.”
This is just untrue, and slanderous. Where on earth do I suggest such a thing? Like many of the ‘responses’ to my piece, not only does it totally misrepresent my argument, it’s offensive too.
“Or, he thinks we should just deal with the harassment because, as he writes, ‘behind some of the crude and boorish conduct catalogued by the Everyday Sexism project is repressed sexuality.’”
Again, untrue and slanderous. Nowhere do I suggest that anyone should put up with harassment. Why are you so determined to misrepresent my argument? Why not actually deal with what I’ve written instead of intentionally misrepresenting it? Yes, I state that repression lies behind offensive behavior, but nowhere do I suggest that means it should be tolerated. All my thinking behind the piece is directed towards liberation and progression, not putting up with the status quo.
“Foster, then, essentially proposes that women should feel imprisoned in their own bodies while men figure out how to properly behave for a sexually liberated society.”
Where do I suggest this? I think you actually know perfectly well that this is not what I argue. It’s entirely in your imagination that I propose any such thing, and your assertion constitutes slander. As I very clearly state in the original piece: “The liberal left should be envisaging a society where adults of both genders are comfortable both making and receiving straightforward sexual propositions.” My whole argument is, ultimately, gender non-specific.
“Instead of calling for an end to patriarchy so a fully sexually liberated society could be reached, Foster wants total sexual liberation first and seemingly trusts men to simply learn to be more respectful.”
Nope, the piece argues from the perspective that sexual repression and patriarchy go hand in hand, and thus that sexual liberation and the end of patriarchy are also essentially one and the same thing.
“and people have even taken to Twitter to mock the piece using [a] hashtag”
Ah, yes, because aggressively trolling someone on Twitter is just the kind of mature, constructive, progressive behaviour that is going to further the cause of liberalism…
In fact, such trolling is just another form of hatred borne of repression, that, like sexual harassment, we should be working to overcome.
Stalk much? Damn, dude
if you get the last word will you go the fuck away? Stop trying so hard to prove yourself to folks who don’t care.
find something productive to do, and let us prudes carry on.
it’s a waste of time, and kinda rapey.
No means no, even on the internet.
damn, you like went out of your way to post here?
geezus. Let it go.
David Foster says
You want me to ‘go the fuck away’? That’s very grown up of you. I have not plans to do so.
There is no ‘last word’ – discourse just goes on…
Why would I ‘let it go’? My work is all about thinking about these issues.
As I said, I was keen to respond here partly because of the heritage of the SDFP.
David Foster says
I don’t need to prove myself to anyone, least of all someone who engages with this stuff on the superficial level that you have done. “Kinda rapey”? What on earth are you talking about? Rape is a horrendous crime and to associate it with my remarks is highly offensive and betrays a total insensitivity on your part to anyone who has suffered the trauma of rape.
You’re right that it is indeed a waste of my time to engage with thoughtless comments like yours.
David, since you took the time to come here to say your piece I can only assume you’re going to show everyone the courtesy of taking the time to read the responses.
IT sounds to me like you’ve found yourself caught up in the terrifying world of *insert dramatic music here* WOMEN WHO CAN THINK FOR THEMSELVES AND ARE FULLY CAPABLE OF DECIDING WHAT FEELS LIKE HARASSMENT AND WHAT DOESN’T.
comment edited to remove personal attack–eds.
David Foster says
Everybody is capable of thinking for themselves and deciding for themselves what constitutes harassment. I don’t dispute that.
My piece was highlighting what I see as “a danger that the campaign is promulgating a view that any direct sexual advance is tantamount to harassment”. So it’s not suggesting that anyone isn’t capable of making up their own minds – it’s highlighting a risk in the discourse that the campaign constructs/promotes. In other words, it’s not about the individual, it’s about the ideological; not about the personal so much as the political.
And there’s no need to shout. Nor to sling abuse.
Dear Mr. Foster,
One of your main points is that, “There’s nothing inherently wrong with men and women directly propositioning each other. It shows a liberated approach to social etiquette.” In my opinion this is a nice idea in theory, but this would only be possible in a world that we have yet to create. This would only be possible in a world in which women have never experienced fear of men, and in which women feel absolutely certain that there will be no repercussions against them for saying yes, or no. Clearly, this is not the world we live in. In the world that currently exists, in which there is an enormity of violence initiated by men against women, the sad truth is that a man directly asking a woman for sex without preamble is frequently experienced by the woman as threatening, even if the man feels he is asking in a respectful way. Furthermore, it usually also comes across as creepy and weird. Even in Leah Green’s video when the usual gender roles were reversed, and Leah was asking the men for sex, the men seemed genuinely disconcerted, surprised, and uncomfortable.
I want to acknowledge that you bring up a good point, which is that we need more discussion about how men and women can have healthy communication about sex. At some point in a relationship there has to be a place where people can speak directly about what they want. However, I would question whether it’s a good idea to make this the very first thing that a man says to woman.
I also noticed that your article in the Guardian entitled, “The Everyday Sexism Campaign risks making all sexual advances ‘misogynist'” references the theories of Freud, and Marcuse, but you do not reference any women writers. Wouldn’t it make sense to hear women’s stories, and to read our words before planning out what the new liberated world should look like?
David Foster says
“this is a nice idea in theory, but this would only be possible in a world that we have yet to create.”
But how do we go about trying to create that world? That’s the key thing. Isn’t tackling that question at the heart of progressive thought? How do we make progress towards a less repressive society – and hence a less aggressive society, a less fearful society, a more understanding society. And as I said in the blogpost, it’s only by chipping away at the repressive conditions of the performance principle, by venturing to challenge the taboos it has erected, that we can ever hope to make the slightest bit of progress towards a non-repressive reality principle. Of course, I don’t have any illusions that such a thing will ever be achieved, but what matters is to try, and to advocate for such a thing.
“the sad truth is that a man directly asking a woman for sex without preamble is frequently experienced by the woman as threatening, even if the man feels he is asking in a respectful way.”
Yes, I agree that this is a sad truth. This unhappy state of affairs is exactly what the piece is trying to address, arguing that we should be trying to work towards a world in which “adults of both genders are comfortable both making and receiving straightforward sexual propositions.”
“Furthermore, it usually also comes across as creepy and weird”
Indeed it does. As I’ve said, such behaviour is taboo. Again, what I’m advocating is trying to chip away at these repressive taboos.
“I would question whether it’s a good idea to make this the very first thing that a man says to woman.”
It’s important to note that I’m not suggesting direct sexual propositions are the only way – or even the main way – that we ought to go about initiating sex and relationships! There is nothing inherently repressive about flirting, seduction, dating, and all the rest of it. However, all too often these activities operate under the strictures of the performance principle, whilst a more direct, lustful, hedonistic approach – the pursuit of sexual pleasure purely for its own sake, i.e. Freud’s pleasure principle – need take little or no account of the performance principle.
“you do not reference any women writers. Wouldn’t it make sense to hear women’s stories, and to read our words?”
It’s just a short 700 word comment piece, so there are significant limitations on how much stuff I can reference. I cite Freud and Marcuse because they’re absolutely at the heart of my thinking around these issues. I would argue, of course, that they ought to be at the heart of everyone’s thinking around these issues, but of course everyone is free to disagree and argue otherwise. As to your suggestion that I ignore women’s voices, it’s simply untrue. I read work by many female authors. In the research I’m working on at the moment I engage with the work of female scholars and writers such as Feona Attwood, Judith Butler, Meredith Chivers, Teresa de Laurentis, Lisa Diamond, Susanne Kappeler, Marta Meana, Susanna Paasonen, Susan Sontag, Linda Williams, and many others.