vulnerability

The Conflation of Virtue and Weakness

Weakness-Strength1I had a realization about gaslighting recently. You see, gaslighting only works if it’s victim is willing to consider the possibility that their perspective is wrong, if they are willing to consider other people’s perspectives and incorporate new information into their world-view. It works even better when the victim trusts the perpetrator, believes them to be acting in the victim’s best interest.

This is the thing that makes so much abuse so insidious (and also just plain maddening). Predators and abusers literally take advantage of positive character traits and virtues in their victims.

Because being willing to consider other people’s perspectives? This is an absolutely necessary part of making your social justice work intersectional. It is necessary to recognize oppressions that you don’t personally experience. It is vital, in other words, to being able to fight the good fight.

And trusting our loved ones to act in our best interest? Well, this might not be a virtue in and of itself, but being able to do so is a pretty important part of being a healthy human. No one can survive as an island, and sometimes we have to put our well-being in the hands of others.

Abusers take advantage of other positive traits as well. In any romantic context, you’ll get the abusive tropes of “If you really loved me, you’d…” or analogous sentiments, which play on the victim’s desire to be a good partner, and their desire to make the person they care about happy. It takes advantage of the selfless aspects of love, without any reciprocation (Because if you really love them, you won’t ask for anything in return, amiright?)

And then there’s this other thing that happens. Abuse survivors are often framed as having made mistakes, and having allowed themselves to be taken advantage of. You were naive. You were stupid. You were, ultimately, weak.

Trusting people? That makes you weak. Loving someone and being willing to sacrifice yourself for their happiness? Weak. Being willing to consider the possibility that you are wrong about anything ever? Sooo weak.

Even if you don’t have anyone telling you the abuse was your fault, I think it’s very common for survivors to feel like they have to change the things about themselves that made them vulnerable in the first place.

This makes me really sad, because so often this is the way the narrative goes, and we get derailed into trying to figure out how to cure these weaknesses that are really virtues, and harden good people into assholes, instead of actually figuring ways of discouraging/preventing abusive behaviours in the first place. We want to turn the predators into virtuous people, not strip the virtues from victims in order to prevent their future victimhood.

I just wish I knew how to do that. All I know right now is that we need to stop repeating the damaging derailing tactic of examining all the weaknesses and mistakes of the victim. Because I don’t want to live in the world where no one has the loving, caring, open qualities that can make a person vulnerable to abuse. That’s not a solution I can accept.

On cultural scripts, and reframing ‘vulnerability’ in sex

A big part of a lot of anti-oppression work, as I see it, is wrapped up in reframing or recreating the models of human interaction. In so very many ways, the interactions we, as people, have with other people, are influenced by the normative cultural scripts surrounding those interactions.

Now, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having cultural scripts for handling various interactions. These scripts can serve many purposes, including making interactions run smoothly, especially when dealing with awkward or hard-to-handle emotional situations. Ozy Frantz recently wrote about the value of having scripts around the mourning process that illustrates some of the value of having this kind of normative script.

But, as with any (formal or informal) cultural (or institutional) process, these scripts can easily be embedded with unspoken (or spoken) cultural biases and oppression. We can see how this can happen in the example of a man in Florida who ran afoul of institutional processes (for assuming the name of one’s spouse) when, in fact, it was a cultural script (that wives take their husbands last name, and not the other way around) that he had broken.

The script I’d like to examine today is based around the idea of vulnerability in sexual contexts. In the (usually) unspoken cultural script for hetero sexual intercourse it is the woman who is framed as the vulnerable party. We see this concept played out in a variety of ways.

For starters, there is a cultural expectation that parents (and especially fathers) must “protect” their daughters from sexual activity. As a corollary, teenage boys in this script are framed as predatory. But this also plays out in the general language we use to talk about sexual activities. I talked about this to some extent in my post on why I love the word ‘valprehension’. The woman in hetero sexual activities is framed as passive, while the man ‘hammers’, ‘screws’, ‘nails’ (are we sensing a pattern) ‘pounds’, ‘reams’, or otherwise commits physically forceful and painful-sounding acts on her body. Woman are conquests (and thus men are victors?) in sex. Women “give it away” while men “get some”. All sexuality is framed as being for men, and for the male gaze

And this script has all kinds of profound implications about the notions for the broader framing of women’s sexual agency and desire, but as those other smart people have covered that pretty well covered, it’s not quite what I want to talk about today.

Today, I want to talk about how limiting this framing can be to our actual expressions of sexual joy, to sexual exploration and to genuine, creative consensual sexual interactions.

Before I say that, though, I want to be very clear that I am not saying that women (or valprehending partners generally) are never, ever vulnerable. Of course being penetrated can be an intensely vulnerable experience, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s very important to point out and acknowledge the vulnerability that many people can and do experience when they are being penetrated.

One of the things that Dan Savage has started pointing out in some of his columns and podcasts in more recent years is the idea that part of the reason straight men seem to have more trouble getting laid when they’d like is the traditional hetero script, which includes the assumption of penetration. Dan intelligently points out that for many people, being horny or wanting sexual satisfaction does not automatically imply that a person’s body (or mind) can handle penetration, especially from a relative stranger.

And the thing is that, yes, penetrative sex is a thing that happens inside the body of the receptive partner. I’m going to say that again. It happens inside our bodies. It’s a very intimate (and often vulnerable) thing, this letting part of another human being inside your body business. If you’re talking about vaginal or anal penetration, the very core of person’s body is involved in the act. And I don’t think that this should be discounted.

What I’ve been working on reframing in my own head lately is the flip-side of this narrative. Because the implication of Dan’s advice here is that sexual activity is not experienced in as intimate or as vulnerable a way by the penetrating partner. And I do think this is true to some extent, (as reflected in our cultural scripts around sex.) In a penetrative sex act, the penetrating partner’s most involved body part is an appendage (whatever appendage you prefer, though usually in the mainstream hetero script, this will be a penis). The penetrating partner has the privilege(?) of having a certain physical distance (up to the full length of the appendage in question :P) from the act relative to the valprehending partner. And in reality, (fears of vagina dentata aside) there is generally less risk of injury to a penetrating partner. And all of this adds up to much less intimacy and vulnerability for penetrating partner.

But here’s the thing. If you really think about it, if someone is putting their appendage inside my body, that is a great show of trust that I will take care said appendage. Allowing part of oneself to be valprehended by another person can be an extremely vulnerable act of giving part of yourself to that person, in a far more literal way than such giving happens in the cultural script of women “giving it away”. Penetrating partners literally give their appendage to the body of their partner for a time. And valprehending partners can have a degree of control over that part while it is inside of them. And when the body part in question is the oh-so-highly-valued (and, let’s face it, physically vulnerable) phallus, this is a truly awe-inspiring act of trust and intimacy, don’t you think?

The thing is that both of these scripts are accurate and true. And neither of them are. It’s all in how you choose to put forth, talk about, experience, and interpret your own sexual interactions with others. I know that for me, suddenly seeing my own valprehensive experiences from this perspective was really enlightening and empowering! It can certainly be fun to play with what various sexual acts mean in the contexts of individual couples/groups of sexual partners and the way they experience their dynamics.