David Foster and Everyday Sexism

I don’t have a strong opinion about the Everyday Sexism book or campaign. To begin with, the compulsion to have a publically avowable opinion about everything seems to me one of the most disheartening aspects of the present moment; it is obvious that none of us has time to know enough or to think enough to comment intelligently on the multitude of scandals, injustices, maybe-scandals and maybe-injustices the lineaments of which are brought almost violently to our attention by social media and the various news outlets; it is equally clear that “taking a position,” “supporting,” and all those other euphemisms for apathetic indignation are ethically suspect, to the extent that their efficiency at improving the lot of the put-upon pales alongside their contribution to the smugness of people who tend to speak from a position of privilege; not rich people, maybe, but first-world Anglophone people, largely white, who taken as a group cannot be described as the most destitute of the globe’s denizens. The divestment of the moral authority of liberal institutions—much more a consequence of the corruption of these institutions than of the influence of postmodernism, post-structuralism, and so on, though the latter should not be entirely discounted—has transferred said authority, for many on what might loosely be called the left, to victims, although it is always of course a certain type of victim; and while this has been undoubtedly necessary in order for our thinking about justice to grasp something of victimhood’s irreducible nature, it has also allowed—again, for certain people, in certain contexts—a perverse kind of prestige to accrue to victimhood, and a concomitant desire to arrogate a measure of it for oneself. Blumenberg chalks this up to the guilty conscience of what could in his day still be described as the bourgeoisie; we need a new word now to talk about the large numbers of educated people who have been initiated into the intellectual life characteristic of that all-but vanished class but have been largely expelled from the economic and political processes by which injustice is fostered and apportioned, and who besides have been lulled into near-lethargy, into satisfaction with the mere outward appearance of the ethical, by the immeasurable baubles brought to their doors by globalized capital.

And yet, putting all this aside, there is the bare fact that large numbers of men act repulsively and make women’s lives unpleasant. It should not be this way; Everyday Sexism is an attempt to remind people it should not be this way, and also to provide a place for the women who have to suffer through men’s boorishness to blow off some steam and to be reminded that it is the people who treat them this way, and not they themselves, who are in the wrong. I cannot see what is objectionable about that.

Everyday Feminism came to my attention because of the #notalldavidfosters hashtag, which chronicled the outrage at an article published by David Foster in the Guardian on April 9, 2014. I try to avoid these internet controversies; one already wastes so much time thinking about the stupid and the venal; but it is only since last fall that I have worked full-time in front of a computer, and I have not yet developed the requisite discipline. I expected I would find Foster’s article superfluous and bumbling, the kind of thing that typically provokes the hyperbolic indignation the internet is so apt at stirring up and diffusing. In fact it was deeply stupid.

Foster clears his throat by recognizing that Everyday Feminism serves the purpose of reminding us that “a deeply unpleasant vein of misogyny still runs through our society” before moving on to his real point, that “it is important to be aware that such behaviour is not representative of most men’s attitudes.” Curiously, the first link in his article is to another Guardian piece by the filmmaker Leah Green where she states clearly that she does not consider the sort of sexism chronicled by Everyday Sexism and by the film she has based on it to be characteristic of most men. Reading Foster, I thought to myself, isn’t important perhaps a strong word? Is there really a danger of men being typecast as inveterate agents of harassment, their opportunities for fair treatment denied by a coven of prejudiced women? If there were, wouldn’t certain men’s very evident proclivity to being assholes mar the reputation of well-behaved men rather more than any purported stereotypes? And finally, does the use of the word important, with its implication of the need to decide among contending obligations, not bear the nefarious suggestion that tiptoeing around men’s self-esteem might take precedence over making sure that women can go through their lives in peace as fully-fledged beings, endowed with dignity, and not sexual objects?

In both his article and his subsequent blog post in his own defense, Foster reminds readers that much of what is recounted on the Everyday Sexism page “does indeed sound reprehensible.” Curious words, does, indeed, and sound: the first two with their slight suggestion that the default position is to disbelieve the women who air these complaints, but that magnanimously, one is willing to consider that things might be otherwise; sound, which can only be described as a refusal to say “is.” It does not merely sound reprehensible to suggest to a woman you don’t know, who is on her knees shelving books at her job, that she give you a blowjob, or to deny the right of women to get drunk without being raped. There are stories on there that do not strike me as offensive, but this is to be expected in a public forum to which (according to Foster) some 60,000 stories have been submitted. They are very much in the minority, and lead one to doubt the perspectival integrity of anyone for whom they are what sticks out.

There are many valid criticisms of political correctness: taken to an extreme, it is intransigent and boring, and leads to the occasional headline-worthy absurdity such as the Keith John Sampson case. And yet the dangers of it have always seemed overblown alongside the painfully evident consequences of sexism, racism, and other forms of intolerance. The possibility that some women in general will begin to confuse “offensive and clumsy sexual remarks” with “respectful and courteous sexual advances,” as Foster seems to fear, strikes me as first as unlikely, and second as a small price to pay for getting entitled douchebags to restrain their tongues, hands, and dicks.

Foster’s real point is an advocacy of the revolutionary potential of the liberation of the libido à la Marcuse and the apparently inexpungible Wilhelm Reich, and he devotes three paragraphs of longish words to enlightening readers as to the market-based underpinnings of sexual gratification as an “earned reward.” He does not go so far as to suggest that “polymorphous sexuality” will cause the capitalist edifice to buckle, reconfiguring the human body “as an instrument of pleasure, rather than labor,” in Marcuse’s words; but the lineaments of the argument are there. While the teachings of Marcuse and Reich seem to have been powerless to militate against the increasing dominance of the market economy and the state, their tortuous arguments, if oral histories of the era are to be trusted, did provide great fodder for sleazy free-love advocates in their attempts to get women into bed. The residue of this kind of come-on clings to Foster’s reasoning as well.

The great theme of Michel Houellebecq, for which he should be recognized as one of the most significant writers of the epoch, is that sexual liberation, far from opening new doors to freedom, actually allowed the logic of markets to penetrate the sexual realm; the eruption of the bonds of responsibility that sexual contact traditionally implied made it possible for us to place our lovers in a scale. Foster complains that sex under capitalism becomes a recompense for worldly accomplishment, but sexual liberation under capitalism converts the whole person into a pleasure mechanism to be discarded when a better one comes along.

But neither is it so simple as all this. It is true that mate-selection is not free from material concerns, and it is true that, for many reasons, a number of which Houellebecq’s work highlights, our calculations concerning sex are crueler than they once were. But it is also true that love, respect, and caring exist in a certain abundance and mitigate these bleak considerations. We may therefore reasonably accept that women who turn down or find distasteful a given sexual advance do so not because of their subjection to the capitalist state, but rather because the approach is offensive or they do not care to have sex with the man in question.

“The behavioural codes of contemporary society already make it extremely difficult for both men and women to approach strangers with a view towards making sexual advances. This should be a source of regret to us all,” Foster writes. I am not sure that this is the case. I am not acquainted with any society in which strangers are easily approached and propositioned for sex, but if they do exist, I imagine the rape, assault, and murder of women may play a less prominent role in them than they do in our own.

Nor can much stock be put in Foster’s assertion that “what lies behind some of the crude and boorish conduct catalogued by the Everyday Sexism project is repressed sexuality.” I doubt, for example, that the porn star Rocco Siffredi can be described as sexually repressed, but this does not stop him from calling the actresses he works with “slut” and “bitch,” slapping them, stepping on their heads, pissing in their faces, and so forth. A cursory scan of the behaviors of dictators will make clear the extent to which an absence of checks on one’s behavior, or repression, as Foster terms it, tends to heighten rather than militate against one’s brutishness. The simplest explanation is that crude and boorish conduct exists where it is allowed to exist, whether encouraged or merely tolerated, and that it has nothing to do with whether or not women are inclined to the “outright condemnation of any and all direct sexual propositions” that Foster alleges; a position which, in any case, I have never heard any actual feminist endorse.