The University of Michigan wants us to know more about abuse, especially sexual abuse. It wants us to be aware of it, to be conscious of its many faces and facets.
As happens with all lists of sins, it’s all about what not to do. It requires you to cultivate your internal policing mechanism, the better to control any tendency that UMich considers to be abusive.
You might think that Freud is dead or outmoded, but the psychology behind this listification is recycled Freud. It implies a conflict between an unruly criminal id and an ego that tries to control it. It lends itself well to the addition of a superego that punishes transgressions.
The list tells you what you should not do. It does not tell anyone what to do to best conduct a relationship. It does not tell you how to get along.
Worse yet, it makes the university and the government into moral scolds, not merely protecting people from abuse—an admirable goal—but intruding into everyone’s more intimate relationships.
If the advent of the hookup culture created the impression that anything goes, the reaction is creating the impression that nothing goes.
When it comes to sexual violence, UMich outdoes itself. In many cases the imprecise wording lends itself easily to misinterpretation:
Examples of sexual violence include: discounting the partner's feelings regarding sex; criticizing the partner sexually; touching the partner sexually in inappropriate and uncomfortable ways; withholding sex and affection; always demanding sex; forcing partner to strip as a form of humiliation (maybe in front of children), to witness sexual acts, to participate in uncomfortable sex or sex after an episode of violence, to have sex with other people; and using objects and/or weapons to hurt during sex or threats to back up demands for sex.
What is going on here? Let us count the ways.
What does it mean to “discount” partner’s feelings about sex? I assume it means ignoring them. I assume it means pressing partner for sex when partner does not want to have sex.
Yet, the term is so vague that it could mean almost anything. If partner wants to engage in one specific sex act and you do not want to do it, does that mean that you are failing to accept partner’s feelings about sex?
What does it mean to criticize the partner sexually? I assume that it has something to do with complaining about poor performance or about too much or too little sex. It sounds like a good precept, but still… do really need to put ourselves on the path to criminalizing such behavior? Let’s not overlook the fact that many people will argue that if you never tell partner what he or she is doing wrong he or she will never improve his or her sexual performance.
One understands that hitting and beating someone is abusive, but what about inappropriate touching? Sometimes you have to try it before you can know whether it is appropriate or uncomfortable or unwanted. Does this mean that you need to ask permission? And what happens if you receive written permission to touch her in this or that place, but then when you do it she finds it uncomfortable? Does your agreement absolve you of sin?
In all seriousness, how many adolescent males have never tried to touch a girl inappropriately? Aren’t we moving toward criminalizing normal adolescent behavior?
Obviously, if a man walks up to a woman and grabs her—anywhere—he has committed an assault… which is surely an act of sexual violence.
What about withholding sex and affection? How do you know whether your partner is withholding sex or is just not interested? There are a myriad of reasons why someone might not want to have sex. Do we need to declare such behavior to be abusive?
What if he has behaved so badly that she does not feel very close or very libidinous? What if his behavior has nothing to do with her; it might have been something he did to a third party.
Should she be taxed with withholding sex? And then, how often does a couple need to have sex before neither one can be said to be withholding sex? If withholding sex is abusive, should a partner feel obliged to have sex when he or she does not really want to, lest he or she be accused of withholding sex?
As for withholding affection, how do you measure it? How can you tell? Is a man going to be accused of withholding affection if he does not say “I love you” often enough? Will he be brought up on charges of abuse for not showing sufficient empathy? Do you think it is healthy to indict people for not being sufficiently affectionate? Who decides the right and the wrong quantity of affection?
One understands that it is offensive when one partner always demands sex, but, then again, does this imply that it’s OK to demand sex sometimes. Besides, who demands sex anyway? Isn’t it a turnoff to demand sex?
And, what about forcing one’s partner to strip naked in front of the children? Who thinks of these things? If people want to imagine perverse scenarios, it’s their constitutional right. But, whatever makes them imaginie that they need to share them with the general public?
And, why give people ideas for new ways to humiliate their partners?
As for the sexual violence inherent in what is called witnessing sex acts, does that mean that making pornography part of your erotic interlude is now considered to be verboten? What if you are watching a tape of the sex act that you and your partner performed? Does that count as witnessing sexual acts?
Or does it only apply to peep shows?
What about the injunction against having sex with other people? Does this spell the end of threesomes, of foursomes or polyamory? I had thought that the next frontier in the sexual revolution involved multiple partners. Did I miss something?
Perhaps, the Michigan scolds are just saying that thou shalt not commit adultery. Is this news? Is adultery now going to be re-criminalized?
As for the use of objects or weapons to hurt, one is inclined to sympathize with the need to mention it. As it happens, some sexually advanced couples like to use objects and weapons to hurt each other because they find that it’s the best way to achieve higher levels of satisfaction. Are we going to criminalize sado-masochism… all the while accusing those who have a more traditional attitude toward sexuality of being repressed prudes.?
You might imagine that it’s alright if the abusive and violent actions are performed by consenting adults. Perhaps if they draw up a contract stipulating what forms of pain are acceptable and what forms are not.
This sounds like a very modern idea, but the classical manual for masochism, Leopold von Sacher Masoch’s Venus in Furs prescribes this kind of contract to better enhance a sado-masochistic relationship.
The most fascinating part of this exercise is that a group of people that presumably favored the free and open expression of sexuality has become a bunch of ordinary scolds. They might believe that they are fighting against sexual repression, but they have become a sexually repressive force.
You might believe that, given the influence of the hookup culture and given the fact that college students are indulging in all manner of sexual abuse—at times intentionally, at times out of ignorance—that someone had to do something. Still, criminalizing most sexual behavior is merely going to introduce a new form of mental conflict, between forces that want to do perverse things and agencies that are trying desperately to control them. If that is the conflict, and the dialectic, and if that is all there is to sexual relationships, then it’s inevitable that the forces of abuse will at some point break free from their chains.