December 22nd, 2009


Obligatory Sex

I have in the back of my mind a list of topics that I should have written about by now but haven't. The absence can be because i'm not at all sure I have anything fresh or interesting to say, because I think the subject is over-discussed, because my own views are still gelling, or simply that I just haven't gotten around to it.

The subject of rape is one any feminist male top has to think about, and to approach humbly and carefully. I've never felt particularly well-qualified to pontificate on it, seeing my role here as (for once) more to listen than to speak.

Recent heated debate elesewhere on LJ, however, has driven home to me that the matter of rape is not as settled as I liked to think.

Now comes the hard part, at least for you, Dear Reader. The inspiration of this post is the essay Married Sex by economist and alleged real live grownup Robin Hanson. It is a bad essay: sloppily reasoned, vague, pedantic, and blisteringly misogynistic, in a la-la-la head-in-the-clouds sort of way. I can't recommend it. On the other hand, it is pretty short.

I'll summarize, but I can't pretend to be imartial. Hanson asserts, based on comically flimsy evidence,* that "[m]arriage is a deal men enter into part to get sex.... But due to complex female sexuality, the man is supposed to accept the sex part of the deal fluctuating from day to day and year to year for unknown and unexplained reasons."

I shall quote his conclusion in full, because it's short and astounding:

I see two general ways to avoid this time-inconsistency problem:

1. Obligatory Sex – more explicit norms about the frequency and nature of sex, norms wives are expected to meet even when less in the mood. Perhaps wives would have to do something unpleasant, like exercise lots, when there was no sex.
2. Nonobligatory Other – remove something wives want lots from the usual set of stable husband contributions, so husbands can threaten to withhold that without being a pariah. Perhaps the expectation that he sleep at home [added: or maybe a big budget he could spend on extras for him or her]?

So he has two proposals: one is to punish women for only having sex when they choose to, rather than when their husbands do. The other is to take aways their financial autonomy, presumably so they'd be dependent on their husbands to feed and clothe them.

Now, I confess that this whole line of reasoning feels rather alien to me. I would much rather jack off than have sex with someone who isn't interested. That's the aesthetic realm, though, and not the moral.

The question that has convulsed portions of my RL friends list is: is this an intriguing line of reasoning, or a marital-rape apologia?

Let's try a thought experiment. Let's replace the "lots of exercise" in Proposal 1 with a mild electric shock. Fundamentally the same thing, right? A little physical incentive to get wifey to do her duty.

Now, the threat of a sufficiently severe electric shock would be tantamount to rape, right? So now we've elegantly reduced the problem to a nice quantitative one. At what voltage does this go from an inoffensive bit of social engineering to an act of sexual violence?

Lets put this another way. Hanson is concerned that women have too much control over when and whether they have sex. That is the 'problem' to which he is looking for solutions. So there's my wake-up call. Saying "I think women should get to choose when and whether to have sex" doesn't go without saying after all.

I think women--and everyone else as well--have a right to choose when and whether to have sex. I will labor to support and defend that right. I do not consider attacks on that right to be "thought-provoking," abstract, or trivial.

* Wouldn't you know that it had to involve the New York Times Magazine?