In 2019 I challenge young people to think through what could be called a new ethics for feminist timesby Lisa Appignanesi / December 10, 2018 / Leave a comment
I have now lived through three generations of feminism. I see it as a struggle for long-delayed justice for half of the world’s population. Oddly, that half, my half, is a target for hatred, diminishment, and self-hatred—largely for having brought into existence the whole of the world’s population. Along the way mating rituals turned us, often enough with our own unintentional complicity, into the pawns of a vast beauty and sex industry—from fashion to plastic surgery to porn.
Feminism has achieved a great deal. Domestic violence, though still rampant, is a crime, as are trafficking and grooming. Many countries have seen a satisfying rise in women entering the professions and advancing through the ranks.
Much, however, still remains to be done. There is no space here for that long list—one beginning with women’s global poverty, health, childcare and the provision of girls’ schooling. The energy in the cause is all too clear from movements like Everyday Sexism, and #MeToo on Twitter, which signal that sexualised harassment in the workplace—from the tarnished casting couches of showbiz, to parliamentary or legal offices, and hotel rooms where cleaners toil—is still rife, and has a long backlog of women who feel victimised.
But the problem with sex, at least where there is no evident assault, is that it doesn’t sit altogether easily in the courts.
“Mothers might consider saying ‘no’ a little louder to their boys, so that they recognise it’s different from a ‘yes’”
The languages of flirtation and seduction, often gestural and unwitting on both the male and female sides, don’t always translate into the rational encapsulations of legal codes or even tribunal rules.
Legal discourse always presumes knowingness—and equivalence in knowingness—in adults. In practice, there may be no such thing. What a graduate student or young medic might see as mild flirtation (in search perhaps of knowledge, perhaps of power for herself or over peers, or because the older man somehow makes her imagine Daddy), the older professional might read as a come-on. If he stems from a generation that saw sexual experimentation as OK, all the more so.
The young woman assumes power is on his side. He might feel, though would be loath to acknowledge, it is all on hers. Even where no one would overtly dispute that consent is essential, it can sometimes be misinterpreted.
It is in this murky area of everyday relations that we need to begin to think through a new cultural settlement and what could be called a new ethics for feminist times—or times when women are more equal, if still different.
Sex and power have always been somewhat unhappy bedfellows, but it’s hard to extricate them (even in same-sex relations).We could make a start by thinking of a new intergenerational sexual morality. Golden rule No 1 for all men with power might be: treat all women as you might want your daughter (or sister) to be treated.
Patriarchy, or not, the world is composed of women and men. Many of us have sons, and brothers, have had fathers and have partners. We often like each other. We also start our lives as dependent children and can’t stop the internalised idealisations of early childhood.
But fathers can refrain from acting on (competitive) desires for women the age of their sons’ (or daughters’) girlfriends, or earlier versions of the partners who might well have grown (in fantasy) into their mothers. Both parents could refrain from putting each other down in front of the children. And mothers might consider saying “no” a little louder to their boys, so that they recognise its difference from a “yes.”
So let’s do it. I challenge the young to give us a new ethics for a world in which women and men can share the available goods, happily enough.
Read more new thinking for 2019