Wednesday, May 12, 2004


Atrios asks:
What is it with right wingers who are unable to grasp that there's a tiny bit of difference between consensual and nonconsensual sexual activity?
Good question. Atrios is talking about Rich Lowry's claim that if the soldiers at Abu Ghraib had "done this stateside in different circumstances, they might be very rich and perhaps even up for an Adult Video Award." But of course, there are plenty of other recent examples to choose from - the endless "fraternity hazing" analogies, for example.

Perhaps the apotheosis of this technique is this bit by George Neumayr, writing in the American Spectator:
And why is the behavior depicted in the photos so appalling to liberals? If the behavior had been voluntary, liberals would call it free speech. [...] Who is to say those acts are wrong? After all, in Massachusetts now, they are construed as courtship.
Yes, indeed, liberals do tend to draw a distinction between voluntary, consensual behaviors and forced, nonconsensual behaviors. Did you ever see such hair-splitting?

I did, actually, because the right wing has been using this tactic for a long time. Remember all the accusations about feminists being hypocritical for not regarding Bill Clinton (who had a consensual, albeit improper, sexual relationship with an intern) the same way they regarded Bob Packwood (who forcibly groped multiple women, to their horror and without their consent)? There have been repeated insinuations that the pro-choice position implies support for forced abortions as population control. And there are even people who claim to be unable to distinguish between consensual gay sex and rape: "When sodomy is a 'right', what can a teacher or principle or parent do about it when a boy comes to them and says 'Bruce made me have sex with him'? All they have the power to do now is say 'That's ok, sodomists have their rights, and they need to express their rights.' "

The neat bit about eliding the difference between consensual and nonconsensual sexual behavior is that it has a twofold effect. In one stroke, George Neumeyr can both minimize the harm done by American soldiers (because it was just what passes for "courtship behavior") and taint loving gay relationships with the horror and shamefulness of Abu Ghraib. "What's the big deal about sexual harrassment? You're the ones who didn't want to save sex for marriage" excuses men who use sexual power to undermine women in the workplace at the same time that it attacks women's sexual freedom. It's a powerful and versatile weapon, and I suspect that no amount of argument will ever convince them to abandon it.

It's also, of course, complete nonsense. Look, if I wanted to lead a naked man around on a leash, it would probably take me all of ten minutes to find a willing volunteer. What does that say about the infamous Lynndie England picture? Nothing. Consensual and nonconsensual behaviors are not similar, they are opposites.

Update: In the comments, Columbine identifies a useful distinction between two groups of people who may employ this technique:
There are the people who have such a narrowly defined range of acceptable sex acts that they really DON'T see a difference between the consensual and non-consensual stuff, because it's all so far into the danger zone for them. From a million miles away it's all the same size. I weep for these people, but at least there is some hope they can be taught.

The other group knows perfectly well what the difference is but is obscuring it deliberately for rhetorical purposes, to further their agenda.
I think this is entirely on the mark, and I agree that differing motives seem to call for different responses. My thanks to Columbine for introducing some grey into a fairly black-and-white discussion.