There are some things that you deserve in virtue of the fact that you fulfil a set of criteria: get all the answers right in this test, you deserve an A. Spend fifty quid at a nice restaurant, you deserve a decent meal in exchange for your money.
There are certain things that you deserve simply for being alive, and human: the right to liberty, equality before the law, a certain level of privacy, etc.
Into which of these categories does sex fit? Is it something you have a human right to, like justice, or is it something that you deserve if you have done certain things to earn it?
The right to sex
If you answered ‘neither’ then you are correct. The problem is that while on the surface most decent people can see why sex is not a human right – it’s blindingly obvious that you don’t ‘deserve’ sex just because you are a living human who wants it – there are many people who feel like it falls into the first category - that if you do X, Y and Z you somehow deserve to get laid. Someone withholding your justly earned sex is like a teacher withholding an A, even though you got all of the answers right.
Something awful happened recently that caused a few things to fall into place in my head. I’ve long had a sense of creeping dread about pick-up artists, Nice Guys, and a whole host of other things that I want to put under the blanket label ‘misogynist’. They make me uncomfortable, not just because they are misogynist, but because they have a skewed and unusual view on sex that I’ve struggled to put into words.
You’ll probably have seen the recent news that a young guy went on a shooting rampage after having pledged to punish women for not sleeping with him. Please read the story if you haven’t already, but here’s a quote from the shooter:
“College is the time when everyone experiences those things such as sex and fun and pleasure, but in those years I’ve had to rot in loneliness, it’s not fair … I don’t know why you girls aren’t attracted to me but I will punish you all for it.”
Yes, it’s misogynist. But there’s a very particular type of misogyny that this represents, and I feel like it is becoming more common. There’s an old-school prudish misogyny that is often the preserve of darkly religious types: a fear of women with their soft bodies and their Eve-like temptation, who will compel men to sin because we’re wicked and evil and beautiful and charming. There are a million and one reasons why that type of misogyny is terrifying and awful. I think this type of misogyny is different, though. No less terrifying, but different. And I want to explain why.
First category misogyny
What makes the shooter – and many other pick-up artists/men’s rights type people – stand out from the old-school, ‘fear of women’ misogynists, is the fact that he doesn’t hate women because they might tempt him into sex, he hates women because he thinks he deserves to have sex with them.
Many people have expressed a worry that he is looking on sex as something in category two – an absolute right. Equally you could read some of his chilling pronouncements on women and think he sees sex as a category one thing – something that, if he follows a certain set of rules, should be handed to him on a plate. Like an A grade. Like a decent meal. Like something he has earned.
The problem is, of course, that sex is not a right at all – earned or absolute. It isn’t like an A grade. No matter how hard you work, what rules you follow, or how desperately you want it, you are never entitled to sex.
The right to refuse
The obvious reason is clear: you never have a right to sex (absolute or earned) because there’s a much more important human right that trumps it: the right to bodily autonomy. You would only be able to exercise any ‘right’ to sex if you removed someone else’s right to refuse it. That’s not going to happen, and naturally no decent person would ever want it to. Your rights can never come at the expense of someone else’s.
Hence why it’s obvious that sex never falls into category two – it’s not a human right.
Necessary versus sufficient
The slightly less obvious point, that seems to be made less frequently, is that sex cannot possibly fall into category one (earned rights), because there are no conditions you could ever fulfil that would be sufficient to ‘earn’ you some sex. We know that there are certain things that are necessary in order to have sex, but we often confuse the difference between ‘necessary’ and ‘sufficient’. Necessary conditions: things you absolutely have to do in order to put yourself in the running for something. Sufficient: something that – on its own – is enough to guarantee you that thing. The difference between ‘necessary’ and ‘sufficient’ conditions is vital, often confused, and frequently ignored.
Let’s go back to the A grade again. In order to get it you need to write all the correct answers. That’s a necessary condition. But it’s not sufficient – if you write down all of the correct answers but don’t hand your paper in on time, you no more deserve the A than you deserve to fly to the moon.
The problem with a lot of the discourse around sex is that many many people confuse necessary and sufficient conditions – they know that they should treat someone nicely if they want to have sex with them, then they make the erroneous leap of assuming that because they’ve been nice they have somehow earned the sex.
That’s the key difference between sex and an A grade: although there absolutely is a set of necessary conditions, you can fulfil every single one of them and it can still not be sufficient.
It’s not just the bad guys
The reason I’m writing this, rather than any other blog, today is because I wanted to pin down the problem beyond just my general rage and discomfort. I could talk about misogynist extremism, and how it’s wrong for men to think they are ‘entitled’ to sex. I could rage out about the prevalence of men who hate women and the easy excuses we try to give them when what they’re saying is awful and unforgivable. But the vast majority of men would respond with “so what? I don’t feel like I’m entitled to anything. I’m not like those other guys.”
And sure, most men aren’t going to shoot women because of an openly-held belief that they have a right to women’s bodies. But many people do make the mistake of assuming that – if you have fulfilled a certain set of necessary conditions, then that in itself is sufficient to have earned some sex. It’s incredibly apparent in so much of our discourse, and being able to formulate exactly why it’s wrong (beyond the statement ‘it’s hateful’) means we can apply it to broader scenarios, and explain to people exactly what it is about their attitude towards sex that needs to change. Most people don’t relate to the bad guys, but most people are influenced by these common mistaken beliefs.
Whether it’s problem pages that tell you how to ‘get’ your partner to fulfil your fantasies, pick-up artists (or agony aunts/uncles) that tell you a certain set of rules will guarantee you get laid, or telling someone that their partner is being unfair when they don’t do a particular thing: we talk like this a lot. And we need to stop.
If you think you have never been guilty of these assumptions, think again. While considering examples for this blog post, I came up with a fair few times when people I know and like have been guilty of this error one point or another. In fact, I am sure that I have – when sympathising with friends who have been recently rejected by someone they’ve tried really hard to impress, for instance. I’ve probably done it here occasionally too – while I will never tell you that you deserve sex from someone, I do sometimes offer advice on how to encourage someone to fulfil your fantasies without adding that extra caveat: ‘you can try this, but you might still fail, because no one is ever obliged to do what you want.’
So no, men aren’t all buying guns and getting ready to shoot women: but it’s not really helpful to state that as a response to this particular incident. A more complicated and urgent truth is that we often discuss sex as if it’s an earned right, that you achieve by fulfilling a set of conditions. And while you do need to fulfil certain conditions in order to have sex with someone, assuming these conditions are sufficient as well as necessary is incredibly dangerous.
We’re not all picking up guns, but many of us are discussing sex as if it’s a just reward for hard work. An earned right. An A grade.