Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Brutal sex?

In yesterdays Independent was an article by Yasmin Alibhaia Brown in which she expresses strong disquiet about what she perceives to be the state of sexual relations today.  It starts with an account of two overheard conversations in a restaurant which severely discomfited both her and her friend.  The first was between a group of young women who cheerfully discussed their use of sex toys and the second between a group of young men who then loudly discussed how they would like to treat those women.

I accept that both groups of people were guilty of inconsiderate behaviour.  People have the right to eat their meal without being disturbed by the raucus chatter of others.  I personally would get just as upset by the loud and raucous discussion of the latest football match while I am trying to focus on an intimate conversation with a friend.  However, the conclusions she draws from her experiences bear absolutely no relation to reality.  I would have expected a journalist of her standing to be better informed.

The first point I would take issue with is her title, whether this be by a sub or not.  She asks, "When did sex become so brutalised?"  I would contend that it was ever thus but is in fact getting gradually less so .  The Soviet troops who raped their way into Berlin and other German cities at the end of the Second World War were not reacting to the free and frank, albeit ribald, exchange of views between consenting adult women. Their actions, condoned by Stalin with words to the effect of "Let the boys have their fun", were the result of a much longer tradition of male supremacy and active misogyny.  For to go back further, the Bible gives a clear account of the divine command to seize and rape the women of the conquered enemy.  Of course, "boys will be boys".  The young men in the restaurant were simply following this dishonourable tradition.  The women were discussing pleasure.  The men were discussing rape.  Yasmin appears not to notice the difference.

Nor is this use of sex toys by women anything new.  Jeremiah accused the women of his land of making love with idols.  By this, I assume, he was referring to carved phalloi or dildos.  In recent years, indeed, examples of what appear to be prehistoric dildos have been unearthed at many sites around the world - for just one see here.  In Restoration England there is a satire by the Earl of Rochester in which he writes of Englishmen being supplanted in their women's affections by a recent Italian immigrant, Signor Dildo.  In the nineteenth century the staple of many doctors' practices was the manual stimulation of women in order to cure "hysteria" by enabling an orgasm.  It was to save those men's overworked fingers that the vibrator was first invented. These soon spread into the home. The first five electrical items to be marketed were, in no particular order, sewing machines, fans, kettles, toasters and vibrators and by 1917 there were more vibrators around than toasters.  They were openly advertised in women's magazines.

YAB then segues into a condemnation of S and M.  This is again nothing new.  It has been around a long time.  There is a strong sado-masochistic eroticism in many of the accounts of the lives of saints and it is certainly there in much Christian iconography.  Victorian gentlemen who subscribed to magazines such as "The Pearl" were regaled with stories of bondage and whipping. There were also, it is certain, a plethora of child prostitutes who would provide them, unwillingly, with flogging fodder.  The modern BDSM scene, with its concern about consent even though this is at times breached, seems tame in comparison.

Sexuality is indeed problematic.  It has, however, been so for a very long time.  What seems to have offended Yasmin is not this problematic nature but the fact that it is now more in the open.  The young women were quite within their rights to discuss sex toys.  Sex is clearly an important part of their lives, as it is for most human beings. They were talking about something that gave them pleasure and harmed no one.  The same cannot, however, be said for the young men with their, only too traditional, talk of rape.  Yasmin, however, has doubts that vibrators are harmless, citing one anonymous Relate counsellor who talks of them changing womens' brains.  I know of no empirical studies that can support this claim. I assume Yasmin does not know either, or she would have cited them.  I am sorry, Yasmin, but an unnamed counsellor does not have any more authority than I or anyone else.

I am sorry that she and her friend, ethnicity (Asian) given but gender not, were embarrassed by the subject spoken about by those rather inconsiderate women.  I just question why it should offend them any more than any other overheard conversations.  I also question the conclusions she draws from the experience.

As it stands this article is as ill-informed and prejudiced as any in the Mail or other tabloid and I would have expected a journalist of Yasmin's calibre to have done better.

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