I think part of the reason we have trouble drawing the line “it’s not okay to force someone into sexual activity” is that in many ways, forcing people to do things is part of our culture in general. Cut that shit out of your life. If someone doesn’t want to go to a party, try a new food, get up and dance, make small talk at the lunchtable–that’s their right. Stop the “aww c’mon” and “just this once” and the games where you playfully force someone to play along. Accept that no means no–all the time.
— Cliff Pervocracy of The Pervocracy blog, Consent Culture
I was tipped off to the above quote (written for a feminist-oriented BDSM blog) while working on Autistic Self-Advocacy Network’s upcoming Relationships and Sexuality Project, and as soon as I read it, I actually gasped. What a brilliant distillation! Certainly autistic folks (especially those of us who have at least some passing-for-nondisabled privilege) could each write an entire 200-page book about how that kind of thing has seeped into and enervated every aspect of our existence.
But of course, it’s not just us. Cliff is right; coercion is pretty much what our whole culture is built on, right down to “Everybody clap your hands — no, I mean each and every one of you, come on!” (I’ve always hated that shit — as far as I’m concerned, if your rhythm isn’t catchy enough to make people want to clap, it’s your own damn fault.) So how could (at least some) people not think it’s okay to apply it to sex? And that quote flashed in my mind again when I read a recent interview in the Daily Beast with Matt Weiner and Christina Hendricks in which MW discusses (among other things) the controversy associated with Pete’s behavior in The Other Woman:
He brings it up, and he has this smile when he stands up and when she says, “you couldn’t afford it,” because that means something different to a salesman than it means to you and me. To a salesman, it’s a crack in the door. His logic is: we’ve all made mistakes for nothing. Are we honestly supposed to think that Joan has never slept with a client?
My initial reaction to that was, “Yeah, but isn’t there a difference between Joan making an independent decision to have sex with a client, and essentially being forced to?” No, Pete doesn’t flat-out say, “Joan, if you don’t give this guy a tumble sight unseen, you’re fired”; he wouldn’t dare. But it’s hung over her head (and the heads of all the partners, none of whom but Pete seems to like the idea one bit at first) that if they don’t land Jaguar, if they don’t get this account that they’ve staked their financial survival on, the account that proves they’ve arrived, it will be all Joan’s fault for saying no. That’s not a condition under which a person can freely give consent, any more than that au pair could have given consent when Pete blackmailed her into bed in Souvenir. The fact that Joan manages to negotiate a piece of the company for herself in exchange for being backed against the wall (almost literally) doesn’t mean she actually wants to do this. It’s still sexual harassment, and it’s still disgusting.
And then I thought about the business they’re in. Doesn’t a huge chunk of their time go towards the art and science of persuading clients to hire them, regardless of how many times they’ve been turned down before? Don’t these folks all more or less have the mindset of, “No is just a prelude to a yes”? The concept that “no means no, all the time” would put every advertising firm (and a lot of other companies) out of business. And it’s not just the accounts people who have this mentality; creative has it too. Why else would they keep making pitch after pitch to picky-ass Heinz, trying to lure them away from Ketchum and MacLeod? Why else would Peggy expect Don to sail into the room with his big red cape and talk Heinz into how great her ideas really are? That’s his thing — he does that with every client who’s waffling. He doesn’t always get a “yes” in the end, but that doesn’t stop him from going after the next one in the same way.
So no wonder Pete responded to Joan’s “you couldn’t afford it” as an opening for more arm-twisting; if he (and everyone else at the firm) does this to men just about every day of his life, why not women? Joan obviously didn’t intend “you couldn’t afford it” to be an invitation to make her an offer she couldn’t refuse, since she had no idea that Pete could get her enough money to buy her freedom from her mother’s meddling, from Roger’s grabby hands, and — best of all — from ever being pressured to do such a thing ever again, since now she will have voting privileges. But isn’t that how they usually get their “yes” — by springing some hidden goodie on the client that the client hadn’t thought was possible? Me, I’d draw the line between using coercion and persuasion in order to get someone to do business with you, and using them to infringe on other people’s bodily territory. But if you allow the former, aren’t some people going to forget where one ends and the other begins?