Women owe men nothing. Men owe women nothing.

Not even respect.

© Dave DuBay

Many of us were taught as children that no one owes us anything. It’s meant to curb any sense of entitlement we may be developing.

From this it follows that we don’t anyone anything. But this assertion is sometimes seen as impudent. And that can lead to a situation where we feel obligated to others while lacking the right to set boundaries.

Epictetus was a former slave turned philosopher. He counsels us to know what belongs to us and what does not belong to us. Other people and other things are not ours. But our deliberate choices do belong to us.

Further, there are two aspects to not touching things that aren’t ours. One is not taking something that belongs to someone else. The other is refusing to accept things that we don’t want.

For example, let’s say you don’t like a choice I’ve made. And let’s say you criticize that choice using judgmental language. My choice doesn’t belong to you, and your judgement doesn’t belong to me. I can neutralize your judgement, not by striking back at you, but simply by pointing out what belongs to whom and making clear that I reject your judgement.

That is, I can refuse to touch something that doesn’t belong to me. And I can drive the point home by noting that your opinion on the matter is irrelevant. It’s irrelevant because your judgement only impacts my choice if I allow it to. If I choose to disregard your judgement then your judgment become moot.

Easier said than done, of course.

And nowhere are these boundaries more problematic than with gender roles. The sexual assault scandal has brought many men’s attitude of entitlement toward women’s bodies into painful focus.

Yes, women can say no. But a culture that supports this is necessary to make it feel like a more viable choice for women. A popular meme along these lines is:

Women don’t owe men anything.

That’s an important message to teach girls and boys from the youngest age. But it’s incomplete unless taught in conjunction with what logically follows:

Men don’t owe women anything.

The basic notion is that not owing or being owed applies regardless of our demographic profile.

There is no equality if something is not given freely.

But don’t we owe each other respect?

No.

Good manners and politeness are one thing. They smooth social interactions and are generally in our self-interest. And if we choose to be impolite then we have no right to complain if our rudeness is reciprocated.

But respect is a about holding someone in high esteem, and no one is entitled to our esteem. Nor can we say that lack of respect is disrespect. Respect and disrespect are two separate issues. That is, not respecting someone is about what’s being withheld (esteem) while disrespecting someone is about what’s being given (contempt).

And just as we don’t owe anyone respect, we don’t owe anyone disrespect. Even if someone is disrespectful toward me I don’t owe them disrespect in return. In other words, I am not entitled to revenge.

Finally, it’s often said that respect must be earned. I disagree.

Why would I want your respect?

If I don’t hold you in esteem then why should your respect be important to me?

Even if I do hold you in esteem why should I think you owe me the same in return?

Why should I jump through hoops to please you and thereby gain your respect? If you want that from me then you’re being manipulative, but your manipulation does not belong to me.

In fact, your respect will never belong to me because you can revoke it at any time, and there’s nothing I can do about it.

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When consent isn’t enough

Societal expectations of casual sex ignore how many people feel about sex.

© Dave DuBay

David French, writing for the conservative National Review, muses that the inevitable moment for #MeToo has arrived—an “uncomfortable” sexual encounter has been labeled sexual assault. French says this reveals “the defects of modern sexuality.”

He has no interest in defending comedian Aziz Ansari: “Under no circumstances should a man treat Grace the way Ansari treated her. It was wrong. Full stop.”

But our culture sexualizes too many things, French goes on to say, including first dates. Yet, “human beings have a desperate need for a sexual morality that transcends consent.” More specifically,

Even if men and women reject Christian morality and believe that waiting for marriage is a bridge too far, the decision to delay sex until well after the formation of a healthy relationship will protect people from an immense amount of heartbreak.

As old fashioned as this may sound, there needs to be a wider discussion of French’s point. Not sexualizing everyday situations doesn’t mean stigmatizing casual sex—everyone has the right to live their life as they choose. But society’s acceptance of casual sex has morphed into the expectation of casual sex.

The so-called sexual revolution involved many things, and the birth control pill tops the list. The pill enabled women to have sex with much less fear of pregnancy, even to the point where some women declared that they could have sex like men—casually, promiscuously, and without emotional attachment. Never mind that such a view promotes one dimensional stereotypes about men. It also ignores the emotional aspect of sex.

Since the 1960s, pop culture’s portrayal of sex has in many way become more unrealistic. Did people today grow up thinking that they should engage in casual sex like TV stars? Did the absence of emotional repercussions on the silver screen lead people to think there would be no emotional fallout from having sex with a relative stranger?

And do women and men experience this differently? Sociologist David Buss found that although women and men engage in casual sex about as often, women are much more likely to regret it afterwards.  This is true cross culturally, and for lesbians. Buss notes that this seems to involve more than just culture.

This, of course, contradicts the popular progressive claim that biology plays no role with gender, though you’d be hard pressed to find a neuroscientist or biologist who agrees. This doesn’t mean that biological determinism is true, or that culture plays no role. But it does mean that we need to consider the big picture.

For men modern society values quantity—the number of notches on his belt. And as we’ve seen with all the allegations of sexual assault, this can have serious consequences.

In the Washington Post, Elizabeth Bruenig writes that,

Sex is a domain so intimate and personal that more harm can be done than in most social situations, and that given that heightened capacity for harm, we should expect people to operate with greater conscientiousness, concern and care in that domain than in others.

She concludes that, “Demanding an expansion of empathy and responsibility when it comes to sex isn’t regressive.”

I would add that empathy and responsibility should be reciprocal. The initiator should be looking for signs that the advances are unwelcome. And in the absence of coercion or impairment, regret after consent is the responsibility of the person who feels regretful.

Fixing our culture is going to take a while. We can begin by educating young people that what they’ve learned about sex from pop culture is often not the way sex is in the real world. Some people are fine with casual sex but others are not, and there is a gender difference which is at least partially biologically influenced.

And we can encourage realistic expectations, such as the assumption that one’s dating partner sees things as casual unless stated otherwise. That means examining our feelings about casual sex, and if need be setting boundaries from the get go such as the old social norm of not going to someone’s apartment on the first few dates, or explicitly telling someone that sex outside of a relationship is not an option.

But individuals can’t go it alone. We need wider cultural support for people who choose these “old fashioned” norms. Pop culture will need to play a leading role.