debauchery deserves some consideration

I’m rushing out the door at the moment, so I don’t have time to write a lengthy post, but I mainly want to direct your attention to this post on Demapples calling for liberals (everyone, but liberals especially) to boycott the Debauchery dance party in Winthrop tonight. I hadn’t realized until today, when I read yesterday’s Crimson article on the dance, that there’s fake money involved. Personally, that makes me very uncomfortable. Anyway, as i said, I don’t have much time at the moment, but I’ll be posting more thoughts on this later, but in the meantime I just wanted to urge people to read Third Degree’s post on Demapples, think through the Debauchery issue for yourselves, and whatever you end up doing tonight, have fun and be safe.

UPDATE: Since I posted last night, there’s been a fair bit of continuing talk about Debauchery among the Dems, resulting in some stark divides. Last night, one guy from the Dems even stood outside Winthrop holding a sign in protest, until he was instructed by police to stop since he didn’t have the administration’s approval. I chatted him up, as well as a couple of other passersby, and I’ve been following some of the conversation on the Dems open list and blog, Here are some of my impressions and thoughts on what I’ve heard; I hope you’ll share yours too.(more in expanded post)

First of all, the argument that Debauchery is bad because it’s immoral or indecent doesn’t fly with me unless it includes a clear definition of what pertinent morals are being violated, and makes a case for why we should uphold those morals while still acknowledging that they’re not absolute or objective. Personally, I’m much more likely to be persuaded by a convincing explanation for why something is harmful to people, rather than an appeal to predetermined moral standards for their own sake.

But some who attack these moral appeals go too far themselves in deriding dissenters for being too uptight and preachy. Criticism is great, but trying to shut down a conversation on the grounds that the problems it addresses are not as serious as Iraq, Darfur, nuclear war, actual sex trafficking, etc. ignores the fact that little problems are often related to big problems. Plus, it can be helpful to start discussions that are obviously immediately relevant to students’ lives and choices. Also, as John Stuart Mill might say (sorry, I’m reading him right now for class and I swear it’s relevant), voicing opinions and judgments about moral standards is necessary and healthy in a community that values free speech as long as advocates don’t hold their opinions to be infallible—not simply true or correct, but beyond all conceivable reproach.

Okay, moving on to the nitty gritty of the arguments I’ve heard people make about why the dance is bad or not bad, or even good. I’ll start with the not bad.

Argument 1. We shouldn’t waste our energy criticizing the behavior of the Debauchery attendees, who are, after all, consenting adults. Who are we to tell them what’s appropriate?

As a dance sponsored by Winthrop House, Debauchery affects me as a student because it’s something the University indirectly approved. Plus, I think it offers some interesting food for thought which may affect the way I explain my position on the subject to friends of mine. And that’s kind of what we do here at Cambridge Common, among other things: comment on social and political happenings on campus.

That said, I do think that protesting outside the dance is largely a waste of time since you’re probably not going to change the minds of people who have already bought tickets. Protesting outside a final club would also be a waste of time, and would probably even be counterproductive to your aims. But that’s why discussion forums are helpful.

As for the consenting adults aspect, it’s true that no one’s forcing people to attend this party, and no one’s forcing the people who come to participate in any certain way. But consent is more complicated than whether or not you know what you’re getting yourself into. There are huge gray areas between what people are sure they’re willing to do and what they’re sure they’re unwilling to do; most of the time, these gray area situations depend a lot on context. In a haze of alcohol and in an environment in which people can mask inappropriate and/or hurtful propositions behind an excuse of, ‘it’s only a game,’ my concern is that people will feel pressured into doing things that they feel on some level are degrading. Yes, it’s their decision to go to a party where they’re more likely to encounter these gray areas, but it’s Harvard’s decision whether or not to sponsor such an event, and I think they made an irresponsible choice.

Argument 2. People won’t be pressured into doing things they’re uncomfortable with because the rules of the game say you still get paid for saying ‘no.’ Plus, the squat team will be there making sure there’s no coercion going on.

A couple of flaws with the down payment rule, as I see it. I don’t know precisely what the rule is, but I figure it’s either that you pay the full price up front for what you want, regardless of the answer you’ll get, or you pay part of the fee first, get the answer, and if it’s a ‘yes,’ cough up the rest. The latter scenario seems a bit complicated for drunk people, but hey, if anyone can manage economic transactions, Harvard kids can. In the first scenario, the rules of the game still establish a pressure to consent to propositions because the more you say yes, the more people will proposition you. I suppose you could bank on playing hard to get as a strategy, but after a while people would probably give up on you, knowing that their Bauch bucks could be better spent elsewhere. In the second case, there’s still an obvious incentive to consent because it means you earn more Monopoly money.

Now, just because the rules are set up this way, while it may create something of a problem, doesn’t mean that partygoers will necessarily behave according to the incentives and goals that the rules establish. As defenders of the Debauchery have said, in the end it’s just a party, and people will do what they do in order to have a good time. But again, since the dance is sponsored by Winthrop House, they should be accountable for establishing a situation in which the whole point of a party is to earn money by performing sexual favors for people (no, this doesn’t mean only oral sex, and while some people will probably just ask their friends to do goofy things, the way the party was advertised certainly implies a sexual connotation). Having people there on the lookout is great, but if you have to form a squat team whose purpose is to intervene in dubious situations that the structure of the dance itself helps to create, maybe that’s an indication that the party needs to be reconsidered.

Argument 3. There’s no inherent problem with sexism here since everyone gets spending money and everyone is equally objectified.

The remedy for sexist objectification is not equal-opportunity objectification. In the first place, I think objectification is harmful in and of itself in most cases, so I don’t see extending it to men as a happy solution (others may disagree). Secondly, attempts like this never actually pan out anyway because of the very deep roots of gender hierarchy. Objectifying men tends to be a silly or funny enterprise. Why? Because it seems out of place to see men in women’s traditional role: the looked-at, rather than the looker. It was this phenomenon that Laura Mulvey described when she coined the term “male gaze” in her highly influential and still controversial 1975 article, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.”

People have maintained that drawing a parallel between objectification at Debauchery and objectification at final clubs is nonsensical since one of the main problems with final clubs is that men control the space. At Debauchery, theoretically, the space is neutral. But while I agree that the problem of male domination may not be as pronounced at the dance as it is in the clubs, it’s still worse than regular parties because of the theme and structure of the dance.

A cartoon appeared in the joke edition of the Crimson during finals period depicting the Bee club’s new house populated by passive-looking bees being sexually ravaged by animals representing all the male final clubs. While the point of the cartoon was probably to make fun of the Bee club members more than to comment on gendered power dynamics, it does raise an important point. Even when women supposedly control their own space, it doesn’t guarantee that they will exercise most of the agency in terms of deciding what goes on. The subtlety and complexity of sexism—which, at a very basic level, posits women as objects and men as acting subjects—means that superficially leveling the playing field just doesn’t cut it. The Debauchery party doesn’t exist in a social vacuum; gender roles and hierarchies permeate the event (as they do most parties). And the proposition/compensation structure unnecessarily exacerbates these already-existing problems.

Okay, moving on to “Debauchery is good” arguments.

Argument 1. Harvard kids don’t have enough sexual interaction. Why deny them a much-needed opportunity to blow off some steam and get up-close-and-personal with each other?

I don’t object to parties, I just think there are other, less loaded themes for house-sponsored dances than quasi-prostitution.

Argument 2. Liberals are often talking about a need for more sex-positiveness; now you complain when we finally get some.

My guess is that most people who attend Debauchery do not have overall sex-positive attitudes. In fact, the party’s marketability rests on its image of sexual scandal, which means people there get their jollies from doing things that they think on some level are bad and dirty. This isn’t sex-positivity. It’s college kids taking advantage of an excuse to do things they think are illicit, without having to face the normal repercussions (i.e. damage to reputation) of such activities. A sex-positive party scenario, on the other hand, would involve people celebrating sex—including, but not limited to, the taboo aspects of it—while accepting full responsibility for their choices and the social stigmas attached to them.

Argument 3. People didn’t actually go to the party shouldn’t judge it; it was actually a lot of fun, and most people didn’t even bother with the money aspect so much—it was basically just a good party.

I’m glad a lot of folks had a good time and I’m a little relieved to hear that the propositioning component didn’t dominate the dynamic. But that doesn’t erase the fact that it’s still built in to the concept of the party, and that the University is sponsoring the party. People may have ignored the Bauch bucks this time, but that’s no guarantee that the same thing will happen if and when the party continues in future years. The theme and structure of the party itself are a problem since they increase the likelihood of putting people in difficult situations where sexual harassment and assault are more likely to occur.

And finally, some “Debauchery is bad” opinions.

Argument 1. People should not be performing sex acts in public.

Honestly, more public sex acts probably went on at my high school homecoming dances than at Debauchery. Let’s not feign shock at the fact that these things occur. We can talk about why we think sex ought to be a private affair between or among committed people—that’s not a given, but a subject for thoughtful discussion—but we shouldn’t pretend as though public sex is anything new. Even at Harvard.

Argument 2. Prostitution is immoral and illegal. Since the ‘winners’ of Debauchery are awarded prizes, the setup is sort of like delayed compensation for performing sex acts, especially since people had to pay for tickets to get in.

I don’t know enough about prostitution or stripping laws to be able to say whether the Debauchery structure qualifies as prostitution, but my guess is that is doesn’t. The illegality claim seems like a stretch. As for prostitution being immoral, I think it’s an interesting topic we could explore, but I’m not willing to unquestioningly accept it as a universal standard. Does the dance promote prostitution? I don’t think so. Some Harvard students may get a kick out of publicly playing at prostitution, but I suspect the vast majority of them would also be offended if others actually called them whores in all seriousness. Thus, the party treats prostitution lightly by turning it into a game. And it’s this part I object to. Whether prostitution is good, bad, both or neither, it definitely has serious implications. Playing make-believe with sex work in order to get off on the feeling of doing something scandalous while denying culpability because it’s ‘just a game’ is a logical outlet in a sex-negative culture. But it’s also naïve and potentially harmful for people who have trouble separating deeds and emotions (which, to some extent, is most of us).

Finally, to be fair on the quasi-prostitution issue, a person could technically win for refusing to perform sex acts and accumulating the fake money that way, but they would still have to have been propositioned quite aggressively, which, as I said earlier, could create problems anyway.

Argument 3. We need to have a standard of decency. This clearly crosses the line of appropriateness.

Again, this isn’t a real argument for anything except blind conformity. We ought to talk about pernicious practices by identifying the specific (though often subtle) harms they cause, not by simply appealing to some standard of decency that’s immune to scrutiny.

Like the problems with final clubs, the issue with Debauchery isn’t that it’s a bastion for rape or anything that extreme. Rather, largely because of the subtle gender norms at work, the theme and structure of the event are likely to help create situations in which people feel pressured to do things that they’re not totally comfortable with.

Thanks for reading, please share your thoughts, and again, have a fun and safe weekend.

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4 responses to “debauchery deserves some consideration

  1. In relation to the idea about the “male gaze.” I agree that the male gaze exists and that it creates objectification, but I don’t think that objectification is confined to women. The gaze has been extended to every aspect of male sexuality now: witness Calvin Klein underwear ads, the old A&F catalog, and the body-building-as-fashion accessory that is as prominent at Harvard as any other school I’ve been at. Men are made to objectify and scrutinize every aspect of their bodies in the same ways that women are. Male cosmetics? Yep. Tight six-pack abs? Yep. And many other examples i could mention.

    Objectification is here to stay. Modern late capitalism thrives upon the thorough commodification of everything that it can. We’ve commodified bodies, love, brains, and happiness. What makes sex any different? The structure of our world would need to be fundamentally different if we don’t want sex and people to be commodities up for exchange in some way.

  2. (I might add [as the author of the above comment also] that I’m likely as liberal as the authors of the site, having spoken to a number of them over time and largley agreed with their stances [if not their reasoning]. And I only remain anonymous because my position within the university somewhat necessitates it.)

    Also, why does pressure equal coercion in so many of these discussions about Debauchery? It offends me to see how much personal agency and autonomy Harvard students (and other students of this generation) are willing to give up in the name of “safety.”

    If you don’t want to take your clothes off in public, then you can say no. if you feel pressure to do so, then you’ve clearly assessed that Bauch bucks or the approval of some person mean more than your own agency. but you’ve hardly been coerced into nakedness. Persuasion and pressure are attempts to make you take some course of action; coercion is the forced compellance of some action against your will. Agency and choice are key here.

  3. I personally think that a lot of the abstract logic behind this makes sense. The principles of the dance are sketchy (dare I say, debaucherous), and the extent to which sketchy stuff exaggerates problematic social dynamics it could certainly make the jump from sketchy of morally problematic.

    However, beyond the issue of agency well articulated above, I worry that relying solely on abstract argumentation, even if done well, is not only unconvincing but is part of what leads to dogmatism that defies logic and reality. That is not what is going on here (I think you’re very right to couch all of this in conversation and dialogue), but it’s important to note that principle detached from reality can go that route.

    I live in Winthrop House, directly above where the party was thrown. I was there for about an hour and a half, and witnessed nothing debaucherous, much less morally problematic, coercive or sexually threatening. I can understand how the abstract principles of the dance could have lead to that, but so far as I could tell they simply didn’t.

    Again, this is not an attempt to defeat the underlying points as made above, but simple to point out the problem of theory and reality. Why is it that the party was actually quite tame? Why is it that the only nudity that I saw was first-year men with their shirts off?

    Not all sound theoretical points are sound observations of reality. I would argue that that is because theoretical points act as if set laws determine human interaction, ignore individual agency and often describe only one overlay of dynamics…

  4. Anonymous, you bring up a great point about the male gaze–many critics since Mulvey have raised that very objection, or similar ones. Plus, her idea is based on Freudian theories, so a lot of people reject it on those grounds. The way some critics have reinterpreted the male gaze idea is by expanding it from applying only to men to people with power in certain contexts: this can be based on class, social status, or any other number of factors. But even on this reading, as long as asymmetrical distribution of power based on gender persists, on the whole, the power of ‘the gaze’ will still tend to be associated with masculine people more than feminine people. Do you agree that men still tend to hold more power than women in society, or do you have a different view?

    Your point about modern late capitalism (would you mind explaining a little what specific characteristics the modifiers suggest? I’m not up on my history of capitalism) exaggerating our tendencies to commodify and objectify each other is also well taken, although I don’t agree with adopting a defeatist attitude toward it (for me, no matter whether or not we can overcome it, the importance lies in struggling against it). Parallels between the objectification of male and female bodies are interesting, but much more complex, I think, than simple analogies let on, for a couple of reasons (these aren’t meant to attack your observations, just to engage them). First, intersections of race, class, and gender all come to bear on norms of attractiveness, so the characteristics of the objectification of rich white males are different that that of low-income black men, or even some high-income black men. Objectification also differs among Asian, white, and Black women of various class backgrounds. Second, even though fashions vary over time from promoting androgeny to emphasizing clear aesthetic distinctions between men’s and women’s styles of beauty, the mainstream norm always tends to return to the characterization of the (white) masculine aesthetic as natural (though refined and civilized) *in relation to* the artificiality of the female aesthetic. It would be interesting to research whether there has been a time in U.S. history when the fashions of men of one race, class, and social subgroup were more done-up, colorful, and artificial-looking than those of women of the same race, class, and subgroup. The closest I can think of might be the zoot suit fashions of the post-war 1940’s or the more modern ghetto-fabulous male pimp aesthetic. But both of these were popular primarily among low-income minorities, which adds another dimension to the analysis. Judith Halberstam, who’s teaching here right now as a visiting professor, has done a ton of research on contemporary constructions of masculinity and masculine aesthetics. One of her interesting articles on the subject is called “Mackdaddy, Superfly, Rapper: Gender, Race, and Masculinity in the Drag King Scene;” it examines the idea of the naturalization of white masculinity in relation to the masculinities of men of color. Do you agree that even though levels of male objectification do vary, on the whole, women tend to be objectified and to self-objectify more than men? Even if you think that objectification is here to stay, do you find it objectionable or just neutral?

    As for the idea of denying women’s agency and jumping too quickly to calling situations coercive, I totally agree with you that it’s important to distinguish between pressure and coercion, and I tried to be careful about that in my post (please let me know if there are specific points where I messed up or was unclear). But given social dynamics in which a lot of women’s self-esteem, unfortunately, is largely influenced by whether they are deemed attractive (by normative heterosexual male standards), I think it’s important to recognize that social situations that increase pressure for women to perform sexually on demand can, at the very least, increase the likelihood of sexual harrassment.

    I think there’s a common perception, expressed in one of the emails that went out over the Dems open list, that intelligent women are more empowered and better able to assert themselves when faced with sexual harrassment and/or the threat of certain kinds of sexual assault. This perception is not only wrong, but dangerous. Not only are most Harvard women plagued by common insecurities and desires about being considered attractive, some of us may experience these insecurities and desires even more acutely when we feel a need to prove that we are both smart *and* sexually appealing. It’s this craving for acceptance, which is present to some extent in everyone and not necessarily indicative of some sort of moral or mental deficiency, that enables us to submit ourselves to treatment that makes us feel uncomfortable. Discomfort can range from slight unease to flat-out terror, and the more subtle forms can be very difficult to observe in others, particularly since many of us have learned to mask it sufficiently.

    These are my opinions based on my own personal (continuing) experiences, observations, and knowledge of other women’s experiences, not some sort of scientific study (although aspects of it undoubtedly have been studied, and if anyone has knowledge of some research, please share).

    Which brings me to your point, Andrew, about the danger of theory turning dogmatic. I think you’re right–when we become too attached to our nice, pretty ideas, we’re tempted to force them on situations that just don’t match up. And while I think I’m guilty of that to an extent here, I’m still not convinced that the ultimately benign outcome of this year’s dance proves that the structure and theme will have no negative influence on future Debaucheries. As you’ve emphasized, many final club parties, as parties, are no more insidious than your average frat affair, but that doesn’t erase the structural problems with the clubs themselves. So in the same vein, while I’m glad that Debauchery turned out to be innocuous this year, I still object to its premise because I think it’s reasonable to predict that in the long-term, it condones and reinforces a kind of objectification and commodification that (a)I think we should be at least questioning, if not fighting, and (b)trends toward disproportionately negative impacts for women. I’m not trying to deny people’s agency; I’m just trying to point out that circumstances and environments have a kind of agency of their own, too (taking “agency” not as a tool that only individual people possess and choose to use or not to use as they see fit, but as a property of effecting changes).

    Sorry that all this is a little disjointed; for some reason, I’m finding I have a lot of different thoughts on this, some of which are conflicting and/or still forming. I’d love to hear yours.

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