Blogging “Yes” Day 2: Sex As a Commodity Erases Women
Welcome to the second day of the Blogging “Yes” project! Today I read the essay “Towards a Performance Model of Sex” by Thomas Macaulay Millar, a litigator and active member of the online feminist community. This essay picks up on the theme of entitlement found in Jill’s piece and explores the contrast between a “commodity model” of sex and a “performance model.”
This is one juicy essay. Millar first describes the “commodity model” of sex as it exists in contemporary culture, where language like “get some” frames sex as a transaction between a man and a woman, rather than a mutual experience. The entitlement link comes because consent is presumed, and men feel slighted if they don’t get the sex they are entitled to. Millar describes this idea with the example of the Nice Guy™, the passive-aggressive heterosexual male who feels that he has been denied the sex he rightly deserves because women have turned down his inadequate attempts at seduction. The NiceGuy™ may then go on to justify rape as taking what was “rightfully his.” The commodity model also shows up in the conservative Christian example of “saving” one’s virginity for the right kind of transaction (marriage) as well as in raunch culture where a woman who’s too “easy” is devalued because sex is seen as a game that needs a certain amount of challenge for the subject (the man). The commodity model also, of course, assumes a one man-one woman frame, making it inadequate for other varieties of sexual relations.
What I want to focus on, though, is the opposition struck between the woman and the sexual commodity. Millar uses a couple of powerful examples to show how the woman herself becomes distanced from the commodity–the commodity model serves not only to make sex accessible to men but to erase the woman herself. In the abstinence context:
Women are livestock, valued for what they provide, not as partners. Their produce is milk, which is taken, bottled, and sold. Milk is fungible. When we drink milk, we care about its quality, but not about the identity of the cow. We may appreciate the milk, but this does not extend to the appreciation of the cow.
Milk (sex) is fungible. It doesn’t matter where it comes from. What matters is its quality, in this case, the presence or absence of virginity. The woman herself doesn’t matter in a conservative Christian (or Muslim, or Jewish, or even secular) worldview that prizes virginity above all else. The word “virgin” itself erases the woman’s identity. It personifies a sexual characteristic so that it is important for a man to marry “a virgin,” regardless of her other characteristics. I’m reminded of the AOC label on French wines. A woman, under the commodity model of sex, gets the stamp of virginity, and her goal is to make sure she is bought (married) and contracted into a lifelong relationship before that quality diminishes and she loses her precious stamp. Of course, there’s no question of what happens in this marriage after the transaction takes place, the virginity is taken, and the woman loses her sexual “quality.” Maybe these two people have nothing in common, sexual or otherwise. When virginity is the sole characteristic that matters, sexual compatibility is ignored, without even considering compatible personalities, goals, etc. It’s hard to see how this model benefits anyone, including the man who buys into it. Now a second example, from that Nice Guy™ side of the spectrum:
These men see themselves as being in the same position as a man who finds that his stolen car is in the custody of a garage: He may not know whether the garage stole it or found it, but it is his, and he is entitled to get it back. […] Because it is his car, it is his right. When these men apply that thinking to sex, it’s as if the woman standing between them and the pussy is an irrelevance, a hindrance.
Again, the woman herself is erased here. Millar refers to women in another part of this section as “pussy vending machines.” The slighted Nice Guy™ doesn’t care about the identity of the woman he approaches for sex, so much so that in the extreme example, he is willing to ignore the woman’s protests and rape her to get to the sex he feels entitled to. Charming.
I do want to conclude with an excerpt from Millar’s solution, because it’s one of the many, many empowering moments found in this book, and it also gets back to that “silence as consent” issue I mentioned on day one. When talking about his envisioned “performance model,” he returns to a metaphor of musicians he used at the start of the essay:
Because it centers on collaboration, a performance model better fits the conventional feminist wisdom that consent is not the absence of “no,” but affirmative participation. Who picks up a guitar and jams with a bassist who just stands there? Who dances with a partner who is just standing and staring? In the absence of affirmative participation, there is no collaboration.
Like the commodity model, the performance model implies a negotiation, but not an unequal or adversarial one. The negotiation is the creative process of building something from a set of available elements.
I love this conception of sex as a “creative process,” of a game of building blocks rather than a war of give and take. Millar goes on to explain how this model works better for gay and lesbian partners, or for sex with more than two people. A collaboration can take many forms, but the key is that everyone is involved. Everyone brings something to the table–and not just “sex” as a goal, or “virginity,” but many, many characteristics. This formation is more mature because it recognizes that sex consists of multiple elements–sexual tastes, experiences, hopes, fears, fantasies, physical abilities and limitations, desires, etc. etc. In comparison, the idea of “buying” or “taking” a simple, undifferentiated “sex” sounds pretty boring. It’s not a thumbs up or thumbs down quality measurement but a situation where everyone can contribute all sorts of things to the overall picture, and the parties get to negotiate to build up their ideal mélange.
Sounds pretty hot to me.