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From Terror to Error
by Claire Gigantes

In the past thirty years the debate on male-female relations has come to be governed by the "politics of terror", whereby women are cast as victims whose disadvantaged position in society, bedroom, and workplace is exclusively the result of male power, dominance, and aggression. That women are disadvantaged is neither our fault nor our responsibility. Practically nothing is. How could it be? We are the underdogs. Failed friendships with other women, broken hearts, unwanted pregnancies, unsatisfactory affairs, problems on the job, the joblessness-most bad things that happen to women can be blamed on men, collectively or individually.
This view of male-female relations is upheld principally by the myth that women are morally superior to men. We are caring and nurturing; we put the interests of others before our own; the only violent females are rogue females or those driven to violence by men. We are the "intimacy experts", versed in the noble art of self-disclosure. We are a force for good. We do our best with men; we try to teach them to be more like us that they might lay down that most dastardly of weapons, the penis, and join us in creating a feminized, and therefore better, world. But we are prey to the sexual whims of men and to institutionalized inequality; with all their emotional underdevelopment, aggression, violence, and lust for power, men remain our oppressors. So we have to stick together in the sisterhood and soldier on.
That this "modern sexual script" is at odds with daily life as we know it is apparent to many women and men. It is Kate Fillion's purpose to close the gap between the "public discourse" and "private reality" of sexual relations; to abandon the double standard that insists on women's powerlessness as sexual agents and our quintessential status as victims, and justifies our abstention from responsibility for our own actions on the ground that "a woman's fear is enough." The first step is debunking the myth of the powerless but morally superior female.
To do this, Fillion presents examples of women who have swallowed the modern sexual script or whose behaviour clearly belies it. With relentless precision she dissects the double standards, self-delusion, and rationalizations that mark the sexual behaviour of her interviewees. Our relationships with women friends are touted as the ideal-if only men could be more like our "girlfriends". Yet for fear of seeming unsupportive or disloyal to our sisters, we keep disapproval or disagreement to ourselves and tell each other lies instead. We do each other down with constant expressions of "concern". Sexually, women are supposed to be passive. We respond to male desire but possess little of our own; it is men, not women, who say, "I want." Fillion counters with examples of predatory sexual behaviour in women who clearly enjoy the sense of power it brings; examples of women using and importuning men in typically "male" ways. In the bedroom we expect men to stop when we tell them but take offence if they ask us to stop. If our persistence gets us nowhere, we assume that they are gay or somehow sexually impaired. Persistent females might find themselves in an embarrassing or distasteful situation; persistent males might find themselves in court. We think nothing (until later) of breaking up someone else's marriage and then discarding the newly attained male because he hesitated long enough for our feelings to dull. Some of us even sleep our way to the top, though we rarely put it that way to ourselves.
Worse, women are just as capable of violence as men. Well, if not just as capable, far more capable than the sexual script lets on. We batter our children and land the first blows in fights with our husbands; violence occurs in lesbian relationships in roughly the same proportion as in heterosexual ones. And while Fillion doesn't mention it, there is another myth, perpetuated by the patriarchy and sisterhood alike, that no woman would ever have an abortion if there were any earthly way she could keep the child; women suffer the anguish of abortion largely out of concern for other people. But the fact is that many of them quite simply don't want the child, any more than the fathers do. Women have been killing their children since the year dot.
Fillion's descriptions of her subjects, with their "executive bobs", well-toned bodies, and natty, Cosmo Girl jobs, are a little too pat. Work and study are no more than sidelines to what is presented as the central fact of their lives: the modern sexual script and whatever part of it each of them represents, or stereotypifies. That is, of course, what the book is about. But the reader can be forgiven for feeling irritated and occasionally bored with Fillion's own feat of reductionism. A particularly dubious case of "date rape" is held up as an "obscene trivialization" of the real thing, of which she presents four examples. It is a compelling point. But in choosing quite so egregious a case, Fillion has set up a straw man and cheapened, if not undermined, her own argument. Or there is Diane, a nineteen-year-old girl who drags someone else's extremely reluctant boyfriend into bed more or less to see whether she could, and is caught in the act by the girlfriend (with whom she is competing, unbeknownst to herself). Girlfriend leaves boyfriend, who avoids Diane like the plague, and Diane is smitten with remorse. Fillion's "I admire her honesty" sounds patronizing: conscience is very much part of most women's private reality even if the word is conspicuously absent from the public discourse.
Fillion pays careful lip service throughout the book to the "very real" problem of male violence towards women and other male crimes and misdemeanours. This will not save her from the charge of "liberal feminism" that will be levelled by some of her more ideology-bound sisters. That Fillion has to be careful is perhaps a measure of the extent to which the "public discourse" and "private reality" have diverged. Likewise her call for a "politics of error", which means acknowledging and accepting that women as well as men can power-hungry, crass, insensitive, and blinded by lust; that men as well as women can be sensitive, insightful, considerate, and vulnerable; that in both sexes self-justification tends to precede a more honest appraisal of one's own behaviour-in short, that men and women share a common stock of human characteristics and motives and, at least in private reality, a fairly equitable distribution of sexual power.
Does any of this really need to be said?
A few ago an acquaintance of mine announced tearfully that she could no longer live in a world governed by male-dominated multinational corporations. I listened, wondering guiltily what the real problem was and utterly unable to ask. Later she mentioned her growing conviction that she had been abused as a child by a certain friend of her father's. What made her think that? I asked. The sheer fact that his name had sprung to mind. Stunned, I began to interrogate: had the thought of him induced unease, or fear, or any other sinister sensation? No, she replied calmly, and her sister couldn't recall anything happening in their youth; but why else would she have thought of him out of the blue like that?
Why would anyone choose to think this way? was my first reaction. Or am I underpoliticized? was my second. Am I thinking like a male, minimizing the fact of "a woman's fear"? Am I thinking like a REAL woman in my understanding of this particular person who would embrace almost any feminist generalization as long as it was sufficiently tragic? Am I anti-feminist, a bad sister? Oughtn't I simply to believe her, no questions asked?
I haven't come across many women like that acquaintance of mine, but I suspect that there are quite a lot of women like me who have gone through the surreal exercise of trying to swallow something that doesn't ring true on a personal level; who have tried to persuade themselves that, where their instinct deviates from doctrine, instinct must be wrong. Lip Service is for the most part riveting-other people's sex lives always are. And in the end the sour mood that coloured my reading had less to do with the book itself as with the depressing fact that what Fillion is saying does indeed need to be said.

Claire Gigantes is an editor of books and lives in Ottawa.


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