Monday, August 31, 2009

Scripts vs. Choices

A lot of feminist conversations about sex and porn and sex work hit some major turbulence when it comes to the issue of choice and autonomy. I've described the sort of extreme thinking that polarizes the conversation and makes constructive dialogue all but impossible before. And it's true that insisting on viewing people as either completely free and uninfluenced rational agents or mindless automatons that helplessly drift along on the current of cultural attitudes and values is counterproductive and makes true dialogue and progress unlikely. But some recent posts and the responses to them have gotten me thinking about another issue that's involved here.

Because these topics are often so personal, and intense feelings and experiences are involved, there seems to be a trend in which critiques of (patriarchal) cultural scripts are always and everywhere interpreted as a critique of the choices of the individual people involved. And this feels like a personal attack, so strong defensive reactions occur, and the dialogue is permanently derailed into sniping and flaming, making your opponents position into a strawman, and a complete inability to listen. In the end this has a sort of silencing effect, where most feminists are hesitant to talk about sex or porn or sex work, and giving a sort of limp-wristed blanket approval of whatever it is people "choose" to do becomes the norm. But I call bullshit on that. To be relevant and effective, feminism needs to be critical of all the cultural scripts that govern the relationships of women and men. And we need to be able to critique these scripts in an environment that is conducive to genuine dialogue.

So here's another line we need to draw in the sand. Critiquing the scripts that your culture has provided you with is not the same as critiquing your choices. It's just not. That's not to say that it never happens that people are harsh and judgmental concerning the choices of others. But generalizing from these cases to all conversations on the topic is not helpful, and equating the two rides on a profound misunderstanding. All of us make our choices within a specific social context, and we must choose from the scripts that are available to us. We cannot randomly decide, for instance, to be a medieval knight when the year is 2009 and we're living in suburban America. A more current example is the career choices that women were steered into when my mom was young. If I speak critically about the fact that women were basically given the choice of being a teacher, a secretary, or a nurse, this does not amount to me criticizing the choices of women who became teachers, secretaries, and nurses. I can critique the culture and even note that the individual women no doubt internalized the dominant worldview of the time to some extent or another without criticizing them as individuals or belittling their choices.

It's very hard to critique the scripts of the culture in which we are embedded. Achieving the necessary critical distance to do so requires a certain amount of self-reflectiveness and the luxury of time to think and ponder and expose ourselves to other ways of doing things and other worldviews. But claiming that life choices and desires and views of sexuality develop in a vacuum and are immune to the effects of culture is astonishingly naive. And dividing up into two groups which adopt the most extreme stance and then becoming very invested in that stance to the point of losing our listening and reasoning skills is the last thing we need to do on these central and significant issues.


  1. TVille8/31/2009

    Yes! Excellent observation of the devolution of the comments in the posts you link to.

  2. Meg'n8/31/2009

    Agreed. I have to admit I steer clear of posts on these topics, because it doesn't seem like much gets accomplished, and there are misunderstandings and hurt feelings all around.

  3. ShadyLady9/02/2009

    Yes. Yes, yes, yes.

  4. This seems right to me. That is all.

  5. JoanofArc9/09/2009

    Critiquing the scripts that your culture has provided you with is not the same as critiquing your choices.

    Exactly. Thank you.