Sunday, May 9, 2010

In Defense of Privacy Or, Why My Sex Life Is None of Your Business

Oddly, over the past couple of years, I have become a person that will answer pretty much anything. I’m not sure how this happened—maybe it’s just being asked interesting, provocative questions, questions I never thought about. Maybe it was the environment I was in. Maybe it’s just my personality. But everyone has their limits. And I’ve learned that many people don’t respect these limits, especially if they deal with sex.

Thanks to the exploits of tons of reality TV stars, it has now become commonplace to know the details of someone’s sexual and romantic history. There are shows devoted to sex rehab! And so, there are some males who feel the need to question me about this aspect of my life. These questions are confrontational and accusatory, as if I’m hiding my adventures from them, even though they are asking for details—inappropriate, lurid, puerile details—that don’t concern them in the least. And when I balk, because I have a right to my privacy, I am met with a torrent of insults.

Listening to these men, it is my duty to go whore myself out, and then report back. I fit the “profile”, based on what I presume to be youth and attractiveness. These men assume that I am hit on constantly and that I am just flat out rejecting all these advances, for reasons that mystify them. And I am mystified that they hold this belief so firmly, when it is so very, very wrong.

Apparently I am not the only one who has wondered where this attitude among men has come from. Does it stem from rejection?

Leah, who has also noticed these assumptions, thinks so. The men are angry and upset because they can’t get laid, and so blame the girls instead. Emily and Petpluto have also written about a version of this (termed The Nice Guy Syndrome, where men feel they own women’s sexuality). I’ve gotten these questions out of sheer curiosity, sure, but also as a way of trying to illuminate The Female Experience for these male friends of mine, even if my experience doesn’t jibe with their experience regarding girls, or what they think is the definitive version of being Young and Female in America Today.

Jezebel also addressed the ostensibly male assumption that women can get laid whenever they want, noting that men view anything less as being overly picky. Prompted by a book review in The Smart Set, Jezebel points out that there are a good many women who are deemed by the culture at large as “unfuckable”. They can fit into a number of categories: old, poor, have weight, genetic, or disability issues, or maybe are just not pretty or conform to a certain beauty standard. Many women fall into this group at a certain point in their life. But they are largely forgotten, ridiculed, always, in popular culture and in real life. For what worth is a women if she is not desirable?

One of the most interesting comments posted to the piece said that men are jealous of women’s sexual power; they are the ones constantly putting themselves on the line:

"a woman can get laid whenever she wants" is an expression of male frustration at female sexual power.

This is not to say that female sexual power is uniformly distributed. Not to say that the world doesn't suck if you've been dealt a poor hand (genetic, medical, social).

Please think for a moment about the male side of this equation. If you're a guy, you don't get hit on. Such an occurance is a memorable life event, not a daily happening. If you're "wing man" to an attractive/sociable/sexually successful guy, then you never EVER get hit on. And you're trying to attract/hit on/get rejected by gals your buddy isn't even looking at. And you adopt this socially demeaning and rejection-filled roll because it marginally increases your odds of some level of sexual success over "going solo".

And in that context, it sucks to be a guy. If the supposedly 'unfuckable' 'hags' in the audience demeaned, debased, and put themselves at the same degree of emotional risk as every guy at the bar, lowered their standards, donned their beer goggles, and shelled out for a few drinks and meals, I'd be willing to bet their "hit rate" would be dramatically higher than for any guy. any. guy.

So yeah, men are envious of womens' sexual power. and being guys, they sum it up (insensitively and coarsely) as, "a woman can get laid whenever she wants".

He’s right that if the game was reversed, the women would do pretty well, but that’s the just the nature of the sexes. But the image that women hold all the power is grossly ill-informed, and by placing the blame onto women, the men just make it worse for themselves.

The statement that all women can get laid easily is also a complete, unjust lie. Undesirable women do feel shame and embarrassment, and no such counseling like “reshape your attitude!” is really going to help; it’s just going to make things worse. Life isn’t a fairytale where a makeover changes everything.

As Leah noted, it’s impossible to live up to whatever the standard is. And being forced to conform to whatever is deemed acceptable is damaging and hurtful. One’s sexual life is only one aspect of a person, and it is mutable.

But the other issue I have with these questions is the appalling assumption that I’m expected to answer such personal and intimate questions, especially in some cases with people I barely know. Why is this acceptable? I consider myself a somewhat private person, in that I believe in privacy and I believe that not everything in my life is up for public consumption, and that attitude, increasingly, some find offensive. There are some things that are none of your business, and no matter how nosy you are, you have to accept that. It’s not impolite or out of hand to say “no.”

So what gives?

It goes back to our increasing TMI culture, and the murky notions of privacy that are constantly being redefined. Facebook has become the very public face of this privacy problem, especially as it has been playing out on the web:

Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg seem to assume that once something is public, it’s public. They confused sharing with publishing. They conflate the public sphere with the making of a public. That is, when I blog something, I am publishing it to the world for anyone and everyone to see: the more the better, is the assumption. But when I put something on Facebook my assumption had been that I was sharing it just with the public I created and control there. That public is private. Therein lies the confusion. Making that public public is what disturbs people. It robs them of their sense of control—and their actual control—of what they were sharing and with whom (no matter how many preferences we can set). On top of that, collecting our actions elsewhere on the net—our browsing and our likes—and making that public, too, through Facebook, disturbed people even more. Where does it end?

--Jeff Jarvis

Where does it? Technologies increasingly are able to monitor every little thing we do. From security cameras in Times Square to GPS locators on our phones to cookies on web pages, there are very little areas or transactions today that are not monitored somewhere, by somebody. We’re so used to this that we accept that mundane calls to customer service lines are recorded, or, if we turn our settings a certain way, we can be tracked by virtually anyone who wants to find us. We do a lot of this out of convenience and novelty; that’s why we save passwords on our computer, that’s why we enable our tweets to be geographically placed.

We like keeping track of our things digitally. That’s why online banking is a hit, and why we like to see the status of a package on Amazon or FedEx. And as long as only we have access to this information, we’re fine. But this information is protected, by passwords and codes and encryption. The debate has turned to less tangible items—memories and statements, ideas and personalities. It’s this violation of truly personal things that has caused this newest uproar.

A theory floating around is as society has become more permissible, old notions of impropriety will disappear, and future generations will have no need for privacy. This is hogwash. I disagree with Penelope Trunk (and others) who say privacy is basically a way of hiding things that don’t need hiding. Really? So everyone—my mother, my colleagues, my boss, my neighbor, the stranger I spoke to last night at a party—is entitled to know everything about me? And I’m supposed to be fine with knowing everything about everyone I know? Sure, maybe that movie you watched last night isn’t super-secret news, but it doesn’t mean that everyone has to know about it, just like everyone doesn’t need to know every detail of what you did over the weekend. The notion that privacy just equals secrecy is damaging and erroneous. I am all for transparency, especially in companies, but confusing transparency with a lack of privacy, especially for individuals, is dangerous. Everyone should be able to control what information they tell to specific people; there’s a reason we have “work selves” and “friend selves”, why there are some things you shouldn’t say to your mother but will say to your best friend. Penelope Trunk basically acts like things in our private lives won’t get us into trouble in the workforce, but that’s completely untrue. Sure, standards have relaxed, but that doesn’t mean that showcasing your exploits and your baser aspects of yourself won’t cause some problems. Think of it this way: Would you really want to hear about some borderline criminal activity a coworker or neighbor was doing? Would you want to be responsible for knowing every dirty little secret of everyone you know?

Surprises can be good things. It’s an icky feeling to know things about people before you meet them, because you Googled them. Now you’re an expert on their life. But by having everything up already to be viewed by a public, whether Facebook posts or Flickr albums, the element of surprise, of learning about someone through natural, organic discourse is lost. What’s left to tell? What’s left to discover? If everything about you is already up on the web—reduced to mere anecdote, a selection of tidbits that are “you”, no matter how misleading, embarrassing, or untrue—then why should I bother to try to get to know you anyway, when I already know everything there is to know?

People are not just the sum of their experiences, nor are they defined by particular things. Sure, when we describe ourselves, we do so in this language, often because it is the easiest. But people change, interests and experiences and opinions change. People don’t want to be known by something in their past, especially if they’ve moved past it, or if it’s not accurate. Privacy is important because it gives a sense of control, a sense that you are defining who you are and what’s important to you. Others should not be defining who you are or what you can say; you make that determination.


John said...

All of this privacy-is-an-amusingly-antiquated-concept talk reminds me of the Belcerebons from Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. They were an alien race who were forcefully given the power of telepathy as punishment for (some crime or other, can’t remember now) and the only way they could handle the huge influx of information about everything everyone was saying, doing and thinking was to think the most inane, trivial, meaningless thoughts as loudly and as often as they could. I fear that the internet is already headed down that path.

(by the way, Jeff Jarvis FTW!)

Human beings are not ready to know every dirty little secret about every single person on the planet. The part of our brain that governs passing judgment on others would go into overdrive, and we’d be forced to reconcile the fact that everyone we’ve ever admired, desired or even generally approved of is, if you’ll excuse the colorful language, a f@*#ing scumbag. Everyone, that is, except those rich and powerful enough to still afford some privacy without damaging their public image (usually by claiming such private information is a “trade secret” and would harm their ability to function as a company/professional entity, or that it’s a matter of national security/legal investigation.)

John said...

As for the “giving up your privacy won’t get you fired” argument, it absolutely can and does get people fired on a regular basis. Consider the police officer who was fired for something he said during a professional stand-up comedy routine. Did the patrons of the comedy club find it inappropriate? No. Did someone from his day job who did not attend the performance find it offensive? Yes. Was this grounds for termination? I don’t know how, but apparently it was. Heck, people get fired for keeping personal blogs when they don’t even reveal their true identity (or those of people they may blog about) on them. In an age where privacy is dead, that seems out-of-place.

(P.S.: Should I be worried that the captcha word for this comment is "jewswine"?)

John said...

As for the "women can get laid whenever they want" argument, the less-talked-about flip side of that is that "men are pathetically, reprehensibly desperate and will literally stick their most vulnerable of organs in anything that feels even remotely like a vagina." (one of my favorite lyrics ever written by The Suburban Legends is "we will take anything that walks / because we're desperate.") As a woman, you should be proud that you're not so desperate to be penetrated that you're willing to compromise every belief you've ever held and throw your self-preservation instincts to the wind (as too many men do.) And the fact of the matter is that most men do have some level of standards, though they may not acknowledge them. If they didn't, NO woman would be "unf*@#able" so long as she can still be considered functionally female. In other words, both sexes should admit that everyone has standards and that they aren't a bad thing (though prejudice disguised as standards is a wholly different matter.)

Jean said...

We're human and it's one of our basic instincts to keep some part of us to ourselves only. Thanks for sharing your insights. By the way, this personal safety devices for women like us might interest you. Thanks and more power!

mikhailbakunin said...

I wonder whether you think that Elena Kagan's sexual orientation is 'none of ourbusiness.'

Andrew Sullivan makes the case that Kagan should absolutely be asked about her sexuality. Do you agree?

I suppose my real question is: Are public officials, whose decisions affect our everyday lives, subject to the same privacy standards? Are we entitled to know some of the details of their sex lives? What if their decisions affect other people's sex lives (through things like anti-sodomy statutes)?

What aspects of another person's life and experience are other people's business, and how do we decide? Why is sex off limits? Do you think that religion and morality are also off limits?

MediaMaven said...

My first instinct was to say no. Andrew does indeed make the case, but I don’t like the idea that the question needs to be asked—she should feel free to bring her spouse to a cause, or just naturally show her sexuality without being forced to answer questions. It is up to Kagan whether to publicly out herself or not, and under her own terms; Andrew, Jeffrey Toobin, or the Obama Administration do not have the right to discuss the matter.

No, I don’t think we are entitled to know details regarding public figures’ sex lives, and the same follows into other realms of life. For example, no matter how juicy a topic this is, we aren’t entitled to know the tidbits regarding the Clintons’ marriage (or anyone else’s outside of our own). When I wrote the post, I was also willing to extend it to other matters like religion. If Kagan identifies as Jewish, fine. She doesn’t need to elaborate on her Jewishness, or defend it in any way due to nosy questioners.

Decisions do affect others, and obviously a Supreme Court Justice’s opinions are going to reverberate outside the chamber. But take sex out of the equation. Their attitudes towards police, or unions, or big business will affect others, too.

These topics are fine on their own, but there’s a line here, and that line is intrusiveness. If it’s an embarrassing or personal question and is overstepping the bounds of the case (or what is necessary), then there’s reason to ask it. I think of the questions at the Anita Hill trial. Excluding the details of the case, those questions were humiliating and, IMO, were violating privacy norms.

Penelope Trunk said...

This is a great discussion on privacy. Lots of angles I haven't thought about. So thanks for that. Also, here's another thing on this topic that I've been tossing around in my head:
Ashton Kutcher saying that privacy is the new celebrity: