I’m the Gatekeeper, are you the Keymaster?

I apologize to my LGBT friends, because this post is going to be terribly heteronormative, dealing with cis men and cis women because that is how the exercise was framed.  Now, the fact that the premise excludes all these groups by definition is itself worth talking about, but is much more than I can get into with this post.

There is an ongoing kerfuffle over a panel at the American Athiests’ conference and the fairly tone-deaf responses that have followed after accusations of sexism.  There are several contentions involved here and I would like to deal with just one of them (I have a life).  I have not yet seen a video of the talk itself, which I believe has not yet been made available, but even when this “Million Dollar Challenge” was framed by those who have used it, it seems fairly flawed.  And certainly I can’t come up with a good reason for including it in a serious discussion, as it provides almost no useful information.

The “million dollar challenge” has been described as follows*:

To the men: I will bet a million dollars (if I win you pay me a million if you win I pay you), that by midnight tonight you cannot find a woman [Author’s note: the men in the audience were purportedly told to look around the room to identify a such a woman in the audience, which adds another level of potential discomfort to an already needless exercise] to have consensual sex with you… but these are the rules… she must be someone you have never before met, no drugs, alcohol, money, promises of love, anything can be exchanged – all you can do is ask her if she would willingly go and have sex with you. That’s it. One question…

Then ask if any of the men think they could really win that bet? No takers

Then I offer the same bet to the women in the room… and ask do you think you could take the bet and win…

Most of the women agree that they could.

It is purportedly meant to establish that women act as gatekeepers for if/when/how sex occurs, and seems to be used by the speakers (at past conferences and lectures as well as this one) as a way to point out a biological base for this sort of behavior, which is where I take offense to this challenge’s use.   While evolutionary psychology can be interesting, I find that on the whole, it errs on pushing biological determinacy to a fault and fails on some very fundamental recognition of the influence of culture and cultural stereotypes that don’t necessarily spring from a rational, evolutionary perspective.  (It’s also used to mischaracterize and excuse behaviors by others and must be presented carefully to prevent this).  That Dr. Cornwell further stated that no one should have been offended because “Evolution does not care about being PC – it cares about survival and disproportionate reproductive success.” signifies to me that she simply does not care to examine why women may act as gatekeepers of sex in the way that they do beyond simply chalking it up to biological impulses.

The exercise is meant to get across the idea that men are just predisposed to pursue as many partners and possible while women must be choosier about mates because of the burden of child-rearing.  (Whether this means that we cannot overcome these instinctual drives was not adequately addressed from what I can see, but is another worthwhile question.)  And if we were talking about animals with a less complicated brain without incredible tangles of learned culture, it would be more valid.  As it is, humans are unique**, leading to very, very complicated sexual and social interactions over hundreds of thousands of years.  So there are reasons why human sexual behaviors would be motivated by reasons other than simple evolutionary behavioral tendencies.  Also, the challenge doesn’t urge the men and women to find a serial-monogamist pairing (a fairly natural biological reality) but a one night stand, which carries its own cultural stigma and baggage and is generally not what I’ve observed men or women to pursue most of the time.

I will begin by coming up with a few reasons I can easily think up as to why an audience would react to the question as they did:

  1. Evolutionary behavioral tendencies are at play here, but as I stated earlier, this is only part of what motivates individual human beings.
  2. Slut shaming.  Seriously.  Women are expected to walk such a tight sexual line in our society that it is no wonder that many would avoid this sort of encounter.  If a woman does seek sexual gratification with a partner she has never met before with no promises or guarantees (conditions of the challenge), she is punished for it in a thousand little ways if it becomes known or even suspected.  Even those of us who attempt to approach life rationally carry some base assumptions about how things work we inherit from our religious and cultural backgrounds, which are ridiculously difficult to shake. (I had a great discussion about this with @smoakes last year at brunch.)
  3. Consequences. Not only is there a biological greater commitment to pregnancy and child rearing, but it has become a greater cultural expectation as well.  Women aren’t the primary caregivers of children only because of their vaginas and ability to lactate, but because you’re supposed to.  Moreover, women carry a greater risk of contracting STIs than men during (stereotypical unprotected) intercourse because of their physiology.  Given the status of our public school system’s sex education, the consequences of sexual activity are one of the only generally guaranteed parts of education.  Sex means bad things and you should remember that; be a good girl and have just the right kind/amount of sex.
  4. Conformity.  Women and men raised their hands to answer this question as they did because there is a societally correct answer: men want sex and it’s hard to get, women don’t and make men work for it.  This can lead to some very bad assumptions about sex and misconstruing interactions between men and women as competitive or adversarial.  This damages men because it boxes them into a ridiculously tight gender role of what is acceptable and expected from men (and makes them less of a man if they fail to meet that standard), and damages women because they are not allowed to freely pursue what they want without being judged as unnatural or depraved.
  5. Violence.  While most women are raped by those they already know, the perceived risk of being raped by someone you don’t know is not inconsiderable.  Whether a woman wanted sex, wanted to fool around, etc. the danger of being forced or coerced into unwanted sexual acts is real, especially because under our challenge premise above, she is not supposed to have any previous knowledge or built trust with the man.  Moreover, if she is raped, the odds that her motives, actions and behavior will be questioned as “asking for it” are high (see slut shaming above.)  A promiscuous woman can easily be perceived as nigh-unrapeable.  (When you add class and racial factors, this gets even more pronounced, unsurprisingly.)

These are just a few ideas that popped into my head, and I’m sure if I spent more time I could come up with a few more thoughts on the reasons why this question would get the results it does.  However, I will say that the fact that men thought they were not likely to be able to find a sexual partner by midnight and women believed they could tells you pretty much nothing meaningful.  You have no idea what combination of the above or other factors play into it, so unless the discussion talked about exactly these points, this exercise is inappropriate.  It gives no real input and (especially if it was introduced as described) has a very real danger of making participants uncomfortable without cause.

There is also the added complication that would make people uncomfortable wherein women-as-gatekeepers is a justification used in misogynistic arguments that explain and apologize for rape.  Whenever you introduce a concept that has a history of being twisted and misinterpreted, you need to be doubly sure that you are being clear in its use, intent and relevance otherwise you will offend people.  It is not being overly sensitive to express due concern about this sort of problem; the reaction following the criticism posted on Blag Hag shows me that we have a long way to go in getting recognition here.  While there is a distinct difference between “is” and “ought” when describing evolutionary behaviors, the public representation and usage is often turned in this direction.

Women as gatekeepers or controllers of sex is a concept that bothers me on its own, by the way.  It’s always presented as something “everyone knows” because that is the societal expectation.  It lessens the idea of two fully consenting adults and devalues men because it implies that men should be ready to go all the time (and if they’re not, what kind of man does that make them).  I’ve spoken to women (and been the woman) for whom it is men that are controlling sexual access and decisions more than women.  Yes, this really does happen, I promise.  Libido is a complicated thing and while you can draw some statistical conclusions of trends based on sex and age, you can’t always predict how two individuals will approach sex, who will solicit/pursue sexual activity.  The gatekeeper idea encourages the idea that sex is something to be gained from or given by women alone and that is quite fucked up.  Sex is a great thing; it’s part of a full, healthy and happy human existence so when I find attitudes that encourage dangerous or potentially damaging ideas about sex, I’m disturbed.

A lot of fuss has been made as well about the intent of the panelists as well.  We shouldn’t be upset because they didn’t mean to offend anyone.  That. Is. Bullshit. Many well meaning individuals say hurtful and stupid things without meaning to and while intention can count for some things, context weighs a great deal more.  We have a long way to go before we get individuals to recognize their privilege and (even those in the disadvantaged group) refuse to tolerate damaging norms.

I like the Ghostbusters.

*From the description by Dr. R. Elisabeth Cornwell

**Other species of animals do possess varying levels of brain complexity and degrees of learned culture, but we’re talking about humans here.


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