reply to Alain de Botton

Alain de Botton commented on my critique of his piece from Psychology Today that claimed that genitals can act as “unambiguous agents of sincerity.” My critique was both that (1) it is simply untrue that genitals are a reliable way to tell how aroused a person is feeling, and also that (2) the idea that they ARE can lead all too easily to misunderstandings, the belief that you or your partner is broken, and even apologism for sexual violence.

I illustrated with two examples from women I know, both in consensual partnerships, one of whom experienced genital response when she was not aroused and the other of whom did NOT experience genital response when she WAS aroused.

His comment was:

I’m so sorry that so many people were offended by the lines published in Psychology Today. I’d like to assert that the lines were meant only in one very specific context: a loving consensual relationship. As soon as they are applied to a situation of rape, they become grotesque – which they were never intended to be. So I do apologise and share your concerns. It’s another example of the need to get the full story before delivering a verdict. If any of you would like to discuss the matter further, please feel free to contact me on twitter @alaindebotton

My comment to him was:

Hi Alain! You’ll notice that my sister and my high school friend were in loving, consensual relationships but their genitals did not agree with their states of mind. So while I agree that without that context, the idea of genitals as a lie detector is grotesque, even WITH that context it’s still untrue and can result in hurt feelings, confusion, and wondering if someone involved is broken or lying or both.

To absolutely clear: it is not only in situations of non-consent when genitals may not behave in accord with a person’s internal experience. So even if the “full story” included only loving consensual relationship, it’s still untrue, and bound to cause interpersonal strife if people believe it.

Though it’s also important to note that… well I’ll just quote Christa, responding to de Botton in the comments:

In addition to what Emily said about loving consensual relationships not erasing the problem I think it’s important to add that the perception of what counts as a “loving consensual relationship” is often not clear to all parties. Something that starts out as a loving consensual relationship or even just a friendly consensual encounter quickly turns into a non-loving non-consensual encounter if one of the participants clearly expressed wishes are ignored in favor of physical signs of apparent arousal. And even if those physical signs actually DO mean arousal, the person still might have reasons for not wanting to act on that arousal with that particular person at that particular moment.

In short, that “specific context” isn’t always that context.

Now, I don’t know for sure which of us needed “to get the full story before delivering a verdict” – it COULD be that he feels HE should have gathered more facts before writing, but it sounds rather like he’s saying it is I who should have recognized that his piece was written about a specific context.

Indeed, it is news to me that “the lines were intended only in one very specific context.” There’s no indication in the article that the lines are limited to any particular context, but maybe I’m not understanding it. The introduction by the editors certainly doesn’t say, “Here are some thoughts about sex in the context of a loving, consensual relationship.” I will quote the entire section in full – it’s just two paragraphs – and allow readers to decide whether or not I described “the full story” of the Psychology Today piece before giving my verdict:

How is sex a great lie detector?

Involuntary physiological reactions such as the wetness of a vagina and the stiffness of a penis are emotionally so satisfying (which means, simultaneously, so erotic) because they signal a kind of approval that lies utterly beyond rational manipulation. Erections and lubrication simply cannot be effected by willpower and are therefore particularly true and honest indices of interest. In a world in which fake enthusiasms are rife, in which it is often hard to tell whether people really like us or whether they are being kind to us merely out of a sense of duty, the wet vagina and the stiff penis function as unambiguous agents of sincerity.

A kiss is pleasurable because of the sensory receptivity of our lips, but a good deal of our excitement has nothing to do with the physical dimension of the act: It stems from the simple realization that someone else likes us quite a lot.

If I try, I can imagine that that last sentence intends to clarify that we’re only supposed to be considering kisses where the kisser does indeed like us quite a lot, which is a scenario that overlaps heavily (though not perfectly) with loving consensual relationships. If that’s the case, I can think of any number of other things a person might write that would do a better job of communicating that, not least among which is, “This is only true in the context of a loving, consensual relationship.”

(But again, to reiterate, it isn’t true, nor is it harmless, even in that context. And that context is not straightforward.)

So the problem not so much about people being offended as it is about the article simply being factually inaccurate – and inaccurate in a way that has the potential to lead to bad juju of many varieties, regardless of the context.