The latest round of gender wars began, I'm told, in an elevator in Dublin some months ago--- perhaps even a year ago. The story is simple enough. A woman with something of a reputation as a blogger was speaking at a conference. One night very, very late, she was returning from a party, and there in the hotel elevator, a man, presumably another attendee, told her he was quite taken with her work and asked her for coffee in his room. She declined and went on alone to her own room. End of encounter. We know nothing about the man; there's some doubt that he existed at all. In any case, no one has ever named him, and he's never come forward. But the invitation in the elevator has unleashed a whole scorched-earth campaign in the gender wars on line.
I'd have thought the moment in the elevator was simply a small and rather polite social moment. The assumption is that the man was propositioning the blogger, though, given the conference setting, it's quite possible that he was just a fanboy offering coffee and gushing conversation to someone famous in the conference world. Nonetheless, so far as I can tell from the original story, the entire encounter was brief, calm, and courteous. The man asked her for coffee--- whatever that may have meant ---and when she declined, bade her goodnight politely. Somehow the account of the elevator moment immediately became a tale implicit with danger and overtones of violation. One can hardly blame the man for never coming forward. He's been portrayed all over the web as "Elevator Guy", a presumed harasser and attempted rapist. The blogger and her allies have certainly not hesitated to make the story one about an escape from danger. Needless to say, I didn't think he'd done anything wrong.
Would I have asked a girl for coffee in an elevator? Yes. Certainly. If I'd found myself in an elevator with someone I fancied, or with someone I simply hoped to have a conversation with over coffee, I'd have no problem with a polite invitation. And if she happened to be someone I'd wanted to ask out all night, the elevator would be a place with a lot to recommend it. There's always a clear chance of rejection, and the elevator at least isn't public. Being turned down in public is humiliating enough, and all the more so since the rejection would affect any chances one might have of flirting with other girls. What girl would choose to go out with someone who'd already been humiliated in public and rejected by other girls? The elevator is safer ground.
I'm told that part of the gender wars rants growing out of the elevator incident ("ElevatorGate") is a cold assertion that any male who'd try to get a girl away from a crowd or her friends to flirt is obviously one step away from being a serial killer/rapist. Once again, what should be ordinary social interaction and courtship ritual gets turned into open hostilities. I can't imagine trying to flirt with a girl in the midst of her friends. There's competition for attention, there are distractions, and what group of girls anywhere ever has told one of its members to go off and have fun and make out with a new male? Call that an attitude based on either envy or social solidarity, but it's there. The group won't tolerate a solitary outsider. An equal-sized group of other males, quite possibly. But not a single male, not someone interested in one of the group members. I've been reading blog posts and articles about how any male who'd try to ask a girl to leave her group is dangerous and evil. The word "creepy"--- implying dangerous ---gets used with increasing frequency. And not just for the lone male seeking to separate a girl from the group, but for almost any male engaged in open flirting.
The incident in the elevator has led to a long and bitter series of attacks on the idea of flirtation and on the idea of sexual interest itself. The idea of the courtship dance itself has been attacked and determined to be an affront to any ideals of "social justice". To be in favor of seductions, flirtations, or offers is to be deemed an enemy of womankind and social justice. Lines are being drawn, and of course the argument is no longer about a polite offer and a polite rejection in a Dublin hotel. It's all about violence and oppression and a disdain for anything like sexual interest and sex as ritual and play.
I believe in courtship and mating rituals, and I always believe in courtesy. I believe that sex and flirtations shouldn't be battlefields, and that there should be a sense of play and delight between men and women in social situations. Any social setting, any interaction, always has the potential for flirtation and exchanges. I do like that--- the rituals of flirtation, the recognition that any moment can become the first moment of a flirtation or seduction. Courtesy, yes, always. And politeness. Take those things as givens. What I don't like and don't understand is the hostility out there, the idea that social rituals are really a kind of battlefield, a place where any sexual interest is some kind of hostile and oppressive act.
The current age claims to be sexually open, or at least sexually knowledgeable. I have my doubts. Desire (and especially male desire) is regarded as suspect. Any social interaction must be purged of anything that might be sexual, any social interaction at all is...suspect. I'm assuming that any conversations and introductions are now regarded as hostile acts. I suppose that striking up a conversation now is an act regarded as oppressive and tantamount to violence.
I will not give up a sense of ritual, a sense that the social world has the promise of romance and flirtations and even physical passion threaded all through it. I will not give up introductions and the eighteenth-century kinds of conversation and flirtation that I admire. Strange thing, mind you. I'm a social-democrat by belief, and I've always thought of social justice as something political worth supporting. The term has been stolen, really, by people who want to turn any possible interaction between men and women into a skirmish, into part of a no-quarter-given war. I won't give in to that. I won't give up a world where desire and play are valued, where a polite offer or introduction may or may not be accepted, but is nonetheless not regarded as an attack.