Dr. Ruth Westheimer has been the subject of controversy over the last few days for comments she made in interviews and on Twitter about consent — views which are strongly at odds with what she’s written on the subject in the past. I wrote about this stuff a bit yesterday, but since then Dr. Ruth gave an interview with a Washington Post blogger in which she expanded on and underscored her new position:
“Loud and clear: In the Jewish tradition, it says that if that part of the male anatomy is aroused, the brain flies out of the head. It also says a man doesn’t have enough blood for two heads. What does it mean? If a man and a woman — or two men and two women — are naked in bed together, there is no way that, in the middle, he or she can say, “I changed my mind” and leave. I think people have to take the responsibility that if they are in bed together, they are willing to have some kind of sexual experience. She has no business in bed with him, and he has no business in bed with her if they don’t have an understanding that they will have sex.”
These attitudes received a lot of support on Twitter this week, so it’s worth turning down the snark a bit and saying just what exactly is so wrongheaded and dangerous about them. Here’s a list of nine ways she’s wrong:
One, there’s the business of “the Jewish tradition” — the aphorism that she previously credited to the Talmud about the brain shutting down when the prick stands up. I’ve heard this saying many times (I grew up in New York City, and I like old stuff), and I’ve never heard it as a defense of predatory sexuality. It doesn’t mean that once you get going you can’t stop yourself. It means that people who are turned on often make dumb decisions — foregoing birth control, having sex in unsafe locations, cheating on partners. It’s an observation, not a defense, and to use it as a Get Out Of Jail Free card for bad behavior is a repudiation of everything Dr. Ruth used to stand for in sex education.
Two, Westheimer claims that “there is no way that, in the middle” of sex a man or a woman can “say ‘I changed my mind’ and leave.” Sure there’s a way. You just do it. You stop. If your house was on fire, you’d stop. You can stop. Claiming you can’t stop is rapey balderdash.
But why would you stop? That’s number three and it’s not that complicated. Maybe you ate some bad seafood. Maybe you’ve got a leg cramp. Maybe you got a phone call saying that your dog died. There’s a hundred reasons why a person could decide — without it reflecting negatively at all on the person they’re in bed with — that they’re going to need a raincheck. It happens to most of us eventually, and it’s not a big deal. At all.
Fourth, there’s this: Maybe it does reflect negatively on the person you’re with, and that’s okay too. Maybe you’ve realized that being in bed with this person was a really bad idea. Maybe they let it slip that they’re not really single. Maybe you thought you had a condom and you don’t and the person you’re with responds to that in an obnoxious way. Maybe they say something belittling or insulting. Maybe you’re sobering up and realizing that this whole thing was a mistake. Maybe they’ve got horrible body odor. Whatever the reason, you wanted to before, and now you don’t want to any more — and if you don’t want to, you can stop. In fact, you should stop. There is, as Dr. Ruth herself wrote years ago, “no such thing as a point of no return, a point at which one no longer has the right to decide what will be done to one’s body.” If you want to bail, it’s your right to bail. So bail.
Three and four are lists of reasons, and number fiive is this: You don’t need a reason. Your body, your choice. Period.
“People have to take the responsibility,” she says, “that if they are in bed together, they are willing to have some kind of sexual experience.” This sentence is responsible for numbers six, seven, and eight.
Six is the fact that expressing willingness to have “some kind of sexual experience” isn’t the same as expressing willingness to have any kind of sexual experience. If you want X, and they want X plus Y, and they get petulant or coercive about Y, you know what? They just lost X. They’re being a jerk. Walk away.
Seven is that what right-now-you wants is not a contract that future-you is obligated to uphold. One of the great things about sex is that it’s an opportunity to learn a lot of intimate stuff about someone else really quickly, and sometimes that means that you’re going to learn stuff that’s going to make you want to put your pants back on. Sad for them, maybe sad for you, but if that’s where you’re at, put your damn pants on.
Eight is this: People get in bed with each other without wanting sex all the time. My dad once spent a night being spooned by a friend whose wife had just died. I’ve shared beds platonically at conferences more times than I can count.
And yes, people who are attracted to each other sometimes get in bed together without wanting sex too. “You can stay over if you like, but we’re not going to fool around” is a thing that people say. It’s a thing I’ve said, and it’s a thing I’ve had said to me.
That may not make any sense to Dr. Ruth, but you know what? It doesn’t have to. You know why?
Because nine: It’s none of her goddamn business.