Meet your privilege
Tom Allen put up an interesting post a few days ago. More interesting than the post, though, is the comments that came afterwards. I started to go point by point to rebut them, but decided I wanted to use them as a launching point, rather than a destination.
But I have to start out in another direction.
I’ve taught at six colleges/universities in two states in the last decade. I’ve seen just about everything a student can throw at me, and most of it multiple times. What I never had to come face-to-face with, however, was my male privilege. That was brought home to me this semester when an office-mate of mine developed a problem with one of her male students.
He called her, “Darling,” and “Sweetheart.” This is not, in and of itself, humiliating language. But when it is a student addressing a professor this way, it is a violation of numerous social norms. It is an attempt on his part, whether he is aware of it or not, to assert his position in society as a male over her position in society as a female. It is an attempt to claim a closeness to her that is inappropriate.
As we discussed how she could handle it, and if it was worthy of greater paygrades than our own, she related to me how she was often challenged by immigrant male students in her own classroom. This is nothing I have ever experienced. As a male teacher, even if a person from a male-dominated culture walks into my room, I have the privilege of greater standing in his or her eyes than my female colleague would.
Perhaps I’m just not cute enough, but I’ve never had students diminish me with terms of endearment, either. I can’t imagine that the same student who did this to my colleague would ever think to speak to me like that. Why? Because I’m a man, and men don’t get spoken to that way.
I was uncomfortable when I realized this. My colleague is a very intelligent and wonderful person. She deserves every bit of respect that I get. But she will have to fight for it in a way I never will because I am male and she is not. That’s privilege.
So let’s take that understanding of privilege and unpack it with the message that Margot Weiss is trying to deliver. In her interview with Salon, she is quoted as writing:
These [sexual] experiments are more possible and more accessible to those with class, race and gender privilege: heterosexual men playing with sexism, white bodies at a charity slave auction, professional information technology (IT) workers with several rooms filled with custom-made bondage toys.
As a submissive man, I tend to avoid the word, “slave,” when I talk about my relationship. It isn’t because of any legal standing, though, it’s because I have an idea of what that term has always meant. A slave is someone who has no choice in their condition of servitude, and who can be punished without fear of legal reprisal for refusal to obey. That isn’t me.
But as a white man, I have a far different emotional attachment to the word “slave” than a black man might. I don’t have to carry the understanding that people actually died so that I would never have to be called “slave.” If I were to use that with respect to my standing in my relationship, there would be no further connotation of it than what I put into it. That’s privilege.
As a submissive man, I sometimes defend Mistress Delila’s power relationship with me. However, no one would ever think that I was forced into this relationship. No one would think that she physically overpowered me and I developed some sort of Stockholm syndrome. When I submit, everyone who knows it understands that I do so willingly.
What if I was a submissive woman? I’ve listened to enough BDSM’rs talk to know that much of what MaleDom’s do could easily get them in trouble with the law for domestic abuse. Much of their normal power relationship would be considered de facto abuse by a large swath of the medical and mental health communities. If anyone thinks that there is a problem with my submission; then they think the problem is in my brain, not in my partner’s overwhelming position of authority and brute strength. That’s privilege.
As a submissive man, I will get in a car and drive for a bit over two hours to spend a weekend with Mistress Delila. Why? Because I can afford to do it (barely). My social standing comes with just enough income to be able to afford such things. When I walk into the hotel, no one will look at me twice. They will assume that I belong there. The way I talk, the way I dress, the way I carry myself – these are things that mark my social class, and they tell the nice people at the hotel, “Don’t worry. He’s one of US!”
That’s the way things are in our society. I don’t have to like them – and I don’t like many of them. But I can’t deny that they exist. And any person like Weiss who looked at my situation would have to honestly explain how my privilege in society allows me the luxury to express my sexuality as is natural for me to do it. Just as she would then go on to explain how social mores work against me doing so. That’s the job of an academic.