While researching on the uses of Artificial Intelligence and sex-bots, apart from being largely repelled by the sight of men sticking their fingers into the open mouths of inert and dead-eyed naked rubber dolls, I am struck by the apparent absence of any real engagement in the literature on this phenomenon with the theoretical problems surrounding the question of sex and artifice.
So let’s meet Harmony (pictured above), The first generation of Realdollx who has been created by combining an AI app with a silicone sex doll, to enable her purchaser to not only engage in no-strings-attached sexual intercourse but also polite conversational foreplay. The doll can be customized to fit a range of preferences from frigid to promiscuous to sadomasochistic penchants, has 11 vagina options and hundreds of nipple variations. At the moment the AI is in early stages and by no means enables the more sophisticated user to discuss current affairs, the Kavanaugh confirmation or their latest Slavoj Žižek book. But at least they give the semblance of consciousness and consent, which is more than can be said for how a lot of successful men seem to prefer their sexual conquests these days.
But two of the most significant commentators in academia on the question of sex-bots, disagree on the prospective dangers, or benefits of these creations. Kathleen Richardson from De Montford University is a professor of Ethics and Culture of Robots and AI who launched the Campaign against Sex Robots in 2015. She argues that sex-bots are a deeply pernicious development that serve to reinforce and reproduce dangerous power structures and legitimize exploitation and sexual objectification of women and children in real life.
Kate Devlin on the other hand, a senior lecturer in the Department of Computing at Goldsmiths University of London working in the field of Human Computer Interaction and AI, believes sex-bots may in fact serve a therapeutic and even progressive, emancipatory function. She argues that they could act as a deterrent for sex-crimes and do not necessarily need to reproduce gender stereotypes or exploitative practices. They can, in her view, be modeled on more gender fluid ideals. The idea being that they need not be made in the image of buxom teenage girls as they thus far seem to have been, and could potentially serve as sexual artifice for all orientations of sexual activity. Incidentally there are male versions available but unsurprisingly these are far less in demand.
Whist I have sympathy for aspects of both these positions, I fear neither of them grasp the kernel of what is at stake in the question of sex and artifice. First of all, even though there is little evidence yet of the social impact whether positive or negative of sex-bots given their relative novelty and inaccessibility, I am quite sure that they will not pave the way toward diminishing misogynistic attitudes. I can’t imagine that a subservient receptacle for bodily fluids furnishes society with the tools it needs to start reducing it’s age-old thirst for violence against women and children. On the other hand, Devlin is right to suggest that sex-bots need not be solely the territory of male fantasy. Women are perfectly capable of fantasizing over cyborgs; Terminator, Robocop, Bender from Futurama anyone? But this is not really the point. As we all know, female fantasmatic tropes of robotic partners rarely revolve around the idea of complete domination over the body of a subservient, vulnerable or scared male.
The common sense approach to sex that seems to be apparent in these two above arguments for and against sex-bots, is that there is something inherently meaningful and even natural about the way that we have sex. And by natural I mean “instinctual” or biologically programmed. The Lacanian psychoanalytic approach is entirely more pessimistic and indeed suspicious of such easy explanations. There is in fact nothing natural nor paradoxically even meaningful about sex. In fact sex is completely artificial. It occupies and embodies an ontological void, it is, we could say, an abyss of meaning.
It is interesting to note then that the company who created Harmony and her silicone buddies is called Abyss Creations. This title (perhaps unwittingly, perhaps not) puts its finger so to speak on precisely the structural logic behind both the sexual relation and the uncanny and terrifying encounter with an Artificial Intelligence.
Whilst the vicissitudes of sexuality may be artificial, as counter-intuitive as it may sound , it is nevertheless underpinned by a structural logic. In Lacanian terms the phrase “the sexual relation does not exist” expresses the impossible and a-symmetrical relation between the sexes not as two biological nor physical categories but two logical subject positions governing a regime of sexual enjoyment. Either position may be occupied by any person regardless of sexual anatomy but correspond to masculine and feminine modes of enjoyment. These two irreconcilable positions depicted below in set theory (masculine to the left and feminine on the right) may be represented as follows:
I will not explain the graph here but please google “Graphs of Sexuation” to find ample explanations of the logic if you are so inclined. The graph originally appears in Lacan’s Seminar XX “Encore: On Feminine Sexuality The Limits of Love and Knowledge”.
Regarding the uncanny or unheimlich, this term was developed by Freud in his essay Das Unheimliche. It expresses the strange feeling of familiarity mixed with that alien quality often associated with the experience of seeing the face of someone who you have never met before and inexplicably noticing a similarity to someone you know. This haunting experience is analogous to the phantasmatic encounter with a robotic life form – depicted in different ways in films like Her, Ex-Machina and Bladerunner – giving the viewer the uneasy feeling “is anyone really ‘in there’?””
This is the abyss that we encounter in the face of the assumption of subjectivity which we are compelled to make in order to engage in any social or ethical encounter. We must assume someone is “in there” but we never really know. This in Lacanian terms is imaginary identification, necessary of course but ultimately a self-deception. It never really accounts for the real part of the encounter which always inexorably escapes any shared symbolic horizons. That part of the other which remains wholly unknowable.
The sexual act on the other hand involves another form of abyssal encounter. But this time it is a question of the impossibility of really knowing the enjoyment of the other and only ever experiencing the enjoyment in one’s own fantasy. This is why there are always three elements present in any person’s sexual activity. As well as their partner, the third party is the empty place holder of fantasy which may be occupied by whatever projection happens to fit the bill at the time; this could be another person, an idea or even an object.
The reason why sex bots are so problematic and yet so fascinating is that they bring out into the open precisely the artificial character of the sexual relation. In Lacanian terms the unbearable real of sexuality. The fact that an artificial doll may act as the representation of a sexual fantasy presents us with the true horror of subjectivity: the fantasy is the only thing that really sustains any of our relationships at all. This nugget of artificial wisdom is Lacan’s lasting legacy to us as we more forward into the realms of AI sex and love.
More to come on this topic here, but also:
For an in-depth discussion of AI, and the non-existent sexual relation see:
(Millar, I) 2018 “Ex-Machina Sex, Knowledge and Artificial Intelligence” in
Psychoanalytische Perspectieven Volume 36 (4) 2018 “On Ecrits”
Or for a discussion of Lacan, AI and enjoyment see:
(Millar, I) 2018 “Black Mirror: From Lacan’s Lathouse to Miller’s Speaking Body” in
Psychoanalytische Perspectieven Volume 36 (2) 2018 “Nothing less than the object a”
And forthcoming: Issue 29 of The Journal of the Centre for Freudian Research and Analysis:
(Millar, I) 2018 “The Sexual relation Does Not Exist But Does My Sex-Bot Know?”
Prompted as I often am, in that typical “feminist” way by annoying things that men say, today’s episode was particularly grating. (Let’s not even talk about Brett Kavanaugh). An Italian physicist named Alessandro Strumia has been suspended after a presentation at Cern where, during a seminar on gender issues in physics, the Prof claimed that male scientists were being discriminated against because of “ideology”. He stated physics was “invented and built by men, it’s not by invitation”. He gave that tired old argument of “scientific objectivity” to defend the purity of academic endeavor from what he saw as the corrosive and counter-productive effects of gender politics.
As a starting academic I can not think of a worse insult than the idea that my work would be held to a lower standard because I am female. But I also know, from my few years of being in academia, this does not and cannot happen. The work is either good or not, no amount of lipstick or hair flicks will help you to understand Lacan believe me. Any institutional “help” that women may have received to access traditionally male disciplines (I definitely did not receive any mind you) does not function to let in poor scholars who should not otherwise be there. In the case of the push towards gender equality in STEM subjects it has merely allowed women to even contemplate the possibility that this world is available to them, the rest is up to them. But the sad thing is, this man and men like him are not going to be in a minority and despite the fact that Cern have condemned his statement, people will believe his crap, probably all the more.
I think back to when I did my undergraduate degree in Philosophy and can indeed recall a few occasions when sexist remarks were made in relation to my choice of traditionally male discipline. But this did not concern me much at the time. I think that’s because I had such a clever mother that female intellectual inferiority just wasn’t even a question. (My father is of course equally clever but then he has the public confirmation of that as most clever men do.)
I often wonder what my mum, Sylvia, would say were she here to witness the state of the world. Given that she would recoil in disgust and horror when “Mrs T” came on the TV, I can’t imagine to what lengths she would have gone to avoid catching a glimpse of Pussy Grabber in Chief. I don’t think she could have imagined this strange dark retrogressive universe even possible. But then there are many things she would not have imagined about today. Like the idea that we are talking about feminism again as if it were a new idea.
I mean in the 80’s me, mum and sis were happily watching that subversive pair of liberated bints Cagney and Lacey with tea and chocolate digestives and looking forward to a bright future. Feminism was the answer to an old problem and therefore was not spoken about much. It was pretty much taken for granted that women had been structurally disadvantaged, and we didn’t even talk about “patriarchy”. It was old news. Little did we know what was to come.
My mum was not particularly into being a “woman” as such. Her uniform was dark blue jeans, boots, men’s white shirts and crew neck sweaters. She never wore skirts, prints patterns or anything that was explicitly feminine. This was not a statement, it was just what she felt least conspicuous in. And given that she was prone to falling over, spilling food and general disorderliness, any form of deliberate attempt at womanly masquerade would have been an impractical extra cognitive effort that she just wasn’t prepared for. When you are often to be found confusing inanimate objects with ethical beings, simplicity is key. There are only so many biscuits you can apologize to if you want to get things done.
Now, I am making my mother out to be an imbecile. Please don’t misunderstand me; as I said, we are talking here about one of the most intelligent, cultured and sophisticated minds you could ever hope to encounter. She studied English at Oxford on a scholarship, could speak Latin, recite whole Shakespeare sonnets, quote Byron, Pliny and Goethe at opportune moments, refer to medieval philosophers in party games, cooked authentic Roman banquets for children’s birthday parties, she knew world history, opera, mythology, botany, spoke 4 languages, had read the whole bible (for literary reasons obvs), could have debated global politics with Jeremy Paxman (though not without telling him to fuck off several times), marched against nuclear weapons, Apartheid, and all the other relevant causes of her time, and on top of that, devoted her life to looking after her 5 children.
But despite her disavowal of being a “little woman” there was one way in which I suppose she was extremely “feminine”. Regardless of all these remarkable talents, she thought she was completely useless. The most remarkable thing about her in fact, wasn’t that she was learned, witty and hilarious but that she had absolutely no idea of the significance of her gifts or the effect she had on people. She put her unique combination of competencies down to sheer fluke of memory and any knowledge or ability she had accrued was a result of aimlessness and a wasted life. I have come to realize, this penchant for self-denigration is a particularly womanly attribute.
Because she had spent her best years in the unpaid and unrecognized profession of “mother”, she had no self-esteem and suffered from acute anxiety and depression. Don’t get me wrong I am very glad and grateful that she was always there at home but I also know that it made her very sad that she didn’t have a “career”. It was an impossible choice she made and one that women have been making for thousands of years and will no doubt continue to make.
I would have done anything to make my mum happy, but I know she would not have been my mum if she had been. The two of us spent many years sitting in cafes and restaurants comparing notes on who was most depressed and each attempting to encourage the other to be happier, only being made sadder by the other’s self-doubt. Her insecurity ran so deep as to inhabit her whole way of interacting with the outside world. Wherever we went I would watch after her every move anticipating that she would drop her glasses, trip over her bag, or walk into the door. It was a full-time concern, and largely justified, I mean this is someone who nearly burnt the house down after putting a plastic electric kettle on top of an open flame, coz she “forgot” we hadn’t used a metal boiler for 20 years. Not to mention the time she called me from the toilets of a train to tell me what awful person she was stuck sitting next to, not realizing she was accidentally leaning against the emergency intercom, broadcasting her insults to the whole carriage.
One day I came down to breakfast to find her at the kitchen table with a massive black eye. She had gone on her usual early morning trip to the shops and had slipped on the ice. Instead of telling anyone she just cleaned the kitchen and listened to the radio on her own for 3 hours, and still made sure she had a hot croissant and fresh juice waiting for me. My mum tried many things to improve her life but every option was foiled by crippling self-doubt and genuine white hot fear of humiliation. But, hey less of the sympathy, she was no sad-sack. At the regular, drunken and somewhat notorious dinner parties we had over the years she never failed to entertain all comers with her countless tales of hilarity, literary apercus and bungled actions followed by trenchant outbursts of righteous rage ending with head on the table in despair and tears.
But after years of inexplicable fear and trembling, when she actually found out she was terminally ill she never cried once. A strange fatalistic determination fell over her and she underwent her chemotherapy with the composure of a Trappist monk, not a single word of self-pity or anger was uttered as her body was devoured and her faculties stripped away. The horrors she endured I still cannot bare to think about.
Among the many awful moments during her viscous illness from lung cancer, I remember one particularly devastating conversation in the intensive care ward. After several tortuous days with a massive tube down her throat in order to breath, the consultant told us they would have to perform a tracheotomy. Even though she was clearly about to die, at the time I still could not fathom that possibility. So when the doctor told us the procedure was the only humane thing to do, my main concern was if they took her voice box out I would never hear my mum’s voice again. That was it, my favourite voice, lost forever. The metaphysics of it were baffling to me, all of those words and thoughts and jokes would be removed and put into a surgical tray and flushed away into oblivion!
The following days after the operation as she lay in a morphine induced semi -conscious state having blood pumped off her lungs into buckets next to the bed, she would communicate to us with a pad and pen. It took her a long time to write, but even then, everything she said was funny, her lifelong sense of morbid cynicism was finally vindicated and her one liners were better than ever. But the best and the last one that unknowingly summed up the greatness of her ironic talent had us poised in anticipation as she limply tried to scrawl the words down. Slowly we read each word as she wrote them; “Get…me…my…pen”. My brothers, sister and I burst into tears and laughter as we realized what she had done as her final characteristic flourish in defiance of logic and reality. And then my mum did the gesture that had become so familiar in those last two weeks. She slowly lifted her arm up which was covered in tubes, gestured with her hand towards her head in an attempt to tap her temple and roll her eyes back as if to say “How stupid am I!”.
When she died apart from the grief of losing my mum and best friend, I felt another terrifying and more abstract existential anxiety. Where does all that knowledge go? What happens to the unique un-digitizable archive of her mind that we can never access again?
My brother often wonders if perhaps science will one day find a way to reproduce her genetic material perfectly enough to make a version of her brain, or even just a virtual representation of her in holographic form. But the curious thing is, had my mother been the person she wanted to be, she would not have been the person she was. And how can science replicate that? Perhaps we should ask Professor Strumia.
The problem with doing a PhD on obscure psychoanalytic theory is that you spend a lot of time on your own writing texts that few people will ever read, living in a false universe where the choir you are preaching to is hyper-aware of sexism, racism, homophobia, fascism, capitalism, patriarchy, misogyny, and all the other scourges of the planet, thinking that the nasty, dumb world will eventually catch up with all these clever and important thoughts and – worst of all – writing excruciatingly long sentences.
One can hardly be blamed therefore for needing to cut through these smug, self-congratulatory delusions of grandeur (is that a tautology?) with a daytime TV reality check and the occasional episode of Loose Women. I mean, sometimes it can be entertaining and informative to see what new lifestyle tips they are pumping out to housewives, mothers, housebound and unemployed consumers. Just yesterday I saw a woman on This Morning, whose ambition is to grow the largest bum in the world through a combination of injections and peanut butter sandwiches, being lectured by a concerned Holly Willoughby on the health risks involved in her chosen career. Well it certainly gave me pause for thought.
So whilst I was “accidentally” watching This Morning, I saw beautiful Tess Holliday, the plus size model who has controversially become the latest cover-girl for Cosmopolitan magazine, being quizzed by Phil and Holly on what message she was trying to get across by daring to appear on the mag with all her fat still on! She very calmly replied words to the effect of there is no message other than that she exists. Why should there be a message?
Well, if you didn’t already know, this is apparently important because poor Piers Morgan was so upset by the vision of her disobedient flesh that he took to Twitter to accuse her of promoting obesity, and naturally demanded that she explain herself. The ever innocuous Phil was merely underlining, as any evenhanded broadcaster should, that perhaps Morgan had a point in identifying her as responsible for the strain on the NHS caused by our national obesity epidemic? (or National Health Society as he called it… Bupa for you then Phil?) Holliday did an admirable job of keeping her cool when asked such ridiculous and offensive questions. I need not emphasize the outrageousness of Morgan’s usual idiotic bile – but why are you so angry Piers, come on tell us? – shocked as I am that the housewives’ favourite Phil could also be such a closet fascist. Surely not!
I was reminded then of a Fay Weldon book that I picked up this summer: The Fat Woman’s Joke. The novel written at the height of 1960s 2nd wave feminism foregrounds the politicization of female flesh, gender politics, suburban disillusionment, and the attempted (yet failed) rejection of the patriarchal institution of marriage that was happening at the time, and serves as a perfect illustration of the much misunderstood Lacanian dictum “the sexual relation does not exist”.
The protagonist Esther Sussman leaves her unpleasant and adulterous husband Alan and her life of domestic drudgery and chintz and locks herself away in protest in a small grubby flat to eat endless tins of chicken curry, flabby luncheon meat, jam sandwiches and hot buttered toast. The conversations Esther has with her doll-like and dim, yet concerned suburban housewife friend Phyliss, who desperately tries to get her back to “normal”, articulate her depressing journey from subjugation to realization to emancipation and eventually back to demoralized acceptance of slavery to her husband’s whims.
Simultaneously Susan, the younger, slimmer other-woman who Alan Sussman uses to help alleviate his mid- life crises, details the excruciating feeling of being nothing more than an object of lust for this “great man” whom she adores, much to the admiration and envy of her ever so slightly less attractive friend Brenda. Alan is fascinated by his secretary Susan’s young lithe body and she is fascinated by being captured in his gaze, believing herself to be existing in a utopia outside the confines of oppressive and stale marital convention. After a particularly unpleasant description of his use and abuse of her as a “body”, Susan ultimately finds herself left again when he goes sniveling back to the comfortable and comforting flesh of his obedient yet obese wife.
Sadly the women in the book, however much they try to rebel, are entirely defined by what the men want from them and the conclusion is wholly depressing: there is no escape. Whilst the book is about a woman eating, it’s not really about food, but hunger. Weldon is accused of not really being a feminist since her female characters still end up chasing male fantasies and ultimately land in the shit. But isn’t that the point? You can’t win, fat, thin, or invisible; you are a woman, and (some) men will hate you for it. 50 years on when a woman’s body is still a legitimate site of public debate, blame, shame, and male opprobrium, it seems nothing has really changed.
Still hungry? I know I am.
In the last few weeks my misogyny levels have been through the roof. What with Love Island being the most pervasive cultural obsession of the day on the one hand, and the World Cup being held up as a beacon of hope for the fragile English psyche on the other, it’s been a non-stop slow drip of, by turns, casual, blatant, institutionalized and intellectualized woman hating.
Just like women – and unlike the ones on Love Island – misogyny comes in all shapes and sizes. It’s not always in your face and it’s not always conscious. And even if you think you like women you can still be a misogynist; in fact, you can be a woman and a misogynist! Ironically misogyny really doesn’t discriminate. This is the power of Lacanian psychoanalytic theory: it matters nothing what your objective material situation is, ambivalence reins supreme and the unconscious knows no contradiction.
Watching the perfectly formed, silicone enhanced and glistening specimens on Love Island vying for each other’s bodily fluids, it’s easy to forget the gender politics at work in this social experiment. We may even be fooled into thinking that, as millennials and younger, we are all equally doomed to vapid self-obsession under the gender-neutral gaze of capitalism. I have also been wondering why the fervor over the World Cup, the affection the England Team have apparently inspired across socio-economic, racial and cultural divides, and the fetishization of the players as heroes, bothers me so much, given that football could now be for everyone we are told. (Incidentally I used to play for Arsenal Girls, but gave up when I became uncomfortable with the levels of racism among my team mates).
Then I was reminded of something the French philosopher Jean-Claude Milner pointed out in a lecture last month: the World Cup works so well politically, because it presents the perfectly functioning male body as a sort of hypnotic charm to distract us from the writhing misery of the wretched and dying caught up in the monumental and unceasing refugee crisis kept just out of sight. (In Lacanian terms, the image of the imaginary, self-contained, autonomous organism covers up the real fragmented shitting, bleeding, traumatized body). The obvious question then becomes, I think, why the same sort of patriotic adoration could not exist for female bodies? Because, quite simply, ours are rarely displayed as objects of national pride and honour, but at best objects of lust or ridicule and at worst vessels of contempt, guilt and shame.
Popular culture aside though, it was in fact via a contretemps at the Birkbeck institute of the Humanities on the 27th of June 2018, between British academic, literary and feminist psychoanalytic theorist Jacqueline Rose, French philosopher, linguist and “Normaliene” Jean-Claude Milner, and Slovenian philosopher and Lacanian cultural theorist Slavoj Žižek, where the question of the many faces of misogyny was for me most ironically and aptly depicted.
Milner, a highly respected figure of the ‘68 generation, was to debate Žižek under the title “Is Sexuality Compatible with Human Rights”. Milner was in town anyway as he had been invited over from Paris, by my institution (Kingston University), to participate in a week-long Lacanian summer academy “The Unconscious and Politics”. I along with a male colleague were his minders for the week, which was naturally a delight and honour.
Now, the title of the talk should give you a clue as to its significance in relation to current events and the general abysmal state of gender politics. It may strike the most unacademic of readers as strange as to why Birkbeck chose to invite two aged, white males to discuss a topic which so crucially implicates women (not to mention non-white and non-binary people). Of course, there is no reason why they should not be able to discuss the question in abstract theoretical and indeed psychanalytic terms. But what was so striking about the debate was that, as Jacqueline Rose pointed out, given that these two men are famous for their profound, yet distinct applications of Lacanian psychoanalysis – a radical and subversive method of critique – neither of them used it adequately in their arguments.
Without rehearsing the debate here, I shall limit my commentary to the political and practical thrust of the two gentlemen’s positions. Žižek, in his usual counter intuitive way, likened the #MeToo movement to the Trump ideology, calling them “two sides of the same coin”. In short, the one feeds off the logic of the other, creating a cultural space for them to coexist symbiotically. In effect, Žižek’s argument, far from being radical, diminishes the power of the #MeToo movement by simply slotting it in under the catch-all group of populist xenophobia. In other words, Žižek sees the rising sensitivity about “harassment” as a veiled fear of the proximity of a menacing and encroaching other, thereby in one fell swoop delegitimizing women’s struggle to uncover everyday forms of sexism by implicitly calling them racist. Clever Žižek, very clever.
Milner on the other hand took great care to describe the trajectory, as he saw it, of the juridico-philosophical aspect to gender relations, and how this has recently undergone a significant watershed moment in the wake of #MeToo. Apparently, now for the first time, women qua parties in a sexual relation are being recognized by culture in general as structurally weaker than men (an important distinction to make as opposed to objectively, physically or materially weaker, which are contingent factors theoretically speaking). This means, according to Milner, that women are now able to claim sexual harassment is an institutionalized part of life that they now wish to address, and that by extension there is no such thing as (legal) consent to sex. Milner however fails to make the distinction between women and men as subjects, as distinct from biological bodies, individuals, or legal categories, and seems to lump all these formulations together into two homogenous, yet inequitable blobs.
Milner goes on to make the observation that Trump wants to be the world’s Harvey Weinstein. Although he did not spell it out, let’s imagine Trump as a big, bullying Freudian Totemic father (remember he said he would sleep with his own daughter were they not related), terrifying all feminized countries into sleeping with him, otherwise no starring role in his next trade deal. We only have to recall the depressing image of Theresa May being led by the hand by Trump into Blenheim palace to see this logic at work.
The answer then, in his view, is that countries in conflict with the United States should also pull the #MeToo card and claim structural inequality, rather than try and fight might with might. Juridically speaking this would supposedly be more effective, even though more humiliating to national pride. The idea that women – like countries in a geopolitical Love Island harassed by Trump in a pair of Tarzan speedos – are worse off by virtue of the inherent structural, as opposed to merely objective factors, was being presented as a theoretical revelation by Jean-Claude Milner, a dyed in the wool Lacanian.
This is where, it seems, he leaves his flank open to criticism.
Following the two men’s talks, Jacqueline Rose arose from the audience to deliver both a trilby crushing blow to Milner’s argument, along with her usual derision of Žižek’s gimmicky Lacanian tricks. She thanked the men for their talk but reminded Milner in no uncertain terms that he is saying nothing new and that Žižek is harmfully mistaken in his blunt analysis.
Rose pointed out that feminist thinkers had predated Milner’s argument by five decades, had he cared to reference their work. The notion that there is no such thing as consent and no such thing as equality is called, news flash: radical feminism. It goes back to, Rose reminds us, Adrienne Rich’s essay Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence, and has also been the position of Andrea Dworkin, Catherine MacKinnon and many other feminist theorists who have worked extensively and relentlessly on this question.
Rose also highlighted the necessity to separate out the question of sexual harassment and the problem of sexual difference as operating within two different discourses, and not to be conflated. #MeToo must not be tarred with the same brush as some sort of pseudo political correctness; it simply calls out a structural inequality that must be challenged, sexual harassment must stop wherever it is found she affirms. Secondly, and ironically, as Rose enumerates, the shortcomings of some of the feminist analyses that Milner was pilfering from without referencing was in fact lacking in exactly the psychoanalytic nuance that he had been invited there to evoke. Rose reminds us “there are no simply men or simply women”. That is to say, none of us are able to fully assume our subject position as male or female due to the inherent trauma of sexual difference. This is precisely what is problematic when applied to juridical frameworks and “Human Rights” legislation that are unable to account for this logical impasse, and where a Lacanian analysis becomes vital. Sexuation, in Lacanian terms, is a purely logical and formal category, not a genetic nor biological one. Therefore, it is not a new idea that structure precedes objective material conditions.
The very reason that these two Lacanian scholars where supposedly the best men for the job of discussing sexuality and human rights was completely absent from their talks. It took a woman to point it out; not just any woman, admittedly.
Apart from this obvious solecism, the problem with Milner and Žižek’s analysis is that, whilst it has questionable value in the abstract, it has even less value in practical terms in the very real struggle to legitimize female voices against sexual abuse and tackle misogyny in its most stealthy and pervasive forms. By identifying the big ogres like Trump who are actively and proudly woman hating, they fail to see the subtle and soul-destroying ways most women have to put up with everyday “fragile phalluses”.
By way of example, earlier in the week I had been driven crazy by the fact that no matter how hard I tried to walk along-side a certain academic and make delightful yet searing aperçus as I escorted him to his lectures, he would constantly drop back behind me, making it impossible for me to be at his side. At first I thought he was just very slow, but soon realized he deliberately slowed so as not to have to engage with me. Yet, he had no trouble walking alongside my male colleague. I had also asked him his view on the recent media controversy over Germaine Greer’s comments on trans people and her interesting position on rape and consent. He was apparently unaware of any of this, or at least did not want to discuss it with me. In the end I resigned myself to glumly walking ahead and letting the two men discuss the psychoanalytic and philosophical topics I myself am researching, while I kicked pebbles.
As was being so beautifully demonstrated by various splendid and illustrious academics simultaneously that day: you don’t have to be a Trumpish ogre to be a misogynist and you don’t have to be on Love Island to feel like a piece of meat.