The Anxiety of (Sexual) Influence

Are onetime “unwanted advances” really a feminist issue?

Should a onetime pass get a pass?

The “unwanted sexual advance”—what tangled tales of backfired desires, bristling umbrage, and mutual misunderstanding lurk behind this sterile little phrase. In the right hands, such narratives can be great material for comic or satirical treatment: Look how obtuse humans can be in the throes of desire! What optimists we are about our charms and physical allures! But typically, those deploying this particular coinage find nothing remotely funny in such situations. Forget bumbling pathos or social ineptitude—in these accounts, it’s all trauma, all the time.

Is something being left out of the story, though? Do the recipients not wield just a tiny bit of power in such situations—the power to reject and humiliate the advancer, at the very least? And these days, given the moral high ground the accusers seem to occupy, there’s another form of power to consider: the power of public disgrace—available even when the accuser’s motives are ambiguous. Take Naomi Wolf’s much-discussed New York Magazine cover story recounting a long-ago unwanted sexual advance by Harold Bloom. (Read a recent Slate piece on the Wolf-Bloom hoopla here.)

If power comes in more than one guise, you will not hear Wolf discuss it. Instead, we learn from her and others that unwanted sexual advances demean and disempower the recipient, and being unwanted, should never have happened in the first place. Brandishing the phrase is thus the first step in extinguishing the behavior, soon to be forever purged from the repertoire of human mating conduct. Just to be clear, we’re not talking here about cases of ongoing unwanted sexual advances—or threats, or quid pro quo demands—otherwise known as “sexual harassment,” which should be subject to the most severe punishment, including loss of livelihood, property seizure, and potential incarceration. Here we’re speaking strictly of the one-time unwanted advance, as in the Wolf-Bloom contretemps. 

Public charges brought years after the event, a one-time advance by a prominent man, lasting injury to the female recipient—where have we heard this story before? Oh right, from Paula Jones. Like then-Gov. Clinton, professor Bloom took the “No” in stride and backed off. Were there any professional repercussions for these non-receptive advance recipients? No, in either case. So why are such advances regarded as a feminist issue? Because, according to Wolf and Jones, when the advance-maker professionally outranks the recipient, this is an abuse of power. Wolf also says this one-time advance by Bloom caused her grades to drop, caused her faith in herself and her work to plummet; it devastated her sense of being valuable to Yale as anything but a sex object, and it corrupted her entire educational experience.

Metaphors of downfall seem to pervade these narratives. Of course, sex does have a thorny relation to questions of social hierarchy generally, even beyond the professional ranks of the participants. Sex is traditionally coded as socially “low”: Located in the lower body rather than the more elevated regions like the brain, it’s symbolically assigned to the lower registers of the social hierarchy. Consider pornography, the lowest form of “low culture,” or displays of sexuality in public, often considered “low class.” Being caught in improper sexual situations is likewise socially demoting. (Jones’ legal suit against Clinton said that she suffered a potential loss of reputation due to his unwanted advance.) Conversely, what’s associated with the upper body is coded as socially elevated—cognition, rationality, the soul. Thus one culturally available narrative is that being advanced on sexually is socially lowering—or is to the extent that you accept these symbolic hierarchies.

Indeed, the phrase “unwanted sexual advance” smuggles more than a few unexamined assumptions into the social conversation, and not only about sex and class. Even the wording itself is problematic—it seems to imply that the outcome of the advance should be known prior to the outcome occurring. But do we all wear our desires written in neon letters on our foreheads? Do we even know in advance what they are? Surely one is occasionally caught by surprise—unexpectedly propelled from a non-desiring state into a desiring one by something in the moment, or the air, or the wine. Can anyone really be expected to know ahead of time whether an advance is wanted or unwanted, when desire itself is not an entirely stable condition to begin with? 

Possibly the coinage “unwanted sexual advance” is not such a useful addition to the social vocabulary of sex after all, particularly when the situations it’s supposed to describe aren’t reducible to a single dynamic. What human interaction is? Consider the two cases under discussion. One of the interesting contradictions of Wolf-and-Jones-style feminism is its apparent thralldom to the phallic mythos it’s also so deeply offended by. Wolf describes becoming “sick with excitement” when Bloom agreed to read her poetry. Why? Exactly because he was a charismatic and famous guy, because she wanted his approval, and wanted to be found attractive (as she relates in a thinly fictionalized account of the episode in her memoir Promiscuities). And let’s face it: The sexual privilege that accrues to Important Men accrues for exactly this reason.

But overinvesting in fantasies about idealized masculine icons invariably means being failed by them when they turn out to be flawed and insecure themselves—when it turns out that they want validation from those they’re supposed to validate. The photos running alongside Wolf’s article tell an interesting counternarrative: Wolf at 20, rather gorgeous; Bloom—at least in this undated photo—one of the less attractive men on the planet. Wolf may begrudge Bloom for trying to use her for validation (or sex, or both—yes, shockingly, sex is sometimes used for such purposes). If so, what she’s resenting, ironically enough, is the fact that she has power over him. For her looks and youth instead of her poems? Maybe—and he has power over her because of his fame and literary prowess, not his visage or physique. (And not just because he collected a paycheck from Yale.) What isn’t clear is that one fantasy is any more objectifying than the other.

There’s no doubt that being groped by someone you find unappealing can be offensive and disgusting. And irksome—for maybe a day or two. But Wolf writes, as late as 1997, that she’s still afraid of Bloom. What on earth is there to be afraid of? The only power he can possibly have over her is intellectual: namely, his literary judgment. Apparently Bloom played such a large role in Wolf’s literary imagination that she stopped writing poems after he failed to read hers. Yes, anyone with that much imaginary power really does deserve a public demoting. The problem is that whatever’s being so publicly worked out here, the phrase “unwanted sexual advance” does not elucidate it.

But having recently written the introduction to a new translation of Don Quixote—with its notorious projectile vomiting scene—presumably Bloom, if anyone, can appreciate the low comedy of his own failed wooing of Wolf: Instead of complying, Wolf threw up into the sink. Having vomited on the Great Man’s advances, surely Wolf can rest assured that she got her point across sufficiently 20 years ago. As we see from both Wolf’s and Jones’ public testimonies, unwanted advances often border on the ridiculous. In lieu of these damsel-in-distress narratives, how about laughter? A little ridicule goes a long way. The power actually doesn’t flow in only one direction in these encounters, nor does the vulnerability, even when the professional roles are—gasp!—asymmetrical. Sisters are powerful too, even more so when armed with a sense of humor.