DRMacIver's Notebook

Power, baby, power

Power, baby, power

I'm continuing the theme of notebook posts prompted by random passages from books. I've also decided to deliberately do this on books that aren't from my daily rereading practice to try and use it to integrate some of the books I read less often into my memetic domus.

Today's reading comes from "I'm very into you", which is a collection of correspondences between Kathy Acker and McKenzie Wark. This section comes from Page 59. I also randomly selected a line (line 8) because Acker apparently hates paragraphs and this made it hard to select a passage manually.

The result is:

I remember going to some Pomo conference Sylvère had a hand in, the early days, and that creep [Bernard Henri] Levy gives a speech (after Sollers has done his usual blather) all about Eve coming out of the rib of Adam, and therefore and therefore... So XXXXXX, very beautiful, asks him a question. Then she disappears. An hour or two later, she reappearing, we ask XXXXXX where she's been. "With Levy." "Why?" "Power, baby, power."

Two things most strike me about this exchange:

  1. It is very unsurprising, despite how nice it would be to imagine that human nature doesn't work this way.
  2. It strikes me as very gendered.

I'm interested in unpacking the gendered nature of it. I can just about imagine (possibly inaccurately) the script playing out this way if both people involved were women, or both people involved were men, but the thing I can't imagine is it playing out that way if the speaker was a woman and XXXXXX was a man.

Specifically what I can't imagine about it is not that a male XXXXXX wouldn't have been attracted to the powerful woman, but that he would so freely admit it. I genuinely don't know whether it's typical for men to experience power as attractive in a woman (my guess would be yes, but I don't really understand either men or attraction well enough to predict this confidently), but it definitely feels off script for men to admit that.

My impression is that the official cultural script for men being attracted to powerful women is that it's a shame/submission thing. The domme is the official script for the powerful woman who wields power in a sexy manner, and an intrinsic part of the sexiness of this script is partly that you're going off the official gendered script.

I have at least two easily available hypotheses for why this is:

A third possibility is that I'm just wrong and this would have played out exactly the same way when gender flipped. I don't think this is the case, but even if it is I'm interested in where I've got these scripts from.

One reason power might be intrinsically sexy is its streamlining nature for a lot of the process of generating attraction. In the mutual escalation that is flirting, one of the things that slows it down is a safety aspect - not so much physical safety (also that, but that's not the thing that's directly relevant here). People are hesitant in escalation because of fear of rejection and consequences, and power acts as a certain shield to that. Power essentially lets you take shortcuts in the flirting process.

Some of those shortcuts are bad but work, because they involve violating boundaries because you know you can get away with it. Violating boundaries is another of those things which it would be nice to pretend doesn't work but actually does - the reason not to do it is unethical, not that it doesn't work. e.g. just kissing someone fairly early on in the process whether they want you to or not is a pretty effective way of polarizing and finding out if they're into it. You shouldn't do it, but if you're powerful you can probably get away with it.

This may partly explain the gendered nature of power as sexy - in gender training women get trained not to enforce their boundaries, and men get trained to enforce them too rigidly and interpret anything as an attack. If you do this to a woman, you might get away with it. If you do this to a man, you might get punched.

This also, perhaps, explains part of why so many men with power end up turning out to be sexual predators - they've essentially learned that violating boundaries will get them sex. My guess is that many of these men didn't start out rapey, their sense of appropriate behaviour just gradually eroded over time. This doesn't absolve them of responsibility - their actions were still ultimately unethical - but it puts an interesting spin on it. Are we actively training people with power to be ethically worse? If so, what can we do about it? Relying on people with power to be virtuous enough to resist that training doesn't seem like a good solution.