A Seductive Power Disturbing #MeToo

Echoing the global #MeToo movement, Chinese social media have raised a new wave of debates on issues of sexual harassment in Chinese educational institutions. Most critiques attend to the unequal power relations in which faculty members offer scholarly opportunities or advancement in exchange for sexual contacts with students, mostly female. Student victims and classmates of deceased victims are courageous enough to confess their experiences, and demand the punishment of the sexual offenders. Feminist activists organize social media campaigns, urging university administrators to establish preventive and investigative mechanisms against sexual misconduct, and demanding student participation in policy making and investigation. People are acting to empower female voices, destigmatize sexual harms, and bring attention to the loopholes in the protective mechanisms against sexual harassment on campus.  

Alongside my admiration of these efforts, I would like to further reflect on the cultural and psychic dimensions of the issues of campus sexual harassment. Institutional frameworks—such as law, policy, and bureaucratic procedures—aim to exert a sort of repressive power against sexual misconduct, setting limits on words, behaviors, and interactions, and punishing their violation. However, these institutional frameworks often fail to take into consideration the forces of sexuality, such as desire, fantasy, and sentiment, when they tackle with sexual harassment. Since these forces often play a key role in sexual interactions, ignoring them can be problematic. Understanding the role of these forces requires recognizing power as seductive. Admittedly, the psychic and cultural dimensions that I intend to reflect on can be ambiguous and transgressive. These dimensions often elude current feminist debates in China, probably to avoid trespassing the boundary of political correctness. However, it is this ambiguity that I often see in the post-facto interviews of victims. Recognizing the psychic and cultural processes will improve people’s capacity of discretion and judgment about sexual interactions, and may forestall unpleasant happenings.    

A victim rejecting her victimhood

One of the most widely discussed cases labeled as sexual harassment on Chinese media outlets is about Taiwanese female writer Lin Yi-han. Born in 1991, Lin committed suicide in 2017. Over the course of her 26-year life, she was diagnosed with depression at 16, maintained a sexual relationship with her Chinese tutor from 17, and at 26—two months before her death—published Fang Si-Chi’s First Love Paradise, a novel about four teenage girls who were seduced by their Chinese tutor. While Lin denied the public’s identification of her with the characters, her parents later confirmed that Lin’s tutor had debauched her and three of her schoolmates.

What draws my attention in this event is how Lin interprets her intention to write about the sexual experiences of her characters, experiences that the public often categorizes as “debauchery.” In press meetings and public readings, she claims, “This is a book not about anger, but a girl’s love, desires, and erotic fantasies. My writing is disgraceful. It is to do things I know I should not do. I am like my heroines who do things they know they should not do.” While she identifies the relations between the underage heroines and the male tutor as seductive and violent, she refuses to recognize the former as “victims”: “For feminists without experiences of sexual violence, they can lightheartedly claim patriarchy rapes feminism. However, for women who fall in love with a sex offender, it is too complicated to say so.”  Lin explains that the feminist anger is too simple and pure an emotion to represent the sexual experiences and power relations trapping her heroines. Here, how do Lin’s words challenge the political concept of victimhood?

Lin, Yi-han, the author of Fang Si-Chi’s First Love Paradise. Public Domain

Examining the 1960s feminist consciousness-raising movement in the United States, Webb Keane (2015) explains that, to make the intimate political, people need to learn a language that allows them to swap speaking roles from the first-person stance of “I” to  the first-person-plural stance of “we,” namely “me too,” in discussing sentiments and experiences. Meanwhile, consciousness-raising also relies on cultivating the emotion of anger. As Keane articulates, affect, or neuro arousal, has to be transformed into the emotion of anger to have ethical valence. Lin Yi-Han exists as a token of the first-person who consciously refuses the first-person plural and the categorized emotion of anger. She thus poses a challenge to the political call of “MeToo.” How does such a refusal to victimhood and will to be independent of larger structural forces come into being?  

The aesthetic pleasure

To understand this refusal, I consider the structure of feeling (Williams 1978) and the cultural materials shaping the psychic processes. Lin’s attitude towards sexual violence is not without anger, but anger based on a different structure of feeling from Western feminism. She chews on the event of “aesthetic pleasure”— the entanglement of pain and happiness—in relation to morality, instead of the event of sexual victimhood to politics. She identifies the harm in her characters’ relationships as primarily semiotic, and then psychological and physical. He also reduces the rich semiotics of desire and sentiment to bleak sexual instinct, and thus pollutes the rhetoric. Yet, Lin adds, “How can one deny the beauty of his words?” Her anger also reveals her recognition of and preoccupation with a seductive power connecting the tutor and students, mediated by language and knowledge.

She chews on the event of “aesthetic pleasure”— the entanglement of pain and happiness— in relation to morality, instead of the event of sexual victimhood to politics.
This recognition and preoccupation with the seductive forces of the intellectual  are probably rooted in a collective aspiration for modernity dating back to the intellectual movements in early-twentieth-century China. Memoirs, correspondence, and novels of the period show that sexual affairs between male intellectuals and female students indexed the modern ideals of humanity, liberty, and progression, as opposed to the Confucian strictures on women’s marriage and sexuality, which were deemed “inhumane.” Even today, movies, dramas, novellas, documentaries continue transforming modern female students—together with their romantic and sexual relationships, their sufferings of miscarriage, abandonment, illnesses, or death at an early age—into legends. These media valorize the form of love, romance, and womanhood modeled on this master-student relationship in Chinese modern literary tradition, contributing to a structure of feeling, in Lin’s words, on aesthetic pleasure.  

Power as a seductive mechanism

In a number of accusations of professors’ sexual misconduct echoing #MeToo, victims often admit their ambivalent distinction between love and violence, recognition and harassment. In a post-facto interview, a female student reflected on her relationship with the vice director in her department. When asked why not end the relationship at the very beginning, “I got Stockholm syndrome,” she explained. Her later words indicate that their initial sexual intercourse was unexpected; nevertheless, she didn’t categorize it as violence. Her awareness of harm and anger arose only after she discovered that he maintained multiple sexual relationships. Here, the sense of harm arose primarily from his violation of the cultural expectation of exclusive love, rather than his abuse of institutional power. In such cases, the question of harm is more than a legal question of consent. The power mechanism also functions at the psychic level, producing the attachment to “sexual offenders” and disavowing this abusive power.

When studying power relevant to issues of love, desire, and sexuality, scholars have criticized the conceptualization of power relations as “capture” and “escape,” dominance and resistance (Foucault 1978, Berlant 2011, Mazzarella 2017), because it assumes individuals and institutions act as sovereign entities, standing in opposition with clear boundaries. However, we as human beings have empathy—the capacity to suspend immediate judgment and share others’ feelings and affects. In suspending critical faculties, we can establish unconscious proximity even with people who may be harmful to us (Borneman 2015). This is one way to see power as seductive. Individuals inevitably develop unconscious proximities with peer fellows and larger structures. This makes people vulnerable and penetrable. Power, more than pre-existing, is often enacted in an encounter when the unconscious proximity is activated as a felt resonance with the person on the spot, our cherished desires, larger structural promises, or age-old cultural scripts. The complicated affective, moral, political values therein pose an excess to discursive meaning.

Michel Foucault (1978) reminds that discourse as a means of resistance may not empower us, but rather energize power to further subject us to its grid. For the #MeToo movement, the striking force that its confessional mode of resistance generates is undeniable. However, the belief in discursive power should not overshadow the psychic struggles confronting sexual misconduct. I hope a knowledge of this seductive mechanism of power will make more intelligible the ambivalent forms of affect activated by sexual encounters, and encourage ethical reflections on the psychic processes generating the attachment to the potentials of harm. I also hope this will help conceive preventative strategies against sexual harms that applicable to the moments of intimate encounters prior to rational consent.

Shanni Zhao is a PhD candidate at Harvard University. Before starting her PhD, she spent a year in a feminist NGO in Beijing as an intern and researcher. Her research explores intimacy and affect, citizenship and belonging, and (post-) socialist state formation.

Cite as: Zhao, Shanni. 2018. “A Seductive Power Disturbing #MeToo.” Anthropology News website, July 26, 2018. DOI: 10.1111/AN.935

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