Like lots of people, I’ve been thinking about all the accusations of sexual misconduct that have come spilling out into public notice ever since the Harvey Weinstein story broke – hardly six weeks, yet what feels a lifetime ago. Like many women, I’ve wondered if we will look back on this historical moment as a paradigm shift in what is considered acceptable behavior.
It’s important to be realistic about the limits of such a shift. Some men will still behave like jerks, whether through groping, leering, impolite remarks, or rape. There will be still be painful, awkward episodes among all genders of misread social cues, attempted flirting gone horribly wrong, unreciprocated workplace crushes, etc.
But is it too far-fetched to imagine a world where the goal posts have moved? Where the default of people’s conduct and their expectations of other people’s is different than today? It’s a topic that science fiction has not ignored. Margaret Atwood, in Oryx and Crake, posits that it would take heavy-duty genetic engineering to really alter sexual politics – her vision of how the Children of Crake make whoopee is at once hilarious and chilling. Ursula K. Le Guin’s brilliant imagining of gender fluidity in the alien world of The Left Hand of Darkness is something I’ve never been able to forget, though it’s a long time since I read that book (and I need to reread it!). Monica Byrne’s The Girl in the Road is notable for many aspects of its inventive rendering of a possible future world, but one of my favorites is how sex has become just another thing that people do — though love remains a more thorny problem.
I considered this in The Jane Austen Project, too – it is impossible to think about Jane Austen without thinking about the enormous political and economic sway that men enjoyed in her era, and how this affected life, love and novels. What would it be like, for a woman to go back there? Not just a woman of our own time, but one from an imagined future where the goal posts had already been moved?
Inspired by Austen’s approach, there are some glaring social issues that I hide in plain sight. My female time traveler, Rachel, is conscious of the hazards facing lone women in 1815, yet there is not a single moment in the novel where she contemplates the risk of sexual assault or unwanted advance from her male colleague, Liam. This was my deliberate omission — a dog that doesn’t bark. Of course, she also views him as reserved, chilly, perhaps a bit prudish. But as too many women of 2017 know, acquaintance-rapists, for tactical reasons, don’t always signal their intentions before the fact. Rachel has the luxury of never giving this a thought.
Spoiler alert: Midway through the book, Rachel and Liam have a sexual encounter that is cut short. Two things about it might strike a contemporary reader as odd, yet are not treated so in Rachel’s narrative. One is that she is unapologetically the one who makes the first move (but maybe that’s not so odd). The other is the reason Liam gives for his halting what they’re up to. They’ve been drinking, he’s says; she can’t give consent. Rachel’s response is incredulous laughter – but at the idea that she’s drunk, not at the notion of consent. She doubts that her supposed inability to consent is the real reason – but she never questions it as a thing, nor does she view Liam as in any way unusual or, or particularly gentlemanly, for invoking it. This is apparently just how people are in the world they come from.
Pause for a moment to contemplate this! It might be the craziest flight of fancy in a novel that also features time travel and a world so besotted with Jane Austen they’ve devoted an entire mission to finding a lost novel of hers.
I’ve always thought so, at least.