Sage at Persephone’s Box recently posted about the place of degradation in people’s sex lives and beyond that in representations of sex in society. She argues that degradation (which she links with destruction and death) is a part of life that should be acknowledged. Now while I think that pain and death are part of life and even part of development, I was uncomfortable with thinking about degradation in this way. To be honest, I am not sure that I can articulate why, but there are some thoughts that occur to me as I read her post.
In her discussion, Sage comments that:
“So, when I think of that hideous rape scene from A Clockwork Orange, it hits me on a gut level of disgust and aversion, but it's also mesmerizing as my thighs begin to get warm.”
What struck me was that in a Clockwork Orange, especially in the book, the story is told from the perspective of Alex, the rapist, the perpetrator of violence. It is his feelings that we are experiencing as we watch/read, his arousal and pleasure that we are channeling. It seems to me that it is not the violence, per se, that is arousing, but the pleasure that comes from having such power. Almost all representations of violence are from the perspective of the active participant. Even in horror films, while the victim takes centre stage as they flee for their lives, inevitably in the wrong direction, when the violence begins, it is the perpetrator who takes centre stage. Films focus on the knife/saw/penis entering the body: in that instant the victim loses all agency and becomes passive and, with passivity, his or her humanity is removed. Once the victim is finally attacked or killed in a film, the tension and fear that the viewer is experiencing, caused by his or her relationship with the victim, is immediately released. That fear is replaced either with a pillow as the viewer hides his or her eyes, or with voyeuristic arousal caused by shifting your affiliation from the victim to the killer. You now share the killer's pleasure in his actions. In a sense, this has to be the case or horror films would stop being pleasurable and instead be grossly disturbing.
I think this also applies to rape fantasies. Of course, I cannot speak for all women, but it seems to me that rape fantasies focus on the actions of the rapist. It is his body, his over-powering strength, his penis, that forms the core of the fantasy, not our bodies’ reaction. We assume because the fantasy is happening in our head, or being viewed through our eyes, that our affiliation is with ourselves and our bodies. But is it? Does not our arousal arise from our awe, our fascination, with the actions of the man? When we think about our own bodies in that fantasy, does that fantasy change? If we become active in the rape fantasy, does the source of our pleasure change? If we fight back, does our pleasure not come from our empowerment, rather than the act of being raped? Can we ever take pleasure in the removal of our humanity? Can we even imagine this: being nothing; having no agency?
From a young age, women are trained (is it training or just self-preservation?) to deny the removal of their humanity that comes with being female. I was an avid reader of adventure fiction as a child. It never worried me that none of the active, leading characters were female. In my head, I was the main character whether they were male or female. The weak, female characters were not me, they were other women. Other women were different from me because I was fully human. This affected my relationship with other women as a young teenager because I knew that I wasn’t weak or stupid or girly like them. I was exceptional. Yet, at some point, I realised that other women thought that way too. I wasn’t exceptional; I was just the victim of a vicious lie that had told me other women weren’t human like me.
This lie was perpetrated in almost all forms of popular culture that I accessed as a child (what has changed!). Sage comments that
“Watching or thinking of portrayals of violence is a means to experience the intensity without anyone actually experiencing any pain in real life.”
Yet, popular culture caused me pain. It caused me pain when I woke up to the fact that my gender was not considered fully human. Rape scenes and scenes of violence against women allow us to feel for a few moments the pleasure that comes with having power over another human being; it’s arousing and even seductive. And it continues to perpetuate the idea that women are not human and that hurting them is pleasurable. Just because women can experience that pleasure, does not make it right.
I think this why I have a problem with degradation. Degradation is not (just?) about violence; it is about removing the humanity of the victim. It’s nice to feel powerful, hell, it’s even arousing, but is our arousal worth the loss of our humanity?