Wednesday, 19 March 2008

The Follow-Up to Anti-Sex: Rape.

There has been some discussion recently about definitions of rape and whether it is possible for women to realise that they have been raped days or years after the actual event. In modern society, rape is often envisioned as a violent, physical act where a woman is forced, usually by a stranger, to have a penis inserted into a bodily orifice (most acceptably the vagina or anus, but at a push people might allow the mouth) against her will, despite her physical and vocal protests. This cultural narrative is so strong that people have even suggested that rape is practically impossible as long as the woman continues to struggle, which is often subtly reinforced by an expectation that women take ‘self-defence classes’. At a push, we will allow that some women, notably the very drunk, disabled, or unconscious, may not be able to physically fight off their attackers, but these women are so socially despised that rape is usually considered a worthy punishment for their vulnerability. Yet, there is little discussion of why this understanding of rape dominates the social imagination.

How we understand rape is informed by societies conception of sex. As detailed in my last post, contemporary understandings of sex are based on a model of gender that sees men as active and women as passive. This model sees violence as ingrained into the male psyche or body. Men are often seen as ‘protectors’ of women to justify the expectation that they can and will resort to violence, even if that violence is only approved of in particular circumstances. Violence became part of male ‘nature’. Women are meant to be passive under this model, and with passivity came vulnerability. This means that violent women are ‘unnatural’ and other women are in need of protection. As they were passive, women could not exercise agency or choice or consent. They were reduced to appendages of men, designed to reflect and embody male desire.

Closely related to violence is male sexuality. The act of sex was reduced to interaction between penises and vaginas, where penises were active and vaginas passive. Penises were violent and vaginas vulnerable (the penis is a sword, vagina a sheaf; penis is a weapon; vagina’s are cities to be scaled and sacked and won and marked on bed-heads as conquered). The act of sex was an act of domination and thus an act of violence. As women were passive receptacles, they had no sexuality of their own. The feminist movement has challenged this understanding of gender and has tried to give women choice and agency and the ability to consent. They have fought hard to have women recognised as active. Yet, while they have made gains, this cultural understanding of gender still influences how we understand the world.

Women who show active behaviours, such as displaying their sexuality through dress or behaviour, drinking too much (i.e. in a masculine way), being seen or walking in public, interacting with men as equals, remove their passivity and thus no longer need protection from men. Because they are no longer passive, they become active and equal to men. By being active and equal to men, they are placed in a state of war with men. (All men are in a state of war; the state regulates that state of war by offering securities and protections to encourage men to behave.) Yet, unlike men, active women are not entitled to protection by the state as they have broken with the social contract that demands that women are passive. Men rape active women to punish them for their activity and to remind them of what they are missing when they are under male protection. For women not to be raped, they need to learn to fight. And thus, we have the creation of the dominant narrative of rape.

The irony of this situation is that this cultural narrative does not reflect the reality of rape. Most women are raped by their friends, family and people they trust. Coercion is the cause of a huge number of rapes, so that most rapes do not look like the dominant narrative. The combination of these factors means that many women do not realise that they have been raped, because to most people rape involves a physical fight with a stranger. The conflict between how rape is envisioned in the public imagination and many women’s experiences is often blamed for low conviction rates and the concept of ‘gray rape’.

If we want higher conviction rates for rape, we need to change how we imagine gender. We need to remove the active/passive dichotomy. We need to destroy an understanding of gender that expects one half of the human race to be violent and the other to be always vulnerable. This is not an impossible dream. As I outlined in my last post, this understanding of gender is relatively new. We learned to behave this way. Now we need to unlearn it.

2 comments:

Nine Deuce said...

I enjoyed both this post and the previous one very much and they've added to the ongoing discussion taking place between different parts of my brain on this subject.

I suppose I'm uncomfortable with the idea that consent cannot exist because I believe that there are people who are self-aware enough (though not many) to engage in sexual activity that is not defined by the dominant cultural conception of what sex "is" and what sex means. I am extremely uncomfortable with any argument that claims women (and men, for that matter, when it comes to this subject) don't have any agency, which I think is what is being said when we say that consent cannot exist within a patriarchy.

If we engage in the work of redefining what sex is, of doing away with the gender roles that support the current model of human sexuality, can't we be said to be self-aware enough, and cognizant enough of the forces at work around us, to make educated choices with regard to sex, i.e., to consent if that is what we truly wish to do, and if we are doing so with a partner who is also aware of all of these things?

good villager said...

Fantastic post.

I wish you were still writing. I came over to your post from Nine Deuce's site, and noticed from your homepage that things dropped off in 2011. Sadly, I've noticed this with many rad fem blogs - many of them highly active and inspiring, and then stopping as of 2011-2014. The ones that seem to still be active are marked private.

I'm wondering whether it is a case of burn out due to the relentless barrage of threats from men and passionate denial of truth from P-compliant women. Have rad fems had to move underground just to be able to speak without the scum bubbling up over the top? Whatever it is, it makes me sad. We need more public, articulate voices of reason.

Anyhow, thanks for maintaining your archive for public access.