Thursday, 3 April 2008

Blog Against Sexual Violence.

Today is blog against sexual violence day. It is part of ‘Sexual Assault Awareness Month’, which aims to highlight and condemn the place of sexual assault within society. The theme this year is sexual violence in the work place. I am not going to blog to theme, but instead address a related issue that has been highlighted in the blogosphere. So for Blog Against Sexual Violence, I give you:

Why Rape is Not Biology.

Ken over at Girlistic wrote a moving blog about the social consequences of rape and discussion in comments highlighted a common misconception: that rape is about biology. Rape is not about biology. The ‘need’ to reproduce is equally common, but not universal, amongst men and women. But it is not an over-whelming drive that overcomes rational thought or action. If it was, rape would be more common as single men and women everywhere tried to address their urges. In fact, there are societies where rape and the concept of rape are unknown, such as highlighted by the research of the anthropologist Christine Helliwell. If rape was biology, we would expect to find rape everywhere.

The idea of the sexually insatiable man is also a relatively recent invention. Early modern Europe understood women to be the insatiable sex who grew ill without regular intake of semen, while men could choose to abstain from sex with no noticeable harm or consequences. If rape was about biology, then men would always have been understood to be sexually insatiable.

Rape is not biology. Rape is an extreme manifestation of normal social behaviour. Within patriarchal societies, men believe they have the right to control women and especially women’s bodies. Power within patriarchal society is underpinned with the threat of violence. Legal systems enforce law through the threat of imprisonment; parents ensure obedience through the threat of spanking. Gender in patriarchal societies (at least in the West) is underpinned by biological sex and a belief that the male sex is strong and violent, while the female sex is vulnerable and weak. Sexual intercourse is underpinned by attitudes to gender so that sex becomes an act where the ‘strong, violent’ man enacts sex on the ‘passive, weak’ women. ‘Normal, consensual’ sex is symbolically understood as an act of man’s ownership and possession of woman. A woman's consent does not remove this discourse, it simply shows her acceptance of this dynamic. Rape, therefore, is not that hard to understand. When men rape women, their behaviour mirrors normal social values, but in a manner that is socially unacceptable.

Furthermore, it is this dynamic that makes rape so traumatic for the victims. The Fword has reported that a BNP candidate has blogged that rape cannot be that traumatic as women enjoy sex and compared rape to being forced to eat one’s favourite dessert. (Finallyfeminism101 has a great response to this scenario.) The threat of male violence is embedded into conceptions of gender. It does not have to be spoken or advertised because it is part of what it means to be a man. Similarly, women are understood to be passive and that passivity shapes their understanding of themselves. Women rely on men’s good will to not abuse them, as they are not allowed the agency to defend themselves. Violence becomes more socially significant and threatening for women as they cannot conceive of themselves as violent, but only relate violence to hurt and pain. The threat of violence looms larger in their minds than in those of men, who see it in themselves. Sexual violence is particularly traumatic as it is through the act of sex that women are most vulnerable, enacting their role as the passive receptacle to man’s active body. As it requires more vulnerability from women, it requires more trust, and the breaking of that trust is the more traumatic. In a non-patriarchal world, rape would still be distressing, like any physical assault, because there is a mental trauma response to physical pain to help ensure that a situation is not repeated. Furthermore, the removal of patriarchy would not eliminate a person’s sense of self and the desire for that self not to be violated. But, it would not be as traumatic because the social meaning of sex, which relies of on a gender system based on violence, would be removed. We are not there yet.

Rape is not biology. It is a reflection of our culture’s values and values can change. Long live the revolution.


Marcella Chester said...

Thanks for this post. It's a wonderful contribution to BASV day. I didn't realize that the gender considered sexually insatiable has flipped.


Yes this is an excellent contribution to BASV Day. In fact Tim Hitchcock an English university lecturer has written a very readable book on how the construction of male sexuality has changed. Book is entitled English Sexualities 1700-1800. Yes, indeed until the middle 1700's women were perceived as having a higher sex drive than men which is why women's sexualities had to be male-controlled and subordinated to men's. Of course the only issue which has changed is the widespread belief that male sexuality is uncontrollable once aroused whilst female sexuality is still widely perceived as 'insatiable' if a woman so much as smiles as a man!! All good patriarchal excuses for continuing to deny women their right of sexual autonomy and ownership of their bodies. The myth men cannot control their sexual feelings is a classic excuse thereby ensuring that men are not held accountable for their sexual behaviour or actions. Women have to act as 'men's sexual gatekeepers.' How convenient for men.

Feminist Avatar said...

Thanks. Tim Hitchcock's book is great. Anthony Fletcher 'Gender, sex and subordination' is also very good on this subject. The ability of history to make us question our conceptions of normal is what makes it so rewarding and worth doing (says the historian).