Sunday, February 03, 2008

Heterosexuality, intercourse, and rape.

A commenter at Heart's writes:
"...the relationship I have with my current partner is the first one where we have not been physical. And in fact, it’s the first relationship where I have known true intimacy. What the patriarchy thinks of as intimacy is only a shadow of what my partner and I have. More is conveyed in the simple touch of a hand or in a look than can ever be done with genital contact.

My previous sexual experiences can best be described as a series of rapes. They were with men who all were completely dominant over me. The sex just reinforced that dominance. That’s what sex is: a means to control and subjugate wymmyn. It’s a form of abuse, plain and simple. The worst part is, they were all rapists and didn’t even know it. My heart weeps for the wymmyn those men ended up with. They’re rape victims. All heterosexual wymmyn are."

I can understand trying to find ways to relate to each other that are not "male" or that do not involve treating the other person like a sex object. But this comment - and another commenter who immediately agreed that all heterosexual women were rape victims - makes me wonder what the goal really is, here.

Radical feminism has always sought to explore healthy feminist sexuality without tones of "male sexuality." Radical feminism generally opposed pornography and tried (unsuccessfully, but it was a sincere effort) to draw a line between "erotica" and "pornography," with the distinction that the latter objectified women. (As we know from the history of legislation surrounding pornography, there has never been a commonly-agreed-upon definition for "pornography" that tells us, when we look at a picture, whether or not it is pornographic. The same is true for "erotica." When I was in college in the late '80s, some of us distinguished between the two as erotica being "sensual" and pornography being "sexual" - a popular distinction during this time - but feminist theorists generally gave up on this distinction because it was still too muddy.)

But what I see in this comment does not seem to be about developing a feminist, woman-centered sexuality. True, it is about developing intimacy, and people do often embrace celibacy, alone or with partners, in order to put their energies into something else, whether that be spiritual or emotional or whatever. I think developing this kind of intimacy should be respected. It isn't easy, and I think it's great that people can do it and want to do it.

However.

When someone moves from saying, "I was dominated in my relationships with men"* to saying, "all heterosexual women are rape victims," and in the context of promoting a celibate life, then I have to wonder, first, if the goal is to eradicate sex from relationships because of a belief that sex, itself, is harmful to women. "Sex" hasn't been defined here, so I don't know if we are talking about penetration, orgasm, or what. And, too, when we talk about "all heterosexual women," we need to remember that the same variety of sexual experience applies. Plenty of heterosexual women don't have intercourse but have other kinds of sex. Are they rape victims, or are we only talking about intercourse? Is the assumption that heterosexual women never want to have sex of any kind with their partners? That they are never freely able to make decisions about their sexualities and sexual relationships?

There's a really good argument to be made - and Andrea Dworkin made it, in Intercourse - that we as a culture have constructed violence and force into heterosexual intercourse. Here is how she supports this claim (and in this next part I am actually drawing from Laura Carpenter's work, but the following paragraph is from Dworkin): we think of virginity loss as only happening in relation to heterosexual intercourse, which is, as sex goes, a male-defined act. It is "male-defined" because it is dependent on the penis: we know it has occurred only if a penis has entered a vagina and ejaculated. Whether or not the woman orgasms is immaterial.

Dworkin reminds us that we think of virginity loss as something that happens in one, forceful moment; we accept that it involves tearing and pain. We never question this reality. But Dworkin points out that vaginal walls stretch, that over time, they can accomodate, and that we *could* think of first intercourse as a gentle process that occurs over time. We don't. That tells us something about how female and male sexualities are perceived in our culture, and about how men and women are perceived in our culture, and about the ways in which female sexuality and experience is already defined for us, before we even get to explore it for ourselves.

So there is good reason to challenge patriarchal notions of sexuality. I would even go so far as to suggest that there is a "gray area" - that there is, in fact, cultural coercion - operating on women in regard to sex in general. Intercourse is central to the notion of heterosexuality, which is not to say that there aren't many heterosexual people who have more enlightened perspectives on their own sexualities and who can make honest choices to engage in whatever kind of sex they want to engage in.

I'm not saying that intercourse is rape. I am saying that the fact that we assume, as a culture, that it is inevitable that a woman will engage in this kind of sexual practice; that the fact that we assume, as a culture, that virginity loss must be painful; that the fact that we assume, as a culture, that female pleasure doesn't matter, but male pleasure does, in determining whether sex has been had - all of these things add up to a loss of some agency, a loss of some options, on the part of women AND of men. And there are, therefore, times when intercourse is culturally coerced (not unlike Rich's notion of compulsory heterosexuality).

But even given that, that is a huge step away from claiming that all heterosexual women are rape victims, which is something that even Dworkin didn't claim. Such a claim mimimizes the reality of rape and the agency of women who have taken risks to explore and defend their sexualities. It suggests that there is no difference between consensual sex and the actual brutality of forced sex. It also posits, once again, the notion that women who are not heterosexual are, simply by virtue of their sexual identity labels, free of rape (not true - rape occurs within women-women relationships, and women who love women are still raped by men). Finally, it suggests that men exist in all of this only as a harmful force, that men who have sex with women are always raping them because men+sex=rape. (As an aside, this is not a real helpful construction for those of us who work with boys and men to take leadership in stopping rape and sexual assault.)

None of this is feminist (nor, sadly, is it original). This commenter is really quite revolutionary - building a relationship on an emotional connection rather than on sex is radical and inspiring. But it would be nice if the justification for that act could be in the good that comes out of it, and not in the assumption that one experience is universal, nor in identity politics posturing.


*I'm using quotation marks here, not to quote verbatim, but to quote approximate ideas. I'm also not quoting the commenter's spelling of "woman" and "women," because I wrote like that for while and I find it annoying now.

27 comments:

CrackerLilo said...

This sentence kept springing up in my head: "You'd think we could have a little more respect and a little more rationality about the very act that keeps the human race going than *that*." I almost envy the other animals, who get to just do it already.

I grew up around Evangelical Christian fear of sex, as you know. So feminist fear of sex turns my stomach. After all, I had become a feminist precisely because I was so tired of the virgin/whore dichotomy, of feeling ashamed of my desires, of people who told me I was causing "my brother to stumble" when I wore patterned tights but had nothing to say to my brother in Christ.

And the thing is, if someone wants to be celibate, that's more than fine by me, as long as it's not me they want to be celibate with. I don't think the celibacy is ridiculous. I don't want to talk anyone out of her celibacy or non-sexual romantic relationship! I do think it's ridiculous to say every heterosexual woman, even one who loves sex and the man she's having sex with, is a rape victim.

I think that a really good start for everyone would be to respect individual womens' experiences and feelings. Another would be to understand that every woman is wired a little bit differently. But almost nobody seems interested in trying *that*.

Plain(s)feminist said...

Hey, CL,
I think this is the really difficult part of feminism. At once, we're trying to respect individual women's experiences and choices AND also come up with some analysis of women's oppression and how to prevent it.

I think we tend to miss the boat on both sides of this by missing the other half - some of us focus on the individual choices and some of us focus on the larger analysis, each at times to the exclusion of the other.

But, you know, if I can't have sex, I don't want to be part of the revolution, lol.

Sage said...

The part that bothers me the most is the idea that if all piv sex is rape, and rape is non-consensual sex by definition, then scores of women mistakenly think they're consenting, but they're actually wrong about their own ability to think for themselves on this issue, because of, you know, patriarchy.

I hate having to yell that I really do know what I like and what I want. If we can trust ourselves enough to be able to decide that patriarchy is harmful, then we should be able to trust ourselves enough to be able to decide that piv sex is truly enjoyable for some women. It's the condescension in there, the "I know you better than you could possibly know yourself" bullshit that absolutely enrages me.

I've been raped and I've been not-raped. I want all feminists, at the very least, to believe that I really do know the difference.

Grrrr...

Trinity said...

"I've been raped and I've been not-raped. I want all feminists, at the very least, to believe that I really do know the difference."

Yeah, THAT. I've not been raped, but I know the difference between things I welcomed and things I didn't. And that difference had nothing to do with the acts.

I've gotten head from a woman that made me feel degraded and used. I've done much rougher things with men that made me feel cared for and honored.

Plain(s)feminist said...

The part that bothers me the most is the idea that if all piv sex is rape, and rape is non-consensual sex by definition, then scores of women mistakenly think they're consenting, but they're actually wrong about their own ability to think for themselves on this issue, because of, you know, patriarchy.

And also, how does this effect the whole discourse around rape? It's not like people believe women when they say they've been raped, anyway. And if women are able to believe they are consenting when they aren't, then how long before someone connects this to the idea that they are able to believe that they were raped when they weren't? People already say the latter, and now there's a feminist rationale for it.

girldetective said...

"I'm also not quoting the commenter's spelling of "woman" and "women," because I wrote like that for while and I find it annoying now."

I get wanting to take "man" out of "woman," but the Y? Where does that come from? Is this a movement or a Brian Froud book?

Sorry, maybe that was a little overly snarky. But I also used to write like that, and I also find it annoying.

Trinity said...

"I get wanting to take "man" out of "woman,""

I don't, really. Even if you're a biological essentialist (yuck!), our bodies are very close analogs. Yes, the differences matter, but... I see men and women as actually quite close to the same thing. Yeah, social dynamics matter, but it just seems like a strange way to stress that, to me.

Plain(s)feminist said...

Trin, I think it's more about wanting to be self-defined, independent of male definition. That's why people talk about "herstory," even though "history" doesn't actually derive from "his story" at all.

girldetective, I have seen so many different spellings, some of which attempt to be singular and some plural. "Womon" was the singular form I was familiar with, and somewhere I have a really funny lesbian cartoon in which the central character's relative is reading one of her magazines and asks what a "whoa-moan" is.

My favorite thing that some people do is not use any capitalization because, the rationale goes, capitalization is hierarchical and oppressive.

Trinity said...

"Trin, I think it's more about wanting to be self-defined, independent of male definition."

Oh, I know, but it's really difficult for me to parse that as anything but "we are completely different" in a way that I just can't wrap my head around. But that's my own thing.

Also I worry that it encourages women to disconnect from men in ways they shouldn't. If you're used to constantly stressing your independence from men, such that "men" in your term for yourself is a contaminant... well, I'm not going to say such a person *can't* form coalitions with oppressed men, as I've known many that do and did. But it worries me, symbolically.

Trinity said...

"My favorite thing that some people do is not use any capitalization because, the rationale goes, capitalization is hierarchical and oppressive."

That I've not heard. Who does that?

Plain(s)feminist said...

Trin - I've seen some women who are rad fem separatists do it, but I would not be surprised if it's something that others do, as well.

Lisa Harney said...

I've also noticed a tendency to just label things one doesn't like as rape (or maybe just one thing).

It's used too often to describe something about a particular kind of sex that the commenter doesn't like, and it makes me tired just seeing that or the condemnations against heterosexual sex, BDSM, or anything else on the basis that it reinforces the patriarchy, or under the assumption that because the speaker doesn't like it, no one else should either.

When feminists go down this road, I don't see much difference from fundamentalism.

Great post, though. Thank you for writing it. :)

Daisy said...

Really excellent analysis, PF, and thanks so much for your respectful treatment of Dworkin's ideas.

You used to write "womyn"? Oh wow! :D

Cassandra Says said...

It doesn't help that my subconscious always wants to read "womon" as "wombat".

The thing that keeps jumping out it me about that comment, other than how insulting it is to actual rape victims, is the part where she says that this is the first relationship in which she hasn't been "physical". What does that even mean? Do they never touch each other at all? Don't they hug, or hold hands? It's the idea that sex is some other thing that has nothing to do with physical or emotional intimacy in general, that's in its own little box labelled "Here Be Dragons", that makes no sense at all to me. Doing that, making sex a separate thing in its own little box, is something that fundamentalists and radfems have in common. And I'm not convinced that the urge to mentally arrange things that way doesn't come from the same place in both cases.

Plain(s)feminist said...

Doing that, making sex a separate thing in its own little box, is something that fundamentalists and radfems have in common. And I'm not convinced that the urge to mentally arrange things that way doesn't come from the same place in both cases.

Actually, I think this is exactly right. Both groups are obsessed with purifying sex - in one case, removing sin and lust and making it "godly," and in another, removing objectification and lust and making it woman-identified.

I don't actually see a problem in that initial urge to rescue sex from the version that's crammed down our throats on a general basis. But I don't think that either imagining has improved it much, either.

Daisy and Lisa - thanks!

Cassandra Says said...

I don't see anything wrong with the idea of re-envisioning how sex works either. It's when it becomes prescriptive - there is one right way and we know what it is - that it becomes problematic. Mostly because if we were to reinvision things effectively that would have to involve acknowledging the fact that the solution will be a little different for everyone.

Renegade Evolution said...

yeah, the minimalization of actual rape and actual rape victims really is something, isn't it? I also find the whole attitude a lot of the commentors are throwing towards heterosexual women and their sex lives (whatever acts those might entail) to be very arrogant and condescending, as if women in hetero sexual relationships really just have no clue as to what they are doing, what they want, and what their partners are really after. Women, even hetero ones, are not small children with no sense of self or brains or voice.

I mean really, this line of thinking just boggles my mind. All women who have ever engaged in heterosexual sex, specifically PIV intercourse are rape victims? All men who do it are rapists? All children concieved outside of medical means are the products of a rape?

Ick. Really. The whole thing. Ick.

Trinity said...

"All children concieved outside of medical means are the products of a rape?"

yeah, THAT.

Plain(s)feminist said...

I also find the whole attitude a lot of the commentors are throwing towards heterosexual women and their sex lives (whatever acts those might entail) to be very arrogant and condescending, as if women in hetero sexual relationships really just have no clue as to what they are doing, what they want, and what their partners are really after.

But it's not surprising, is it, because so much of feminist theory is about women interrogating their own thought processes (which I think is a good thing) to try to debrief themselves out of patriarchal thinking. That means, then, that women who haven't done this, or who haven't done it in a certain area, have false consciousness (and I think it's a bad thing to go around determining who has false consciousness and who doesn't).

This comes up in every major debate: sex work, high heels, S/M, sex with men.

Interesting that WOC feminists haven't started using this to respond to feminists who argue that gender trumps race. In fact, I think I will do this myself: "Feminists who think they are anti-racist but who still perceive gender as separable from or a larger issue than race have false consciousness. They have not yet realized their own complicity in racial oppression, nor have they realized the ways they themselves are oppressed by their own racist beliefs."

Yeah. I like the sound of that.

andi said...

I found the quoted post Chilling. ( yes with a capital "C")
Honestly, it may not be a truly feminist view or thought line, but damn! how must that kid of thinking affect men? I mean if you're going to be thought of as a rapist just for being what you are, for expressing physical love as you do, then how horrifying must that be?
I was raped, I know the horror of it..and I was near tears reading that post. I can't imagine going through life feeling that much of a victim nor how one could really build a trusting relationship with a male if I felt all his sexual urges would end in rape. At some point sex is going to come up and will that make him a rapist then?
I am celibate by choice, but I would never impose that on anyone else. That's not for me to say to anyone. Nor is it for me to define all men by the actions of a few.

Plain(s)feminist said...

Honestly, it may not be a truly feminist view or thought line, but damn! how must that kid of thinking affect men? I mean if you're going to be thought of as a rapist just for being what you are, for expressing physical love as you do, then how horrifying must that be?

Exactly. And I would definitely call that feminist.

I was raped, I know the horror of it..and I was near tears reading that post. I can't imagine going through life feeling that much of a victim nor how one could really build a trusting relationship with a male if I felt all his sexual urges would end in rape. At some point sex is going to come up and will that make him a rapist then?
I am celibate by choice, but I would never impose that on anyone else. That's not for me to say to anyone. Nor is it for me to define all men by the actions of a few.


I'm so sorry, and I'm sorry that the post was upsetting to you. I feel like I don't have anything appropriate to say, but I really appreciate your comment and that you're willing to share it.

andi said...

PF, no apologies necessary. I appreciate your giving folks a safe place to talk. Nothing will ever get better if no one ever talks about it.

belledame222 said...

It doesn't help that my subconscious always wants to read "womon" as "wombat".

-snort-

the silliest i ever saw: "gyn." as in, huddle up, gyns! systyrhyd is pywyrfyl!

belledame222 said...

I've also noticed a tendency to just label things one doesn't like as rape (or maybe just one thing).

yes, ____ just declared herself the victim of a "gang bang" because she feels put-upon in the clusterfuck she started, adding that perhaps the woman whose near-assault (aka, "Miss Plastic Tits" as per ___) was just minimized by one of her cohorts on account of said woman is a sex worker by choice would like to "film it and sell it."

___ is adamant that she is a "radical feminist," and that those who oppress i mean "gang bang" her by protesting the way she talks about the other woman are sexists and anti-feminists and...

very tiring, the whole thing.

Plain(s)feminist said...

See, that's exactly it. When people use words like "gang bang" or "rape" or "violate" (I'm moving from extreme to less extreme) in ways that have little to do with the actual meanings of these words, they - are you ready for this - add to women's oppression and exploitation. Yes, it's important to analyze the impact of a situation, such as, for example, how some pornography makes some women feel and the question of whether it affects how men in general view women. But using words like "gang bang" to talk about a heated online exchange, or "rape" to talk about how one feels about seeing pornography - well, that's just making those words meaningless. Theory that allows us to twist the meanings of words so that they hurt women instead of empowering them is not feminist theory. And the kind of manipulation that ___ engages in is not feminist, and it becomes less feminist the more loudly and viciously she attacks others.

I think there's another post brewing...

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Anonymous said...

weighing in on u.s. "sex positive" crap:

http://buria-q.dreamwidth.org/8069.html

-bq