Show blog for Too Fat for Our Pants on Radio One, 91 FM, Dunedin, New Zealand. Airs Mondays 10 am - 12 pm.

If all economists were laid end to end, they would not reach a conclusion.
~ George Bernard Shaw

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Rape Culture and the Politics of Consent

In the last couple weeks, I’ve encountered a bunch of statements or situations that revealed a sort of frightening social truth to me: a lot of men, and a lot of women too, believe that feminism is no longer necessary because society is equal.  As you’ll hear next week when I air the interview I just recorded with Jim Kunstler, he mentions that women were angered by his portrayal of women in the post-carbon future as being secondary and subjugated.  And his defense was to point to women’s “failure of imagination to conceive of a society that was different from the one they had today”, implying of course that the society we have today is completely equal.  He then proceeded to make some pretty condescending and dismissive remarks about how our little fights in such areas like pay equity and suffrage will not matter in a world where we have no fossil fuels.  That the struggle for equality has been a luxury of this industrialized heyday, and that it will go the way of ipads and interstates in our post-carbon future.

He is not the only place I’ve encountered this attitude – the Women’s Week issue of Critic, for example, is completely riddled with assumptions like this.  Like we’re all completely equal now because Pepsi has a female CEO – we’re post-gender in the same way America having a black president makes us post-racial.  Patently ridiculous, obviously. If anything, having minorities in positions of power can actually increase, or at least normalize, bigotry – political dissent being culturally acceptable and even encouraged, racism and sexism simply become part of the criticism of power when that power is black or female.  People can get away with speaking in those terms because the racism or sexism or classism is couched in the rhetoric of political opposition, and attempts to highlight the discriminatory basis for that opposition is attacked as censorship.  For that reason racist statements about the american president or sexist ones against Helen Clark or Hillary Clinton are becoming more and more overt and acceptable – it normalizes extremism.

One of the more insidious ways that happens is through the rise of Male Rights Advocacy (the link is to wikipedia, as I was trying to be neutral; note the neutrality warning in the header of the article). Sounds innocuous enough, right? Certainly no one would argue with the fact that men have rights? I spent a good chunk of this past week reading MRA blogs and I found myself completely astounded at the amount of violence and vitriol towards women that was not only par for the course on these websites, but applauded as logical and sane.  This is a particular subset of men who perceive feminism as male oppression – and I think that underlying that perception is a belief in the natural, possibly God-given hierarchy of humanity.  If you believe your male privilege is not about social constructs, but is in fact something to do with inherent masculine superiority, then feminism certainly does begin to look like male oppression. By necessity, feminism is about dismantling the patriarchy which so entitles men, and men have a great deal invested in the continuation of that particular paradigm.  Any attempt at restructuring power is going to elicit a backlash from the group that benefits the most from the status quo – in this particular conversation, and pretty much any other one about power, that group is men.
  (Kudos to manboobz for doing most of the dirty work in sourcing those quotes)
There are dozens of websites devoted to this topic, and many many comments on blogs devoted to feminism.  While not every comment is so explicit, they do all rest on the same assumptions that these do: that women are not humans, that men allowed us to vote and drive and that just wasn’t good enough, that the ongoing subjugation of women is our own fault because we can’t handle any freedom at all.  And I think that these beliefs are more commonly held than we generally acknowledge, most dangerously among young men: God, one guy quoted in Critic last week said in the same breath that feminism was going too far because it was beginning to overtake men, and that his favourite kind of porn is hardcore, a kind of porn which is particularly violent, exploitative, and degrading to women. That’s he liked to watch, that’s what got him off. The degradation of women. Yet feminism is over. That guy was not more than twenty.

A sort of companion thread to the women-as-subhuman category is a particularly virulent form of victim-blaming.  There were a lot of comments on the Norwegian massacre, many expressing sympathy and understanding for his actions, pointing out that the shooter was angry at the political left and women, and therefore those are the groups at fault. In this same tone, using this same logic, many of these Male Rights Advocacy sites openly predict violence against women because we’ve gotten so uppity and we need to be put back in our place, of course abdicating responsibility for that violence and placing it on women.  The oppression of women is our own fault, because look what happens when we get a little bit of freedom.  One guy even blames women for fathers running out on them, because it is our job to screen the men we sleep with and if we pick the wrong guy to knock us up then we’ve got no one to blame but ourselves. This is victim-blaming in the utmost extreme.  

Underlying all of this, of course, is a discussion about power relationships. What I found most striking about all those MRA blogs and websites was their almost unconscious acknowledgement of female power that manifested as a conscious resentment of women in general.  That female power, of course, is sexual: we have boobs and vaginas and men like those things, but they can’t access them without our permission.  These men are angry about women’s sexual agency, about our control over their means of sexual release: in the scathing tone of one commenter, imitating women, “we’ve got the sexual power, the power of consent, the gate keeper of our holy vaginal crevice.”  He is unequivocally furious about a woman being the one who decides who has access to her own vagina.  It seems to me that a big part of that anger stems from the perceived position of the holder of that power: that women are subordinate to men, and yet would have this particular power over them, is doubly infuriating.  It is the resentment of having to ask permission of an inferior being.

(it just occurred to me that perhaps that very power is the root of patriarchal social system in the first place, that it is a way of mitigating women’s sexual power through conventions of ownership and the removal of humanity.  Certainly that’s what the institution of marriage was created to do, but maybe that’s the root that subsequent power imbalance sprang from.  I don’t actually know anything about that and i’m just speculating. If anyone listening can point me to any kind of anthropological study on the issue, i’m keen.)

Here’s the rub on that particular point, as far as I’m concerned – men are the ones creating the culture where women’s sexuality is the most important thing about us.  Kids are exposed, on average, to 10 and a half hours a day of media, the vast majority of which is sexualized, even pornified.  There is a very clear link between violence on screen and violence in life, and it seems especially prescient in a culture where most of our human interaction occurs, ironically, alone, with people on the tv or the internet.  Where often kids have stronger relationships with people on screen than in real life – and those people on screen are telling us over and over and over that women are for looking at, for fucking, not for respecting as human beings.  So young girls learn their worth is in their ass, and young boys learn that women’s worth is in their ability to turn them on, and it’s generally bad for the entire gender spectrum.  This culture  both sexualizes women and infantalizes men, and it is a way of perpetuating a patriarchal system in which women don’t respect themselves as fully-formed people, and so how could men?  Of course the patriarchy hurts men too – men are taught not to access their emotions in any way, that to show any is a sign of weakness – but all that is based directly on the assignation of value to traits that are considered ‘male’ or ‘female’.  Emotions are seen as weak because they are seen as feminine, and women are considered weak.  If we can readdress our value judgments, all genders benefit.

This is what I mean when I say we have a ‘don’t get raped’ culture instead of a ‘don’t rape’ culture: women are legally and culturally assumed to be in a constant state of consent, a perpetual yes; the removal of that consent has to be very explicit and issued in a very particular manner for it to be recognized, either by the man or by the courts.  In a patriarchy, agency is not conferred equally on all parties, that’s what makes it a patriarchy, and women are told of their perpetual consent as regularly and pervasively as men.  As women are portrayed so regularly as sexualized beings, and even women in power are subjected to that paradigm, our consent is implicit.   The belief in this perpetual consent manifests as coercion, persuasion, the fact that sex often finishes when the man does, come on baby i’m almost there i’m almost there, as much as in more traditional definitions of rape.  I recently encountered a study in the UK which indicated that more men than women believe that consent is assumed unless it is explicitly stated otherwise.  I know numbers can be a bit numbing, but these are pretty shocking.  Of the cross-section of men questioned:
only 47% assume being pushed away means their partner does not want to have sex
only 57% assume their partner doesn’t want to have sex with them if they say no
only 56% said they would not pressure their partner into having sex with them – even the extraordinary numbers that WOULD – 44% - is still a conservative estimate, given that ‘coercion’ can be gentle and would not, by most, be considered pressure, and the fact that these tests are self-administered, meaning the numbers are often even less flattering than they already appear
here’s my favourite: only 37% would be put off from sex if their partner were crying.
Only 77% of men said they agreed that rape is when one partner says no and the other goes ahead anyway
only 53% of men believe that if consent is revoked but sex goes ahead anyway, that is rape

So this is the broader context in which a rape culture exists.  Rape culture is a prevailing paradigm, a set of commonly held beliefs, that the way to lessen the amount of abuse and rape suffered by women is to teach them how not to be raped, rather than teaching men not to rape.  Rape culture is linked directly to the cultural view of women and their worth – rape is therefore a feminist cause.  These two ideas are very closely linked, because so much of a woman’s value is determined, in this particular cultural snapshot, by her sexual appeal.
So for me, the best way to talk about altering a cultural paradigm is to ask how I contribute to it, then to alter that behaviour.  Culture being just a catchall term for things a lot of people think and say, we all contribute in one way or another.  For example, have you ever told a rape joke? What about a pedophile priest joke? Sounds harmless enough, right?  In fact, not only do jokes like that serve to undermine the seriousness of the offence, but they may actually legitimize, or even encourage, dangerous behaviour.  Since I could not have put this better, I’m going to lift this paragraph from a great, great blog called shakespearessister:

I get it—you're a decent guy. I can even believe it. You've never raped anybody. You would NEVER rape anybody. You're upset that all these feminists are trying to accuse you of doing something, or connect you to doing something, that, as far as you're concerned, you've never done and would never condone. And they've told you about triggers, and PTSD, and how one in six women is a survivor, and you get it. You do. But you can't let every time someone gets all upset get in the way of you having a good time, right? Especially when it doesn't mean anything. Rape jokes have never made YOU go out and rape someone. They never would; they never could. You just don't see how it matters. I'm going to tell you how it does matter. And I tell you this because I genuinely believe you mean it when you say you don't want to hurt anybody, and that it's important to you to do your best to be a decent and good person, and that you don't see the harm. And I genuinely believe you when you say you would never associate with a rapist and you think rape really is a very bad thing.
Here is why I refuse to take rape jokes sitting down…
Because 6% of college-aged men, slightly over 1 in 20, will admit to raping someone in anonymous surveys, as long as the word "rape" isn't used in the description of the act—and that's the conservative estimate. Other sources double that number.
A lot of people accuse feminists of thinking that all men are rapists. That's not true. But do you know who think all men are rapists?
Rapists do.
They really do. In psychological study, the profiling, the studies, it comes out again and again.
Virtually all rapists genuinely believe that all men rape, and other men just keep it hushed up better. And more, these people who really are rapists are constantly reaffirmed in their belief about the rest of mankind being rapists like them by things like rape jokes, that dismiss and normalize the idea of rape. If one in twenty guys (or more) is a real and true rapist, and you have any amount of social activity with other guys like yourself, then it is almost a statistical certainty that one time hanging out with friends and their friends, playing Halo with a bunch of guys online, in a WoW guild, in a pick-up game of basketball, at a bar, or elsewhere, you were talking to a rapist. Not your fault. You can't tell a rapist apart any better than anyone else can. It's not like they announce themselves.
But, here's the thing. It's very likely that in some of these interactions with these guys, at some point or another, someone told a rape joke. You, decent guy that you are, understood that they didn't mean it, and it was just a joke. And so you laughed.
Or maybe you didn't laugh. Maybe it just wasn't a very funny joke. So maybe you just didn't say anything at all. And, decent guy who would never condone rape, who would step in and stop rape if he saw it, who understands that rape is awful and wrong and bad, when you laughed? When you were silent? That rapist who was in the group with you, that rapist thought that you were on his side. That rapist knew that you were a rapist like him. And he felt validated, and he felt he was among his comrades.
You. The rapist's comrade.
She adds:
A quick and simple rule for language and behavior if you want to be a decent person: Ask yourself, who is more likely to be made to feel comfortable around me based on whatever I'm about to say/do? Rape survivors? Or rapists?

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