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Monday, August 02, 2010

Rape and Sex

Good morning, good friends!  Despite the fact that it’s Monday morning, I have many reasons to be happy this morning.  Let me recount a few of them briefly:

  1. My fabulous co-blogger Shira raised some crazy moneybucks for BARCC with her blogathon!  I also won a cool pendant-thing in her auction that I’ll probably give to my mom!  So Mom, if you don’t get a cool pendant-thing from me soon, it’s because I decided to keep it for myself instead!
  2. My men’s group NOMAS-Boston had a really successful “Dating While Feminist” event on Thursday night last week!  We had some great speakers, cool discussions, and I got to wear ridiculous nametags!
  3.  
  4. After not being at Fenway for like six years, I’ll have gone to three Sox games in a weekend!  Let’s hear it for visiting friends from out of town who are obsessed with the Sox and who have unreasonable good luck with scalpers.

So in general, it’s a better Monday morning than most.  What I’m thinking about today, though, is sex: sex and its relationship to rape, or more precisely, how we think about its relationship to rape.

How many of you have heard the oft-used anti-rape line/slogan “rape is not sex” at some point?  How many folks agree with that idea?  I generally do.  Now, let’s take this a bit further - how many of you have heard the line “rape has nothing to do with sex?”  I have, a couple of times, and I cannot agree with it, and I think that trying to see rape as completely separate from sex wildly hinders our ability to do good work to stop rape.  At its core, we need to fix the way we think about sex to undercut support for rape.

Amongst our speakers at Dating While Feminist was Jaclyn Friedman, one of my feminist heroes and co-author of the book Yes Means Yes, which both Shira and I have mentioned before.  Jaclyn writes all over the place, but she was doing a guest stint over at Feministe recently and she put up a powerful piece about taking control over her sexuality.  Her piece helped continue my thinking about sex.  Sex is really cool.  Sex is good, for those folks who want to have it.  Sex is a basic and intrinsic part of my experience of the world.

A corollary to that: sex is powerful, because my sexuality is a huge, massive part of how I see myself.  My gender presentation, for example, is heavily based on what I think I need to look, sound, and act like in order to make women interested in me as a sexual partner.  I dress, act, and behave in a pattern that I think indicates, based on social symbols, that I am what society (mostly) expects a man to be.  Who I want to sleep with, and how I try to get them to want to sleep with me is a pretty damn fundamental piece of who I am, overall.

And wow, have we used that fundamental nature of sexuality to control, manipulate, abuse, and dominate society or what.  We use sex to sell products, to push social conformity, to scare populations into submission.  There are very real social sanctions for not at least paying lip service to the social models we’re supposed to emulate to attract a mate.  I will buy any product, act in any way, and generally chase whatever expectations society tells me I need to chase in order to be considered a sexual being and make it possible for me to find sexual partners.  Holly has, as usual, explained this better than me:

Man, there’s not much of a slot in the gender spectrum for being butch, female, and straight. Maybe in San Francisco? If it were a viable, non-social-life-killing option I’d take it. I used to be a lot manlier, used to have super-short hair and dress like a dude, and it just didn’t work out. I loved how it felt, but people’s reactions sucked: strangers would be jerks about it and guys told me they really weren’t attracted. Now that I’ve got long lovely red hair and wear skirts and push-up bras and shit, life is better. I still love my flannel and my steel-toe boots and my power tools, but I don’t have the patience or drive (or the she’d-be-hot-in-anything bone structure) to swim against the current on this. Part of attracting boys is wearing the “I’m attracted to boys” uniform, and, well, I know it’s weak but I’d rather have the boys than be a Gender Revolutionary. emphasis mine

 

And of course, we’re all told that by and large, there is one “I’m attracted to boys” uniform, and to a lesser extent that there’s one “I’m attracted to girls” uniform.  There isn’t any space in that uniform for non-gender conforming people.  There isn’t any space in that uniform for more genuine desires.  There isn’t a lot of space in that pre-fabricated notion of sex that we’re sold to express something as complex and interesting as human sexuality.

Telling people “you can’t have sex unless…” is a powerful force for social control.  You can’t have sex unless you make a certain amount of money.  You can’t have sex unless you pluck and wax yourself into oblivion.  You can’t have sex unless you act passive and demure.  You can’t have sex unless you’re gender-conforming.  You can’t have sex unless you wear a thong or drive a porsche or do something ridiculously specific and of course TOTALLY natural that will make people that you are interested in fall in love or lust with you forever.  Are shaved legs in any intrinsic way more attractive than non-shaven ones?  I mean, really?  What purpose does it serve to tell women (especially straight women), that a pre-condition of having men interested in them is to remove a natural-growing part of their bodies?  It takes a lot of time and hassle to do it, and it can be expensive.

Oh, right - it’s because Gillette can make a lot of money by selling sexual insecurity to women, which again, is fundamental insecurity.  If women are spending money buying razors, and time to shave themselves, then they don’t have as much money or time to push back against a system that tells them their natural bodies aren’t attractive and that they need to be constantly altered and changed in order to be acceptable.  If they aren’t attractive, then they aren’t women.  For someone who identifies as a woman, getting this social message is pretty much being told “you are bad at being yourself.

These messages about what we have to do to have sex are manufactured for the purpose of pushing either products, or maintaining a certain type of status quo in the world.  These messages become true over time, too, as Holly recognized above.  I wish I could tell all my female friends that they shouldn’t pluck or wax or shave, because they are awesome and men and women would want to have sex with them no matter what, but I’d probably be wrong - not making those displays of body modification would probably hurt their chances at finding (especially) male partners.  I wish I could shake my own conditioning that makes me both look for those displays of social conformity in my partners.

So, what have we learned?  First, that sexuality is a pretty fundamental part of human identity.  Second, that sex is coded in our culture as controllable: this is something that can be manipulated, because it is so fundamental.  It can be packaged and sold to us in a very specific box, and most of us will scurry around trying to squeeze our sexuality into that box.  Third, it can be manipulated in ridiculous ways that are arbitrary to the benefit of corporations or individuals.

Back to “rape is not sex:” It’s not.  Rape is a crime of control and dominance.  Manipulating our individual identities for profit or the social status quo is also control and dominance.  I’m not trying to say that a woman shaving her legs because she feels like she has to in order to experience being a sexual human is being victimized like a survivor of rape or sexual assault, but I am thinking that they exist on the same continuum.  One is about social control and dominance, and the other is about individual control and dominance.  Rape is all about sex, because society has done such a good job showing us that sex can be used for control and oppression, and because none of us (even the asexual population) is without a gender and orientation.  Rape seems to be the most extreme example of what society is already doing to us in regards to sex and sexuality: limiting our options and controlling our bodies and forcing us to do things we don’t want to do.  Sex (and race) is the venue where society forces on most of us an image of who we are, what we’re supposed to be FOR, and how we don’t live up.

And this is why articles like Jaclyn’s are so powerful, and so important.  Social control over sex is not completely overwhelming, at least not all the time.  Individual people find ways to push back against a system that tells them how to look, how to act, how to behave, and how to live in order to experience a very basic aspect of being human, and every time someone who’s done that finds a way to talk about it, it puts a little dent in the steel picture of what we’re all supposed to look like.  Every time someone calls bullshit on beauty standards, gender expectations, and the gender binary, sex as a pre-packaged concept that we’re all sold loses some value to dominate us.  The less controllable sex is, the less it can be used as a tool to constrain people, the less rapists will be able to apply it to control survivors. 

Posted by Dave on 08/02 at 12:39 PM

Comments

Hmmm you've given me a lot to think about, but at the same time, the connection between social control (beauty standards, gender conformism, etc) to sexual control via rape is quite obvious. Nice job.
Posted by Leah  on  08/02  at  01:07 PM
Ah, but the auction is not yet over! Closed due to glitch, re-opened til Tuesday 5pm. Stay on top of that bidding!
Posted by Shira  on  08/02  at  01:09 PM
Damn! Does this mean I haven't won my sparkly pendant yet?

People! Go bid on items from the auction! But don't outbid me for that pendant!
Posted by Dave  on  08/02  at  02:13 PM
I realize I'm probably late jumping in on this, but yes! This! Although the common line that I've heard is that "rape is not *about* sex", which is trying to incorporate both of those lines at once. And it has always angered me beyond words, because I had not found a way to articulate why I found it to be so untrue. Thank you for this post.
Posted by Shoshana  on  08/08  at  09:40 AM

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