Friday, July 24, 2009

Feminist Author's Troubling Position On Rape

In response to criticism of parts of the book The Noughtie Girl's Guide To Feminism, the author, Ellie Levenson, wrote the following in a comment to her guest post at The F-Word about feminist in-fighting:

On rape:
"Rape is always wrong. I want to write that as clearly as possible. But, and this is where I expect I will get angry letters, I think we do women an injustice when we say that rape is the worst thing that can happen to a woman. It is, after all, just a penis.

"Of course there are obviously many occasions when rape is coupled with violence, and that is not just a penis, that is about fear and no longer feeling safe and about being robbed of confidence. It was the feminist writer Germaine Greer who, writing about being raped herself aged nineteen, said it was not the rape itself, the sexual violation, that scared her so much as the violence and potential for violence.

"But the frames of reference around rape as so often about a woman's virtue. While maintaining that rape is a terrible thing to happen, I do think we have to move away from this idea of it as the worst thing that can happen. Being raped is a horrible thing, but by buying into it as the worst possible thing that can happen, we buy into the idea of it being about taking a woman's virtue and of that being her most important asset."

On being bought dinner:
"Sure, if you meet someone for dinner, and if they offer to pay at the end and you let them, that is not an agreement to have sex. Nor is going to someone's house for coffee. Nor is going to someone's house for coffee and kissing them. Nor is following that kiss with some fondling. And if the fondling moves to the bedroom and becomes naked fondling, even then either party can say no, of course they can. But at some point it can be argued that both parties have given clear signals that there maybe sex involved."
Ellie Levenson begins by making the classic and troubling move of adding a but after "Rape is always wrong." This statement as disclaimer is a common precursor to rape denial, victim blaming and/or rape minimization. For many rape survivors this disclaimer is like a notice which reads: Warning hurtful comments ahead.

If you have to make this disclaimer in order for all your target readers to believe that you get that rape is always wrong then you either don't believe what you are saying or you have failed in your communication and need to revise until the disclaimer becomes redundant.

By announcing that she expects angry letters she dismisses the contents of those letters (or comments or blog posts) and she dismisses the experiences of those who strongly disagree with her. She might as well tell all those who are harmed by her words to go take a flying leap.

Not getting why reasonable and informed people would label her words as rape denial, rape minimization or victim blaming or callous disregard doesn't make those people's views invalid. If some of those people are rape survivors or might be rape survivors then dismissing their opinions and experiences turns the disclaimer into an outright lie.

Levenson may have the luxury of not understanding all of the ramifications of her words but others have been robbed of that luxury because of sexual violence done to them and because of the secondary harm which too many non-rapists inflict on rape survivors.

I believe that her dismissal of certain feminists as humorless makes it easier for Levenson to dismiss valid criticism of her words as nothing more than further evidence that some feminists are simply suffering from "po-faced earnestness" and "where all too often humour has been missing".

I can be funny and I can tell rapist jokes, here's one:

Q: Why did the date rapist forgiven of all his sins by God still get sent to hell?

A: Because, Satan explained, when the rapist dropped a bowl of hot soup on himself he yelled, "Damn me to hell," and as he and his buddies always told each other, "Consent is consent. Doesn't matter how you get it."

By writing, "it's just a penis," Levenson is not trying to be humorous, she is dismissing the seriousness of most rapes. It doesn't matter what point she was trying to make about how rape is viewed or talked about.

According to RAINN only 11% of rapes involve a weapon. Those of us who have been raped without a weapon can also experience crimes which are "about fear and no longer feeling safe and about being robbed of confidence."

This section of her comment: "it can be argued that both parties have given clear signals that there maybe sex involved" is a hopeless and meaningless tangle. A clear signal of maybe?

A clear maybe isn't consent. And it should never be treated as if is consent.

But Levenson's "it can be argued" is usually done after a girl or woman has disclosed having been raped. This gives us feminists who declare, "She only thinks she was raped." or "She might have been raped, but we can't declare him a rapist under these circumstances."

In this type of rape the person who was raped might have eventually consented, but the rapist refuses to wait for a clear yes message and refuses to seek clarification since that might lead to, "No." This is still rape and nobody except the person who was raped can declare the level of trauma from this rape is less than the stereotypical real rape.

If, "No," was spoken to communicate lack of consent the "clear maybe" gets used to dismiss that word as insignificant due to oft-cited mixed signals. By raping in the maybe or mixed-signals zone rapists know they have maximized their chances of getting away with rape and they maximize their chances of being championed as the only real victim if they are rightfully accused of rape.

As someone raped by my boyfriend -- with his body as the only weapon -- with no fear for my life and raped the first time when I was a virgin I know that what was done to me wasn't just a penis. And the crime was not just to my virtue.

We all depend on trusting other people to some extent every second of our lives. When that basic trust is violated -- even without stereotypical violence -- that will have impact.

If a boy or man who claims to love you will rape you without a speck of remorse that has a serious impact on aspects of life which others take for granted. This can be made worse when this violence and rationalization is done at a time when you are just learning about romantic relationships. This aspect is important since approximately 44% of rapes happen to those under the age of 18.

When rape is described by people who claim to be your allies as just a penis that statement has a serious impact. Combine that with statements about what it means when you don't object to a guy paying for your dinner and the impact becomes greater. Direct victim blaming and direct rape denial are not required in order for significant harm to be done.

Many people who haven't experienced rape and who have not done genuine research about the reality that different rape survivors face continue to feel entitled to write about rape as if they are authorities on the subject.

There is too long of a history of so-called popular feminists who make a point of minimizing or denying the trauma of most rape victims. Katie Roiphe was one of the most successful rape denialists with her decision to dismiss date rape as nothing more than bad sex. I don't want to promote their work, but since these types of books are often the first ones many people read about feminism it is important to highlight where these authors echo dangerous beliefs which help rapists to rationalize their crimes.

To have a healthy sexuality the maybe zone needs to be welcome and it needs to be a legally protected place. If girls and woman only have unlimited yes and absolutely no, there can be no development of healthy and mutual sexual relationships. I've known both and being with someone who is able to embrace and respect, "maybe," is sexier and more fulfilling.

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posted by Marcella Chester @ 10:30 AM   2 comments links to this post


At July 24, 2009 12:17 PM, Blogger JENNIFER DREW said...

Women and men who really want to educate themselves about the complexities as to why numerous men commit rape and then claim it was not rape need look no further than reading these books. Acquaintance Rape edited by Andrea Parrot and Laurie Bechhofer, I Never Called It Rape by Robin Warsaw and finally Stopping Rape: A Challenge for Men by Rus Ervin Funk.

Many women and girls 'consent' to the male rapist's demands but in these circumstances it is not 'consent' but being worn down by the male rapist's coercion and threats of violence to the woman/girl if she does not comply. Compliance is not 'free and informed consent' but then too many rape apologists believe that all a female need do is to 'just say no' and the male rapist will supposedly respect her bodily autonomy and wishes. Likewise we continue to live in a society wherein women are taught as girls their sexuality and bodies belong to men and if a man uses coercion or pressure he is enacting 'appropriate normal male sexual behaviour' and for which he must never be held accountable for responsible. Women are also taught as girls it is their responsibility to prevent a man from 'proceeding further than they sexually desire' but this neatly obliterates how men, as boys are taught they alone have sexual rights and autonomy. It is ironic in the extreme that whilst women and girls are held responsible for not preventing a man raping them; the reality is social and economic power continues to be accorded to men and boys - not women and girls.

Turning the tables: why are so many rape apologists lacking in a sense of humour? Is 'a sense of humour' essential for any feminist who challenges our endemic rape culture? Such claims are commonly used in a deliberate attempt to trivialise and nullify any challenge to men's pseudo sex right to women and girls.

For centuries now, rape has been and continues to be defined from the male-centered perspective. Rape is not the worst thing that happens to a woman - no because from the male perspective, the worst thing that can happen is when a man murders another man.

Perhaps we should then say, individuals who are imprisoned and tortured for their political beliefs do not experience 'real violence' because it was only physical violence not mental and pyschological violence.

It is very easy to trivialise certain violence because it does not conform to 'common sense' views. For decades male soldiers who suffered post traumatic stress were called 'cowards' because they refused to engage in combat actions. Not until it was discovered PTSD is trauma and how it affects combat soldiers, did societal views began to change and cease blaming soldiers for being cowardly!

But challenging men's pseudo sex right to women goes right to the heart of male power which is why pseudo feminists such as Levenson being by saying 'yes rape is bad' but then proceed to dismiss feminist empirical evidence and research as just 'bad sex' or 'bad methodological research.

Until such time as women and girls are accorded the right of bodily autonomy and ownership of their sexualities, - just as men and boys have been accorded for centuries now - male sexual violence against women will not decrease. Instead we will have innumerable 'pseduo feminists' claiming 'rape is bad' but only in certain very narrow circumstances. Rape myths are very much alive and are used to justify and excuse male rapists' accountability.

At July 25, 2009 7:49 AM, Blogger polly said...

Thanks Marcella. The fact that rape is framed as a "crime against virtue" doesn't mean that that is why it affects women. Nor are women just affected because they fear for their lives - though many do.

Levenson misses the point that rape and sexual assualt are about telling a woman she does not own her own body. It's the loss of this sense of autonomy/control/safety which is so often the real issue.


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