There’s been a lot of talk about birth rape lately. I first picked up the thread of the discussion with Cara’s post On Birth Rape, Definitions, and Language Policing, a post which incidentally got a big fucking “Amen” from me.
But even questions of technical definitions and what exactly it is that we wish to eradicate in fighting this thing called “rape” aside, I do know one thing for sure. When women come forward and start saying “I was raped,” when they find the power to use that word to describe their own experiences and open up to share their trauma with the world, responding with “no you weren’t” — with whole blog posts about the subject, in fact — is about the worst possible way that a person can do feminism.
Cara’s writing here in response to a slew of recent posts that challenge a woman’s right to use the term “rape” to describe traumatic birth experiences. These include What Is “Birth Rape?” on Jezebel, Amanda Marcotte’s Bad Birth Experiences Aren’t Rape, and The Push to Recognize “Birth Rape” on Salon. Scare quotes. How to know something really good’s coming.
Joking aside, I wholeheartedly agree with Cara when it comes to the problems with feminists policing language in the way these bloggers do. You kind of have to step back and ask why those fighting against the term birth rape are so adamant about claiming the word “rape” as this one specific, identifiable thing, when last I checked, third wave feminism’s stance toward rape focused on highlighting the blurriness of language in this area.
Rape, as I understand it, is about violation. It’s about, most importantly, lack of consent. And I feel that those who are saying that doctors aren’t sadists, that poking and prodding and restraining and cutting women is medically necessary for childbirth, are missing the point. I feel that those who say “but this isn’t like rape in the Congo!” are missing the point. It doesn’t matter whether x experience and y experience are the same, what matters is how a woman experiences x or y. What matters is that a woman is tied down and screaming “no!” and she’s ignored because birth is supposed to be painful and difficult, because we have this cultural understanding that pregnant women are supposed to go to a hospital and lie down and take whatever’s dished out.
This is a cultural problem. And whether x, y, or z act have the same cause or effect, they’re all tied up in this culture. This is a culture that restricts a woman’s right to give birth in whatever way she chooses, and tells her to hurry up because the obstetrician has somewhere to be. This is a culture that views rape in wartime as unfortunate but an acceptable consequence of a kind of violent conflict that is accepted as “normal.” This is a culture that constantly questions the power of women and trans and gender queer people to use language in the ways we see fit. This is a violent, power-wielding, out-of-control, rape culture.
It’s our right to tell it like we see it.
Note: I wrote this post last night, April 30, but for some reason it didn’t go through. Here’s take two.
It’s day twenty-seven of the Blogging “Yes” project, the final day. Thank you to everyone who dropped by to read the posts, and to everyone who picked up the book and read along with me. You can see all the project posts by using the Blogging “Yes” tag. So, today I read Jaclyn Friedman’s essay, “In Defense of Going Wild or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Pleasure (and How You Can, Too).” Not everything in this essay sat well with me, but what I do want to focus on is the correlation between male drinking and rape, and how a particular male-focused culture is partly to blame for our stigmas about girls “going wild.”
For day sixteen of the Blogging “Yes” project, I read Latoya Peterson’s essay, “The Not-Rape Epidemic.” This was another of the most powerful in the book for me on first reading, and it’s informed a lot of how I think about rape culture and my own experiences. Peterson, the editor of Racialicious, tells the story of her own “not-rape” and a later experience in finding herself at a later rape trial of her “not rapist.” She also talks about the common experiences of young women with molestation, harassment, and statutory rape and the myth of the “cool older boyfriend.”
Here we are at day thirteen of the Blogging “Yes” project, and Lisa Jervis’s essay “An Old Enemy in a New Outfit: How Date Rape Became Gray Rape and Why It Matters.” Jervis is the founding editor of Bitch magazine and her essay is another that will contain concepts very familiar to most feminists. It focuses on the idea of “gray” rape, which is an updated spin on the “date rape is not as serious” victim-blaming discourse that’s been around, well, probably as long as dating culture. What I wanted to highlight here is the connection between the “gray” rape discourse and modern messages about women’s sexuality.
Today I read Miriam Zoila Pérez’s essay, “When Sexual Autonomy Isn’t Enough: Sexual Violence Against Immigrant Women in the United States” for day eleven of the Blogging “Yes” project. You may know Miriam from Feministing, or from her own blog, Radical Doula. She’s one of my favorite bloggers out there, and in this essay she sheds light on an important issue, namely sexual violence faced by immigrant women. I also want to recommend a related blog post on Feministe written by brownfemipower, Confronting Citizenship in Sexual Assault.
I’m reading Jane Sexes It Up right now, and one of the essays in that collection made me think of something I hadn’t in a long time – that extremely uncomfortable feeling you can get as a little girl around grown men, when they’re joking or talking about something you don’t quite get. It might be sex, it might not be, but there’s a fear and discomfort there whose origins I wonder at. Do we have some innate understanding of the sexual and the shameful as children, even if we don’t understand it?
I grew up on Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables. I could sing every part and play both scores through on the piano. I saw both plays as a kid, the latter several times. I also saw the movie version of the former once in college, but I wasn’t paying much attention. It happened to be on sale at Amazon for $5, so I bought a copy and watched it last night.
It’s not that I’m exactly surprised that the plot is sexist and has a ridiculously portrayed female lead. That I knew even without being a feminist. However, I noticed that with this new lens (and also not having watched or thought about Phantom since developing a lesbian identity) there are certain things I read differently.
For example, I always thought Christine should end up with the Phantom, not Raoul (I think everyone thinks that). But whereas before I thought that she was just an annoying, fickle little bitch, and I was annoyed at her for screwing the Phantom over, now I read it a bit differently. First, it’s ridiculous that the disfigurement is so played up, but of course I can see how living in isolation and without love due to your appearance could make you pretty crazy. Also, though, it’s interesting how before it didn’t really occur to me that a choice might be to go with neither of them. I mean, Raoul’s still an annoying little twit who just assumes that things haven’t changed in the past ten years, and the Phantom admittedly isn’t a great choice after he starts indiscriminately killing people. But in previous viewings, I fully bought into the idea that Christine did need a man to protect her – I just thought she was choosing the wrong one.
If you listen to the score, you’ll notice an awful lot of possessive language. Both characters use the term “guide,” and “Master” is used for the Phantom. Christine pretty much goes along with this entirely – she needs someone to guide her, a strong male figure. And no surprise after all, having been raised by her father, then basically put in the Phantom’s care as a teacher, then grasping for another male figure in Raoul when the Phantom starts to get creepy. I don’t necessarily think there would be a better choice for her in the context of this plot, but it is something I notice, that Christine is in no way created in a way that she could feasibly say “hey guys, let’s talk about this, things kind of crazy here…” For example, in the film version, there are several clear moments of hesitancy where she shows real care for the Phantom (which I like) and those are completely obliterated by the presence of Raoul. She really has no chance to speak on her hesitation or express emotion towards the Phantom.
This problem also emerges in the dramatic graveyard scene. I can’t remember how this plays out in the stage version, so this is based entirely on how the film version is done. In the film, this is the one moment where Christine does get to emerge somewhat as an independent character. She sneaks past Raoul, going to the graveyard alone (well, so she thinks). Though she probably is trying to get herself out of this cycle of male dependence so that she can marry Raoul, since she deliberately sneaks away from him you could also read it that she’s trying to escape both men, and that she only goes back with Raoul because, well, there he is, on a fucking white horse no less. The point is, she’s actually doing some independent thought here, recognizing that she’s been living in the past and trying to replace her father. At the same time I always thought in that song that she was also singing in a way about the Phantom himself, before he went batshit insane. In other words, I miss these two figures, but I realize that neither are available to me, and so I’m letting both go. When the Phantom then appears, she moves towards the grave with intention, clearly realizing that this is the Phantom and not the ghost of her father (I mean come on, she knows his voice), and even saying that her mind is warning her that this is a bad idea, but her soul is saying otherwise. Whether or not that’s necessarily the world’s wisest decision, it’s her decision, which gets cut off when Raoul appears, misunderstanding what’s going on, completely not understanding that hey, the lady might actually be capable of making an informed decision, and then proceeding to take part in the final ridiculous manly sword fight. So the one time Christine does emerge as something more than property, her boy-toy gets in the way and decides her fate for her.
Similarly, this jealousy plot between the two men is unsurprising but very shallow when you look at it in a critical light. Christine is pretty clearly treated as property, from Raoul’s assumption that she will be his because they were childhood sweethearts to the Phantom’s outrage every five seconds that she has betrayed him without ever clearly voicing his expectations. And of course there’s the whole idea that he basically wants her to be one of his objects in the vaults in the first place. In the scene on the rooftop, the Phantom expresses no realization that Raoul is doing all the pushing with this relationship – she keeps hesitating, while he pours out declarations of love, and eventually she goes with it, but still while expressing reservation. On the other hand, the Phantom just predictably cringes when Raoul touches “his woman.” In the end, the jealousy plot subsumes Raoul’s romance with Christine when he uses her as bait, basically saying “yeah yeah I know you’re upset but I’ve really got to get rid of this guy, so, see ya,” just like the way it subsumes Christine’s attempt to make an independent choice in the graveyard.
It got me thinking about the male jealousy plot in general, and how silly it is, but also how much a reflection of our culture. Men feel this rage when another man touches the object of their affection exactly for that reason – she is an object. Men are encouraged to view women as property, and thus any sort of expression of desire going in another direction, from or to her, is a betrayal or a slight upon the “owner.” How often do you see a literary work or a film that depicts a relationship where the characters discuss their desires or their crushes, where a man who sees a woman in a physical embrace with another man asks questions rather than jumping to conclusion? You don’t. And if you did, I’d be willing to bet that the criticism would immediately label the female character as a slut, and that the film would be framed as one about weird, kinky, open relationships.
As a woman, I’m only just starting to realize how huge this thing we casually dismiss as “society” is. The reason its so hard to change is that we are taught that “women’s” issues are limited to things like fair pay and it takes us a while to realize that societal expectations consist of thousands of layers, heaped up on us by pop culture and often well-meaning, unknowing authority figures (along with the more malicious ones). I bought into that “need a man to protect me” trope for an awfully long time, and it’s part of why it took a while to believe that I could identify as gay. I’m not totally over it (the idea of a woman as protector is still somewhat appealing), but I’m starting to recognize it, and the idea of being fought over by two people and pushed back and forth like a sack of beans is not longer sexy.
(But I still like the music.)
I read a quote that struck me yesterday, from lesbian activist Kathleen Sadaat: “There is a violence in not being able to live your life, and whether you are ever actually struck by someone is not the only issue. Anything that pushed you toward being less than human, anything that tells you you are not a part of the human family, is a violent act.”
What a powerful statement. This is why I crave lesbian discussion groups, conscious-raising, etc (unfortunately not available in my area). I just want to believe that I am part of the human family, and though I know intellectually that there are others like me, and even know other lesbians, the lack of lesbian representation in the media, in news, in literature, etc., is something that I think is very subconsciously powerful. These messages say “you are different. You are not wanted.” Whenever I write a paper arguing that LGBT people are just like everyone else, that we deserve rights, a voice in my head is saying, “no you don’t. You’re an animal. What makes you human? What says that those people aren’t right, that you’re not sinning, that you aren’t less than they are?” Where does this voice come? Nowhere conscious, that’s for sure. I was never taught these things, and never believed them, but somewhere I do.
The same is true when it comes to this latent fear of men and masculinity I’ve apparently been carrying around without knowing about it. I don’t know that it’s there, but when it surfaces, it’s violent, and it will take no prisoners. I read a post by a kinky lesbian blogger today and my reaction to some of her comments was abject fear. Why? I understand the sentiment behind her feelings (she’s a top, incidentally) and I see why others might want to be put in a submissive position for those reasons. But emotionally, I reacted strongly to it. If I trust someone with that part of me, will they break me? Can I trust anyone? And why am I afraid of all this? It doesn’t make sense, intellectually. I’ve never been raped, harassed, or sexually abused. There are no skeletons in my closet. Men have never given me reason to fear them, nor have aggressive women. The only answer I have is that it’s socialized. Maybe one day if I make enough money I’ll look for a therapist.
I have to admit that for a large chunk of my life, I never really thought about or talked about rape. I know that rape is an issue that weighs heavily on many women’s minds, whether it’s because they or someone they know is a survivor, because it’s what makes them afraid to go out alone at night, or whatever else. For me, it was just never really like that. Part of it is that, as cowardly as this is, I always assumed if someone raped me, I would just kill myself. It seemed horrible enough that I would have no desire to live afterwards, but as an extreme a response as that is, it was sort of an open and shut case for me. It seemed very unlikely that rape would actually happen to me, and if it did, I had my solution. As for fears of being raped, I wasn’t really concerned. I’m a tall woman, and I have a very no-nonsense dress style. When I’m striding down the street at night, if there isn’t enough light to see my face or the breasts tucked underneath my jacket, you probably can’t tell I’m a man. I figured this made me fairly low-risk for the sort of “drunken man jumping out from behind a building” urban legends you always hear about.
There was, however, one thing about rape that really fucking pissed me off, and that’s victim blaming. Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of blogs, and in the fall I studied rape law in a Criminal Law survey course. I’ve started to get rather fired up about the whole thing. Also, I finally had a friend who told me she was raped. I always suspected that I had friends who’d been sexually assaulted or raped – kind of like having friends that are gay, most people do – but no one had ever said to me “I’ve been raped.” It made me think about the problem in a little more of a personal way.
Now, unsurprisingly, I’m even more pissed off about victim blaming. But that’s not all. I’m pissed off that our culture always, always, has an excuse when it comes to rape. I’m a native North Carolinian, so I had the Duke lacrosse thing shoved down my throat for a while, but that’s just one example. It seems like it really is not that uncommon on American university campuses for a woman to be gang raped by some sort of sports team while everyone else in the room cheers. I thought The Curvature did a really excellent job of explaining how there is always an excuse in these cases in her recent post.
In short, rape apologism shifts. When it’s a “date rape” people will say “how do we know she didn’t consent? It’s not like she’s covered in bruises.” When she’s covered in bruises, the victim in question will simply “like it rough.” When the woman is unconscious and therefore can’t just “like it rough,” she will be accused of misidentifying her attacker, or people will argue “well, she didn’t say no.” When she does say no, it’s “why didn’t she fight? He didn’t have a weapon.” When she did fight back or he did have a weapon, it’s “well there’s no DNA evidence.” When there’s DNA evidence, it’s “well he probably did it, but it’s not like there were any witnesses . . .” When there are witnesses, three of them in fact, who are willing and eager to testify?
When there are witnesses, they just won’t be allowed up on the fucking stand.
It is embarrassing and unacceptable that the American legal system treats rape cases this way again and again. Most, if not all, of the fifty states badly need rape reform. The Model Penal Code, a front-runner in many areas of legal reform, is hardly inspiring when it comes to rape. I hate to run around being the Man-Hating Lesbian, but at the moment, I do have to blame it (at least mostly) on men. There are some women who fuck up in this area too, but my God, the men are just… aaaarrrgh.
So you get men who think it’s okay to rape, or who think that if everyone’s drunk and it’s a party and there are some sympathetic buddies in the crowd, they’ll probably just get off. And they’re right. This is ridiculous. I’m in favour of a positive model of consent. If a woman doesn’t say “yes,” then she might as well be saying “no.” If she’s so drunk she can barely get the yes out, she’s also as good as saying no. If she is saying no, even in a playful, teasing, sexy, flirtatious, whatever the hell your poor ears are hearing way? She’s saying no. There may be times in a relationship where no doesn’t mean no – in a BDSM context, for example – but that’s why BDSM has safewords. It’s a context based on mutual understanding and trust. If she (or he) says “no,” it may not mean no, but the two of you have agreed that if she (or he) says “alligator,” or whatever, you’d better stop what you’re doing right away. If that’s not the context, and you just think your wife or girlfriend or whatever means yes when you says no, there’s something wrong. There needs to be a conversation. It’s one thing if people have talked it out and a woman has been very clear about how she says no “for real” and what the man should be looking out for, but in most of the cases I’ve read, that isn’t what’s going on. If there’s a mixed message, the rapist gets the benefit of doubt.
Also, one last thing that pisses me off. My hometown paper, The News & Observer, ran this article on how victims in North Carolina have to pay for their own rape kits. The article says “part of the cost,” but for uninsured victims, that can be hundreds of dollars. What a great way to further discourage rape victims from reporting rape and getting treatment. Thanks to Harry for the link.