And by rape you know what I mean. A judge does not have to walk into this room and say that according to statute such and such these are the elements of proof. We’re talking about any kind of coerced sex, including sex coerced by poverty. You can’t have equality or tenderness or intimacy as long as there is rape, because rape means terror. It means that part of the population lives in a state of terror and pretends… that it doesn’t.
I am guessing that my astute readers will recognize that quote, but in case you didn’t, it was a portion of Andrea Dworkin’s speech, “I Want a Twenty-Four Hour Truce During Which There Is No Rape.” I am also guessing that a lot of you have been wondering why, in my War on Terr’r, I have yet to discuss the most significant form of terrorism that women face: sexual assault. I was saving the shock and awe for the endgame; the War on Terr’r is about to become an occupation, meaning I’ll still be fighting it but won’t necessarily want to say so all the time, and so this topic seems like a fitting one to address before I declare major combat operations over.
Let me start off by saying that I’m going to talk about patriarchy in this post, which I rarely do. I often find myself, when I think about things like rape being a tool of the patriarchy, feeling as if I have lost my mind because I can’t figure out how these things perpetuate themselves, can’t separate the chicken from the egg. I generally avoid referring to the patriarchy because I consider doing so taking a shortcut, but I have to here, despite my discomfort. The reason I avoid referring to the patriarchy is that it’s often an incomplete explanation. Yes, we live in one, but why does it continue to exist? Why does a ship with no one at its helm continue on the same course? Are rapists consciously trying to uphold a vast and oppressive social system when they act, or (more likely) are they taking out inchoate aggression on an individual victim? Are men who use pornography making a conscious choice to promote women’s subjugation in our society, or (more likely) are they allowing their selfishness to override their humanity for a few minutes at a time? All of the senses in which women are degraded and devalued in our society are related to each other, but why do they seem to dovetail so perfectly? How can something that seems pre-planned operate with no organizing force? Is the organizing force simply the hatred of women? If it is, then whence does that hatred come? This train of thought is circular, it goes nowhere, and it drives me up the fucking wall because I believe the only way to extirpate something is to find its root.
But let’s get to the point. Sexual assault is terrorism. Rape is terrorism. But who decides what sexual assault is? Who decides what rape is?
People seem to think Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s “I know it when I see it” guideline for identifying obscenity works with rape and sexual assault. We’ve all seen movies, or heard stories, from which we find out what a rape is “supposed” to look, sound, and feel like. Strange men in alleys with weapons rape, gangs of frat boys rape. Women walking alone after dark get raped, women who get too drunk in bars and at parties get raped, women who don’t learn to fear and avoid men they don’t know get raped. Rape is violent, loud, and unexpected, and it could be lurking around every corner.
What does that image of rape do in service of the patriarchy? It allows all but that very small proportion of rapists whose actions have threatened the patriarchy itself off the hook, and it does a fairly sound job of controlling women by making them afraid to venture out alone or overstep the bounds of acceptable female behavior (i.e., it’s an effective terrorist tactic).
It’s estimated that only 21% of women who report having been raped report that a stranger attacked them. Does that simply mean that for every 21 stranger rapes, there are 79 acquaintance rapes? I wish the numbers were that “low.” First, let’s remember that that’s 21% of reported rapes. Women are highly unlikely to report a rape in the first place, but they are even more unlikely to do so when their experience doesn’t match our cultural conception of what a rape is, especially once they see how acquaintance rape victims are treated by our justice system, media, and society in general. Spousal rape? Druggings? Forget it. Those have hardly even been deemed crimes yet. Rape, being the most serious form of sexual assault, is the most likely form of sexual assault to be taken seriously and to be prosecuted. It’s a fairly sad commentary on the progress women have made toward a safe, equitable relationship with men when even the most serious form of terrorism they face is often ignored.
Stranger rape threatens the patriarchy’s ownership of women’s and children’s bodies, and so women generally have men’s support when they find themselves victims of rape at the hands of a stranger, if you don’t take into account the fact that the rapist’s attorney will most likely be allowed to call the victim a lying whore in court (gee, thanks, guys). Acquaintance rape, including spousal rape, is a whole ‘nother story. Because of the way our legal system works, women are assumed to have consented to sex unless they can prove otherwise, which is a fucking travesty if there ever was one. Lack of consent in a stranger rape is easier to prove than in an acquaintance rape, but the onus is still on the woman to prove she did not give her consent. In the case of acquaintance rape, the victim usually has virtually no way of proving that she did not provide consent. Know what that amounts to? I don’t believe that most men think about this consciously and plan to take advantage of it, but it basically means that our culture and our legal system are telling men that women are available for raping, especially if you know them.
So, we have none but the most cursory of protections from our legal system. We’re the weak, men are the powerful, and the institution that promises the weak protection from the powerful is run by and for the powerful, which means it operates at the expense of the weak. Men decide what rape is, and men have decided that the only kinds of rape they will make any kind of serious effort to help us avoid are those that threaten their ownership over our sexuality. There it is, and my head feels like it’s going to explode; I doubt that any individual man would say, “Fuckin’ A right. The whole plan is to set up a system where I can rape anybody I want, but I can also put motherfuckers in jail who rape the women and children I’ve set aside for myself to rape,” but that’s nonetheless the way shit works.
Does rape, then, really amount to terrorism on the part of men aimed at using fear to manipulate women’s behavior? This is where things get very complicated and very contentious. It’s also where most anti-feminists get their straw men from. Andrea Dworkin has been accused of saying that all heterosexual sex is rape, and feminists are often accused of saying that all men are rapists. That ain’t the fucking deal. The deal is this: men know that women live in a precarious situation in this society, know that women are vulnerable and lack the protections and power they have, and some of them use that knowledge to their own advantage. That means, in concrete terms, that some men sexually abuse some women knowing that they can get away with it because women don’t have the power to fight back, don’t have the might or even the support of the justice system behind them, don’t have any other option but to acquiesce. That means that some men coerce women into having sex with them, some men take advantage of women’s fears to manipulate them into performing sex acts they do not want to perform, some men purposely create fear in the minds of women in order to get them to comply. Fear isn’t limited to the fear of violence: it includes the fear of being abandoned, the fear of financial destitution, the fear of being left to raise children alone, the fear of being mistreated in one’s own home, and so on.
Are we to differentiate coercion from actual physical force or the threat of violence? I don’t think so. I think that when a man uses fear to coerce a woman into having sex against her will, a rape has occurred. I’m not as radical in my view of heterosexual sex as some people are; I believe that consent is possible and that there is such a thing as un-coerced heterosexual sex. Maybe I have to believe that because I’m not a lesbian, but I still do believe it. Patriarchy places women in a position in which all of our choices are limited, but I think the intent of the people involved in a sex act is the crux of the question of whether a rape has occurred. Now, that doesn’t mean that I excuse the behavior of men who are so ignorant of their own privilege that they don’t understand that coercion is tantamount to rape. Rather, it means that I’m charitable, that, despite vast amounts of evidence to the contrary, I believe most men are human beings and that most of them don’t want to hurt us and don’t want us to do things we don’t want to do. It’s the men that, knowing we do not want to do something, use force, fear, or dishonesty to make us do it anyway that are the terrorists.
To recap, not all heterosexual sex is rape, but sex that has been coerced through the use of actual force or through fear (of violence, poverty, abandonment, etc.) is rape, and is thus a form of terrorism. Individual men are instruments of patriarchy, not its architects, but that does not remove their responsibility to acknowledge and address their own privilege, nor does it excuse their patriarchy-enforcing behavior.
Rape is meant to force women into boxes, to limit their actions, to remind them who’s the fucking boss, but it doesn’t always go as far as rape. Sexual assaults of any kind have the same effect. Let me tell you two stories.
When I was 11, I was walking home from school down Fulton Road, alone, when a white truck drove up on my left. The shitbag driving it slowed down, honked, and then raised his pelvis up so I could see through the window that he was having a wank, and then drove off. I was fucking TERRIFIED. I only knew one person who lived on that street, and she lived 1/2 mile away, and the entire street was fucking deserted. I was positive this motherfucker was going to come back and kidnap me and do who knows what to me in his fucking chicken shack or whatever. I went home and was too afraid to even tell my mom because I didn’t know how to explain what the guy had done. For months I refused to walk home on Fulton Road, opting instead for a potentially more dangerous route that was also much longer, and I never again walked down that road alone, even though I lived in that town for 10 more years.
When I was 16, I was at a party with some people I knew, and one of them had brought his friend, Eric. I sort of tertiarilly (I love coining words) knew Eric through the dude I was dating at the time. He was basically kind of an alpha-male asshole and was constantly doing shitty things to people that he got away with because people thought he was cooler than they were, and because that was how people who did shit on boards acted back then (and still do – I’ll be writing about the misogyny inherent in the skateboarding world shortly). Anyway, someone wanted to take some photos, and this motherfucker decided that he would get his dick out whenever he was in a photo with a girl, myself included. I don’t pretend to know what he thought the effect of doing that would be, but it scared every girl he did it to and made all of us quiet all night. It put us in a sort of tailspin because we didn’t know what was going on or what we had done, just that we had been disrespected and insulted and that his intent was to show us that he had the power turn us into victims, and so he was in charge.
These two incidents can be called sexual assaults. “Sexual assault” is a nebulous term because the patriarchy (in the guise of the justice system) gets to define it, but any act that is sexually aggressive in nature and is intended to create fear in the victim can be called a sexual assault in my book. (I don’t know that the law is even the appropriate way to deal with these sorts of incidents, anyway. I think these call for vigilantism. See my suggestions on dealing with sexual harassment.)
That’s what the wiener does for men who misuse it. I know I’ve got some readers who are into wieners (I’m still on the fence), but they can be and are used as weapons by terrorists. The wiener may be cute to some (I really don’t get you two, seriously), but it can also be used as a tool (!) of oppression against women who are seen as having transgressed whatever arbitrary role the penis owner has decided he would like to impose. Men can flash us, masturbate in front of us, or play stupid jokes on us and other men with their wieners, and the net effect is always the same: they’ve asserted power over us by creating fear in order to manipulate our behavior.
That means that all sexual assaults, up to and including rape, are acts of terrorism aimed at taking away our freedom as women and as human beings. That also means that the War on Terr’r won’t be over until Ms. Dworkin gets her wish, and not just for twenty-four hours.