Thursday, 5 March 2009

On rape and consent

Cross posted

A month or so ago, Anita wrote a fantastic post at Kiwipolitico: Friends don't let friends rape, calling on men, and all of us, to call out rapists. She made what was to me an unremarkable statement:
The reality is that we all know people who rape, just as we all know people who have been raped. I’m talking about the fact some of the people we know have raped people they know, and they way they’ve talked about sex and dates and partners so we’ve had every opportunity to hear that true consent isn’t an issue for them.

But it inspired a long and agonising comment thread, with both men and women participating. As the thread developed, I began to hear people talking past each other, with the split mostly, but not exclusively, down gender lines. One group of people (mostly, but not exclusively men) was asserting that they did not in fact know rapists, and if they did, they would shun them. Others (mostly, but not exclusively women) were saying that of course they knew rapists, yes, they had had sex without consent, yes, they had been raped. But it seemed to me that the difference turned on what consent looked like. In fact, this was critical. Many of the people who were saying that they did not know rapists are people I respect, people I know to be people of good will, people who try to do the decent thing, to live good lives. Yet they clearly had a different understanding of what consent looks like to me and to others in the second group of people, that is, the people who had no doubt that they knew rapists.

I've been reflecting on this discussion ever since, and I've tried to write this post several times. I'm giving up on trying - I'm just going to write the damned thing.


Last year, the writers and readers of The Hand Mirror put together a submission in response to a government discussion document, Improvements to Sexual Violence Legislation in New Zealand. (Note to self: most do OIA and follow up on what is happening w.r.t the legislation.) Here's what we said about consent:

...behaviour that indicates "consent" is a continuum, ranging from behaviour that indicates total non-consent, such as saying, "No," to behaviour that indicates full consent, such as saying, "Yes." As with any continuum, it is easy to make judgements about each end of the continuum. However in between there is a grey area, where behaviour may or may not indicate consent.

The continuum can be illustrated like this.



Until recently, the absence of denial was treated as consent. That is, any behaviour that didn't fall between A and B, explicitly denying consent, was taken as giving consent.

Attitudes and the law are now changing. Consent is now taken to entail a positive process, not just an absence of a particular behaviour. However, it needs to be made very clear that, "She didn't say no," does not mean she said, "Yes." That is, behaviour in the grey area, from B to C, does not mean that consent has been given. For there to be consent, there must be behaviour in the area from C to D. Consent must not be just the absence on non-consenting behaviour, but the actual and unequivocal presence of consenting behaviour.

I assume that this is uncontroversial, that people are happy enough with the idea that consent must actually be given. But it seemed to me that there was a fair bit of confusion about what kind of behaviour might or might not fall either side of "C" i.e. the transition from "grey area" to "consent."

I think this is where many women may feel that they have been coerced into sex, that they may have given up saying no, or possibly even said yes, but that "yes" was not freely given. So they have had sex without consent. That is, they have been raped. And if they have been raped, then by definition there must be a rapist.

Sidebar:
Before I carry on further with this post, I want to make it very, very clear that what I am writing does not reflect in any way my own experience with my husband of many years.
/sidebar.

The thing is, even longterm and / or loving partners will sometimes coerce a woman into sex. A man who harumphs and grumps and makes it clear that he will sulk and complain if he doesn't get his end away pressures and coerces his partner into giving consent. Sure, it's not as obvious as a gun pointed at your head, forcing you to sign a contract, but it is forced consent nevertheless. A man who wields financial power over his partner can force her into giving consent. If you have no money and no resources, if your partner is the person who earns the income that feeds and clothes and houses you and your children, then if he makes it clear that he wants to have sex, and makes it clear that he expects you to provide it, and that there will be trouble if you don't, then you have very little choice about giving consent. The consequences of refusing sex are simply too costly.

I think there must be many, many women who have spent at least some nights with tears sliding slowly into their ears, trying to come to terms with having been forced into sex. And the thing is, that's the definition of rape. Rape is forced sex, or sex without consent, or sexual intercourse carried out forcibly or under threat. I suspect, although I don't know, that if many, many women have one way or another been forced into having sex, then there must be many, many men who have forced women into having sex. That is, there must be many, many men who have committed rape. That's why Anita's original statement, that we all know rapists, rings true for me.

I am reluctant to lump a man who perhaps on occasion sighs and grumps and harumphs because his partner doesn't want to have sex, into the same category as violent, serial rapists. Nevertheless, it's the sort of behaviour that is designed to pressure and coerce, to "persuade" someone to change her mind. Straightforwardly, it is unacceptable. Not criminal, perhaps, but nevertheless wrong.

Quite simply, consent to sex must be freely given. If there is not, then by definition, what takes place is not lovemaking, not sex, not even forced "sex". It's rape.

I know that's a very tough definition of consent. However, if we need to draw a line between consent and no-consent, then surely it needs to be drawn on the side of caution. And in that case, it means drawing it on the side where we can be sure that consent has been given, not on the side where we enable someone to think that it's acceptable in some circumstances to coerce another person into sex.

I know this definition demands a very high standard of behaviour. I know it means that people will have to be much, much more careful about their sexual behaviour. But I fail to understand how this could be anything other than a good thing.

***************************************



Other blog responses to Anita's post:

Sandra at Luddite Journo: What kind of feminist is ok?

Maia at Capitalism bad, tree pretty: Othering rapists (also posted on The Hand Mirror)

Labellementeuse: More on the rapists among us

More on rape at the boundaries of consent:

Bitch PhD: A different kind of rape (Though this one doesn't look to be a "boundary" issue at all to me.)

Shakesville: Yes means yes virtual tour

More on sex without real consent:

Bettina Arndt seems to be saying yet more silly things about women being required to have sex even if they don't want it. The Sydney Morning Herald has swallowed it all:
Arndt said low-libido partners, which are mostly women, needed to put sex on the "to-do list", even if they didn't feel like doing it.

"The notion that women have to want sex to enjoy it has been a really misguided idea that has caused havoc in relationships over the last 40 years."

With the right approach from a loving partner, if women were willing to be receptive "and allow themselves to relax … they would enjoy it", she said.

...but the Canberra Times, thank goodness, has at least one writer who is capable of critical thinking.
Now, if that sounds like great-grandmother's advice, ''lie back and think of England my dear'', it is. The notion of women passively submitting to uninspiring sex is an archaic and unforgivable suggestion that takes us back to some very dark old days indeed. Which makes one wonder why Arndt isn't turning her spotlight instead on the reason some women may have lost interest in sex. In addition to being worn out and over-tired, the real reason might have a lot to do with their uninspiring, unstimulating partners.

Where is the focus on how unsexy it is to try snogging a dull, lazy, tenderless man?

.....

For Arndt to suggest that women should simply put out, in order to keep a marriage alive, is a frightening, but timely, reminder of why we clearly need a sexual revolution. But this time, a real one. A revolution that places the sensual needs and desires of women on equal billing with a man's...

There is a fantastic response from Blue Milk: Sex to save the family, and Hoyden about Town has a great discussion thread on Arndt's nonsense.



44 comments:

Giovanni said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Giovanni said...

(Edited to add key missing word.)

The thing is, even longterm and / or loving partners will sometimes coerce a woman into sex. A man who harumphs and grumps and makes it clear that he will sulk and complain if he doesn't get his end away pressures and coerces his partner into giving consent.

Whoah there, Deborah. I never thought I'd be the guy to say this, but if harumping and grumping and complaining and sulking (or wielding financial power) are grounds for rape, then you need to make that whole paragraph non-gender specific. And I'd have to say I'm a rape survivor*. Which I'm so not.

*Again, not with my current partner, but still.

Anonymous said...

there is no excuse for relationship rape at all and no pressure to have sex should be put on reluctant partners whatsoever.

if your partner doesn't want to have sex with you then there is plenty of opportunity to purchase or obtain sex elsewhere, thereby alleviating any need to put your partner to the effort.

Deborah said...

That's part of the probelm, Giovanni. It's a bloody difficult line to draw, and I'm not quite sure where to draw it myself. I do actually say that I am reluctant to lump emotional bullies in with serial rapists, and there's good reason for that, which is precisely the sort of point you are making.

Nevertheless, coerced consent is not consent. And that puts emotional bullying on the same side of the line as serial rape, though I would argue, very very strongly, that they are still a long way apart from each other.

Giovanni said...

That's part of the probelm, Giovanni. It's a bloody difficult line to draw, and I'm not quite sure where to draw it myself. I do actually say that I am reluctant to lump emotional bullies in with serial rapists, and there's good reason for that, which is precisely the sort of point you are making.

So long as you want to down that line - and I don’t think for a moment that it’s wrong to explore those issue - I think you have no business making it an exclusively male problem. It goes both ways, unlike the more classically defined rape. (I know, technically a woman can rape in that sense too, but it’s just not happening in the real world in remotely the same proportions I would argue.)

But I think you need to be very careful. Relationships are complicated. There will be many times when one the partners feels like putting out less than the other, countless occasions when locating the moment of explicit consent will be well nigh impossible for both participants, or differently remembered. If you want to argue for a continuum, careful not to create a language of uncertainty that might authorise the grey area to be expanded, and excuses found to make a more serious case of rape fall into it, and become a lesser offense. Because surely we’re going to have to introduce a concept such as rape in the first, second or even third degree?

Anonymous said...

Hear hear, Giovanni. I hope that Deborah's partners, whether male or female, get signed written consent before they are intimate with her, just in case she later claims to have felt 'bullied'.

Anna said...

The extent to which consent is coerced depends a lot on the power differential between the partners, and the threat used to induce consent. Sulking probably wouldn't count as a threat for me - but if a woman agreed to sex because she knew her partner would make belittling remarks to her (for example), I'd regard that as pressuring someone into sex.

Anon, what are you implying exactly? Do you think it's OK to have sex with women when they don't actually want to? Or that women are lying when they say they don't want sex? Maybe you need to have a wee think about your attitudes to women.

Giovanni said...

but if a woman agreed to sex because she knew her partner would make belittling remarks to her (for example), I'd regard that as pressuring someone into sex.

Again, sorry, but why 'if a *woman*...' I think making it a one-way street really undermines Deborah's argument here.

Anonymous said...

The paragraph Giovanni quotes also jumped out at me, and for the same reason, if the sort of "pressure" you describe is enough to qualify sex as rape, I to have been raped by females.

Though I wouldn't have said so.

Andrew W

Anonymous said...

"Do you think it's OK to have sex with women when they don't actually want to?"

No, but if she doesn't want to then she shouldn't agree, even after pressure or because of possible future events. To claim that having sex with a person (not just a man, but either gender) because of a unvoiced fear of what comments might be made later is actually rape is surely putting the requesting partner in a situation that they won't know if they are actually raping their partner or not. Hence, don't have sex with someone unless you get written consent. Much safer.

I think that Andrew W makes a very good point on this.

"Or that women are lying when they say they don't want sex?"

No, I firmly believe that if a woman says she doesn't want sex then she doesn't want sex. No doubt about it. Just like if a man says he doesn't want sex then he also doesn't want sex. And your point is?

And who says I am not a woman, just one who doesn't agree with you? Stop being so misandric.

stargazer said...

what is missing is the power differential, who is dependent on whom, what implicit threats are made?

something i've seen that is very common amongst more than one religion is the notion that the wife who doesn't immediately submit to sexual demands will be a sinner and will have to pay severely in the afterlife. another cultural threat is that he will go to her parents and tell her that she is unresponsive and not fulfilling her duty. his threat to shame her family immediately brings pressure down on her not just from him but from her whole family.

so many times, when you're tired out after a busy day with work & housework; when you've been word down with constant belittling and insults; when you've been threatened in the ways i've mentioned above; it's so much easier to close your eyes and let him do it.

that's when the tears fall silently, and many times he doesn't even see them in the dark. he doesn't even look when he's finished, just turns over and goes to sleep. and she just lies there hating herself even more for lying there and being used like an inanimate object.

yes, i'd call that rape.

Anonymous said...

Hey Stargazer, that is terrible.

Why doesn't she go to the police station and make a complaint? After all, the sex was coerced and there was no true consent.

stargazer said...

how will she get the police to believe her? how will she prove that she didn't give consent? where are the witnesses, the bruises, the evidence?

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry to see that the female commentators are still locked into the Dworkin position where men are always, inescapably more powerful (and cannot be coerced), while women are inescapably powerless and always need special treatment. Have you thought about how problematic that position is?

FWIW, I agree that a gender-neutral consent discussion followed immediately by special pleading on behalf of one gender negates the earlier construction. Even if it's women doing the special pleading.

Moz

Deborah said...

I think it's at best disingenuous, but more accurately intellectually dishonest, or even mendacious, to refuse to recognise the gendered nature of rape. Sure, men can be emotionally bullied and coerced into sex, but the fact is that the entrenched power differentials in our society, and the social and cultural constructions of women's roles, mean that rape is for the most part (NB - for the most part, not exclusively) perpetrated by men, and for the most part (NB - for the most part, not exclusively) experienced by women.

Anjum has described something that ought to be considered rape, and the man who perpetrates it ought to be shunned. But he is not. And the reason is that no one in positions of power will accept that this is rape.

As for going to the police! Clint Rickards, Brad Shipton and Bob Schollum to you, not to say John Dewar as well.

Anna said...

Yes, I do think it's possible for men to feel pressured into sex.

But I also think women are often raised to give in to keep the peace. This pressure is far greater in some cultures than others, as stargazer has pointed out. I'd be surprised if there are many women who haven't, at some time or other, put out because they know there'll be an argument if they don't. It's common for girls/women to have sex for the first time because they feel they should, not because they particularly want to.

And I think it's a bit feeble for a man to argue that if a woman doesn't feel comfortable saying no to him, that's her fault. He could always ask how she's feeling. Why does the man have no responsibility to ascertain whether his partner actually feels like sex? It may not be an individual man's 'fault' that a woman finds it difficult to say no to sex (this is a broader, cultural problem) but he can still show a bit of sensitivity to his partner.

I don't know much about how men think/feel about sex, but I think the feeling that sex is one more domestic chore at the end of a long day is probably more of a woman thing.

Anonymous said...

The assumption that it is always the man who is the dominant partner in a relationship is so wrong it isn't even funny. There are a huge number of marriages in which timid husbands are subservient to their domineering wives.

Andrew W

Anita said...

I think there was a third category of commenters – people who have the same definition of rape as you and me but who desperately don't want to believe that anyone they care about would do it.

One of the most distressing things in my life was finding out a then friend who I cared about deeply did something that both of us considered to be rape. Somehow the times I've found out that friends have been raped were less distressing, oh they were awful but somehow unsurprising, they were how I suspected the world was. To find out that a friend could be that rapist, that shook my whole world view.

Why is that we expect our friends and families to be victims but not aggressors?

Giovanni said...

I think it's at best disingenuous, but more accurately intellectually dishonest, or even mendacious, to refuse to recognise the gendered nature of rape.

Boy, is that a slippery argument... Of course, I've said upthread at least twice, there's no question when it comes to the more classical, black/white definition of rape, men are overwhelmingly the perpetrators. But you're changing the definition so as to include behaviours fully accessible to women - not historical women, you understand, but our contemporaries, many of whom are the breadwinners in their relationships, as well as having access to a psychological armory that is as much as their disposal than at their partner's - and still you (and Anhum in tow) are making it a one-way gendered thing.

If this is where your exploration of grey areas and broadening of the definition of rape is going, I find it, yes disingenuous, but more accurately intellectually dishonest, or even mendacious.

Giovanni said...

Anjum - apologies for misspelling of name.

Anna said...

Andrew, everyone can list examples of husbands who are bullied by their wives, and that's inexcusable.

I don't think anyone is arguing that every man is more powerful than every women, but you really need to think about context. Men earn more. The majority of divorces end up with women in a far worse financial position than men. Most single parents are poor and female. Most adult domestic violence victims are female. Women do way more unpaid domestic work than men.

When your alternatives aren't that great, your relationship choices are constrained. A friend of mine spent well over a decade married to a man she wasn't sexually attracted to. He was aggressive and threatening. I don't think she ever specifically said 'no' to sex with him, but she knew that if he didn't get his own way he'd walk out, leaving her with young children. It's hard to imagine a man being in that position, because a man would be less likely to be a) financially dependent, and b) fully responsible for the care of the children.

Would you regard what I've just described as consent?

stargazer said...

i'm sorry that when i describe a real and current experience (not mine), that i'm only seen as being "in tow". there is nothing historical about it.

the modern world leaves women just as exhausted, particularly when many of them still do more of the unpaid work than their male counterparts. they are still susceptible to putdowns. they are susceptible to cultural messages that value women who are submissive and available (when it comes to sex) and who are treated pretty viciously if they complain of rape (louise nicholas, the young woman allegedly abused by the english rugby players). you may think the world has changed because it may have changed for you. for very many others it hasn't changed much at all.

Giovanni said...

for very many others it hasn't changed much at all.

And for very many others it has, and ignoring it won't get you anywhere except in some sort of moral bunker. I find the dishonesty of your argument galling.

stargazer said...

you'd rather ignore the ones for whom it hasn't changed? denial of any kind of access to justice is what is galling. there is nothing dishonest about that.

how would you propose providing justice in the example i've given? not walking out after the event but actually providing some accountability and justice for the woman in that situation?

Giovanni said...

denial of any kind of access to justice is what is galling. there is nothing dishonest about that.

And denying access to justice to men who might be (and no doubt are) in the same situation is okay because...?

stargazer said...

who anywhere said it was ok? nobody. what we have said is that it is a gendered problem, and i don't need to repeat what deborah, anna & anita have said. they explained it very well.

so, how would you propose providing justice in the example i've given?

Giovanni said...

what we have said is that it is a gendered problem, and i don't need to repeat what deborah, anna & anita have said. they explained it very well.

Yes, you have all made your discriminatory argument very well. It just so happens I don't agree with it I guess, and still struggle to comprehend how you justify the choice of making it exclusively gendered.

so, how would you propose providing justice in the example i've given?

If it's justice available to only one of the sexes, I'm honestly not that interested in it. How do you suggest solving it, out of interest?

Tui said...

OK, I do agree with Anjum and Anita that there are a wide range of ways in which people, especially women, can feel pressured into verbally consenting to sex when they really don't want to have it, and that is a terrible thing, and it makes rape within the confines of marriage a reality for large numbers of people who are mostly women. I think this most often affects women because a *majority* of these pressures *are* gendered: pressures like financial dependence, religious and cultural upbringing, attitudes to sex, etc etc. Swathes of these are gendered.

On the other hand, there's also things like mismatched libidos, and it's just not true that all men want sex more often than all women. I actually think perpetuating that idea does a massive disservice to women by strengthening the notion that it's somehow natural for women not to enjoy sex.

I want to use a really silly metaphor: I really hate vaccuum cleaning and my flatmate really hates cleaning the bathroom. My flatmate and I have entered into a contract where she does all the vaccuum cleaning and I clean the bathrooms. (This is a metaphor, this contract doesn't exist, although I really fucking hate vaccuum cleaning.) In a perfect world, we would each do our chores regularly and everyone would be happy. However, there's a conflict whereby I don't clean the bathrooms as often as she would like, because we have differing ideas about how often the bathroom needs to be cleaned. Sometimes she sulks until I clean the bathroom, a behaviour which is coercive (and intrinsically destructive to our friendship, FWIW.) However, our contract is such that she can't get anyone else to clean the bathroom for her - only I can clean them.

What's the solution there? Well, there are three solutions. My flatmate can clean the bathrooms herself (but she's also doing all the vaccuum cleaning, remember?) We could hire a professional cleaner. Or I could commit to cleaning the bathroom once a week instead of once every two weeks. (There's a fourth solution: my flatmate could do something to make cleaning the bathroom more fun for me. But that's really pushing the metaphor to its limits.)

Obviously this metaphor is not perfect, but seriously: part of what distinguishes a romantic relationship from a friendship is sex. If you don't want to commit to having sex from time to time, have friends, not girlfriends (or boyfriends, or wives, or husbands).

This is not to say that there aren't serious issues with this as a position: Anjum's example is a pretty clear-cut depiction of partner rape and it sucks and it is a part of our society and it is something we have a responsibility to acknowledge, condemn, and to work to eliminate. But there are a whole lot of things happening in Anjum's example that aren't happening in every case (threats to tell parents? insults and belittling? these are not hallmarks of a healthy relationship.) It's not fair to say that any expression of the desire to have sex, when your partner doesn't want it, is immediately emotional blackmail or coercion. In some cases it can be, but to say that it always is - I disagree.

I also want to point out that a problem with making this discussion so explicitly gendered, where woman is always the raped and man is always the rapist, contributes to a cycle of silence about rape and domestic abuse in the queer community, and I'm pretty sure we don't want to participate in that.

stargazer said...

read deborah's post about consent. that's where i'd start. acknowledging it as a problem would help. acknowleding the cultural and historical influences which make it a gendered problem would help. education of both women and men about issues of consent would help, particularly education of our teenagers as they start in on relationships. more public discourse about how to build a healthy relationship, and understanding the power dynamics within relationships would help. there's plenty more, but i've got to leave the internet now.

and again, nobody here has said anything about the problem being "exclusively" gendered. have another read:

Sure, men can be emotionally bullied and coerced into sex, but the fact is that the entrenched power differentials in our society, and the social and cultural constructions of women's roles, mean that rape is for the most part (NB - for the most part, not exclusively) perpetrated by men, and for the most part (NB - for the most part, not exclusively) experienced by women.

and

I don't think anyone is arguing that every man is more powerful than every women...

and

particularly when many of them still do more of the unpaid work than their male counterparts

Giovanni said...

Yes, Anjum, but then every single example given, starting from the one I quoted at the top of the comments thread, has had woman (not sexual partner) in the subject position as the victim of rape. I think that does extreme disservice to what would otherwise be an interesting discussion on the nature of sexual consent. At the moment it isn't, in my humble but honest opinion. Moz and Tui I think have said much the same.

I'm still interested in hearing how you'd give access to justice to your friend. What's your solution here, and who can avail themselves of the opportunities for redress that you envisage?

stargazer said...

tui, i agree with you totally that "It's not fair to say that any expression of the desire to have sex, when your partner doesn't want it, is immediately emotional blackmail or coercion."

absolutely. my concern is that when an example like the one i've given happens, there is very little access to justice. and i think that is the nub of what deborah is trying to get at. unless we're really prepared to delve into issues of consent and whether the current understandings are shared and appropriate, there is going to be little change for those (and it will be predominantly but not exclusively women) who are in that kind of abusive situation.

it's interesting that the nz legal definitions of consent are much looser than in other jurisdictions. all jurisdictions have problems when it comes to getting convictions for rape, and when it comes to getting women to report rape. if we want to improve the record in that area, we really need to start looking at issues in the way that deborah has. well done her!

Anonymous said...

the thing is that every situation described here is a situation that the woman can avoid by simply breaking up with the (male) partner. If she chooses to stay and have sex with that partner out of some sort of non-physical fear, then she actually is consenting, just for reasons other than her own gratification.

What is really being said is that men should only want to have sex with women when women want it and any other time they ask for sex and the woman provides it when she didn't really want it then that is rape.

Or that sexual services were provided to avoid some worsening of the financial or familial situation. Well, avoid that completely- don't have kids: they are a choice and you can choose not to have them. Don't become financially dependant on a man. Instead, forge your own career independently of any other person and ensure your own personal financial situation is prioritised always. And, most of all, end the relationship before you have unwilling sex and therefore allow yourself to be raped.

stargazer said...

that's the problem, giovanni. under our current legal & cultural framework, she has no access to justice. hence the suggestions for change that i mentioned a couple of comments before.

i gave a gendered example because that's the gender of the person involved. i have yet to hear of a priest condemning men for not fulfilling their sexual duty to their wife, regardless of their own level of desire at the particular time. maybe some do, but it certainly not as common as women being told to perform their duty. the shame of divorce, in minority cultural contexts & historically, is very rarely visited on men the way it is on women.

i totally accept that some women behave badly. but when it comes to issues like consent and rape, failure to address the gendered aspect of the problem means we will ultimately not get very far in solving the problem.

ok, i really truly have to go now. dammit, i'm finding this discussion really intersting...

Anonymous said...

1 Corinthians 7: 2 - 5

2 But since there is so much immorality, each man should have his own wife, and each woman her own husband. 3 The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. 4 The wife's body does not belong to her alone but also to her husband. In the same way, the husband's body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife. 5 Do not deprive each other except by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.

Giovanni said...

i totally accept that some women behave badly. but when it comes to issues like consent and rape, failure to address the gendered aspect of the problem means we will ultimately not get very far in solving the problem.

I normally agree, I think it's well documented. But Deborah has blown this thing open to an extent where I honestly don't think that the issue is even gendered anymore. We have no statistics, no research, no anecdotal evidence, no nothing to suggest that the behaviours I quoted at the top of the comments thread are more widespread amongst males than amongst females. Financial pressures (and physical coercion, obviously) are still a predominantly male thing, yes - yet we're hoping to change the financial thing, no? But 'harumping, grumping, sulking' (to use Deborah's words), belittling, taunting, namecalling? Are we so sure? Even if you don't agree with me that things might be about even, I really feel very strongly that this discussion needs to be de-gendered to properly address the grey area that Deborah describes, rather than prejudicially making the woman the victim no matter what.

Deborah said...

Giovanni, I agree that many women are just as capable of, and just as inclined to, engage in emotional bullying when it comes to demanding sex. But just because women can do it too doesn't make it acceptable - it's still wrong. As I said somewhere upthread (or maybe wrote and then deleted - I can't remember now), it's a very, very difficult line to draw.

I think that all rapes are not equal. Some are clearly much much worse than others. None are desirable. Emotional bullying - clearly not desirable. Financial bullying, in order to get sex - that's nasty. Physical bullying, in order to get sex - even worse. You can draw up a scale of these things, and exactly how you draw it up is going to differ from person to person.

But... it's clear that all of these things are wrong.

Maybe we need some different words. Maybe we need to make it clear that it is morally reprehensible to coerce people into sex. That would certainly be an advance on the status quo.

I think we also need to recognise that there can be something special about sex. Sometimes sex is just a casual and cheerful transaction. That's fine by me, as long as there's consent. Other times, it's not sex - it's lovemaking. It's part of the relationship of love between partners. I know, from my own experience, that there are times when you make love to your partner, even if you don't feel like having sex, because you know they need the love, the connection, the reassurance.

And lovemaking is very, very intimate. You bare yourself to the other person. That's one hell of a thing to do. And that's why being coerced into sex is so offensive. It's an appalling parody of an intimate act of love. Instead of engaging with the other person, you force the other into an act of pseudo-intimacy and pseudo-love.

I doubt that we could ever get the law to capture the problems with coerced sex (c/f what we would commonly call rape). But I think we at least need to try to recognise that coercing people into sex is wrong.

Jenny said...

I find it interesting that Giovanni said that in order for the discussion to be interesting, he needs (others) to talk about men as the victims. If rape is truly not a gendered problem, why should it matter for the purpose of the discussion whether the perpetrators are men or women? Why is the issue of consent uninteresting if it concerns women's consent?

Giovanni said...

I find it interesting that Giovanni said that in order for the discussion to be interesting, he needs (others) to talk about men as the victims. If rape is truly not a gendered problem, why should it matter for the purpose of the discussion whether the perpetrators are men or women? Why is the issue of consent uninteresting if it concerns women's consent?

Last time I'm going to say this, because we're all intelligent people. OF COURSE RAPE IS A GENDERED PROBLEM. But broadening the discussion to the behaviours that Deborah has described (and that I've quoted ad nauseam) and then still making it gendered on the grounds that rape is gendered, is at best sloppy thinking. You'd be screaming bloody murder (rightfully so) if I or anybody else had opened up a discussion where men are the sole victims of being pressured into sex via emotional blackmail or 'sulking'.

I doubt that we could ever get the law to capture the problems with coerced sex (c/f what we would commonly call rape). But I think we at least need to try to recognise that coercing people into sex is wrong.

Yup, exactly: *people*. And of course it is bloody complicated. What about the sexual relations in which a domineering behaviour from either partner is desired and actively sought? I think moving into an area where we could apply law and apportion blame would be very difficult indeed - perhaps the best we can do is strive to give people in these unequal relationships the power to say no.

And we need more education. I was shocked some years ago in a tutorial at uni that so many of my fellow students (I was a mature student, so I'm not claiming superior wisdom other than on those grounds) didn't recognise the rape scene in She's Gotta Have It for what it was - a rape scene.

Deborah said...

This is a very, very difficult line to draw, and it's no wonder that we are arguing about it. In part I'm trying to draw the line because one of the challenges laid down at Anita's post was for us to start talking about what consent looks like, and where the lines should be drawn. I'm also aware that most times there's a discussion about rape on teh blogz, someone, somewhere will say, "But what about men. Men get raped too." So part of this analysis is trying to work up an account of rape that doesn't exclude me, even though for the most part, rape is massively gendered.

Over at my own place, one commenter has pointed out that the definition I'm using could turn even a standard expression of disappointment into a context of coerced sex. Here's what I wrote back.

I see your point, Adele. And maybe I am drawing the line at too hard a point. Or maybe the line falls somewhere in the group of emotional responses to refusal, some of which are going to be quite ordinary and reasonable, and some of which are going to tip over into bullying. And like all sliding scales, in this case ranging from, “Oh, I’m disappointed, and I feel sad about it” to “you’re ruining my life, you’re telling me I’m not worth it, you’re a mean, nasty person, and you are yadda yadda yadda (I’m finding it hard to write this because it’s not really within my experience), I can see that one end of the scale is fine, and the other is not, but I don’t know exactly how to describe the middle.

Deborah said...

Ah, that would be "an account of rape that doesn't exclude men", not "an account of rape that doesn't exclude me."

Anonymous said...

I'm currently undergoing therapy to deal with historical sexual abuse and rape experiences; the worst of which occurred in the final couple of years of my former marriage.

Why was this rape worse?
Because when I say, 'my ex-husband was/is a rapist', the assumption is made that I am a middle-class, liberal feminist who was suffering a lack of libido as her marriage failed for some ill-defined reason ...

Wrong answer.

I was being raped by a man who was travelling south-east asia on business regularly, indulging his taste for asian prostitutes, then forcibly sexually assaulting me along the lines of some of his favourite asian porn movie fantasies, which he had been acting out with prostitutes.

These scenarios really happen, they destroy relationships, and the lives of women and children.

Reading that the journalist at the newspaper quoted thinks 'lack of libido' in women causes men to attempt sex without consent, both belittles my experience and that of many other women in violent sexual relationships, and sweeps aside the medical causes of low libido in women - which may be due to other underlying conditions such as diabetes, hypothyroid, depression, or a medication side-effect.
An understanding partner will make allowances for ill-health, not just rape when he's horny!

How we manage relationships in NZ is another question that doesn't get aired much, either. Most couples don't think about the power dynamics until the situation drags them into family counselling pre-divorce, or some other issue puts one partner or the other into a therapists hands.

Anna said...

Anon, thank you for sharing what was an awful experience, and for pointing out so clearly why this issue matters.

I completely agree with your comment about how we manage relationships, not necessarily considering the power dynamics until things go so wrong that the relationship breaks down.

It's easy to say, 'Why doesn't she just leave?', but that denies all the complexities of relationships, the years you might have invested into a marriage, the finances, the kids, etc. I think the power dynamic you refer to actually does involve the idea that women will sacrifice themselves for the wellbeing of their partners/families, including by meeting their partners' sexual needs even when they don't feel like it. When this dynamic is built in to the history of Western marriage (and marital rape wasn't even broadly recognised as a crime until recently), it can be pretty hard to articulate control over your sexuality without feeling like you're frigid, an inadequate wife/partner, etc - or possibly being accused of these things.

AWicken said...

Maybe the real point is that when the criteria for "sex without consent" (rape) are examined beyond knife-to-the-throat stereotypes, we have to admit that each circumstance has to be looked at individually.

Sometimes a person can't "simply" leave an abusive relationship, whereas other people can pack their bags at the slightest whiff of belittling. Similarly, what to one person might be a polite request for reconsideration might border on coersion to another.

And THEN we get into the "two people are drunk and have sex - is the guy a rapist (because being drunk is no excuse), but the woman a 'survivor'?" area. My personal response to that is "not if they're equally pissed, but most of the time one party has had a couple and the other is practically unconscious, so that example doesn't cut it".

To me, it is a distraction to be quibbling over the gender of the person who was raped. I guess my own emphasis is on finding ways to determine the ethically acceptable course of action, both for my own benefit and as a way to explain my perspective to others should the need arise.

Julie said...

Thank you for writing this Deborah. I have more to say but need to think about it more first. What you have written must have been hard to write, and I'm so glad you did.