The clean hands of denial

Speaking of Sex - Ruling Passions
January 2, 1998

Sue Lees thinks that her work on rape derives from Michel Foucault, though she questions his failure "to explain why discourses are so systematically produced in male interests". Frankly, it is unlikely that a man dedicated to the celebration of sado-masochism would shed much light on rape or rape laws, even if each were a "discourse". Since neither is - both are material realities in a concrete world of disparate power and hierarchies built on dehumanisation and brutality - the French fog is useless.

Lees does not want to be useless. In Ruling Passions: Sexual Violence, Reputation and the Law, she wants to address what she calls "the policing of girls in everyday life", "judicial rape", "the representation of the body in British rape trials" and how we women "naggers, whores and libbers" provoke men to kill -this last a bitter and ironic attack on Britain's strange, quaint and thoroughly woman-hating "provocation defence". She is also concerned with male-on-male rape and marital rape. She is reluctant to quote anyone not an academic, which means she overlooks most of the significant contemporary feminist political writing on male dominance, sex and sexual abuse (for instance, Mary Daly, Robin Morgan, Sheila Jeffreys, Shere Hite, Deborah Cameron and Liz Fraser, Susan Brownmiller, moi). She barely mentions the extraordinary and legitimising studies of rape and marital rape (for instance, Rape in Marriage by Diana E. H. Russell and License to Rape: Sexual Abuse of Wives by David Finkelhor and Kersti Yllo) and ignores available case data from the National Clearinghouse on Marital and Date Rape, the archive of record. These folks were working for the liberation of women while Foucault was deconstructing real bodies in San Francisco S&M clubs. Why does a woman need to write a book on rape invoking the sacred influence of a misogynist dead white male, colour him French? Or, to put it another way, how many times do feminists have to reinvent the wheel?

In Lees's version, "(h)ow young women and men develop a gendered subjectivity is dependent on languageI Language reflects a type of power which limits and constrains modes of expression and belief. All forms of talk invoke some constraints. Language also plays a role in limiting discourse." In the United States, where a woman is raped every few minutes and battered every few seconds, a lot of women got hurt during that blah-blah. Neither his penis nor his fist was a discourse. "Power is not a possession, as radical feminists have argued," says Lees, paraphrasing Foucault, "but is embedded in discourses of medicine, law, psychology and the social sciences." So if everyone shuts up for a week or two, will rape stop?

Lees argues, using the word "discourse" as a talisman, that girls face a loss of reputation because of the names they will be called if sexually active. She sees the word "slag" as a stigma that coerces conformity. As oppression is discourse or "embedded" discourses, she sees a solution: "By adopting the word slag as subject rather than object, it is possible to subvert the misogyny embedded in the term. Mae West and Madonna are stars who successfully subvert the term by applying it to themselves." Revolution by show business. Mae West, not our contemporary, attacked male sexuality frontally; Madonna is part of the cultural pressure on girls to create a pornographic persona and put out. And Madonna's so-called subversion did not stop her former husband from beating her.

Missing is the recognition that a woman's sexual history will be used against her whatever it is: slag, demi-slag, demi-vi rge or holy virgin. Imagine the Virgin Mary cross-examined in a rape trial. The rapist would walk.

Lees deplores what she calls "(t)he refusal to link (rape) to sex by feminists." You could have knocked me over with a feather. She instructs feminists that rape "should be seen as the use of sexuality to express issues of power and domination". In the US, that would get rape protected as a form of speech. The uses of force in so-called normal and criminal sex (to use Lees's language) have been the much maligned focus of feminist theory and research on sexual exploitation and violence for the past 25 years.

In her chapter on sex education, Lees bravely campaigns "for young men to develop the ability to communicate about their sexual feelings and relationships and for young women to discuss ways of subverting sexism around them". Young men do communicate their sexual feelings, increasingly in acts of rape and battery, and young women need to be taught physical self-defence with the expectation that they must physically defend themselves against aggression. A discourse of retaliation and pain might help young men change their behaviour and to hell with their feelings; though this new female discourse might well teach them how to cry, an early ambition of the liberal women's movement.

In British law, rape is defined as intercourse without consent. Lees is right to understand that consent has no legal definition. It evolved in law as the conceptual opposite of a woman's resisting to the point of death: if she did not, she consented. Grave physical injury to her would be the proof that she did not consent. These days, with the so-called rough-sex defence, in which the woman, often killed, is posited to have demanded brutality, resistance to the point of death sort of loses its meaning. Consent remains the legal standard but is deprived of its original context. Lees is also right that consensual sex, as seen by the courts in rape cases, "encompasses a male view of women acquiescing to sexual use by men". In other words, women charge rape and are told they had intercourse.

In 1994, the British definition of rape was expanded to protect males from forced anal intercourse; women, by contagion, also get relief. Lees endorses this change, but it cannot easily be accommodated in her critique of law as gendered discourse. "Rendering rape a non-gendered crime raises problems for the feminist explanation of rape as a form of coercion used to keep women subordinate," she says unaccountably. Making a gender-neutral law does not make rape a "non-gendered crime". Her discussion of gender-neutral rape laws is inaccurate and deeply confused. In a kind of moral outrage, she wants to define all acts of forced sex as rape. She does not address whether or not acts of forced sex are prosecuted without rape as the trigger; nor does she say if the perpetrators are convicted and jailed. In a country that will not convict men for outright rape, it is hard to believe that forced fellatio would be a hanging offence. The question is: if it happened to a man, would it be?

Lees insists that judges are the prime protectors of rapists - "judicial rape". But surely prejudiced and inadequate rape statutes and common law, an absence of rape shield laws and sex-crime prosecutors, police malfeasance along with no standardised rules for collecting evidence, and no consistent legal support for the rape victim account for the disgraceful treatment of raped women in Britain.

I particularly object to Lees's assessment of marital rape. She asserts that research shows a "connection between marital rape and murder". I think she means a correlation. "Both occur," she says, "where the wife is leaving or has left her husband. Men who rape their wives in such circumstances are highly dangerous and should be recognised as such. All the cases of marital rape which went to appeal between 1991 and 1994 involved women who were trying to escape violent husbands.'' Murder of battered women is indeed more common when the woman leaves, but marital rape does not have a particular association with leaving - it is simply ignored during the course of the battery, more hidden, more shameful than the battery itself. Yes, men who batter and rape are dangerous, but, says society, only to the designated target, whose life is socially worthless. When the man takes his brutality outside -even against a wife or former wife - someone else could get hurt.

Lees does not want women to be raped, nor does she want to be taken for a raped woman, a perception that would destroy academic legitimacy and compromise so-called objectivity. But one cannot disarm a rapist or bad rape law by lobbing a discourse. It takes flesh-and-blood commitment: one gets a little dirty, a little bruised; and one has more in common with the rape victim than with the judge.

Which brings me to the difficult problem of Deborah Rhode's Speaking of Sex: The Denial of Gender Inequality. Rhode does not want to get dirty either. She spends considerable time defending pornography (in which women less clean than she are hurt and demeaned), seeing in it no relation to women's sexual inequality. But she thinks that the sub-culture and celebrity of male athletes fosters aggression against women and that television, books, "daily life" and toys bifurcated into male and female perpetuate and teach unequal gender roles. Pornography has no detrimental effect on women's civil status nor does it contribute to rape and battery; but football, books, and toys do. Her book's point, she says, "is to increase our understanding of denial - of all the ways that we resist acknowledging gender inequalities, as well as our own capacity to address them". This is pedagogy by example.

Sexual inequality," she writes, "is not sexy. To many men, the topic seems tedious, threatening or both. For women who live and work with men, it can be equally problematic." This may be the only equality that "women who live and work with men" will ever experience. Sexual inequality is exactly what is sexy. Men may find "the topic" boring; but they pay pornographers in the US an estimated $10 billion a year (not including child pornography) so that they can be aroused by a sexual inequality so literal, so concretely acted out for their pleasure, that one might reasonably conclude they are simply too tired to talk. "The topic" is abstract; sexual inequality is real.

Rhode acknowledges the pervasiveness of rape and wife-beating in the US: "between a quarter and a half of all women will experience rape or attempted rape. A similar percentage will be assaulted by a spouse or partner." There is no suggestion, however, that there must be a huge population of men who inflict these injuries. What is the name of feminism that cannot, will not, identify the perpetrators of gender crimes by gender?

"In some sense'', says Rhode, "the American women's movement is a victim of its own success. Its accomplishments have undercut the urgency of further struggle.'' I think that for women academics and lawyers this may be true: they are paid too much to risk what they have for women who have close to nothing - poor, raped, prostituted or battered women. Rhode wants "(o)ur universe of pink and blue" to "acquire a more complicated colour scheme". I myself want to take the blood red out of the colour scheme in which women live: it is pink only in the parlance of pornographers. And I would like to see Rhode, with Lees, get her hands dirty.

Andrea Dworkin is author of Life and Death: Unapologetic Writings on the Continuing War Against Women.

Speaking of Sex: The Denial of Gender Inequality

Author - Deborah L. Rhode
ISBN - 0 674 83177 2
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £19.95
Pages - 341

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