Monday, December 6, 2010

Rape, Defined

FYI, if you’ve been directed here by a person on a feminist blog as a means of explaining that what you’re saying is wrong, irrelevant, or hateful…please, try to read the following without reflexive defensiveness.  Getting shit wrong doesn’t make you a horrible person, it just makes you imperfect…like everyone else.

[Trigger warning:  Clinical and somewhat graphic discussions of rape to follow.]

As feminists we talk about rape often.  It and similar crimes are part of the web of oppression that remind many of us every single day that we are less – less valued, less autonomous – less.  Talking about rape, particularly the rape of women and girls, almost always leads to the same derails.  So this is the beginning of a series of non-posts on derailing conversations about rape.

By far the most prevalent derail in any discussion of rape is the intentional or unintentional misunderstanding of what definition of rape is being or should be used.  Whether it’s the media determining that something wasn’t rape or a person denying that a victim’s experience was rape, people regularly fail to understand what is meant by rape.

Rape is a word that draws its meaning from context.

So what definitions of rape are used and how can you tell the difference?  Typically we discuss rape from three perspectives:  (a) legal, (b) ethical, and (c) empathetic.  The first addresses the liability a person faces for certain acts.  The second addresses what a person “ought” or “should” do.  The third provides a way for someone to connect emotionally with another person and, in some cases, engage in a part of the healing process.

Rape and the Law

If we're discussing the legal merits of a case there is a very specific, usually statutory definition.  If statutory, the law may provide for different degrees of culpability depending on the intention of the defendant, the level of threatened or actual physical violence, the parties involved, the type of sexual act involved, etc.

Outside of a discussion of the legal merits of a case or the institutional oppression inherent in our definitions of rape (for example the notion under some statutes that men cannot be the victims of rape), these legal definitions have no place in a discussion of rape.  Let me say that again, for emphasis, do not pull out a statute to define rape unless you are talking about the statute itself or the merits of criminal case.

Why?  To do so is to conflate liability with reality.  The law does not determine whether something occurred.  It doesn't determine whether your house was robbed or your car stolen.  It doesn't determine whether the perpetrator committed a crime, whether the defendant robbed or stole.  Instead, it determines whether a particular defendant is to be held criminally or civilly liable for the crime.  A jury’s determination that the defendant is not guilty, does not magically restore your xbox to your entertainment center or your car to the driveway.

A lot of people have difficulty with is differentiating between discussions of ethics and discussions of law.  I suppose your ethical system may be merely to not do things that are illegal, but a great many people believe that there are ethical restraints our actions that are not necessarily incorporated in law.  For example, observing an abandoned baby in a rubbish pile and doing nothing.  In most cases this behavior would not be actionable under law, but many people would consider it unethical.

The ethical discussions of rape typically revolve around a model of consent.*  Rape occurs when one person engages in a sexual act without the affirmative consent of another participant.  Thus, a person should not engage in a sexual act with another without obtaining affirmative consent.  In my view this model contains two key premises.  First, a person should not act to harm another person.  Second, that other people have the agency to determine what causes harm to themselves.  Since people are not omniscient or psychic, the best way we can know another’s subjective thoughts is to inquire and trust that person’s assertions.  Thus, to prevent harm a person must seek and rely on consent.

Notice this consent model is neutral as to the act involved.  You shouldn't punch someone in the nose, perform a tonsillectomy on another person or insert an object in to another person's vagina, mouth, or rectum without their consent.**

Some feminists use a model of enthusiastic consent.  There are varying definitions of enthusiastic consent, but essentially the idea is that you should only engage in sex activity with someone who has a sexual desire to engage in that activity with you.  Under this model, an ethical person would seek to understand the sexual desires of the other person, and seek to fulfill those sexual desires rather than merely relying on a perhaps reluctant “yes.”

While I understand the rationale for enthusiastic consent, the model may deny the agency of people who are asexual, some sex workers, and others.  As a result, I prefer a simple affirmative consent model.  Essentially, a person must affirmatively consent to sexual acts.  Negative consent, i.e. not saying no, is inadequate.

Whatever your ethical model is, the purpose of the model is to determine how a person should act.  Said differently, an ethical definition of rape is only relevant when trying to determine the ethical nature of a sexual act.  In this way, the ethical definition of rape, like the legal definition of rape is focused on the experience and understanding of the actor.  Did the actor ask for and receive affirmative consent prior to engaging in a sexual act?  The experience of the victim of rape is not central or even considered beyond the actor’s interpretation of the victim’s actions. 

Ethical systems like the consent model described above seek to protect victims of rape by requiring ethical people to value the judgments of others.  Nevertheless, even when a person acts ethically under the model of affirmative consent the other party may be the victim of rape.  For example, if a person withdraws consent but for some reason is unable to communicate that withdrawal.  Obviously, these situations form extraordinary exceptions, but they highlight an important principal:  Ethical definitions of rape do not define whether someone is the victim of rape.  Instead, the ethical definition only indicates whether the actor committed rape.  To understand whether a person is the victim of rape we need to look at the next section.

If the question you are seeking to answer is was this person raped, I urge you to stop.

Please.  Stop.

Before you go any further ask yourself why it is important to know whether this person was raped.  Are you seeking to hold someone liable for rape?  If so, then this question is not relevant to you.  Look instead at the legal definition for liability.  Are you seeking to hold someone morally or ethically responsible for rape?  If so, then this question is not relevant to you.  Look instead at the ethical definitions of rape.  Are you seeking to impose your conception of rape onto this other person?  If so, please stop.  For the reasons I will shortly explain, that rationale is both wrong and hurtful.  So, please don’t do it.  Are you seeking to connect with another human, to understand the world from their perspective and perhaps help them heal from a harmful experience?  If so, you probably have no need for me to explain anything, but I’ll discuss empathy after I address knowledge.

Language is one of those funny things.  It is in large part a social construction.  You and I and the rest of the English speakers on earth have determined that the object over there next to the table is a chair.  We call it a chair.  We understand it to be a chair in fact and in concept.  But socially constructed meaning is not the only meaning.  My psychological experience of chairs also provides a definition of chairs, a meaning unique to me.  For me the word chair conjures up the dining chairs in my parent’s house when I was small.  Brown, hard, uncomfortable, too smooth to exert leverage and climb on, too tall for my legs, but too short to reach anything on the table.  So while you and I may agree that a comfy leather side chair meets the socially constructed definition of chair, we likely have different psychological experiences that similarly define our internal understanding of chairs.  Both the socially constructed and the psychological meanings are true, they are just describing the same concept from different perspectives.  If I choose to share with you, my psychological understanding of chairs, I’m probably not trying to convince you must alter your psychological understanding of chairs or even our socially constructed understanding of chairs.  Instead, I’m just trying to share part of who I am.

Rape is understood much the same ways.  We have a social construction of rape based in part on the legal and ethical definitions discussed above.  But different people have different psychological experiences of rape.  And it is these psychological experiences that define rape from the perspective of the person who experienced it.  Such a definition cannot be socially constructed, it is necessarily experiential.

So to return to the point, if you want to know whether someone experienced rape, the only question is whether they say they experienced rape.***  Their experience is not socially constructed.  So please, do not try to shape someone’s experience into your understanding of rape.  We can shape ethics, we shape the law, we can shape society…but we should not ever tell people what they did not or should not feel.

Instead, we should use empathy.  Empathy requires hearing someone else's suffering with your mouth shut and your heart open.  It is connecting with another human being.  It is an emotional conversation, not an intellectual one.

Moreover, the self is, in part socially constructed.**** Rape can destabilize a person’s sense of self particularly in relation to others and particularly in a society that compounds the damage done by rape.  Reconstructing that social bond, is a social obligation.  The obligation to hear, to listen, to empathize, to accept, to embrace the victim as a valued member of society.

In short, I’m trying to convince you of three things (1) that rape from the perspective of the victim is defined experientially, (2) that such definitions are not an attack on our socially constructed, or personal construction of meaning, and (3) that victims of rape need us to hear them and respect their understanding of what they experienced.

If after all of that you still cannot help but want to argue with a person’s self-definition of rape, I urge you to stop and walk away.  Perhaps you cannot for what ever reason empathize or sympathize, but please do not compound the harm someone has experienced by making them feel as if yet another person does not value them.

FYI 2 - Comments are moderated.  This isn't really a blog, so I'll get to the comments when I can and it likely won't be immediately.

* There are other models of course.  But this is the most prevalent and my favorite.
** Acting without another person’s consent is sometimes justifiable in cases of necessity, but such justifications are rarely related to rape except in the case of medical rape.
*** I urge anyone who struggles with this directive to go read Cara’s “On Birth Rape, Definitions, and Language Policing.”  It is a brilliant and empathic examination of the language policing that occurs around the word “rape” and why such efforts are so vile.
****Susan Brison makes this argument regarding the socially constructed self and inspired my thoughts on this issue, but her work is not necessarily reflective of the totality of this line of thinking.  Brison, Susan, “Outliving Oneself:  Trauma, Memory and Personal Identity” in Feminists Rethink the Self (1997).

Monday, November 29, 2010

Patriarchy, Kyriarchy and Men

So some idiot’s long and rambling editorial over at the Chicago Tribune sparked what I think is an interesting discussion over at Feministe. The interesting confab was not on the article itself, but on Julia Serrano’s (cited by Jadey) definitions of traditional sexism and oppositional sexism

traditional sexism
Sexism that is rooted in the presumption that femaleness and femininity are inferior to (and only exist for the sexual benefit of) maleness and masculinity. It targets those who are female as well as those who are feminine (regardless of their sex).

oppositional sexism
Sexism that is rooted in the presumption that female and male are rigid, mutually exclusive, “opposite” sexes, each possessing a unique and non-overlapping set of attributes, aptitudes, abilities, and desires. It targets those who do not conform to oppositional gender norms. A number of previously described categories of sexism (e.g., transphobia, homophobia and cissexism) fall under the umbrella of oppositional sexism.

Essentially, the interesting argument is whether what Serrano calls “traditional sexism” should applicable to men to or said differently whether women have any institutional power over men.

This argument points out what I consider to be the fundamental flaw inherent in many strands of feminism. They look at the world from the single lens of the oppression of women. I know, I know…that was what feminism was created to do: to provide equality for women. I completely agree on the rationale for why feminism was created. I just disagree on the value of that perspective.

But there can be no equality as long as one person is unequal, as long as one person lives in a world that oppresses.

Looking at the world from the single lens of the oppression of women provides a distorted view of the world. Decades ago feminist philosophers charged the ivory tower academics with failing to solve problems because they have a myopic view of the world. Feminism has a myopic vision of power as binary and men as the holders of that power.

Power is not always binary. It’s so obvious as to be ridiculous, but at least in the US there is no cabal of men who get together on Sunday afternoons to determine how best to oppress women and how to maintain the existing power dynamic. Indeed, there isn’t even an unconscious consideration on the part of *men* in general on how they should alter their actions to further oppress women. In the US, men are not simply the Oppressors and women are not simply the Oppressed. Power isn’t necessarily controlled by one group and exercised for the purpose of oppression.

This isn’t to say that the view of power as binary isn’t reasonable. Indeed in some situations people do consciously and purposefully collaborate to harm or oppress others. I’m sure we can all think of at least a dozen examples. Although even in those contexts there are oppressive forces working on those exerting power. The problem is it isn’t the only way in which power oppresses and when we limit ourselves to a oppressor/oppressed (“or/ed”) paradigm it is far to easy to ignore the oppression experienced by people who we label as oppressors even though they too are victims of oppression.

The men are oppressors. If men are oppressors in the or/ed paradigm then Serrano’s definitions of traditional/oppositional sexism make sense. Men oppress women both institutionally and through gendered norms. Men oppress other men who fail to meet gendered norms. In all cases men are the source of the oppression.

It falls in with Jadey’s comment (@ 98) that:

“So short = bad also encompasses feminine/female = bad (and it should be clear where this sucks for short guys), but it also intersects with conformity = good, so short women = conforming to the idea that women are short (and also bad), which is good, and short men = failure to conform to the idea that men are tall (or taller than women, at least!), which is bad. And also they are (or could be) “feminized”, which is also bad, both because non-conformity is bad and being female/feminine is bad.”

But it falls apart when we look more carefully at the idea implied but not expressed by Jadey that masculinity=good.

Let’s take a look at one of the common characteristics of masculinity: stoicism.

Stoicism. I maintain that generally speaking one of the characteristics of masculinity in USian society is stoicism, the repression of emotion and indifference to pleasure or pain. I also maintain that overall in USian society stoicism is generally considered good. We admire the football player who “walks it off” or otherwise “takes it like a man.”

But before we write this one off as part of the masculinity=good category let’s examine it in other contexts like relationships. Men are often accused of not being able to share their feelings. And I use the word “accuse” on purpose. This is not a good thing. This is the subject of countless sitcoms and innumerable made-for-TV movies. Not being able to communicate emotion=bad: bad romantic partner, bad son, bad sibling, bad father.

Stoicism has systematic effects. Women and girls are sometimes afraid or unwilling to report their sexual assault experiences because they face disbelief and scorn.

But men and boys often have those same experiences when they report rape or even domestic assault. How many times have you heard that “men can’t be raped”? Additionally, men are less likely to seek medical treatment and even psychiatric care (a problem exacerbated in times like these when so many are facing the consequences of PTSD).

The value judgments attached to stoicism are not merely about gender conformity. They are about the faults we see in masculinity and how we judge masculinity to be both good and bad or helpful and harmful.*

Back to the Or/Ed paradigm. If masculinity isn’t universally preferable to femininity then there is a fundamental flaw in the paradigm. Who is forcing men to take on “bad” behaviors? I suppose one answer might be to maintain the paradigm and suggest that women oppress men (which I think some people in the feministe thread were trying to argue) but this argument fails on exactly the same grounds. Women as a group are not getting together on a Sunday night to figure out how we can oppress men. What is broken is not who gets labeled as the oppressor and the oppressed, but the idea that power and oppression are a downstream process rather than a collective one.


This is why the word kyriarchy is so powerful to me.** In my mind it shifts us away from the binary, downstream view of oppression and lets us examine the problem as a collective creation, collectively enforced.

One of the central functions of the Or/Ed dynamic is it gives the oppressed a target. The oppressors are the ones causing us harm. If we can just wrestle power away from them, it will be all good. The problem of course is that even if the oppressed rise up, if their sole goal is to achieve power, oppression will still exist merely in another form. To steal a phrase from The Who…meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

To quote my SO “while the particular form of oppression, such as who is being oppressed and the manner in which they are being oppressed might change, oppression itself remains functionally persistent. The haves and the have-nots will remain locked in the same vicious, pointless, endless game of musical chairs until we realize that when we stop trying to grab two chairs, you know, just in case something happens to the one we’re sitting on, there are enough seats for everyone.”

Real change comes with the end of oppression and the end of oppression comes when we each acknowledge our individual roles in the oppression of others. When we each acknowledge and empathize with the pain experienced by others, when we each accept that oppression is the enemy, not other people, only then can we begin to make real strides toward real solutions for every member of society.

*Leaving aside for the moment the arguments about “good” value judgments being as potentially harmful as “bad” value judgments….but just for a moment keep in mind the old trope of “Asians” being good at math.

**As an aside, I may not be using the word as intended by Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Body Dysmorphia and Ablism

Interesting discussion going on at feministe about body dysmorphia and ablism. The ablism is a derail over there so I wanted to open it up here in case folks want to discuss it further.