Daily Archives: November 14, 2005

Gender, sex, risk, and blame

Jane Galt comments on a post at Alas, a Blog in which Nick Kiddle complains that discussions of rape often turn to the need of women act responsibly so as to protect themselves. The complaint stems from an earlier post by Nick, titled “My rape story” (though it should have been more properly called “My non-rape story”):

I’d gone out looking for sex: a division of paratroopers were camping in the village for the weekend, and I knew one of them should be willing to give me sex with no strings attached. I met a couple of likely men in the pub – they’d been drinking all evening, while I stayed completely sober because of my pregnancy – and went with them back to their camp.

For a while, everything proceeded in a way that satisfied us all. In the darkness, I didn’t realise immediately that one of the men was no longer wearing a condom – whether accidentally or by design I had no way of knowing. I told him to stop, and offered him two options: he could find and put on another condom, or we could abandon the idea of having sex. For myself, I preferred the first option, but it did depend on the availability of another condom.

Neither of these possibilities suited him. He made several suggestions of his own, none of which adequately covered my objection to unprotected sex. I tried to reason with him, but I found that I had to keep my hand over my crotch throughout the conversation to prevent his attempts to penetrate me without wasting time on discussion.

At that point, I started to worry. He was physically stronger than me, and drunk enough to be deaf to reason. If he decided to force me physically, there was little I could do about it. I began to imagine the recriminations I would face if I had to report him for raping me. “You went in the pub looking for sex, you left with two soldiers and went back to their camp – what did you think would happen?” And although I believed my answer – I thought a grown man would be capable of using a condom properly – was a satisfactory one, I wasn’t sure it would satisfy others.

The fear killed my desire to have sex and I started to put my clothes back on. Luckily, he made no protest; perhaps he was too drunk. I left without incident, and the fear receded once I was away from the danger.

The point of Nick’s post was that if the man had physically forced her to have sex, it would have been rape, regardless of the previous consensual activity between them. And I agree with that. However, it seems that Nick also believes that the mere fact that she had to be afraid of rape, and that the fear of rape put a damper on her evening of fun, is somehow an indictment of The Patriarchy. In the second post, she takes issue with the fact that some commenters on her first thread felt it was pretty stupid of her to pick up two strange men for sex and that she was putting herself at risk. Responding to those posters, she writes:

The attitude that women have the responsibility to protect themselves from rape is, at the most generous reading, an uncritical acceptance of the idea that men cannot be prevented from raping. At its worst, it is yet another example of the way society makes women responsible for anything men dislike. …

There was one piece of fall-out from the paratrooper incident that I didn’t mention. A family member learned that I’d gone back to the camp with a couple of men for sex. He had no reason to think anything non-consensual had happened, but he was horrified all the same. He told me that my behaviour was disgusting and that I should be ashamed of myself. Friends and other family members defended his attitude by pointing out what many people in the other thread pointed out – that I’d put myself at quite some risk.

That explanation failed to convince me. Disgust and shame are appropriate responses to moral wrongdoing, not foolhardy risk-taking. He was horrified that I’d allowed myself to be sexual in an unapproved way; the risk of rape was a justification, not his true motivation.

It shocks some people that I want sex and don’t want to submit to male authority. It shocks them even more that these two desires outweigh my fear of rape, so that I dare to gratify both by picking up paratroopers in a pub. The “prudent” suggestions for keeping myself safe always boil down to giving up sex (or at least, the kind of sex I’m interested in) or submitting to male authority.

These “solutions” might well have no effect on my risk of being raped. But even if they were guaranteed to protect me from all risk, they wouldn’t be worth it. I think I’d rather be raped than spend the rest of my life turning aside from what I wanted and settling for something less. I know I’d rather take risks than allow fear of rape to control my expression of my sexuality.

In my ideal world, men would not be tempted to commit rape. Sexual encounters would be handled with negotiation, not with one partner’s insistence on getting what he wants at the expense of another. Men would respect the desires of women to control what happens to their bodies, whether they’ve known each other for ten minutes or ten years.

And in my ideal world, the fear of rape could not be used as a justification for slut-shaming.

Jane Galt comments:

There is a strain of feminism that encourages women to behave as if we have arrived in some feminist utopia where rape is impossible. This stems from a very admirable desire to put the responsibility for rape on the men, not the women, and is an understandable backlash to rape trials that used to investigate whether the woman was “asking for it”.

Nonetheless, it’s stupid. Not only are we not in this utopia, we are never, ever going to be in that utopia. Even if we achieved a marvelously gender-blind society, there would still be some people who want to have sex with people who do not want to have sex with them. Indeed, the variety of human sexual fantasy being what it is, there will be some people who are almost exclusively interested in that sort of activity.

Jane Galt is right, of course. The idea that all men can be prevented from raping is just as absurd as the idea that all people can be prevented from killing, or stealing, or assaulting others, or abusing children. In an ideal world, you should be able to ask a total stranger to watch your baby, or to let a total stranger borrow your car. It would be nice, to be sure. But it ain’t gonna happen.

Is “victim-blaming” in our society somehow uniquely directed at women? Well, let’s do a little thoguht experiment. Suppose “Nick” is a guy who decides to go to a bar and pick up a couple of chicks for some three-way action. They take him back to their place and then one of the women hands him a drink that tastes a little funny. Suddenly, Nick starts to worry that the women could slip him a mickey and rob him blind when he passes out. Maybe he even starts to worry that the women could have a male accomplice who could be hiding in the other room and who could beat the crap out of him if he tried to leave. Nervous and no longer in a particularly sexual mood, Nick scrambles into his clothes and leaves.

Would anyone be particularly sympathetic to Nick’s complaint that he doesn’t live in an ideal world in which he can’t trust two women he only just met?

In fact, let’s take this a step further. Suppose things didn’t end quite so well for our male Nick. Suppose he actually does get drugged and robbed by the two female strangers he picked up in a bar for sex. Do you think Nick is going to encounter a lot of sympathy for his plight, from men or from women? I seriously doubt it. In fact, I suspect that the response is going to be mainly along the lines of, “he had it coming.” (A male friend to whom I outlined this scenario said, “The word ‘dumbass’ comes to mind.”)

Let’s continue with our role reversal. One of the commenters at Jane Galt’s made an interesting point:

I’m actually kind of disturbed by Nick’s posting. Specifically, she points out that she was sober while the paratroopers in question were drunk. She specifically went with them to have sex. Switch genders for a second. Now, any male under 40 will tell you what that is considered these days: statutory rape.
Sorry, Nick, you raped them before they even thought of doing anything untoward to you.

Now, I don’t think “statutory rape” is the correct term, and I don’t think that the law automatically classifies sex with an intoxicated partner as rape unless the person is actually incapacitated. But many feminists certainly advocate such a definition, and it is incorporated into the codes of conduct on quite a few college campuses.

Leaving aside the issue of rape for the moment: Nick thinks it’s sexist that people are being judgmental toward her unconventional sexual behavior. (And yes, I’m sure that the negative reaction to her story has to do in part with perceived moral wrongdoing, not just risk-taking.) But how would people judge a man who proudly proclaims that the only kind of sex he finds satisfying is casual sex with female strangers (sometimes two at a time), that he deliberately goes to bars seeking out such encounters, and that he refuses to subordinate his sexuality to “female authority” by entering a relationship? The vast majority of both women and men, I think, would see such a man as emotionally immature, damaged in his capacity for intimacy, and prone to objectifying women; many would likely suspect him of having a misogynistic streak.

I know that the traditional sexual double standard still lingers in our culture. But alongside it, another type of double standard has developed as well: one that views unconstrained, selfish, hedonistic female sexuality as “liberated” while condemning similar male behavior as sleazy and exploitative. In this new double standard, the promiscuous or adulterous male is a pig, while the promiscuous or adulterous female is a rebel against the patriarchy.

This kind of feminism is not about equality and not about female empowerment. It’s about female entitlement.

Update: Ampersand (Barry) responds, and makes two principal points.

Barry is shocked that a friend of mine thought a man who got drugged and robbed after picking up two female strangers in a bar would not be a sympathetic victim, and in fact “had it coming” to some extent. He thinks this supports his view that “many conservatives are far more anti-male than the typical feminist is” (“It’s not feminists, after all, arguing that men are incapable of controlling themselves and need to be civilized through marriage to women; that sort of argument is reserved for conservatives like Maggie Gallagher”). Then, Barry backtracks and adds, “For all I know, the friend Cathy quoted was a flaming liberal.”

Well, I don’t know about “flaming” but my friend who made that comment is certainly no conservative; he is an independent with eclectic politics, and certainly with liberal views on social issues. A male Maggie Gallagher, in other words, he’s not.

Male-bashing in conservatism and feminism is actually an interesting issue that I’d like to discuss, at some point. (I think Barry lets feminists off the hook too lightly, but I myself have discussed the fact that social conservatives sometimes engage in male-bashing that mirrors the radical feminist variety.) But I am puzzled by the notion that my friend’s comment was “anti-male.” I think he was simply saying that to put yourself in a vulnerable position with total strangers for the sake of some sexual thrills is not a good reflection on a person’s intelligence or character, regardless of gender.

Barry also takes issue with my comments about the new feminist double standard; he thinks that I’m creating a straw woman here, and that there’s no evidence of any actual feminist being inconsistent in their attitudes toward male and female sexual behavior.

Exhibit A:

In 1997, The New York Times Magazine published an essay by Katie Roiphe discussing a new tendency in popular culture to treat female adulterers sympathetically while condemning the male variety. Judith Lorber, noted feminist theorist and author, then dashed off a letter to the magazine (New York Times Magazine, November 2, 1997) offering this justification for the new double standard: “A woman’s affair redresses some imbalance of power in a marriage; a man’s intensifies it.” (To quote Dana Carvey’s Church Lady: “How conveeenient.”)

Exhibit B:

Several years ago while visiting the campus of my alma mater, Rutgers University, I picked up a copy of The Caellian, the student weekly of Douglass College (the women’s college at Rutgers). The opinions page featured two articles by Douglass students: one complaining about sexual harassment on campus and the other proclaiming that women are now coming into their own as autonomous sexual beings. I don’t have the articles, unfortunately, but I remember being struck by the fact that the second article celebrated some of the same behaviors by women that the first one condemned in men — e.g., ogling or making sexual comments about attractive individuals of the opposite sex in public places.

Now, Barry may well say that these were two articles by two different people. True. But I think that their coexistence side by side adds up to a certain general impression of the kinds of attitudes one finds in the feminist press. Particularly since the second author did not pause to add, “And by the way, if we’re going to exercise our freedom to treat men as sex objects, why don’t we stop whining about men treating us as sex objects? What’s sauce for the goose…” etc.

In a larger sense, I don’t think it’s in dispute that a major strand in feminism has been a critique of male sexual objectification of women. A lot of feminist work on sexual harassment, for example, condemns not only sexual coercion or extortion in the workplace or in school, but all “sexualization” of women in these settings (and sometimes, by extension, in all public spaces). It is commonly assumed that a “sexualized environment” is a hostile environment for women. I, for one, certainly see a contradiction between this attitude and the affirmation of a “liberated” female sexuality that includes the objectification of men.


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