Saturday, November 3, 2012

On Rape, Feminism, and Power Narratives

There's been some contentious debate on the dating and relationship blog of Evan Marc Katz about this article, written about rape by Charlotte Shane, "a writer and prostitute living on the east coast." A lot about the discussion that unfolded on Katz's blog is problematic, which tends to be the case when topics like rape are directly addressed. Instead of recounting all of that, I want to address the article itself, and why I consider it to be a deeply flawed attempt to shake up the national conversation about rape and sexual assault.

The first thing that stands out is the experience she recounts of being raped anally, needing an expensive surgery, and then seeing the same client again a month later. She claims, following his silence about the previous incident, to feel "more powerful than him," suggesting she knows something - what that something is, who knows - more than him. As we in the literary world often ask "Is this a trustworthy narrator?" Her take on this incident sounds pretty twisted in my book.

The next thing that strikes me is citing Camille Paglia, well known as a right wing provocateur. Amongst her major influences are Sigmund Freud and Ayn Rand. Every last article I've read by her - and I read plenty during my graduate days thanks to a certain art history professor - was filled with appeals to see the weakest points of Freudian psychology - the Oedipal and Electra Complexes foremost - in everything from Hitchcock films to Rembrandt paintings. Again, not exactly the kind of source that fosters trust in the argument being offered.

Thirdly, she makes the really interesting point that our cultural attitudes about rape were shaped by men, and that some of what we see today is still playing out those disempowering, sexist narratives of the past. I totally agree, and in fact, would even support her view that there needs to be more liberation around the stories we tell about rape and it's aftermath. Even though I suffered a lot following my sexual assault, I rarely think of what happened to me these days. It's mostly been dealt with, and I don't really feel "permanently damaged." However, her article isn't about men controlling the rape narrative. It's mostly an attack on feminists, and programs and ideas promoted by feminists. Not only is the thesis muddled - Are men responsible? Are feminist women responsible? Both? - but the very diverse school of feminism is reduced to a singular, boogeyman trope. Never once does she even cite an actual individual feminist writer or researcher on rape. It's just this abstract concept - feminists - tossed around again and again, even though she also points to the fact that men historically shaped these views of women and of rape.

Fourthly, she repeatedly makes the point that rape is an individual experience, and yet also appeals to us to - rightly, and I thank her for this - to address the societal level silence surrounding male rape victims, and particularly male rape victims in prison. In fact, it also seems to me as if she desires to privatize the experience of rape for women - it's up to each of "us" to come up with our own narratives and solutions - while simultaneously advocating for a much more public response to rape for men. In a matter of paragraphs, she takes shots at rape counseling and trauma responses for women, and then suggests - rightly - that men who are raped often have nowhere to go, and no one to talk to about their experience.

Then there's this section, in which she questions the effort to shift rape away from notions of sex and sexuality.

But our culture is unable to address rape with the sobriety and clarity the topic deserves because we are still unable to address sex with the sobriety and clarity it deserves. The contention that rape should be regarded as an asexual act has done nothing to remedy this. Nor will it. As activist and writer Wendy McElroy points out, “there can be as many motives for rape as there are for murder and other violent crimes … Rape is every bit as complex.”

I think she misses the point of decentralizing sex in conversations about rape. It's exactly because we live in a society where the complexity of rape has long been reduced to a sexual act, and for centuries one that wasn't "a problem," that a non-sexual definition is required. Power dynamics must be addressed. The nature of violence and control must be addressed. Because regardless of whether or not a sexual element exists in a given situation, rape and sexual assault are mostly about power and control. Period.

Finally, when in read Charlotte's accounts of her own assaults, she's quite insistent on separating acts of penetration from everything else that occurs. As if what lead up the rape, and what followed it, are something else, void of any particular connection. This separation is a major flaw in the popular rape narrative. Without a more holistic understanding of the ways in which different rape and assault experiences unfold, it's impossible to address them well as a society. It took decades of lobbying in order to get the FBI's definition of rape expanded beyond "forcible penetration," a change that only happened this summer, for anyone not in the know. Forcible penetration is only one part of one set of rape experiences. If you've ever wondered why rape prosecutions are so difficult to get, this is exactly the place to start your research.

What happened to me on a college campus in the fall of 1997, before the Catholic church scandals, Sandusky trial, and the rest, was undefinable. I'm still not sure what to call it. Assault. Rape. Some kind of "other" violation. Like Charlotte Shane, I "lived through it," and was not left in some never ending state of shambles or disintegration. Unlike the victims in the situations that recently brought male rape and assault experiences to light, mine occurred as an adult, and adult male experiences of this kind are still invisible for the most part.

As such, however muddled her arguments are, I think Charlotte and the other women's stories she cited in her article are important. They add nuance to the discussion, and demonstrate how much these experiences impact us, even if some claim to have "gotten over it." In my view, we don't really get over anything that happens to us in this life. The wonders. The horrors. Even the mundane. All of it stays with us in some form or another, however miniscule.

As always, your comments are welcome.

*Image: The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali


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