Thursday, June 23, 2011

I thought I was a feminist, but it turns out I'm a "rape-supporter."

Disclaimer:  I now repudiate this blog post's overall style, although I still agree with some of the specific points I made in it.  The post is largely filled with mansplaining, ignores how my privilege influences my epistemic position, and at times smacks of tone policing.   I apologize for this post.

I'm pretty involved in feminist activism. I help a SlutWalk in Salt Lake City to protest slut shaming, rape apologism, and victim blaming. I am an administrator for the moderately popular feminist Facebook page Rational people against puritanical and misogynistic "slut" shaming. I regularly attend Salt Lake's feminist open mic night When She Speaks I Hear the Revolution. I volunteer with Salt Lake's local transgender rights group, TransAction. Next fall I hope to take a training from the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault and start volunteering with the Rape Recovery Center.  Whenever I encounter slut shaming, transphobia, homophobia, biphobia, victim blaming, or anti-feminism in a conversation, I will attempt to challenge it. So I was rather surprised to learn that according to radical feminist blogger "Eve's Daughter", I am a "rape-supporter."

The blog post is titled "A Man Is a Rape-Supporter If...", and the very phrase "rape-supporter" is somewhat ambiguous.  Many readers, particularly critics of the post, seemed to construe "rape-supporter" as meaning someone who believes rape is desirable, in the same way someone who "supports Ron Paul" or "supports the war on terror" believes Ron Paul or the war on terror are politically desirable.  This is, however, inaccurate.  The blog's author makes clear in comments that she simply means that the behaviors of "rape-supporters" support rape culture, exacerbate rape culture, victimize rape survivors, or contribute to a culture of misogyny and objectification, regardless of the intent of the "rape-supporter."  The use of the phrase "rape-supporter" without this explanation being made early on thus confuses the issue and makes many readers offended and defensive.  This problem is exacerbated by the fact that the author doesn't clearly explain how the behaviors she identifies contribute to rape culture or present clear evidence that they do within the original post.

But beyond these objections to the blog post's style, I seriously disagree with some of the points made.  Some of the actions listed, such as blaming the victim or mocking women who speak out against sexual assault, are clearly rape apologism.  Others, such as opposing abortion, promoting misogynistic philosophies, degrading lesbians, or arguing that certain male behaviors towards women should not be subject to feminist scrutiny, do promote cultural misogyny, and can be reasonably argued to be components of rape culture.  However, there are some  elements of the list which I believe reveal dangerously sex negative and prescriptivist views among some radical feminists.  I wish to critique these portions of the list, and I hope that Eve's Daughter or like minded radical feminists will respond to these critiques so that we may advance feminist dialogue.

Feminism and BDSM

Eve's Daughter writes that a man is a rape supporter if:

He has ever sexually engaged with any woman while she was underage, drunk, high, physically restrained, unconscious, or subjected to psychological, physical, economic, or emotional coercion.
For the most part this is simply an accurate definition of rape. However, I object to the inclusion of  "physically restrained" on the list, as this includes some consensual BDSM sex acts.   She also writes that a man is a "rape-supporter" if "He watches any pornography in which sexual acts are depicted as a struggle for power or domination, regardless of whether women are present," which appears to address BDSM specifically.  This hostility to BDSM appears to be repeated when Eve's Daughter alleges that a man is a rape supporter if "He defends the physical abuse of women on the grounds of “consent.”"  Now, if we are speaking of actual sexual assault, domestic violence, or abuse, then of course it should not be defended, even if the victim/survivor tacitly "consents."   However, based upon my prior experience with radical feminists, I know that many of them do consider BDSM to be categorically abusive.  I disagree with that based upon both my own experience and reasoning.

I am a sexual masochist.  I enjoy being spanked, I am interested in being whipped and flogged, and I enjoy having my testicles hurt and various parts of me bitten quite hard under consensual circumstances, to name a few of my masochistic fetishes which if shown in pornography allegedly support rape.   Even in cases where the violence can be extreme and would be abusive if it occurred without consent, I maintain that if consent, honesty, care, and respect are maintained, BDSM can be a joyful and fulfilling form of sexual exploration.  I have several radical feminist friends and acquaintances involved in BDSM, and I think they all would repudiate the notion that it promotes rape culture.  Indeed, conflating it with rape and treating it as abusive even when consensual in effect treats the choices of those involved as illegitimate, and disrespects the autonomy and intelligence of women in the BDSM community.  The BDSM community is largely a haven for queers, transgender individuals, and people whose body types are marginalized by mainstream beauty standards.  Because consent is integral to separating BDSM from abuse, there's a much more explicit discussion of consent within the community than within non-feminist vanilla circles.  To simply paint it with a broad brush as a component of rape culture alienates a community which already has major feminist elements and to which feminism should be important.

To be clear, this is not to say that there are not problems within BDSM from a feminist perspective.  For instance, that the BDSM social networking site Fetlife features a "fetishes" profile feature but not a "limits" profile feature indicates that the site may not place enough emphasis on consent.  When BDSM relationships extend beyond the bedroom, their hierarchical nature may undermine gender equity and the autonomy of those involved.  These are real concerns, and there are plenty of other issues I haven't brought up, but they can't be fully addressed unless feminists are willing to explore and learn about BDSM rather than conflating it with rape and categorically condemning it.

Sexual liberation is bad now?

Eve's Daughter writes that a man is a "rape-supporter" if:

He supports sexual “liberation” and claims women would have more sex with (more) men if society did not “inhibit” them.
Now, as an avowed activist for sexual liberation, I found this prong to be particularly offensive.  Sexual liberation is essential to women's liberation, LGBTQ liberation, and human liberation.   Let's look at the facts:

  • Until the Supreme Court's 2003 ruling in the case Lawrence v. Texas, members of the queer community could be arrested for "sodomy."
  • Dildos and other sex toys were illegal to sell or possess in large quantities in Texas until a court overturned the Texas obscenity statute in 2008.  I'm not kidding.  See here and here.  This issue should be taken quite seriously by feminists, as it restricts private female sexual pleasure and promotes the fundamentally misogynistic view that sex should be bound to marriage and procreation, women's choices be damned.
  • Slut shaming, official punishment, and harassment of girls after they sent explicit pictures to boys they were interested in have driven teenage girls to suicide.  See here and here.
  • In Louisiana, sex workers are placed on the sex offender registry, destroying all future autonomy and moving their situation from bad to nightmarish.
  • In many rape cases, female sexuality is treated as consent, with sexual assault survivors being persistently slut shamed.  Our sex negative culture treats women who engage in certain sexual behaviors as deserving of rape.   Here are two examples.
I could go on.  But the point is that we currently live in a society which uses both the force of the state and a perverse patriarchal cultural morality to restrict sexual choice, victimize members of marginalized groups, and shame even sexual assault survivors for choices that are completely within their rights. It seems to me that in such a society, supporting sexual liberation should not be construed as making one a "rape-supporter."  Rather, it should be understood as essential for fighting rape culture.  Indeed, it is noteworthy that Eve's Daughter does not list slut-shaming among the behaviors that can make a man a "rape-supporter" when slut shaming is one of the core attributes of rape apologism, victim blaming, rape culture, and cultural misogyny in general.

Now, I understand that Eve's Daughter may not be targeting all proponents of sexual liberation.  She may simply be targeting those who also argue that "women would have more sex with (more) men if society did not “inhibit” them."  Now, I do not argue this, at least not categorically.  I think that in a society without pervasive puritanism and slut shaming some women would likely be more promiscuous, as many of the unjust harms currently imposed on promiscuous women would be gone.  However, in a sexually liberated society all consensual sexual proclivities would be treated with respect.  As a result, some women would feel more comfortable coming out as lesbian or asexual than they currently do.  Women would not feel pressure to have sex with men at all if that was not their inclination.  As we have never lived in a society free of restrictive sexual morals, it's impossible to predict how exactly sex would change, but it would certainly vary from person to person, rather than universally resulting in women having more sex with more men.  I think that a sexually liberated society is a worthy goal, and I fail to see how striving for it promotes rape, even if it would result in some women having sex with more men.

First Amendment advocates are "rape-supporters"?

Eve's Daughter writes that a man is a "rape-supporter" if:
He frames discussions of pornography in terms of “freedom of speech.”
In some cases this accusation actually has merit.  For instance, if a feminist is critiquing pornography but not calling for the government to restrict it, freedom of speech is not particularly relevant to the conversation.  Speech that is First Amendment protected can still be harmful and worth countering with activism or more speech.  So, if a defender of porn responds to discussion of patriarchal beauty standards in porn by trying to frame the core issue as "freedom of speech," they are in effect derailing the discussion.  The same is true if they attempt to use "free speech" to re-frame a debate about sex trafficking in pornography, the potentially coercive and destructive effect of workplace hierarchy in porn, the prevalence of positive depictions of sexual assault or rape in porn, or evidence that viewing pornography increases a male's willingness to commit rape.  These discussions should turn on the evidence and their merits, rather than being derailed by a conflation of all porn opposition with opposition to free speech.

However, when government attempts to restrict pornography, freedom of speech becomes incredibly relevant.  This is particularly true because government attacks on pornography are not based on coercion, poor working conditions, or trafficking in the industry, but instead upon puritanical "obscenity" laws.  For instance, pornographers including John Stagliano, Max Hardcore, Rob Black, and Lizzie Borden have all been prosecuted in the 21st century for the ill defined crime of "obscenity."  Recently several senators urged the US Department of Justice to more aggressively prosecute obscenity.  Regarding these issues of pornography, freedom of speech is a core concern, and one is not a "rape-supporter" for framing the debate around the crucial civil liberty the federal government seeks to violate.

Are all men who view porn which depicts women "rape supporters"?

Eve's Daughter writes that a man is a "rape-supporter" if:
He watches pornography in which women are depicted.
Once again, this can make sense in specific cases.  In some pornography, women are abused or in some way coerced.  Further, even when coercion does not occur directly, the presence of a work place hierarchy does raise questions of consent and distances sexuality from consensual pursuit of mutual pleasure, thus arguably promoting rape culture. However, not all pornography which depicts women has this effect.  Animated pornography does not require that anyone perform sexual acts in the production process.  Furthermore, some pornography may portray women genuinely pursuing their own pleasure, such as the user produced videos of female masturbation featured on, and thus actually present a counter-narrative to sex negativity, puritanism, and patriarchy.


While there are other portions of "A Man is a Rape-Supporter If..." which I find problematic,  these are my primary objections.  The post demonizes men as "rape-supporters" without providing adequate explanation or evidence for how the behaviors it describes exacerbate or perpetuate rape culture.  Further, it lists as "rape supporter" behaviors several behaviors which I believe are perfectly compatible with feminism, and one, advocating sexual liberation, which I consider core to feminism.  I hope this critique can help further feminist discourse on these topics, and I look forward to responses from Eve's Daughter and other radical feminists.