Rape vs Sex

It’s an old, old feminist tenet that rape is a crime of violence, not of sex. And early in the Second Wave, when the focus of anti-rape work was on dealing with archaic rape laws and sexist attitudes about rape from law enforcement, the courts, the press, and Joe Sixpack, it was very important to dismantle the mythology of the “crime of passion,” i.e., that men raped because they were simply overwhelmed with desire at the sight of a beautiful woman. This myth that rape has something to do with a woman’s looks, dress, or behavior persists despite the statistics and experience that show that men are always raping people who are not conventionally attractive, not wearing “sexy” clothes, not out in bars or dark alleys late at night. Men rape old women, fat women, girl children and boy children, nuns. They rape us in our own homes, in the middle of the day.

But despite this obvious fact, I don’t think that rape and sex are therefore separate. The problem I see here is that, in this culture, appropriate and accepted sexual behavior, i.e., what’s “sexy,” is fundamentally about power, control, and domination/submission. Many, perhaps most, men, and lots of women find the symbols, ideas, and trappings of dominance to be sexually exciting. Lots of rapists do have orgasms–and so do some rape victims. I worry that trying to make this distinction–i.e., that rape is about domination and control and sex is about orgasm–might be damaging for women when rapists do orgasm, or when rape occurs in a setting that is sexual, such as date rape. If feminists are saying “Rape is not about sex!” then mightn’t a woman think, “Well, this guy forced me to have sex after we were making out half naked in my dorm room, so I guess that wasn’t really rape because it was about sex.” This is not to say that the turn-on for the date rapist is not domination and coercion, because very likely it is. It is to say that coercion and arousal are not mutually exclusive; in fact, for many men and some women, arousal requires power differentials.

And this is where the “rape fantasy” comes into play. Many feminist theorists have pointed out the ways in which this culture teaches us to eroticize dominance (for men) and submission (for women). Some people probably miss out on that brainwashing, to some extent, but most of us do not. And this is why I want to be very clear about our response to rape fantasies and any other stimulus we find sexually exciting. I don’t think having rape fantasies–for women or for men–makes one a misogynist. I think it makes one a citizen of twenty-first century US patriarchy. What does make us card-carrying misogynists, or not, is what we do with these fantasies. If we conclude that having a rape fantasy makes someone a misogynist, what do we do then? Do we flush them down the toilet? Or do we recognize that an end to sexist oppression can only come about when men take responsibility for their eroticization of dominance and submission and try to change?* I don’t think that having the fantasy is the major problem; it is the willingness to justify the fantasy and mentally play it out over and over for masturbatory purposes, reinforcing the connection between dominance and orgasm, that perpetuates the idea that sex is a thing that men can and should take from women. (Obviously, acting out the fantasy is completely wrong, misogynist, and illegal, and NOT what I’m talking about here. I’m not making excuses for rapists. Quite the opposite.)

I understand the desire–especially for heterosexuals, when penetration is the primary act of both rape and sex– to separate “sex” from rape, to define “sex” as being about mutually caring nonviolent physical intimacy. But the thing is, we have a term for nonviolent physical intimacy–making love. It’s totally not cool, it’s very corny and out of fashion, but if advocating for its use makes me geeky and loserish, I can accept that. Just like it’s important to explore the “why” of our sexual fantasies, instead of just accepting the sex libertarian argument that “whatever feels good is okay”–to realize that the sexuality of dominance and submission is a result of our mental colonization by patriarchy–it’s important to explore the “why” of our cringe when we hear the words “making love.” What is it about tenderness, caring, sweetness, love, fun, closeness, intimacy, being known, that is so painful to consider? When we know the answer to that, we’ll know a lot more about why alienated sexuality has such a hold on popular culture.

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