So, Feministing is soliciting submissions for a new book called Yes Means Yes! (hat tip: feminist_writer LJ community). The book aims to brainstorm constructive ways that a more positive attitude towards sexuality, especially female sexuality, can help dismantle rape culture:
Imagine a world where women enjoy sex on their own terms and aren’t shamed for it. Imagine a world where men treat their sexual partners as collaborators, not conquests. Imagine a world where rape is rare and swiftly punished.
Welcome to the world of Yes Means Yes.
Yes Means Yes! will fly in the face of the conventional feminist wisdom that rape has nothing to do with sex. We are looking to collect sharp and insightful essays, from voices both established and new, that demonstrate how empowering female sexual pleasure is the key to dismantling rape culture.
Now, I am 100% behind the intent of the book. If I had the time, I would definitely submit something (unfortunately I barely have time to write my WisCon paper, and I have until May to finish that). It’s no secret that I’m a sex-positive feminist and I believe that sex-negative attitudes — both conservative sexual shaming and liberal forced sexuality — are harmful to a truly equal society and I think this book is an excellent opportunity to get some positive ideas out into the mainstream (or at least feminist-leaning mainstream). The book will go on my Amazon wishlist when it comes out.
However (there’s always a “however” with me, isn’t there?), I am not so pleased with this part of the pitch:
Yes Means Yes! will fly in the face of the conventional feminist wisdom that rape has nothing to do with sex.
There are two basic problems that I see with that line:
- It perpetuates a fundamental misunderstanding of what “rape isn’t sex” is saying.
- It is setting the editors/contributors in direct opposition to “conventional feminist wisdom”.
Below I’ll go into more detail as to the problems and talk about why I feel that this way of presenting feminist theory is problematic and ultimately hinders feminism as a movement.
I. Understanding the difference between rape and sex
The problem with sayings like “rape isn’t sex” is that while they’re catchy and easy to remember, they erase the nuances. Those nuances get further erased/distorted when the phrases get paraphrased, such as the one above where the call for submissions incorrectly ascribes the idea that “rape has nothing to do with sex” with the feminist belief that rape and sex are separate and distinct.
The idea behind the “rape isn’t sex” phrase is to emphasize the difference between two acts which are on the surface similar. For an idea of why this is an important distinction for people, and by extension society, to make let’s look at this example from About.com’s article Rape Is Not Sex:
Sex, by definition, requires consent. Without consent, sex is, by definition, rape. This is a vital distinction, but attorneys, judges, juries, and society in general just can’t seem to grasp it. Defense attorneys seek to exploit this confusion, and survivors have to be alert to these attempts to manipulate the jury’s perspective. “So he dragged you to the bedroom, and that’s where you had sex?” the defense attorney will ask. “No,” the survivor must reply, “he dragged me to the bedroom, and that’s where he assaulted me!“
Sex is most basically defined as various sexual acts in which people engage in. The details of what constitutes “sex” varies from person to person; the most common idea of sex is penis-in-vagina intercourse between a man and a woman, but it can include acts such as anal sex and fisting, and it can be between three or more partners or even just limited to one person (no partner required). It can be good or bad; sexy or silly. It can even be violent. But it always needs to have the consent of all participating parties.
And that is the most important idea that the “rape isn’t sex” line is trying to convey; when consent disappears it ceases to be “sex” and becomes “rape”. Rape, unlike sex, isn’t done for the mutual pleasure of both parties, but rather is linked to issues such as control, domination, and humiliation (and not in the kinky way) as well as usually including the will to do emotional and/or physical harm. At best, it is an act of selfishness, with the rapist not knowing or caring whether or not the person they’re raping actually wants to participate in sexual acts with them.
An understanding of this distinction is important because if “rape” is seen as a subset of “sex” then it is trivialized as a form of assault. The term “surprise sex” that is often used “jokingly” to describe rape illustrates one of the ways that this misunderstanding of rape as primarily sexually-motivated rather than as an act of assault manifests itself. The appallingly low rape conviction rates as well as the media’s tendency to put the victim’s past sexual history on trial speak to how this kind of conflation of concepts serves to hurt the ability for victims to be taken seriously and get the help that they need.
Ultimately, a useful way to think about it is this: rape is a kind of assault that uses sex as a weapon against the victim. Rape uses sex, but is not a form of sex.
II. Perpetuating feminist infighting
The sex-positive versus anti-porn debate/war/divide is possibly one of the largest conflicts within the movement (not counting conflicts that arise from intersectionality, such as problems between white feminists and feminists of colour). For me, it’s a very frustrating one because of how often both sides vilify each other rather than work towards solidarity by finding common ground and accepting the validity in different approaches to problems.
The misrepresentation of the “rape isn’t sex” line by the call for submissions is an example of my “side” creating division. It’s no secret that radical feminists, who tend to be the most vocal anti-porn feminists, are the feminists who utilize that saying and the theory behind it in ways that are visible in the mainstream. They are also the feminists who are pointed to as “feminazis” in mainstream, at least when the person using the slur deigns to acknowledge that feminism is a multi-faceted movement. I would also go so far to say that a lot of “conventional feminist wisdom” has ties/roots in radical feminism, or at the very least a lot of what people typically think when they see/hear “conventional feminist wisdom” has ties to that branch of feminism (Andrea Dworkin comes to mind).
In this way, the positioning of the book in direct opposition to the “rape isn’t sex” theory positions it in opposition to radical feminist theory. Now, there is a chance that most radfems would be turned off by the concept of the book, or the title, or the fact that its editors are, if not explicitly sex-positive feminists (I don’t know if they label themselves as such), then at the very least subscribe to a lot of sex-positive feminist theories. But is that an excuse to stick in a line that specifically alienates a part of your potential author pool who could bring in valuable perspectives on the radfem views on the connection between rape and sex? I don’t think so.
Not to mention a related, but no less important problem: setting up “good” feminists versus “bad” feminists. I personally don’t see much of a difference between ragging on “conventional feminist wisdom” and the “I’m not a feminist, but…” line that makes most feminists cringe. While I am not on board with every single feminist theory I’ve heard — ranging from my outright rejection of racist/homophobic/transphobic/etc rhetoric to preferring to follow a different route to the solution — I still don’t think that there’s any real value in creating a false dichotomy between “conventional” feminism and the feminism being used in the book.
If anything, that kind of tactic is an expression of internalized sexism because it’s creating a hierarchy of feminisms, with the “new” feminism positioning itself above the “old” feminism in order to gain legitimacy with the mainstream. Which looks suspiciously like women pushing down other women to raise themselves in an attempt to gain the approval of the patriarchy. It unintentionally sends out the message: “Hey, we’re not unreasonable like those other feminists! We take a sensible approach to rape which allows it to be a form of sex, which is in line with your patriarchal values!” Which is, of course, not the point of the book at all but sets a disturbing tone nonetheless.
Instead of setting up the strawfeminist interpretation with “conventional feminist wisdom” crack, which ultimately plays into the sex-pos/anti-porn division that exists within the feminist movement, I firmly believe that it would have been much wiser for them to reach out to all feminists. All it would have taken was a little thought as to the frame of the pitch, and how it could be said in a way that retains the spirit of the work without creating divisive discourse.
What it comes down to is this: while there are a lot of areas in which sex-positive feminist theory and radfem theory can’t and never will intersect, our basic goals — creating a sexually positive culture such as the one described in the opening of the pitch — are the same. Hopefully the pitch won’t be a deterrent to radfems looking to explore the connection between rape and sex and, if they receive such submissions, the editors will be willing to include different voices and perspectives on the issue.
In any case, even if the perspectives all come from similar parts of the movement, I’m sure that the articles chosen will be insightful and well worth a read. And, who knows, there might even be a few surprises in it that will speak to even a grizzled and embittered veteran of the minefield of discussions about sexuality like me.