A few weeks ago, we explored the notion that sexual harassment isn't merely about sexuality or gender; it is about power. The important qualifier here is "merely" - since it is perhaps more common to come down on one side or the other, to argue it is EITHER sexuality/gender OR it is power. For all sorts of reasons. As for the former, we hear this oft-cited example: rape is not about sex, it is about power. As for the latter, we've definitely heard the defense that a "Hey hot stuff!" comment is seriously benign, that it's just a guy's way of flirting, of expressing his sexual desire - that for him, regardless of how pathetic his social skills may be, it IS just about sex, this time.
I contend that we still have to pay just as much attention to the sex and gender issues, because they can be the very ground from which power is mobilized. Specifically, dismissing sexual harassment as simply inappropriate or flattery or equating it to just being "hit on" reveals on obvious blind spot of forgetting about all the creepy ways women can be subordinated. Sexual desire and women's sexuality (and the ways gender defines and is defined through desire and sex) are incredibly fertile grounds for power play and abuse. Can we even imagine an instance of power abuse of women that exists without sexuality and/or gender identity intersections...?
Here's where this gets depressing....I, at least, became thoroughly depressed upon wracking my brain for examples, on the other hand, of how violence against women has been made "sexy" - how sex constructs power, just as much as power constructs sex. I remembered an article I read a while back about how Serbian militia posted pictures of pornography on the walls of "rape camps" during the war to encourage and effectively train soldiers to rape Bosnian women
(See Karen Engle, 2005). I then remembered the U.S. Defense Department's Tailhook scandal in 1993. In the Tailhook report, American Defense investigators concluded that the men at fault for sexually harassing female naval officers had come to believe that they "needed to drink in excess and chase after women if they were going to perform sucessfully as fighter pilots"
(See Cynthia Enloe 1998, p. 8). Ironically, in both these examples, the military was involved - but this is interesting not so much for the fact that militaries are prime examples of hot-wired patriarchal institutions, but for the way making violence "sexy" is so readily attainable and socially accepted that it can be institutionalized for the state.
But really, it's not just happening on an institutional level. It's happening on a very interpersonal level. If and when feminists argue that rape (and, arguably, any form of sexual harassment or assault) is solely
about power, not sex, that leaves a whole lot of other albeit depressing questions unanswered and obscured. How do we account for the guys who do enjoy it? Does the gender dominance boost their self-esteem? How is forcing a woman to have sex, or forcing a woman to sexually engage through street harassment, implicated in being "successfully" masculine? How do we account for men's sexual arousal being so inevitably tied to abusive coercion in both institutionalized and
personal cases? Why does "Hey hot stuff!" guy get off by holla'ing at a young girl that he knows he has no chance of ever "getting" unless he takes it by force? Maybe because in these cases, harassment and violence isn't about sex, unless it is practiced as sex.
Here, I'm recalling Katherine MacKinnon's "Sexuality, Pornography, and Method" (1989) in which she describes an epistemological shift between just changing the labels of something from "sex" to "rape." She notes, "Rape becomes something a rapist does, as if he is a separate species. But no personality disorder distinguishes most rapists from normal men (See R. Rada's Clinical Aspects of Rape,
1978). Psychopaths do rape, but only about 5 percent of all known rapists are diagnosed psychopathic
. In spite of the number of victims, the normalcy of rapists, and the fact that most women are raped by men that they know (making it most unlikely that a few lunatics know around half of all women in the United States), rape remains considered psychopathological and therefore not about sexuality" (p. 336).
Given these facts, it's kind of strange that feminists, myself included, often downplay the sexual components of sexual assault in our attempts to discourage the correlation, even if it is to somehow save or preserve an idealistic, consenting, agential version of "sex itself" away from violence, considering that at the same time it's pretty damn hard to find other representations of sex these days that are "just sex" - whatever that is. (Is sex ever "just sex"?)
And, if “Hey hot stuff!” guy has no clue whatsoever about sexual power dynamics, this still doesn’t render him immune from unintentionally privileging when he seizes the sexy opportunity to holla at women. While it could be his own virginal trek into the sexual wilderness, he is still treading on a well-worn and treacherous path. No one gets to live in a historical vacuum, since historical vacuums don’t exist! This doesn’t mean there aren’t tons of guys who stalwartly behave as if they do exist, and even, as if their own path or holla is an exempt original. These days, with divide-and-conquer mentalities of so-called democracy still running amok all over the map, it’s appropriate (but just as publicly delusional) for harassers to still be playing the hoary card of self-entitled male individualism: I can say whatever I want because when I say those words, I don’t mean that. I’m just flirting… because after all, I don't get off that way. I’m not like them.
Come on, guys: it’s not as if blatant sexual comments, “compliments”, suggestions, and intimidation tactics are never, or only arbitrarily sometimes, linked to violence against women. Rather, this is the kind of violent sex that is most
Speaking of public delusions….social theorist Bourdieu explains that people don’t protest certain “inevitable” or “minor” social infractions that reproduce social power hierarchies when they happen on a super regular basis because it readily becomes the “objective consensus” that this is just the way things are (Bourdieu 1977). He says, “Because the subjective necessity and self-evidence of the commonsense world are validated by the objective consensus on the sense of the world, what is essential goes without saying because it comes without saying” (p. 167).
So, basically, miscognizing and misusing the fertile grounds of sexual desire and gender to violate women has been coming at us for a long, LONG time, on levels ranging from the seemingly innocuous and mundane to the professionally institutionalized. Just because we may be personally numb to it, or oblivious to the subtle, daily infractions that continue to literally construct women
, doesn’t negate its effects. We might have to seriously consider the scary thought that harassment and violence is so normalized as a sexual practice, that for many, it has become none other than sex itself.
Our seemingly normal forms of sexual interaction are not acted out in a historical vacuum or an ivory feminist tower, far and away from the pervasive reality of sexualized violence against women.
I understand why some might be frustrated by the posing of this explanation, and the increasingly problematic questions that spring from it. There is a difference, though, in seeking to explore and root out a social phenomenon, and seeking to justify, perpetuate, or accept it. What use
we make of this explanation is separate from the explanation itself. If we want to interrupt the chain of causes of sexual violence, we have to first examine all
For example, the question I raised earlier that I would really like an answer to is: How do we reconcile agential, sex-positive sex within
(as opposed to seemingly outside of) an ever pervasive violence-made-sexy dialectic? Is it just a representation issue? Does "consent" really make all the difference, if what one is consenting to is functioning as sexual violence for others? And if so, does it all just dissolve into a meaningless (or excessively meaningful) mess of relativity and difference? If sexual violence IS none other than sex itself, for countless people, then by protesting against that, aren't we basically asking others to change their definition and lifestyle, by virtue of asking them to change how they interract with us? Even as I type these last questions, I feel like I'm asking something I'm not supposed to ask.
But then, being feminists, we've got to wonder why we're not supposed to ask.
I leave it up to you: What exactly do we do with this explanation of sexual violence? What do we do with violence-made-sexy?Written by Michelle Riblett Creative Commons 2.5.
Pierre Bourdieau, Outline of a Theory of Practice.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1977. As cited in Laura Beth Nielsen, License to Harass.
Princeton: Princeton University Press. 2004, pp. 33-34.
Karen Engle, "Feminism and It's (Dis)Contents: Criminalizing Wartime Rape in Bosnia and Herzegovina" The American Journal of International Law.
Vol. 99, No. 4. (Oct. 2005), pp. 778-816.
Cynthia Enloe, "All Men Are in the Militias, All Women are Victims." In Lorentzen and Turpin, eds. The Women and War Reader.
New York: NYU Press. 1998.
Catherine A. MacKinnon, "Sexuality, Pornography, and Method: 'Pleasure Under Patriarchy" Ethics,
Vol. 99, No. 2. (Jan. 1989), pp. 314-346.
R. Rada, Clinical Aspects of Rape.
New York: Grune & Sratton. 1978.
Labels: public space, safety, street harassment, women