Today’s earlier post was mainly designed to situate myself in a given context, without really spelling out my opinion on the issue itself, but I’ve also been thinking about the Yes Means Yes book proposal/call for submissions itself. The language of the call is one thing, the response to criticism of the concept is another, but then there’s that…the concept.
On the surface, I’m all for teaching “enthusiastic consent”, or whatever you want to call it. I think it’s really really important to be teaching boys and men what it means to actually respect a sexual partner, really solidly emphasizing the definition of mutuality and consent, and getting far, far away from the idea that women “play” hard to get or good girls don’t or seduction is part of the point or whatever whatever whatever. But there’s a caveat to the importance of that message, and it’s a big one: who are we talking to, here?
The relevant target audience for that particular message is boys (or young men…or, hell, older men if they’re even still a little bit teachable). It’s not feminists, and it’s not women. It has a role in women’s discussion of sexual violence, sure, but that role is mainly in recovery, not in prevention. I kind of didn’t get it initially when I read the critique that suggested (among many other things) that all this was doing was placing an emphasis on women who felt pressured to consent to do so more “enthusiastically”, but the more I think about that, the more it makes sense.
Rape culture includes these notions of male virility, sexual potency and dominance at the same time as it incorporates messages that women require coercion and convincing in order to enjoy sex. So targeting a collection of essays about rape prevention at women by focusing on announcing female sexual enjoyment is something, but it seems like we’re putting the cart before the horse, here. Because as long as we’ve skipped the part where we actually teach these misguided young men the true meaning of consent, and the part where we mention that breaking down her “defenses” and “scoring” and competition and etc etc etc are not actually a de facto presumed part of sex or even, possibly, the best part of sex, and the part where we acknowledge that in many, many cases, this “excuse” is total bullshit, then I can absolutely imagine being in a scenario where I know that what the man I’m not entirely interested in fucking wants to hear from me is that he’s the best I’ve ever had and that I just can’t resist and that I’ve been turned with one switch into exactly the little porn star he’s always wanted, and I know that it’s a hell of a lot easier just to act that part than it is to really try to assert that I’m not all that interested…and then we’re right back where we started, aren’t we?
Defining rape is really, really important. To my mind, being able to define instances when I’ve been raped has been a huge part of the battle…in my recovery. In at least a couple of cases, including the first and by far the most physically violent, I didn’t actually say “no”, and it was damned important for me to recognize all the ways I was communicating my lack of consent without actually using that word. But that’s all after the fact. Targeting this at me, or even targeting this at younger women who are still learning that it’s okay to be a sexual entity, it’s not up to them to play out the standard hard-to-get good girl script, and who haven’t yet learned the asserting boundaries concept is not the key to dismantling rape culture. It’s just not.
There’s a difference between feminism that centralizes and genuinely empowers women and feminism that continues to place the onus for problems on the shoulders of the women who are affected by it in the first place. And while I’ve been somewhat hesitant to declare an opinion in any of these issues, and I’ve been inclined to sit back and say “well, what the hell do I know anyway, and isn’t it arrogant of me to say I can tell one way or another, and I’m just a nobody while the women who are writing these things are clearly so much better than me so I should just shut up”, I’m going to go out on a limb and say, point blank, that this is one of the latter.
I wrote a post a few months ago on the Hathor feminism site called Feminist Victim-Blaming. I think the points I made there stand with respect to this kind of thing as well. Telling women that if we can just be feminist enough, if we just embrace our own sexuality enough, if we just assert ourselves, if we just acknowledge our enjoyment of sex and use our willingness to dismantle the gatekeeper imagery, if, if, if…well, it’s still about what women can do to keep themselves from being assaulted and abused and hurt, isn’t it? Which is not to say women can do nothing, and we need to sit back and wait for the men to do all the work and let’s-create-another-false-dichotomy of the issue, but…
Here’s what I said then, and I think it applies to this idea as well:
Feminism represents strength and empowerment for women collectively, but it can’t provide a cloak and shield for individual women. At best, I’ve got some added knowledge of the early warning signs of abusive behaviour, but my feminist club membership kit didn’t come with a beeper that detects the “abusive entitled asshole” level in every individual I encounter.
The number of times/number of guys to whom I say yes and the extent to which I understand that only yes, yes, yes is enjoyable sex is not going to help me if and when I meet one of the guys who not only doesn’t give a crap what I say, but who would actually rather I put up a bit of a fight, because it makes him feel like more of a man. And I think lots of these women know it and miss it anyway, just as they missed it when they were blaming the feminist victim because it was way more fun to giggle and say “feminists do it better”.