Thursday, April 20, 2006

A follow-up of sorts

So I was thinking some more about the people I quoted and linked to yesterday, and wanted to write a little bit of a follow-up.

Make Tea Not War posted this in the comments of my last post:

You might not agree with me but I'm going to say it anyway. Of course rape is terrible and inexcusable and should be dealt with. However, I truly believe it is a minority of men who perpetuate it or think it is anyway acceptable. It is the exception not the norm and it needs to be seen in that perspective.
Of course we don't have reliable statistics. But in a survey on sexual behaviour 4.5% of men said that they had forced a woman to have sex against her will. That's the ones who admit it, and who classify it as force. To me, that is a terrifyingly high number, particularly as the actual number would be much higher than that, because large numbers of men would not classify what they did as forcing a woman to have sex with them. I do think that it is probably a minority in the sense that less than 50% of men who have forced a woman to have sex against a will. But I don't think that those who condone rape are a minority.

In particular, I think a sizeable proportion of men, and our culture as a whole, believe it's perfectly OK for a woman to have sex against her will, as long as the man doesn't use direct physical force to do it. That was what Biting Beever's post made so clear, that there are so many situations where the power imbalances mean that women can't meaningfully consent. She gives great examples, and I recommend reading the whole post. It left me with a question that I've been thinking about all day, and honestly can't answer:

Why do men have sex with women who don't want to have sex with them?

Is it because they don't know that the women don't want to have sex with them, or that they don't care? How on earth could someone who doesn't want to have sex with you be a turn-on?

I don't know how many men could say that every time they had sex the person they were having sex with also wanted to have sex. I would be surprised if it was a minority of men. I do think that the idea that it is OK to have sex with someone who doesn't want to have sex with you is a huge part of our culture's condoning of rape.

I was talking about this and a friend suggested that the underlying idea is that women don't ever want to have sex, so if a woman only sort of doesn't want to have sex, then it's totally OK to go for it. I think this is certainly the idea that is supported in mainstream culture. Most mediocre sitcoms work it into their basic premise in some way.

But the wider answer doesn't answer the question I keep coming back to. Why would you want to have sex with someone who didn't want to have sex with you? How is unwillingness sexy?


  1. This is an utterly brilliant post, Maia. Good for you.

  2. "Why would you want to have sex with someone who didn't want to have sex with you?"

    i don't know that there is one answer to this question. However, I think with some men it might be that they don't know any better. I was read a report the other day that said 5% of children grow up in homes where there is a high probability they will be killed or seriously injured before they reach the age of 2.*** A child who grows up in that sort of dysfunctional, violent and chaotic home if they make it to adulthood is likely to be emotionally and socially damaged. They've never learned how to connect with other people in loving ways.

    Then there is the certain percentage of the population who are psychopaths- they don't experience empathy for others and view them generally as objects.

    Another explanation is Steven Pinkers evolutionary psychology type of approach (I'm not saying i agree with it btw)- for men who are outsiders who don't have legitimate access to sexual contact rape is in part, at a certain level, one way to try and get their genes into the gene pool.

    Then I guess there is the traditional feminist analysis that rape is not about sex but about power. Men who feel disempowered by capitalism or whatever may be more inclined to rape.

    But ultimately I don't really know why. There could be any number of reasons and only some of them are to do with patriarchy.

    ***its on the Ministry of Social Development website and its a a report on a project carried out in Christchurch, if you are interested.

  3. "for men who are outsiders who don't have legitimate access to sexual contact rape is in part, at a certain level, one way to try and get their genes into the gene pool."

    This is why I don't invite Steven Pinker to my birthday parties. This argument might be convincing if it were about, you know, bugs or rabbits or whatever, but the difference between humans and other animals is that we're capable of reason, not just blindly following biology, and I'd have thought any reasonable person would hold off on their gene-pool urges if it seemed like the other person didn't want to have sex.

    Anyway, aren't we all disempowered by capitalism? I sure feel quite disenfranchised, but I don't go around sexually assaulting people to make myself feel better.

  4. I think part of it is that men don't care one way or another whether their partner consents. I think part of it is that men aren't trained to recognize non-consent, so saying "no" is taken as just playing hard-to-get and anything more subtle goes right over their heads. I think part of it is that men are more concerned with (supposedly) deserved consent than actual consent -- "I'm such a hot stud that she *should* have sex with me, so it doesn't matter whether she actually said yes." And I think a big part of it is that it's a big turn on when how you have sex proves that you're a "real man," and in a patriarchal system, "real men" impose their will on women, bringing first their bodies and then their minds into confomity with your desires.

  5. I think some men have sex with an unwilling partner because they can, because the unwillingness or struggle itself is a turn-on (creepy), and/or because many men don't need the situation to be sexy for them to be turned-on enough to have sex.

    If we want to stop sexual abuse, we need to catch them every time and have strictly enforced penalties in place. It may be unfortunate for the very small group of people wrongly accused, but that's similar to the fact that the harsh penalties imposed for murder are unfortunate for anybody wrongly convicted. Should we be more lenient on murderers because some of them might be innocent?

    As for the sexiness of the situation being unnecessary, I'm thinking of a series of encounters I requested by my guy when I was over 9 months pregnant and desperate to get the little dude out of me. It was awkward and uncomfortable, clearly the least sexy sex imaginable, but that didn't affect his ability one bit!

  6. Maybe I'm oversimplifying but it seems to me that so long as the patriarchy perceives rape and child abuse as private matters between a man and woman or a parent and child, so long as women and children are perceived as not-men, no crime against them will rise to the status of a crime against a man. When two men fight there is an effort to determine who struck first to determine fault. There is no question of who the agressor is in child abuse or rape, and yet there is always a question raised by the perp class of whether there was some action on the part of the victim that deserved punishment. So long as the patriarchy invests the perp class with the authority to punish all other classes, crimes of this sort will continue.

  7. "How is unwillingness sexy?"
    Are you kidding? Check out the amount of S/M porn out there. Making other people do things and being made to do things are big-time sexy.

    Or at least, it's sexy as long as you're just playing at it. Presumably, for rapists the real thing is just as sexy, as long as you're on the "making" rather than "being made to" side. I don't credit Pinker's idea of the "outsider" - it's pretty clear these guys either don't care about their victim's level of interest, or are actively excited by their unwillingness.

    Stentor: who are these "men" you're talking about? Do you mean "rapists"? Or do you consider the two terms synonymous?

  8. Wow, good post Maia.

    My theory is that society views women as being sexy but not sexual. This occurred to me as I saw a young student at the college I teach wearing low-cut with something along the lines of "hot stuff" or something more explicit written across the ass. I was of two minds on this - on the one hand I don't want to be a prude and she was likely at least 18 years old, and if she wanted to wear something like that, I wasn't going to stop her. But I'll be damned if it didn't bug me.

    And after thought I realized why - those pants and outfit was not about her wearing it. It was about the men who stared at her. And this is what brings me back to my main point. It's this idea of a outward "sexiness" that seems to be the ideal for women, as opposed to the woman's own sexuality. That leads to the desire of having sex with a particular woman to have nothing to do with the woman herself. Then consent becomes meaningless.

    Or I'm talking out of my ass - it's hard to tell sometimes. But it's a theory at least.

  9. Psycho Milt: All men are taught the things I posted. A few of them manage to not buy into it. Others are constrained by countervailing factors such that they don't act on them in harmful ways. The rest are rapists.

  10. Raznor,
    I'm intriqued by your theory. I'll have to dwell on it a bit, but one thing comes to mind.

    I think women dressing for men is also about women's power over men. (Yes, I got that the right way around.) I'm thinking back to when I was 18 and was, I'm embarrassed to say, quite good at manipulating guys to do my bidding. This is not uncommon. So, we can look at these poor girls as thinking of themselves as nothing more than eye-candy, or we can recognize their subtle use of power via feminine wiles.

  11. Anonymous11:04 pm

    This is the sort of bottomless question that I'd probably find impossible to answer in the same way twice. But what I undoubtedly would keep coming back to is the fact that men are taught (or in any case they learn) to view women as means to an end. "Manhood" is a performance that depends on the witness, endorsement, and cooperation of women. A woman gets co-opted into the ongoing project of having one's manhood certified and re-certified, often at the expense of her own interests and desires.

    However well or enthusiastically women play this game with us, it will never be quite enough, there will always be some "more" or "beyond" that a man will feel he has to capture. Under patriarchy, there are few things more disempowering than being reduced to dealing with a woman in all her complexity and difficulty (because that implies negotiation, which in turn implies the possibility of making concessions one would rather not), so the order of the day is to surpass, surmount, overcome--get around, get over, get under, get through.

    A man can only truly realize himself on and in the bodies of women, and his ongoing project is to arrange for the availability of a pliant female body and secure his entry once such availability has been procured. It's not about pleasure; it's about proving a point, to her and himself, in light of what he imagines other, "real men" have managed to pull off.

    Does this sound like a sickness? It certainly does to me. Of course, there is discrepancy among individual male psyches in the full extent of their uptake of patriarchal constructs, but no man succeeds at fully getting out from under it.

    Like I said, a bottomless question, and no end of possible answers.

  12. Anonymous11:06 am

    I can partially answer your question, Maia.

    Child abuse. And both men and women are perpetrators of child abuse.

    I'll provide a quote from "The Invisible Boy: Revisioning the Victimization of Male Children and Teens" (

    ... there is an alarmingly high rate of sexual abuse by females in the backgrounds of rapists, sex offenders and sexually aggressive men - 59% (Petrovich and Templer, 1984), 66% (Groth, 1979) and 80% (Briere and Smiljanich, 1993). A strong case for the need to identify female perpetrators can be found in Table 4, which presents the findings from a study of adolescent sex offenders by O'Brien (1989). Male adolescent sex offenders abused by "females only" chose female victims almost exclusively [93.3% of the time].