Tuesday, January 08, 2008

You can only say 'Yes' if you can say 'No'

There's been a brilliant discussion about Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti's Call for Submissions for 'Yes means Yes'.Firefly, BlackAmazon, Sylvia, Tekanji, Chris Clarke, Sudy, Magniloquence, and Theriomorph are just some of the people who have written about the original Call for Submissions (and when the discussion became about the criticisms of the proposals there were more fantastic posts Sly Civilian, brownfemipower and Ilyka Damen for a start). The discussions has been far-ranging and it's well worth tracking through the links, following the trackbacks and reading the comment threads.

So it seems a little ridiculous for me to be responding to a revised call for submissions for Yes means Yes. The debate has well and truly gone beyond that, and some women of colour have, rightly, cried enough. But I stopped blogging in a timely manner a few months back, and I have a tangent I want to dart off in. A tangent much informed by the posts above.

There's a new sentence in there that's response to criticisms like Firefly's:

The use of sexualised violence to dominate and control people isn’t addressed by consent-based activism, and often there’s no legal protection against this kind of assault because it occurs in government institutions or is otherwise mandated by the state. For instance, women in Australian prisons are subjected to daily strip searches and cavity searches, where no hygiene is observed. Evidence shows that these women exhibit similar symptoms to rape survivors. Sisters Inside, a women’s prison advocacy group, have a research paper about it here.
The new Call for Submissions lists a potential topic for the anthology as:
Beyond consent: state-sanctioned and institutional rape that even the healthiest sexual culture won't stop
The most obvious problem with this statement, that I might charitably call a wording problem, is that implies that you could have a healthy sexual culture and still have state-sanctioned and institutional rape. I don't believe that's true, and I hope that Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti don't either. But I think this wording problem reveals a problem with analysis. Institutional and state sanctioned rape are part of our sexual culture. Some stories:

A thirteen year old girl in a logging town walked past a police station. She knew the police officer, he worked on search and rescue with her parents. He called her inside. He raped her.

A woman went to the police to make a report about being sexually abused by a relative. The male police officer interviewed her alone in his car, he put his hand on her knee. Then, years later, he rang her up at 1am, told her he's coming over and demanded sex. He forced her to perform oral sex and left.

Or, we'll move to another time and place. A woman grew up in a revolutionary movement in exile. She was raped when she was 13 by the men involved in those movement all friends of the family. She grew up the movement won, or sold out, and one of those revolutionary friends of the family became vice-president. She was at his house and he raped her.

Brad Shipton, Jacob Zuma and the Murapara police officer who still has name suppression all wielded institutional power granted by the state and they were also all acquaintances of the women, or girl, that they raped.

Police officers, politicians, employers, border guards, soldiers, priests, and prison guards* have huge power over so many women's lives. They can demand sex in a way that makes it clear that the answer must be 'yes'; they can all ignore 'no'. They can do this to women they know and to strangers. The more power a rapist has over a woman the easier it will be for him to rape her, the more entitled he will feel to her body.

These are not a side category of rape - our understanding of rape must include an understanding of power. I think that means that rape is, by definition, beyond consent. If a man has the power to force a woman to have sex with him, and is prepared to use that power if she does not give consent, then that limits her ability to say 'yes' as well as 'no'.

I might put things in a different order than they did in the call for submissions. I would also say that until we build a society that doesn't give men the power to rape, female sexual pleasure is always going to be constrained by the fact that our 'yes' may be irrelevant.

There's a Möbius strip involved, obviously, and I do believe that one of the things that give men the power to rape is the belief that women's sexual pleasure is irrelevant. But it's not the only place men get power from, and, most importantly, there are intersections between the different sorts of power men have - they can't be understood in isolation.

* not intended to be an exhaustive list


  1. Anonymous1:04 pm

    thanks for some nice fem links Maia, thought provoking topic. HOPE IT CHALLENGES MEN TO THINK ABOUT HOW AND WHY of their sexual behaviour and the way in which they assert their power or lack of power in their own lives.
    Its seems sad that rape is a feminist "issue", as far as I know feminists and/or wimmin very rarely rape. Would love to see men discussing the problem of rape on their blogs too. Would love to see more white people talking about racism as well. i still think rape is sexualized violence and that all women learning about their sexuality and being in touch with what they REALLY want can't be a bad thing. We need more openness and connection/expression btw EVERYBODY but there are some people that really need to step up their game. Something I have learned...If you are a womyn and you're having sex with anyone for anything other than your own pleasure(short or long term)and if you don't enjoy it at the time you're getting fucked over. PERIOD. Would this apply to men?

  2. Anonymous4:59 pm

    Maia, can you describe the sort of society where any group *always* have the power to say no to sexual contact? Rich white men get sexually assaulted too... I think that by that measure there can never be free permission given, because there's always the possibility of duress.

    as far as I know feminists and/or wimmin very rarely rape.

    Surely that's by definition. Women in general commonly commit rape and sexual assault, but none of them are feminists. At best some of them are the "female supremicist" type feminists raping men rather than the feminists we normally talk about.

    Jo, of course men also have sex when they'd rather not, or out of a sense of obligation to their partners. They don't always have sex for their own pleasure. That's part of the compromise involved in being in a relationship.

    Unfortunately my power to influence the sort of men Maia is talking about is somewhat limited, and the reason I'm not blogging about this is because the discussions are rarely helpful and commonly attract random hostility like yours.


  3. Anonymous8:29 pm

    i would never expect my partner, and nor would he expect me, to have sex as some sort of compromise. Thats the problem with the normal hetero relationship dynamic the idea of "now we are together you must submit when I want it." go wank if you need to. I'll only have sex when we both want it. sometimes Moz.

  4. Anonymous12:05 pm

    Jo, I'm glad your feeling are always so absolutely clear-cut and not influenced by your partner. Mine aren't, and neither are my partners. So we compromise, and that seems to suit both of us more than saying "unless you are sure you want to have sex, we won't". Sometimes it's even worse than that - one of us starts half-heartedly and ends up enjoying it much more than they expected to. To me, what makes it ok is Maia's point: she can say no if she wants to. So saying "ah, what the heck, might as well" is acceptable consent. She seems to feel the same way about my half-hearted consent.

  5. Anonymous5:59 pm

    "until we build a society that doesn't give men the power to rape"... I know this may be an anpalatable response, but any free society which does not engage in total surveillance and restriction of movement is always going to contain situations where men have the power to rape.

    Why? Because any situation where a man and a woman are alone together, and the man is physically stronger, count as just such a potential situation. Men will always have the power to rape, even in a society without a boys' club police force.

    While we need to remove the systematic sanctions of rape (our boys' club police etc), only teaching men not to rape, and teaching women to fight back, will give us anything like true protection.

  6. Tristan you are just plain wrong, and maintaining the idea that rape is something that happens in a dark ally with a stranger. With the vast majority of rapes men have, and use, other power, besides physical strength.

  7. Anonymous2:05 pm


    Tristan didn't imply rape 'only' happened in dark alleys, and he didn't say anything about strangers. He merely pointed out that this is one way a rape can occur, and totally removing it will require a surveillance society.

    That being said Tristan is wrong. What about those toothed vaginal inserts women in South Africa use? Of course, it could be argued that requiring women to insert foreign objects into their goddess-space in order to prevent men from doing the same thing is just outsourcing rape. It's a discussion I'd be interested to have, though.

    Meanwhile, to men, I suggest MASTURBATING. Sex is just too risky. Sure, your girlfriend says yes, but can you really know the fear in her heart? Of course, women on women sex is another matter.

  8. Anonymous5:24 pm


    My statement that it isn't possible to build a (non-totalitarian) world without rape comes down to fatalism - even if we manage to remove all the misogynistic power-structures and thought-patterns which so many people adhere to, I still think there will be men who will do terrible things.

    Of course we shouldn't accept this, we should always try to expose rapists to justice and enable the women who have been violated to recover. Perhaps you're more optimistic than me, and I envy you that... and in the end, what matters is not whether it is possible to eliminate violence, what matters is that we try our hardest to achieve this, that we never give in to those who protect their mates from being brought to justice.

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