I said in the Shroedinger’s Rapist post that it was part of a larger idea and might be Part I of two. Here’s Part II.
It’s all about boundaries. The Shapely Prose post started with a discussion of women’s fear of rape, and moved from there to public spaces, interruption, intrusion and boundaries. My post focused on public transit as a particular case of public spaces, and staked out the position that bothering a woman whose activities and body language are not inviting interaction is a violation of her boundaries. I’m saddened to see pushback on that.
In comments, AJ wrote something that made me think about how this comes full-circle:
I felt like this article was good in that it helps het/cismen to realize that most female-bodied-people are terrified of rape and do a lot of weird things to try to lessen their “risk.” Its the “risk” thing that worried me.
1) If a man rapes a woman, it is not her fault because she had somehow put her self at risk.
2) Because most rapists are someone the victims knows well, I dont like the perpetuation of the stranger-rape story.
And I wrote back:
Really, really good points.
(1) should go without saying. That it needs to be said at all is the product of rape culture.
(2) I totally agree that there’s a wild imbalance in the discourse on rape where stranger rape and rape in public places are overrepresented — but I see this post as not so much talking about the threat of the archetypal stranger rape, but the more general issue of boundary transgressing, which I can see from the comments here and at Shapely Prose are everywhere.
This isn’t about walking to the car with keys in hand and checking the back seat. Those are narratives that have little to do with the rapes that have happened to so many of the women I know.
This is about whether men understand women’s boundaries to be real.
And that has everything to do with how rape happens.
I’m not a radical feminist, but I do have a lot of respect for the pioneering work that radical feminists have done. On this blog in the past, I’ve quoted Dworkin with approval, even though as a BDSMer much of my intimate conduct falls into areas that she viewed as intensely problematic, and the depictions of which she attacked as part of her life’s work. And I’ll quote her again, when I agree with her. For example, in the opening lines of Chapter 7 of Intercourse, she wrote:
This is nihilism; or this is truth. He has to push in past boundaries. There is the outline of a body, distinct, separate, its integrity an illusion, a tragic deception, because unseen there is a slit between the legs, and he has to push into it. There is never a real privacy of the body that can coexist with intercourse: with being entered. The vagina itself is muscled and the muscles have to be pushed apart. The thrusting is persistent invasion. She is opened up, split down the center. She is occupied–physically, internally, in her privacy.
A human being has a body that is inviolate; and when it is violated, it is abused. A woman has a body that is penetrated in intercourse: permeable, its corporeal solidness a lie. The discourse of male truth–literature, science, philosophy, pornography–calls that penetration violation. This it does with some consistency and some confidence. Violation is a synonym for intercourse. At the same time, the penetration is taken to be a use, not an abuse; a normal use; it is appropriate to enter her, to push into (“violate”) the boundaries of her body. She is human, of course, but by a standard that does not include physical privacy.She is, in fact, human by a standard that precludes physical privacy, since to keep a man out altogether and for a lifetime is deviant in the extreme, a psychopathology, a repudiation of the way in which she is expected to manifest her humanity.
There is a deep recognition in culture and in experience that intercourse is both the normal use of a woman, her human potentiality affirmed by it, and a violative abuse, her privacy irredeemably compromised, her selfhood changed in a way that is irrevocable, unrecoverable. And it is recognized that the use and abuse are not distinct phenomena but somehow a synthesized reality: both are true at the same time as if they were one harmonious truth instead of mutually exclusive contradictions.
As I’m reading that, I am struck by how the language of physical privacy and boundaries is so parallel in discussion both of interactions on public transit, and penis-vagina intercourse. Dworkin is talking about a social structure that normalizes intrusion — that calls the resistance to intrusion abnormal, and stigmatizes it. That’s true whether a woman resists intercourse with the penis (and is othered as “antisocial”, “frigid”, “dyke”) or with the interloper (“rude”, “stuck up”, “bitch”).
In order to justify a social order where women must tolerate these intrusions, even when unwanted, there is an entire mythology that these intrusions are necessary and proper: that if a woman doesn’t want them, she is unnatural and acting improperly. Men, specifically cis- het- men, benefit from these structures (and are also subject to them in ways they often don’t even see, but that’s another discussion). And they defend them. They don’t want to seem like they don’t respect boundaries, but isn’t a Nice Guy(tm) entitled to a chance to convince a woman to accept the interaction that she shows no sign of wanting? Just a sporting chance? That’s what they ask.
The easiest way to ignore women’s boundaries, and what women say about them, in this discussion is simply to reframe the discussion from women’s boundaries to the ways and means for dudes to meet women. Reframing this as “but if she won’t talk to me how an I going to meet her” presupposes all of the major issues. The entitlement is built right into the question.. Right into the question, and it works so well that it’s often invisible, even for folks who are looking at it.
And that’s rape culture. Not a definition, or the whole, but a significant component. That right there: framing the discourse away from women’s boundaries, so that the important questions are about what the guy wants and how he may go about getting it, not what women want and whether men must take them at their word about it. Simply dodging the question of how a woman communicates what she wants and doesn’t want; deflecting it so that what women want is never discussed. A culture that can mouth the words “no means no,” and still follow them with an ever-present “but …” A culture that doesn’t understand “yes means yes” because it recognizes no mechanism for hearing or saying the affirmative.
I’m not talking about all men being rapists, or all p-i-v being rape (and neither was Dworkin — her lifelong partner was a man and she explicitly disclaimed that reading, and when I’ve seen folks try to say that Intercourse says that, their argument does not survive actual analysis of the text.)
The rape culture is the culture in which rapists, even if a minority, have a social license to operate. The prevailing conditions are such that they can do what they do and not be immediately incapacitated. In a world where we expect consent to be affirmative, the invasion of boundaries is an aberration that does not escape notice. In a Yes Means Yes world, if a woman on the subway is interested, she’ll flash a smile and let someone know. Creepy guys trying to … trying to … trying to get a conversation started wouldn’t be so common, and it would seem creepy not just to women, but to the men standing around. People wouldn’t ask, in response to a report of rape, what it was that maybe she did that maybe he thought might not be “no,” because if she had wanted sex she would have said “yes,” and if there was no yes, how could there possibly have been consent? Only a rapist would try to insert himself in a woman without knowing he had her consent, right? In a world where the knowing is normal, the guessing would be strange, and the rationalizing about a miscommunication would be incredible (not her account, which in the world we’re in always seems to the the one the credibility of which people attack, but his).
In a Yes Means Yes world, women’s boundaries are what they say they are. When a woman’s boundaries are universally respected, rapists do not have the room to operate.