Sunday, June 28, 2009

Would You Like Some Perspective With That?

Last night, I was having a free-wheeling philosophical discussion with a couple of colleagues from my math program. Most of us were standard-issue social liberals. But there was one fellow who was chauvinist to the core, and was giving us an earful about it.

Now, to be honest, I felt a little sorry for this guy--let's call him J. His views were whacky, inconsistent, and in some cases, morally reprehensible. But he was surrounded by people who were doing their utmost to rip his worldview to shreds, and that can't have been fun. To be honest, I think we baited him a little; I'm not sure everything he said was a perfect reflection of what he believes in his heart of hearts.

Nonetheless, he said some things that would be thoroughly outrageous in any context. And when we called him on it, he refused to back down. The worst, I think was this: he referred to unfaithful wives as committing "the male form of rape." A cheating wife, according to J., is equivalent to a wife who rapes her husband.

Did Somebody Seriously Say That?

Unforutnately, yes. And if you don't think that's a problem, read on!

The analogy he was drawing, more or less, was that both husbands of cheating wives and rape victims are sometimes coerced into raising a child they do not want: a cuckold may end up raising the other man's baby, knowingly or otherwise, while a rape survivor may bear the rapist's child.

Now, I understand the point this fellow was trying to make, but his argument was thoroughly out of line, for several reasons.

First of all, as I politely pointed out last night, the "male form of rape" is what happens when men get raped. It still shocks me that I have to explain this to people, but male rape is surprisingly common. About 10% of rape survivors are male; and about fifteen percent of male rape victims are raped by a woman. To call wifely infidelity "the male form of rape" means denying the experience of millions of men. It means implying either that the suffering of male rape victims doesn't count, or that being raped destroys a man's masculinity.

On another level, J.'s statement glosses over the incredible physical and emotional trauma that many rape survivors experience. By equating rape with one of its many possible consequences--the conception of an unwanted child--J. is reducing female rape survivors to their reproductive capacity. The emotional suffering of rape survivors, the damage to their minds, their bodies, their sexuality, doesn't count. Rape only matters if the rapist manages to hijack his victim's all-important womb. A more dehumanizing view of women is difficult to imagine.

Finally, let's do a quick analysis of J.'s views of the relationship between man and wife. If a married woman has a sexual liaison with another man, then she has "raped" her husband. What does that really mean? It sounds like J. is saying that a married woman's sexuality is an extension of that of her husband. How else could committing adultery with the wife be equivalent to non-consensual sex with the husband? J. is implying that a married woman forfeits her right to own her sexuality--to have her own needs, her own desires, her own boundaries. Infidelity--however a particular couple defines that--is wrong. Breaking a promise of monogamy is clearly unethical. But that doesn't mean that a married woman shouldn't still be viewed as an autonomous sexual being--even after she choses to enter an exclusive sexual relationship.

The analogy between "male rape" and female infidelity is clearly inopportune, and ghastly in its implications. But even if the analogy were genuinely illuminating in some way, it would still be a reprehensible thing to say. Here's why.

Only Rape is Rape

I don't often here this stated explicitly, but I think it underlies a lot of feminist discussions. Most of the time, it is just not okay to use rape as a metaphor. It doesn't matter if their are some interesting qualitative similarities between a given situation and rape. Because what matters isn't the specific nature of a rape survivor's suffering; it is the magnitude. There are times when a rape analogy is appropriate, because it's being used to describe some atrocity. The rape of Nanking comes to mind. But those occasions are few and far between. In general, rape should never be used as an analogy for some lesser evil, (hear that, Meme Roth?).

This is not about censorship; it's not about circumscribing free speech. I'm not saying that trivializing rape should be banned by law. But I am saying that it shouldn't be recognized as a legitimate tactic in rational discourse, any more than spitting in your opponent's face should be considered a legitimate rhetorical strategy. It is just too hurtful to anyone who has been sexually assaulted, too disrespectful. It is--pun very much intended--below the belt.

Okay, So That Guy Was A Jerk--Who Cares?

Well, I care, because I have to live with him for seven more weeks. But the reason I've expended so much life force on crafting a response to this fellow's statements is more complicated than that.

I'm used to spending time with people who are more-or-less socially liberal, and more-or-less feminist. That's wonderful, and I'm glad I have such a supportive community. But the danger of surrounding oneself with like-minded people is that it's easy to forget how far we, as a society, still have to go. If everyone you interact with views women as human beings, feminism can start to seem obsolete. Why should we worry about the politics of eyebrow waxes, when their are starving children in Africa?

Talking with J. served to remind me that feminism is still necessary. J. is intelligent. He is thoughtful. He is, in many ways, a good man. And his deeply misogynistic ideas didn't come from a vacuum. He didn't invent rape culture, or slut shaming, or chauvinism. These ideas still exist, and there are still smart, successful people to whom they seem tremendously compelling.

As feminists, we've got our work cut out for us.

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