Rape: Eyes, Laws and Codes

It was Germaine Greer who said that women never really know how much men hate them.  Thanks to the internet we’re starting to find out, as “banter” comes out of the backrooms and spews itself over the web.  Unilad has just been shut down after it pointed out approvingly that rapists have rather good odds, with the “lads” blaming humourless feminazis for spoiling their fun.

A week or so ago, a friend posted up a list of the things that Mens Rights Activists quote out of context to demonstrate how nutty feminists are.  Among them was a quote attributed to Marilyn French stating “all men are rapists“.  This statement as a view of how feminists see men is often given as evidence of the misanderous nature of feminism and how ludicrous it is, but the full quote, given below, which comes from “The Women’s Room” and is spoken by Val – a radical feminist character in the novel, bears further inspection.

Over the years, I have argued many times with (primarily male) comrades as to the meaning of this statement, with many taking considerable offense at the implication that I consider them individually to be rapists/potential rapists.  Frequently accompanied by denials of individual responsibility and/or temperament to commit something which is – at least in name – so transgressive and stigmatised.

…all men are rapists and that’s all they are: they rape us with their eyes their laws and their codes

Val, character in ”The Women’s Room” by Marilyn French

The contextualisation given in the full quote above demonstrates the structural nature of male sexual violence, and it is well worth unpacking the eyes, laws and codes which entrap men to this role. Mere denial, is simply a refusal to see, yet the gaze lives on; assertions of legal behaviour does not negate the judicial structure which enables violation, and a cultural stance in opposition does not challenge the codes which sustains it. Only by a careful examination of the power structure which sustains patriarchal heterosexual relations is there the opportunity to destroy it.

Their Eyes: The Male Gaze

I can feel myself under the gaze of someone whose eyes I do not see, not even discern. All that is necessary is for something to signify to me that there may be others there.

Ecrits, Jaques Lacan

The concept of “the Gaze” originates with Satre.  Satre explore the concept of “The Other” – that which is not us.  That when we are alone, we are a self-contained active subject, but when we share space with someone else we become aware of ourselves as an object in the Other’s environment.  Because we objectify the world around us, we are aware that “The Other” as a sentient being, does likewise, and we view ourselves no longer as purely an active subject but as an object which is gazed upon.  Lacan took this concept further, Lacan’s gaze does not require the physical existence of another, as the gaze is not something which belongs to the other, but is within ourselves, as a perception of being viewed.  Thus it is not the act of being seen which creates the gaze in our heads, but the epistemic knowledge that it is possible that we may be; and from that there is no escape.

Laura Mulvery coined the term the “Male Gaze” in the context of film studies, exploring how film makers produce narrative from the point of view of male subjects.  Yet it has a broader application to all forms of media.  Men are the primary producers of media, and the texts they produce primarily for a male audience while women are the spectacle to be gazed upon.  When women consume male orientated media, they must adopt the gaze as intended, yet at the same time identify with the female.  They see themselves as Others see them, this gift given not by a theological God, but by the omniscient patriarchy, eradicating the foolish notion that they may be active subjects in a world controlled by men.

Women internalise the Male Gaze, everywhere they go and in everything they do they are subject to the knowledge that they are the objects viewed through a patriarchal lens which dictates their behaviour and the limits of their agency.  Until the Male Gaze is castrated, free and genuine consent is impossible in a world where the agency of the subject is constrained.

Their Laws: The legal state of permanent consent

because penetration by males is what women are for, if we are raped we have to prove not just that we didn’t say yes, which is impossible to prove, but that we specifically and emphatically said no, which is also impossible to prove

I Blame the Patriarchy, Twisty Faster

Women exist in a legal state of permanent consent.  Consent is an automatic defense to a charge of rape and unless there is sound evidence that consent was withdrawn, it is frequently assumed that it was not.  If a woman did not actively withdraw her consent, there is no case to answer – the legal status of a woman is that of consent to sexual intercourse.  Furthermore, the presumption of innocence over guilt in effect means that it is insufficient for a conviction to be upheld purely on the basis that a woman asserts that she withdrew her consent in the absence of such evidence.

For some women, the withdrawal of consent becomes in effect a legal non-option.  Crimes of sexual violence against sex-workers are notoriously difficult to prosecute, as the assumption is that they payment has brought the agreement not to withdraw consent.  Any evidence that a woman may not have withdrawn consent, is evidence of the innocence of the accused. Such evidence may include payment; sexually arousing dress; prior sexual activity; drug or alcohol use; being asleep; being sexually unattractive, or being insufficiently aware of danger.  Up until 1991 the majority of women lived within a formal legal state which denied her the right to remove her consent: a woman could not withdraw consent to sexual intercourse from her husband; marriage was an automatic defense.  Although that has thankfully been repealed, most married women today, entered into a legal contract which removed their right to say “no”.

Within such a legal framework, consent is compromised.  If you are a sex worker and you know that there is little chance of obtaining retribution because you were paid, there is equally little point withdrawing it.   In circumstances where you know that what will be done to you will be seen as quite acceptable in the eyes of the law, resistance is futile. When your consent is irrelevant, why bother withdrawing it.  Until the legal state of permanent consent is revoked, free and genuine consent is impossible in a world where that consent is a legal irrelevance.

 Their Codes: Rape Culture

A rape culture condones physical and emotional terrorism against women as the norm… This violence, however, is neither biologically nor divinely ordained. Much of what we accept as inevitable is in fact the expression of values and attitudes that can change.

Emilie Buchwald, Transforming a Rape Culture

The term “rape culture” was first coined in the mid-70s, but has gained a new popularity recently as feminists have looked to the cultural modes which sustain and perpetuate sexual violence.  Much of the money devoted to popular campaigns to prevent sexual violence has focused on what women should or should not do to avoid becoming victims – seeking to impose limitations on their dress, behaviour, alcohol consumption and travel arrangements.  By implication transgressing these rules implies a recklessness which has invited attack and any public sympathy or support for such transgressive women who meets with such violence is tempered with an “I told you so” undertone and restatement of how important it is to follow the rules.

Related to this is the sexual epithets, “prude” and “slut”.  Two sides of the same coin they seek to define women’s sexuality in reference to the patriarchal power structure – they are not opposing descriptions of womens sexual behaviour, but demands upon it.  The “slut” challenges patriarchal norms which consider women to be the gatekeepers of sexuality, that sex is something done to women. The slut, as an identified sexually active woman is [an] easy [victim].  The “prude” challenges patriarchal norms which considers the purpose of women as being for fucking.  The prude, as an identified sexually inactive woman is [a] frigid [bitch].

The effect of rape culture is to deny women control over their sexuality in combination with excusing male violations of female sexual boundaries; to reinforce the patriarchal definition of the purpose of women as being for fucking while simultaneously reinforcing the patriarchal definition of fucking as something done to women. Until rape culture is overcome, free and genuine consent is impossible in a world which indoctrinates women to be the objects of male sexuality.

This combination of the male gaze, the permanent legal state of consent and rape culture conspires to produce an unhealthy sexual environment within which all individual sexual encounters take place. When McKinnon said “In a patriarchal society all heterosexual intercourse is rape because women, as a group, are not strong enough to give meaningful consent”, it is the weight of the eyes, laws and codes which bear down on each interaction, shaping its direction.

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