Rape: Heteronormativity and Ethnocentrism

The issue of Rape has been all over the news this month, what with Assange, Galloway and questions raised over what comprises “legitimate rape”.  In a previous blogpost, I looked at exactly that issue: “What is Rape“.

The previous blogpost was written in response to chancing across an article promoting the view of some Mens Rights Activists, that rape does not necessarily require penetration and it is only that requirement which leads men to be the main perpetrators of rape.  They argue that rape should be redefined to include “envelopment rape”, where non-consensual intercourse is imposed on a man by a woman.  In Scots Law, rape must involve non-consensual penetration by penis. Any other form of non-consensual penetration is considered sexual assault, this is in contrast to the UN definition, with which I agree, which considers that the tool of penetration is unimportant the violation is the act of non-consensual penetration.  The controversy arose over my refusal to consider non-consensual, non-penetrative sex acts between women as rape.

I had thought that the blogpost I had written would be uncontroversial among my feminist sisters, who vary quite considerably in their “flavour” of feminism. They rarely all agree about anything, but if there was one blogpost that I would have picked that I would have thought there would be little argument about it would be this one -the main point of it being that the act of rape is one of bodily penetration and I was stunned at the reaction that I received, particularly from some young queer fems, arguing that such a definition of rape was heteronormative.

Being heavily influenced by the second wave, I am deeply in dept to some of the young fems who have brought me up to date with third wave thinking.  Without them I would never have discovered kyriarchy, properly understood the challenges that trans-feminism brings to the movement or the complexities of consent that has emerged from the sex-positive BDSM movement.  My thinking on LGBT/queer issues was shaped in an era when bisexual inclusion was a bitter dispute in the lesbian community, political lesbianism was seen as the creme de la creme of feminism, and trans* inclusion was simply not on the agenda.  So, as with all challenges, it is worth reconsidering in the light of further developments of anti-kyriarchial thinking.

Both feminism and queer theory criticise the centrality of PIV to sexuality.  From a feminist viewpoint, PIV is dangerous to women; from a queer viewpoint, PIV is promoted as “the way to do sex” ignoring sexual diversity.  Sex is defined as the penetrative norm, with men penetrating women or “unmen”.  Although anal sex has become more common within the West in decent decades, particularly in pornography, the assumption is still that it is men who will penetrate. Most straight men are decidedly queasy about being penetrated, despite the male anatomy making this a more pleasurable sex act for males than females.

The usual controversies over rape in the West, almost always occur over issues of consent, framing the context in which Galloway and Akin made their remarks.  In such cases, the perpetrator is known and admits acts which if unconsensual would meet the definition of rape in the law as currently constituted, however claims that those acts were consensual. The focus is primarily on determining who is telling the truth over the issue of consent and punishing those believed to be lying.

A Western centric approach sees us as taking a view that rape is associated with sexual relations – as in the West that is where it is most commonly situated, although internationally there are a range of associations for rape: family relations, war, genocide and state torture.  In Asia, controversies over rape have more of a context of family violation – the issue of consent is downplayed rather than the act as a neutral occurrence had been detrimental to community harmony – although perpetrators are sometimes punished, more often the smoothest route to minimising community harm is taken to smooth over the waves that have occurred. In Africa, controversies over rape frequently happen within warzones – with rape being used as a tool – partly as a means of terrorism against the women of the community, partly as a way of disturbing kinship structures by causing disharmony among members and disturbing male lineage, and party as a way of expanding influence by seeking to impregnate the areas that they want to take over.  In the Middle East, controversies over rape sometime occur in the context of punishment – either as a means of punishing a representative of a family which has transgressed community norms, or when in the form of state torture, as punishment for opposing a regime.   One thing which is universal however in all of these contexts is that rape involves penetration.

Rape is a violent act situated in a context of power, not sex.  Although sexual gratification can be a motive for rape, this is not always the case, particularly in some of the worst instances of non-consensual penetration: in war, in genocide and in state torture, where its primary purpose of control and domination are more exposed.  It is in the context of power that we need to look at whether non-consensual penetration is a significant enough violation to require a specific term of reference.

While non-penetrative sex acts performed non-consensually can be as traumatising for the victim as penetrative, depending on the context, the vulnerability of the victim, the relationship of the perpetrator and the victim and wider social norms, there is a specificity over the act of penetration, and the risks associated with it which makes it a particular form of abuse.  By glossing over that fundamental distinction, we are at risk of promoting a western centric view of rape.  One which takes place within the context of sexual activity ignoring the wider context of rape as a means of control not only of individual wo/men, but of women as a gender, deviant sexualities, ethnic groups and dissenting populations.

To blur the distinction of non-consensual penetration as a specific form of violation ignores the added risks that such an act entails and the breaching of bodily boundaries through internal invasion.



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