Monday, March 14, 2011

The Rhetoric of Rape Culture

I'll admit it, I'm addicted to Secret Life of the American Teenager. Have been since the show's premiere in July, 2008 - almost three years ago. In the first episode, Amy admits to her friends that she had sex. She also explains that she didn't know what was going on, and didn't even know it was sex until it was over. Yet in the many seasons of the show since its premiere, no one has called it rape.

Technically, Amy was raped. She didn't know what was going on, so while she may have been making out with Ricky, clearly she didn't consent to sex. And she didn't think to tell him to stop because she didn't know they were even having sex. Because she didn't even know what Ricky was doing, she wasn't in a position to give consent. Not to mention the fact that, depending on what state she was in, it was probably statutory rape as well.

And yet, no one says she was raped. She doesn't say she was raped, her friends don't say she was raped. The only thing people occasionally say is that Ricky "took advantage" of her. But for the most part, she is vilified for having sex, despite her lack of consent.

"Taking advantage of someone" is one of the few phrases we as a culture often use as a softer way of discussing sexual assault. Make no mistake, taking advantage of someone - whether its their intoxication, their age, their naivete, or their lack of ability to make an informed decision regarding what's going on - is sexual assault, and when it involves penetration, it's rape. But we don't use those words. "Sexual assault" and "rape" are so strong, so severe. Instead, we use phrases like "unwanted sex" when discussing rape; "he took advantage of me" or "that guy groped me" when discussing sexual assault.

Perhaps a contributing factor is our fear of universalizing rape. If we call all instanced of unwanted sex "rape," we're admitting that rape is more common than we want it to be, and that more men are rapists than we're comfortable with. Instead, we socially categorize rape as an overtly violent act, where a creepy man jumps out of the bushes and forcefully rapes an innocent jogger (or a not-so-innocent girl walking home from the bar), or where a physically and verbally abusive boyfriend holds his girlfriend down and savagely rapes her - in both instances, the rapist is violently forceful, and the woman screams, unable to fight him off.

What our culture rarely recognizes as rape is the whispered coercion that takes place in the next dorm, or the friend whose boyfriend had sex with her when she told him she just wanted to make out. We don't call it rape when a woman complies with a pushy partner because she feels she has no other viable option. When consent is unclear, we call it "gray rape" - because it's not considered "real" rape unless it fits the violent, dramatic image the word conjures up for us.

Another problem is that women who don't give in are often demonized by our rape culture. If a woman fools around with a guy, but stops short of sex because she's not comfortable actually having him inside her, or even if she just wears a short skirt and flirts with a guy without intending to sleep with him, she's a "tease." If a woman doesn't put out because she's waiting for marriage, or a certain level of commitment, or until she's more comfortable with her partner, she's "holding out" on him, "using sex" as a tool to get what she wants. If a woman consents but then asks her partner to stop because she feels uncomfortable or she's in pain, or if she says she wants to have sex later that night but ends up changing her mind, she's a liar and can't be trusted. If a woman doesn't want to have sex after her partner buys her a fancy meal, or works hard all day to bring home the bacon, or goes down on her, or does any other seemingly selfless task to make her happy, she's ungrateful. Some might even call women like those above selfish, for putting their own comfort levels or moral standards ahead of the men who want sexual gratification.

The commodification of sex and women's bodies is a huge aspect of rape culture. Our society still treats sex as something one person does for another - typically something a woman does for a man, and something done for his pleasure rather than a mutually pleasurable experience. Sex is seen as something that is traded for goods or favors, or a way to pay someone back for their generosity. There's the idea that dating is a legal form of prostitution - women are "bought" with drinks, dates, and jewelry, and in return give the guy their time, their company, and their bodies. When we reduce sex to a commodity rather than an activity, something given rather than shared, we in turn see nothing wrong of demanding sex when it is arguably owed or earned; or "taking" it without asking.

We may have liberated women from the kitchen, but there is an overwhelmingly persistent cultural myth that a woman's place is in the bedroom, and her role in her romantic and sexual relationships is that of a pleaser. Perhaps this is why people who support the purity movement prevent their daughters from dating at all, because sex is seen as an inevitable part of dating, and a mandatory aspect of a romantic relationship. I remember when I was struggling with vaginismus, a condition that makes vaginal intercourse very painful, and for that reason my relationships with men contained very little sexual intimacy - and someone insisted that sex had to be a part of a relationship, and if I wasn't willing to have sex I shouldn't be in a relationship with anyone.

Now I get that sex is part of a healthy relationship, as long as the parties involved are emotionally ready to handle it of course. It's a little silly to say every high school couple that isn't having sex doesn't have a health relationship, and it's also silly to assume that of people who choose to wait until marriage or until they've been romantically involved long enough. Also, a healthy sexual relationship means respect - respecting someone when they say "no," for any reason, even if that reason seems silly, and a truly loving partner would make sure their significant other is comfortable during the experience. The mere presence of sex in a relationship is hardly an indicator of health, especially when it's done out of obligation or coercion.

No comments:

Post a Comment