by Wendy McElroy
In his book, Men Who Rape: The Psychology of the Offender, A. Nicholas Groth provides the essential distinction between rape and sex that occurs under pressure or persuasion:
"The defining characteristic of forced assault is the risk of bodily harm to the woman should she refuse to participate in sexual activity. All nonconsenting sex is assault. In the pressured assault, the victim is sexually harassed or exploited. In forced assaults, she is a victim of rape." p.3 Plenum Press, N.Y., 1979
By eliminating the distinction between force and persuasion (whether economic or emotional), important sexual lines are erased, such as the line between rape and seduction.
The pivotal difference between individualist feminists and radical feminists lies in the concepts of coercion and consent. For individualist feminists, these concepts rest on the principle of self-ownership: that is, every woman's inalienable right to her own body. If a woman says 'yes' -- or if her behavior clearly implies 'yes' -- then consent is present. If a woman says 'no' -- or clearly implies it -- then coercion is present.
It is difficult to tell what constitutes consent or coercion for radical feminists. Consider a recent definition of sexual violence Liz Kelly offers in her book Surviving Sexual Violence:
"Sexual violence includes any physical, visual, verbal or sexual act that is experienced by the woman or girl, at the time or later, as a threat, invasion or assault, that has the effect of hurting her or degrading her and/or takes away her ability to control intimate contact." p.41 University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, 1988
In one form or another, this is becoming a common guideline for identifying sexual violence.
The first problem with this guideline is that it is totally subjective. For example, the woman need not have felt threatened during the sex act itself. As Kelly observed 'Sexual violence includes any...sexual act that is experienced by the woman or girl, at the time or later' as violent. In retrospect and in light of other experiences, the woman might decide that she had been coerced. But who hasn't regretted something in retrospect? There are many mistakes in which every one of us has been a consenting participant. Regret is not a benchmark of consent.
A second problem with the radical feminist view of rape is that it is disastrously subjective. It says that anything 'experienced by the woman or girl' as violent is de facto 'violence'. The coercion need not involve any physical contact: it can be simply verbal or visual. The crucial link between coercion and the use (or threat) of force has been broken. Tangible evidence of violence -- such as bruises, witnesses, explicit threats, etc -- is no longer necessary for a man to be considered guilty of sexual violence. All that is necessary is for a woman to have felt threatened, invaded or assaulted by him.
Any subjectivity in the definition of sexual violence has always acted against the interests of women. The issue of rape has been legally skewed in favor of the accused for so long that women have reacted by swinging the balance too far in the other direction.
Radical feminists are attempting to create a virtual utopia of safety for women. Camille Paglia comments:
"The point is, these white, upper-middle-class feminists believe that a pain-free world is achievable. I'm saying that a pain-free world will be achievable only under totalitarianism." p.64 Sex, Art, and American Culture, Vintage Books, N.Y., 1992
Camille Paglia offers a sense of reality to the obfuscations that are being woven around the crucial issue of rape:
"...feminism, which has waged a crusade for rape to be taken more seriously, has put young women in danger by hiding the truth about sex from them.
"In dramatizing the pervasiveness of rape, radical feminists have told young women that before they have sex with a man, they must give consent as explicit as a legal contract's. In this way, young women have been convinced that they have been the victims of rape." p.49 SEX, ART, AND AMERICAN CULTURE, Vintage Books, N.Y., 1992
It is commonplace to note that the crime of rape is on the rise. Part of the perceived increase may be that more women are reporting the crime. Part of it is certainly that the definition of rape has been expanded to include, for example, date rape. Yet, even accounting for these factors, violence against women does seem to be increasing dramatically. Ironically, several researchers suggest that women's demand for autonomy and equality may have spurred on sexual violence because men are attempting to reassert their dominance. This reaction is called 'backlash'.
In her book The Politics of Rape, sociologist Diana E.H. Russell suggests:
"There is some male backlash caused by women's growing desire to be more independent of men. This painful period of transition is a time of tremendous misunderstanding and hostility between the sexes. Rape is the way some men express their hos- tility to women. More threatened male egos may mean more rapes. In the short run, the more women who break out of traditional female roles and assert themselves in new ways, the more threatened male egos are." as quoted in FORCIBLE RAPE: THE CRIME, THE VICTIM AND THE OFFENDER ed. Duncan Chappell, Robley Geis, and Gilbert Geis, Columbia University Press, N.Y., 1977
Some responsibility must be shouldered by those who tell women that they can have it all. This may be true in the-best-of-all-possible worlds, but it is not true in the inner city, on the university campus or even in the crime-heavy suburbs. In her book, The Trouble with Rape, Carolyn J. Hursch notes:
"While on the one hand, through current literature women are imbued with independence, equality, and power, on the other hand, no credence is ever given to the very real fact that women are, and always will be, physically unequal to men and therefore physically vulnerable...the fact is that even after being granted all the rights which she so richly deserves, a woman still has a woman's anatomy." p.131-132 Nelson-Hall, Chicago, 1977
The fact that women are vulnerable to attack means we cannot have it all. We cannot walk at night across an unlit campus or down a back alley, without incurring real danger. These are things every woman should be able to do, but 'shoulds' belong in a utopian world. They belong in a world where you drop your wallet in a crowd and have it returned, complete with credit cards and cash. A world in which unlocked Porsches are parked in the inner city. And children can be left unattended in the park. This is not the reality that confronts and confines us.
Camille Paglia introduces a bit more reality into the discussion of rape. In her book, SEX, ART, AND AMERICAN CULTURE, she exclaims:
"Feminism keeps saying the sexes are the same. It keeps telling women they can do anything, go anywhere, say anything, wear anything. No, they can't. Women will always be in sexual danger...feminism, with its pie-in-the-sky fantasies about the perfect world, keeps young women from seeing life as it is." pg.50 Vintage Books, N.Y., 1992
Radical feminism paints a schizophrenic picture of women. They are free and complete sexual beings, who live in a state of siege. They are empowered persons, who are terrified to open their doors at night.
Their picture of men is no less confusing: even the most loving and gentle husband, father, and son is a beneficiary of the rape of women they love. No ideology that makes such vicious accusations against men as a class can heal any wounds. It can only provoke hostility in return.
For radical feminists, this antagonism may serve a purpose...after all, radical feminism is a cry for revolution, not for reform, and revolutions are not built on conciliation. Radical feminists allow for no solution to sexual violence short of accepting their social, economic and political agenda. They allow for no other bridge of understanding or trust to be built between men and women.
Nor does radical feminism seek to heal women on an individual basis. Even the supposedly definitive work on rape, Against Our Will, gives only a cursory nod to the idea of individual women healing or learning to defend themselves. Instead, individual women who have been raped are told that they will never recover from the experience...that rape is the worst thing that can happen to a woman. Paglia observes:
"The whole system now is designed to make you feel that you are maimed and mutilated forever if something like that happens. It's absolutely American -- it is not European -- and the whole system is filled with these cliches about sex." p.63 Sex, Art, and American Culture, Vintage Books, N.Y., 1992
As a woman who has been raped, I will never downplay the trauma it brings. But being raped was not the worst thing that ever happened to me and I have recovered from it. Feminists who say otherwise are paying me a disrespect.
The issue of rape has been diverted into a political tangle of class theory and ideology. It is time to return to the basics: consent and coercion.
Regarding consent the crucial question is, of course, 'has a woman agreed to have sex?' It is not: has she been talked into it, bribed, manipulated, filled with regret, drunk too much or ingested drugs. And, in an act that rarely has an explicit 'yes' attached to it, the touchstone of consent in sex has to be the presence or absence of physical force.
On the question of force, I think feminists desperately need to change their focus from the man to the woman. They should crying out for every woman to learn how to say 'no' as effectively as possible...and with deadly force if necessary. The true way to empower a woman and make her the equal of any man who would attack is to teach her how to use a gun and other methods of defending herself.
There is no argument: women should be able to walk down streets alone at night and be safe. Just as they should be able leave their apartments and car doors unlocked. Yet women who bolt their doors every night often refuse to learn self-defense because they don't believe they should have to. Because they should be able to feel safe, they refuse to take steps that would so dramatically acknowledge how unsafe they truly are.
Women have the absolute right to live without being attacked. But no right can be enjoyed for long if it is not defended, and vigorously. Ladies Home Journal recently ran an ad from a gun manufacturer, which read: 'Self-protection is more than your right -- it is your responsibility.' (July, 1992)
There is no safety for women on the streets, on the campus, or in their own homes. Violence has become so epidemic that the world seems to be going slowly crazy and no one can rely on other people for protection. Feminism needs more women like Paxton Quigley -- author of Armed and Female. After a friend of hers was brutally raped, Quigley changed her perspective: she went from agitating for gun control to teaching women how to use a handgun.
Quigley uses an effective technique to break through the women's tendency to shy away from guns. Her beginner's course includes a tape of a 911 emergency call that was made by a Kansas rape victim as her attacker was breaking into her home. As he appears at her bedroom door, she screams:
"Who are you? Why are you here? Why are you here? WHY?"
After hearing the tape, women are more willing to learn such techniques as how to shoot lying down and to aim for the head. One of the women who took Quigley's course commented:
"Girls grow up believing that they're going to taken care of, but it just ain't so." (Wall Street Journal, Feb.4, 1993)
Self defense is the last frontier of feminism. And it is the solution -- if one truly exists -- to rape and other forms of violence against women. Politicizing women's pain has been a costly diversion from the hard work that is necessary to make women safe.
The fact is:
Rape is a crime committed against individual women, and the remedy must be an individualist one as well. Women who are raped deserve one-on-one compassion and respect for the unique suffer- ing they experience. Too much emphasis has been placed on the commonality of reactions among raped women: it is equally important to treat these women as distinct human beings and respect their differences.
Equally, women who are in fear deserve one-on-one training in how to defend themselves against attack. Theories of how Neanderthal man was sexist do not offer women safety in their own homes. Rhetoric regarding patriarchy cannot protect one single woman who is dragged into the bushes. Women deserve to be empowered -- not by having their pain and fear attached to a political agenda, but by learning how to use force to their advantage.
Self-defense is feminism's last frontier.
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