Sunday, March 20, 2011

How feminists "expand the definition" of sexual assault

I hear and read this phrase a lot from pseudo-feminists (people, especially women, who call themselves feminists and use that as an excuse to criticize and disagree with just about everything feminism stands for), anti-feminists (same as pseudo-feminists, but they don't claim to be feminists), men's rights activists (anti-feminists who claim that men, not women, are oppressed), turncoats (they used to identify as feminists, and perhaps still do, and used to pretend to support feminist theory and philosophy, but are now pseudo-feminists, anti-feminists, or men's rights activists). First of all, let's be clear: I am in no way purporting that the continued expansion of the definition of sexual assault couldn't lead us down a dangerous road. If, for example, sexual assault included all anal sex (which, by the way, is a hell of a lot more likely to come from religious Right-wing fanatics than from feminists), or, in a rather mangled quote misattributed to feminist Catharine McKinnon (it was Andrea Dworkin), that all consensual sex between a woman and man is rape (and that wasn't what she meant), there is cause for concern.

However, what definition, exactly, are we talking about being expanded? The current feminist consensus on the differentiation between sex and sexual assault is that for it to be sex there must be mutual, active, uncoerced consent by teen partners who are close in age, a teen(s) and an adult(s) who are close in age, or by adult partners, where one (or more) is not in a position of authority over the other(s). Anything else is sexual assault. Some people (see above) are unhappy with such a "wide" definition of sexual assault. Many people still have a hard time grasping "no means no", let alone "yes means yes".
But for those of us who live in the moral universe of not wanting to victimize anyone just for the sake of exercising power over hir, at least "no means no" is pretty well a given.

Here's where things get 'complicated.' "No means no" was not the original model of rape. Rather it was expanded from "date rape" since the initial conception of date rape was one of force. This itself was expanded ("before we called it date rape, we called it a good time" - Warren Farrell) from the acceptance that a woman could be raped by her husband. This was expanded from "stranger" or "street rape" (the man in the bush, parking lot, etc.). But this too was expanded from (paraphrasing) "what [rape] used to be…a virgin or chaste woman raped by a stranger who is not her husband." And even this was expanded from the idea that rape was not a crime against a woman at all, but against her father or husband (or whatever man owned her).

Now that we've seen the varying definitions of rape (not even taking other sexual assaults into account), we can see that expanding the definition is perhaps not the worst idea in the world after all. Really, the only people who lose out are the sexual assailants, and proportionately, there aren't many of them. So why do so many people get their ire up over this?

We live in a rape culture, that is, a culture that minimizes, excuses, and in many ways allows rape and other sexual assaults to occur. There are, after all, still people even in Western society that believe every woman (and only women) who is not a virgin or a faithful married woman is in a constant state of consent and simply can't be raped. Many people believe that women who are not virgins or married can be raped as well, but certainly believe that sex workers can't be. With such varying opinions on the many definitions, the fear is this: the accidental false accusation, where one thinks it was sex, and one thinks it was sexual assault, and the one who thinks it was sexual assault accuses the other even though the other thought it was sex.

What if a man doesn't know that what he's doing is sexual assault? And since we now accept that women can rape men too, what if a woman is 'accidentally' committing sexual assault? Once again, however, few men and fewer women ever commit sexual assault, even if they are unaware of the current definition. Indeed, in societies where crime is rampant and unchecked, many people still do not murder, rape, or steal, even though they know they won't be punished. In Afghanistan under the Taliban, when a rape occurs, honour killings are common or the rape victim is married to her rapist or one of his family members. Yet there was a family whose seven-year-old daughter was gang-raped and they refused to kill or marry her off.

The point is, many of us have an idea of what's right and wrong even if we're unaware of what's legal and what's not. Someone who doesn't know that the type of sexual assault ze's committing is illegal is still responsible for hir actions. "I didn't know it was sexual assault" is not an excuse. Are the men who raped their wives before that became illegal any less guilty of rape than those men who rape their wives today? I don't think so, and it sets a disturbing precedent: that all men will rape unless it's illegal and that you can't blame people for anything they do if they didn't know it was illegal. Try transferring that over to crimes other than sexual assault. Not so nice, is it?

So let's again look at the current expanded edition of sexual assault. A stolen kiss is sexual assault. A sexual activity that has not been agreed upon is sexual assault. Sexual activity with someone who is unable to consent (a child, sleeping person, or person with a severe mental disability, etc.) is sexual assault. A consensual sexual activity that continues after consent has been withdrawn is sexual assault. A sexual activity that takes place after one partner coerced, intimidated, or wore down the other is sexual assault. Any sexual activity where the 'consent' was not active (such as "yeah, sure, whatever", sullenly going to the bedroom to "do [hir] duty", shrugging "I guess", "just make it quick", "okay, I'm just going to lie here though; I'm tired") is sexual assault. Any sexual activity where the victim feels they can't say "no" is sexual assault (such as in an abusive relationship). Sexual assault is thus an assault in which the sexual parts of assailant, victim, or both, or a sexual situation, are used to harm, humiliate, intimidate, and/or disregard the victim.

If one partner has sex with hir partner in a way ze knows is going to physically or psychologically harm that partner, and that partner has not actively consented beforehand (and in some cases it doesn't matter even if ze had), then the first partner is deliberately harming the second partner. It is therefore sexual assault. If one partner finishes having consensual sex and suddenly covers the other partner's face with certain body fluids that the second partner did not actively agree to beforehand, then the intent of the first person was to humiliate the second partner. It is therefore sexual assault. If sexual parts are used during an interrogation, then the person being interrogated is being intimidated. It is therefore sexual assault. If one partner is just lying there thinking of the coming exam while the other is having a good time, the first person is being disregarded. It is therefore sexual assault. These can be transferred to any situation and are regardless of sex, gender, or sexual orientation.

So if all of that is sexual assault, what are we left with? We are left with sex where all partners involved want to be there, are mutually, actively consenting, and where, if one partner is not having a good time, the other(s) stops, and if all partners are not having a good time, they either stop or mutually agree to continue to try. We are left with sex that does not harm, humiliate, intimidate, or disregard anyone, unless it is a BDSM situation where this has been actively agreed to beforehand and where consent can be withdrawn. We are left with sex that is either good or bad for every partner involved and not just one or most. We are left with sex that does not have anyone feeling violated the next morning, even if it was sex ze regrets (had sex with hir friend's partner).

This type of sexual activity was practiced between my partner and I long before I came across the feminist blogosphere. I don't think either of us would be happy if it was any other way. If you don't care whether your actions are harming, humiliating, intimidating, or disregarding your partner, you are a sexual assailant whether you can admit to it or not. If you're afraid that a type of sexual activity you've been doing could suddenly be defined as sexual assault, don't be. If you don't want and choose not to harm, humiliate, intimidate, or disregard your partner, you won't. This is because regardless of the many definitions of sexual assault/rape, they all have one thing in common: it was a sexual activity that the victim didn't want.

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