Thursday, December 20, 2007

Dismantling vs. Transforming a Rape Culture

This FLY post and this analytic post got me thinking about my own experience working in sexual assault. So, in theme withthese great womyn, here are my own thoughts about the assertion that "empowering women's sexuality is the key to dismantling rape culture."

Dismantling vs. Transforming Rape Culture

It’s been about seven years that I have been working with womyn and focusing on sexual assault in some way in my life. I’ve counseled, run groups, worked with dropouts, grandmothers, lesbians, wives, the mentally ill, the mentally well, the sick, the physically challenged, the young, the real young, and my friends.

Sexual assault – rape – has been in my life for years and I cannot fathom writing a piece of work that would be included in an anthology that uses the assertion that “women’s sexual pleasure is central to dismantling rape culture.”

Sexual empowerment, the deep monumental oceanic power in each of us, is a vast and complex force. Womyn’s sexual enjoyment and pleasure is a critical facet, but I shrink into a horror corner when I read that womyn’s sexual agency is the key to dismantling rape culture.

It ain’t that simple.

When, I scream, WHEN will we as a movement come to the realization that rape – yes – something to do with consent and pleasure, but it cannot, will not – and I refuse it to be – simplified to centering womyn’s agency and ability to experience sexual pleasure.

Transforming a Rape Culture came out back in ’93 or so and it still rocks my world, hard. Editors Emilie Buchwald, Pamela Fletcher, and Martha Roth offered the world 37 essays about education, transformation, poetry, speeches, and methodologies to transform a rape culture. Immediately, I embraced that word – transform.

Transformation, as opposed to dismantling, offered me a vision and responsibility to end and rebuild the culture of rape. Tranforming a Rape Culture brought attention to the g’dam u-g-l-y truth that rape is brought forth from messed up ideals from our own society. WE did this. It’s not just men, it’s all of us with out stinking hands and poor excuses. It’s in everything we touch and ignore. It’s saturated in our lashes, in every damn blink of our eyes and we don’t even realize it anymore. This reaches beyond the complexity of sex, enthusiastic consent, and womyn’s pleasure; so much so that I feel like shaking this computer as I write.

How in the HELL would I tell the womyn who have been raped in my life that the answers lie in reframing/centering their sexual pleasure and empowerment? They WERE womyn who flew high above the clouds, soaring, reveling, rejoicing in their sexuality and they were raped. They were raped. These womyn, with their centering, jaw-dropping, sharp tongues and gorgeous minds and fearless eyes were raped. And it had nothing to do with their personal sexual empowerment.

How in the HELL would I tell my daughter that being an advocate and transformer of rape culture is about her pleasure? How in the HELL would I educate my son about rape, power, consent, and choice? It’s more than just dismantling. It’s about rebuilding. Dismantling the wrongs is the first and easiest step; it’s the transformation and healing of this culture that impedes our movement. Sexual pleasure is powerful, but it’s not everything.

I want to talk to REAL womyn. I want to talk to womyn who understand that empowerment does not sit on the same shelf as pleasure. I want to hear from womyn who know that empowerment is about taking down our facades and allowing the vulnerabilities to seep out onto the page, who can tell me if and how they finally made love after their assault. I want to hear from PEOPLE who knew how to hold their lovers accountable when the next morning was silent. Who can speak to rape except those who truly know the face of it?

Not one inch of my feminist blood believes that every womyn screaming an orgasmic YES would eradicate rape. Womyn’s voice is not the answer, not for this issue. It's the world's silence that prevents any true progression and anti-rape work must be held to an incredible high standard of inclusion. Am I reading this wrong? I just don’t see this call taking the megaphone to womyn raped in secret harvest fields or in the military; grandmothers gang raped in their own homes; womyn and men raped by religious clergy; womyn who are targeted because they are mentally ill; or the mother-daughter prostitutes trying to make enough money to get by.

But we’re not talking about them, I guess.

This issue - rape - is where men are most needed. I don’t want just their voices – I want their entire souls. I want them to put their skin, breathe, and fingerprints all over this issue. In nearly every case of rape I have ever worked on, 99% of them are acts of males preying on and assaulting womyn. Men can’t be “brought back into the conversation,” they need to be centralized WITH US. Womyn are centralized in the prevention. Survivors are centralized in post trauma. The men are in the middle, genuinely confused, wanting to help, but COMPLETELY clueless as to how. And here come the feminists saying, “Dismantle this! Empower us and our sexual pleasure!” Where does sexual empowerment fit in the pre, post, or anything?

Here are two quotes from teen boys, taken from Transforming a Rape Culture:

“The best thing about being a man is that I can do what I want, be as rude and
disgusting as I want, and no one says anything.” – 11th Grade

“…No matter how you slice it, men are in control in today’s
society just as they have been ever since man and woman existed. That’s
where I like to be.” -10th Grade Male
Mhm. Let’s see what needs to get transformed here.
Guess again. It’s not womyn's sexual pleasure.

We must must MUST get passed this whole game of labeling what needs to be in the center when it comes to confronting our rape culture/world because what works for some isn’t going to work for all, so let’s not pretend that one book is for everyone. It’s not, so just at least SAY it’s not for everyone. (Oh, but that might affect the sales, right?)

When you centralize one component, say, women’s sexual pleasure, inevitably other experiences and elements are pushed to the side and that’s how you get trapped into marginalizing, dividing, and *poof* there goes the “intersectionality.” (That buzz word, by the way, is WAYYYYY over/mis/used and I will give a $1000 to anyone that can show me a blog that explores it well.)

The dynamic and multi-veined power within sexual assault is so pervasive that I cannot conceive or embrace the concept that womyn’s pleasure is central to an issue of such devastation, significance, and depth.

Honestly, embarrassment and frustration arise in my cheeks as I read this newest attempt to bring the movement together. Have we not yet learned – for both sexual assault AND feminism - what needs utter, total, and complete transformation is power, not pleasure?


  1. Wonderful, Sudy. Absolutely wonderful.

    The problem isn't necessarily the enjoyment of power in whatever way it manifests, but the manifestations of the power itself.

  2. This is fabulous. You are awesome.

    That is all.

  3. Transforming a Rape Culture... Ok, this is going on my reading list... Thanks for this post, really.

  4. Thank you, Sudy, this really helped because frankly the premise of that book really perplexed me and left me wondering whether I was losing it or totally missing something. Instead of continuing to be baffled, I'm gonna go read Transforming a Rape Culture instead.


  5. Thank you! I was having a hard time enumerating the steps between "this is incomplete" and "this is centralizing the wrong thing." I knew they were there, but I had the hardest time laying out the how and why.

    Even if we keep in mind that rape happens more often in the context of relationships (be they casual, intimate, or familial), it still doesn't follow that sexual contexts are the most prevalent/difficult/central to this issue. That was what I was having trouble with... I'd seen and heard the "well, you're a lot more likely to get assaulted by your [male partner] than by a stranger" line so often that it was hard to see why that wouldn't be the best locus for change.

    Enthusiastic consent is a great concept in the context of low-level sexual relationships, particularly when intoxicants and immediate social pressures are in play. But "is she into it?" doesn't mean anything outside of that context. When the intimate connection being exploited is that of a sibling bond, or a parental bond, or a power structure... consent is orthogonal to the issue at best. And those relationships are all counted in the "more likely to be raped by someone you know" statistic.

    ... wow. Thank you so much. I'm totally having a lightbulb moment here.

  6. Anonymous4:59 PM

    as i've been reading through all these amazing posts about this call out--the one thing I can't help thinking (and your post made me think of it sudy), is how there's a difference between centering the needs of women as the solution to a problem and centering *women* as the solution to a problem. in the first case, you have to ask, what do women need? What do they want? what is the problem? How can we impliment the needs of women in a way that solves the problem?

    The second way, however, you do that "pleasure" thing--you decide for all women what it is that they want or need and you do it FOR them or TO them. Women are not powerful in this situation, *THEY* are the ones being molded and crafted so that THEY can stop rape--and if they can't (for whatever reason), then oddly enough, it's their fault again. anti-rape advocates can NOT center women's bodies as a strategy to ending rape without mimicking the way rape culture centers women's bodies--it's up to women to either find the strength to say no or yes, and if she doesn't, she will be punished (whether through violence or abandonment or denial of resources etc).

  7. Anonymous4:52 AM

    Love this post and the comments and the BFP genius that clicked some more into place for my brain.

    Also, off topic, but I fear the original post is so many days ago now that a comment there would not be seen by you, Sudy - I finally got to watch your youtube masterpiece. Before that, I still knew how I felt about the project and I loved what you had to say about it (especially in response to questioning about why you did it), and now I just feel even more enamored.

  8. It's funny, because when I read this post, my initial reaction was "...well, nobody is saying that rape culture is the key to anything..."--but of course, there it is in the original post: "the key". Ack. It's interesting that I would miss that part of the original post, because I tend to try not to say anything is 'the key' to anything.

    Anyway, just one more thanks for your analysis.

  9. you are amazing, sudy.

  10. Anonymous1:40 AM

    What an entry! thanks sudy!

    I hope you had a great Christmas and ´heres wishing you & your family a prosperous New Year!

  11. Anonymous6:19 AM

    Great post, Sudy.

    I agree with you that rape culture encompasses too many spheres of life to be 'dismantled' via women's sexual pleasure. The rape question is about our (women's and men's) identities, the behaviors we assume as 'natural,' and notions of body ownership that seem to go without saying. Pleasure cannot erode the stiff foundations of rape culture, because rape culture isn't even remotely connected to questions of pleasure. Yes, there is a common misguided idea -- find it in rape jokes and many perpetrators' confessions -- that rape victims experience sexual fulfillment only deny it hotly (sic!). But following the thread, we see that it's about men telling women they know what women think and feel better than women themselves do. And that assumption is used to justify taking possession of women's bodies, using them as vessels to be defiled (still no enjoyment there, if certain sex acts are so very, very "dirty" and the woman is the receptacle for the dirt).

    The reason why we can't dismantle rape culture is that it's in our economies, it rips into our imaginations, it's in the structures we encounter in our daily lives. Hence we need a deep transformation and redefinition of so many things that are unnecessarily taken for granted.

    Transforming a Rape Culture is a great book that made me aware just how complex the issue actually is. The tendency is to look at isolated acts, as if they occured rarely, as if the unreported did not exist, while the truth is that we never had a day without rape.

    While this is probably not the best spot to ask this question, I cannot help to think about your profile in which you write that you're a Catholic. How do you manage to bring together your free-thinking and feminism with a religion steeped in misogyny, rigid hierarchies, and guilt? I'm asking this as a person brought up in a Catholic society who has never been able to accept the religio and has left the church with a great deal of bitterness.

  12. Been reading Transforming a Rape Culture, and I just wanted to thank you again for a great recommendation. It's a wealth of interesting information.

  13. Jeff,
    I'm so glad! It's a great book and many parts of it are timeless. I have gone back to it time and time again and always get another idea or perspective.

    Thanks very much!


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