TRIGGER WARNING: the following article contains a frank discussion of rape. We feel this issue is of great importance, but it may cause some readers distress.
By Freya B.
The concept of “consent,” as it applies to sexual relations, is solidified in the laws of some countries and has increasingly come to dominate liberal feminist discourse. In short, the “test” for whether rape occurs in some legal systems and in much of modern feminism is whether one of the parties does not “consent” to sex. Popular campaigns looking to reduce rates of rape and sexual assault place the issue of consent right at the center of their approach. On college campuses and all over social media, one can easily find slogans such as “Got Consent?,” “Consent is Sexy,” or “It’s On Us.” These initiatives aim to convince men that in order to avoid abusing their “partners,” they must obtain consent to sex; additionally, these campaigns attempt to empower women to be able to say “no” to sex and to identify situations in which they may not be able to properly consent.
Many of the promoters of these consent campaigns are well-meaning. However, in the present essay, we will illustrate that centering the issue of rape on “consent” actually reinforces rape culture. Consent-based analysis shields the fundamentals of sexual relations in patriarchal society from interrogation. Additionally, the focus on consent has in some ways made it more difficult for women and non-men to come forward about negative experiences with sex. So long as “consent” is the framework we use to evaluate sex under patriarchy, we will not be able to fully understand the dynamics of patriarchy, nor be able to build a movement capable of eliminating gender oppression.
The basic functions of “consent”
A good place to start in interrogating the concept of “consent” is to explore its basic functions in the discourse surrounding rape. But in order to do this properly, we must first be clear about rape. Rape is a gendered act. It is committed almost exclusively by men, and the large majority of the time, women are the victims. Other non-men and “gender outlaws” also experience rape at disproportionately high rates. When rape does happen to men, the gendered nature of the act is still evidenced in how it is discussed. The male victim is routinely feminized, is perhaps referred to as someone’s “bitch,” or at least he is subjected to the same misogynistic attacks that women are when they come forward about rape (“they were asking for it,” “it was just rough sex,” etc.). More crucially however, rape is a gendered act because it serves to strip a person of subjectivity, to reduce a person’s existence to sexual pleasure for another. This state of objectification, of “being for another” (almost always being for men), is the fundamental component of gender oppression.1 Thus, rape plays a central role in producing and reproducing gender as such.2 So with this in mind, what does the concept of “consent” really mean when it is applied to the issue of rape?
The first thing that can be said is that, at the level of appearance, the gendered nature of rape is precisely what the “consent” model obscures. The problem with rape, according to the “consent” framework, is not that rape is a crucial mechanism through which men exert dominance over other genders and women especially, but merely that it is (apparently) sex that one party does not agree to. This is typical of bourgeois, legalistic models in that it refuses to consider relations of power and oppression and instead frames sex as an exchange between equal parties. Such an exchange is only deemed illegitimate if a party’s formal “agency” is violated, and this has its corollary in that if both parties “consent,” then this is where critique of sexual relations stops. That many feminists have tried to appropriate the “consent” model for their own purposes, arguing that men use their power over women to have sex without consent, does not change the fact that the very terms of “consent” frame rape as gender-neutral. In other words, the “consent” framework can only produce a weak and superficial understanding of rape as it obscures the very core of what rape is.
At the same time that the “consent” model obscures the gendered nature of rape, in essence the concept of “consent” actually contains a legitimation of gender hierarchies. One way this is visible is in the use of the word “consent” itself. Why has this particular word been chosen in analysis of sexual relations? At first glance, the etymology of the word “consent” seems somewhat benign. The word first appeared in English in the 13th century, derived from the Old French word consente, meaning “agreement” or “permission.”3 But the word took on an interesting new content when it entered into western, liberal philosophy. Seventeenth century liberal thinkers such as Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau embedded the term “consent” in their theories of the “social contract.”4 “Consent” for these thinkers was the source of legitimacy for governments; in other words, the basis of legitimate power for the liberal philosophers was that the people consent to be governed. In large part because of this trend, in the liberal tradition, the word “consent” came to effectively describe acceptance of dominance. In form, “consent” retained its meaning as describing an “agreement” between ostensibly equal parties, but its content was fundamentally marked by the purpose for which it was appropriated: to describe and legitimate relations of power. It is therefore curious that this particular word has come to be applied to sexual relations. Perhaps the word “consent” was chosen—consciously or not—precisely because it has the unique function, inherited from enlightenment legal philosophy, to lend legitimacy to relationships which are oppressive. In much the same way that state power over a populace is legitimate for liberals if the people consent, it is okay if sexual relations under patriarchy objectify and subordinate women, so long as women consent to it.5
The concept of “consent” serves another important function. When rape occurs, the “consent” model centers the conversation almost entirely on what the victim thought and felt, rather than on what the rapist did to the victim. This effectively shields the practices of men from scrutiny. Furthermore, in order to verify whether rape occurred on the basis of consent, either in the legal system or in our own organizing, the victim must be “put on trial.”6 Well-meaning feminists who fight against victim-blaming, and who encourage people to believe the claims rape survivors over those of male abusers, are shooting themselves in the foot if they hold on to the framework of “consent.” The “consent” model, which places the standard for whether a rape is acknowledged entirely on evaluation of the thoughts and feelings of victims, does nothing but open up those thoughts and feelings to be questioned. It should not be surprising therefore that misogynistic claims about what rape victims “really” wanted, what rape victims were “really” indicating from their behavior, abound when “consent” is our standard. Such an interrogation of the victim is really at the heart of the “consent” framework.
The final point we will make here before moving on is that people can consent to things which cause them harm. People consent to sex for many reasons. We may want to feel loved and to express love. We may be conditioned, as women especially are, to feel that our self-worth depends upon our sexual desirability to men—in the moment, sex with a man may feel like fulfillment. We may feel other social pressures to have sex, such as a sense of obligation: if we are in a long-term relationship, we may feel that sex is expected as one of the relationship “terms.” We may genuinely desire the sensation of sex itself. None of this means that what actually happens to us during sex does not degrade us, does not reinforce our subordination, does not leave lasting, negative affects on us. What consenting to harmful sex means is that women and non-men accept being dominated—and because domination is so wound up with love, pleasure etc., we may to an extent desire domination—because it is the only way within the context of the current system to achieve what we want (love, pleasure, etc.). Part of our goal in the present essay is to illustrate that not only can people consent to harmful sex in such a fashion, but that this does happen regularly. The largest pitfall of the “consent” model, we will argue, is that it shields a great deal of harmful sex from criticism, and makes it harder for women and non-men to be honest about their relationship to sexuality.
It may seem ironic, given our criticisms of the “consent” model above, that we turn now to a discussion of women’s subjective experiences with sex. However our discussion here serves a fundamentally different function than the notion of “consent.” While the “consent” model focuses on certain thoughts and feelings that women have in order to divert attention away from critique of sexual relations, we will discuss women’s experiences with sex as a gateway into illuminating the nature of sexual relations under patriarchy. This will become clearer later on when we move into discussion of the objective content of those sexual relations.
For now, we discuss women’s experiences for a few reasons. First, these experiences provide the impetus for us to interrogate sexuality more deeply. Perceptions that women have about sex motivate us to conceptualize those perceptions in a theoretical framework, and they provide the “raw material” we use to to construct knowledge. Moreover, describing women’s experiences lends color and weight to our theoretical conceptions, giving these conceptions an “impact” that they would not otherwise have. Finally, we discuss women’s experiences with sex for a purely instrumental reason: we seek to illuminate experiences that advocates of consent-based models are uncomfortable acknowledging. We hope to validate these experiences and to help women make sense of them in an environment where few other sources are tackling the issue we are about to discuss in a coherent way.
The phenomena under scrutiny here are feelings of sadness and regret that women have about consensual sex. These feelings are a great deal more common than one might initially expect, as can be grasped to some extent through anecdotes. Most sexually active women can recount an instance (or several) where they consented to sex, but at some point during or after the encounter, felt dirty, shameful, depressed, regretful, empty, or some combination of all of these. Many women have had experiences where they willingly or even enthusiastically performed sex acts for men, but nevertheless cried afterward. Some women have these experiences frequently or nearly every time they have sex.
One can get a sense of how common these experiences may be by looking at online searches. Searching “why do i feel depressed after having sex?” or similar queries on popular search engines returns sobering results. On Yahoo Answers, for instance, one will find a flood of questions, mostly from women seeking to understand why they feel badly about a sexual encounter that was “supposed” to be healthy. One young woman asks, “I told him I wanted it and I felt like I did… After he got me off my whole mind space changed… I felt dirty, awkward, and I just wanted him out of my house. And now I’ve been lying in bed all day feeling like utter crap. What’s wrong with me?” Another instance: “I just feel — dead after orgasm. Like ‘Ugh, what a terrible feeling of regret.’ For no reason! I love sex, my boyfriend, and I’m comfortable in my skin… I just totally HATE the feeling after sex.” There are many more like this.
The issue has also been tackled by various women’s magazines. Cosmopolitan ran an article in 2011 about women’s “post-sex blues,”7 and two articles in 2013 on regrets about casual sex.8 Women’s Health Mag also published tips for women to help them try to avoid those feeling of sadness and regret.9 Gurl.com offered advice in 2013 to help women deal with regret they already felt.10 The comments on these articles tend also to reinforce the perception that sexual regrets are quite common among women. And interestingly, when a commenter on the Gurl.com article suggested that the article might be describing rape, the author assured them that this was not so, as the piece was describing regretful, but consensual sex.11
Anecdotes are not all we have. Though empirical research on the subject of women’s negative experiences with sex is somewhat limited, some interesting scholarly studies in recent years provide some concrete estimates as to the breadth of the phenomenon. In 2011, Bird, Schweitzer, and Strassberg sampled 222 young women, finding that 33% of them had experienced “postcoital dysphoria,” including feelings of “melancholy, tearfulness, anxiety, irritability, or psychomotor agitation” in the wake of having sex. Of these women, about a third of them, or 10% of the overall sample, had experienced “postcoital dysphoria” within the previous 4 weeks, indicating that a significant number of women may be experiencing distress after sex frequently—in some cases, nearly every time they have sex. Additionally, Bird et al. found that dysphoric feelings after sex were only mildly correlated with prior sexual abuse (as defined by the researchers), and that women’s negative feelings about their sexual experiences were, at least in some cases, distinct from their feelings about their partners.12
Of course, the study had limitations. One might point to the small sample size, or its lack of investigation of “postcoital dysphoria” in men. After all, other studies, some cited by Bird et al., indicate that men may also experience the phenomenon. A 2014 study by Bersamin et al. in Journal of Sex Research indicated also that there is a positive correlation between casual sex and depression unmediated by gender.13 However, a deeper and more extensive investigation reveals there is more to the picture.
As recorded in Archives of Sexual Behavior, Galperin et al. performed three studies of men’s and women’s experiences with sex, with a focus on the prevalence of sexual regret. Their most extensive of the three studies, with a sample size of over 24,000, found that while men and women both experienced regrets in relation to sex, the types of regrets differed by gender. For example, men reported a high degree of satisfaction with casual sex, while women frequently reported regretting these encounters (of those who had casual sex, 47% of straight women, along with 40% of lesbians and 31% of bisexual women reported regret about the sex). In contrast, men’s most common regrets were related to passing up sex. This pattern extended beyond casual sex as well. Galperin et al. illustrated that across a wide range of sexual activities, from sex with strangers to sex with romantic partners, women’s most common regrets were about having sex, while men’s most common regrets were about not having sex.14
All of this indicates that despite consenting to sex, women seem to be frequently having regrets, feeling sad, feeling dirty or empty, about their sexual encounters. What’s going on here?
“Scientific” explanations for sexual regret and sadness
Although some recent scholarly research has done a decent job of illuminating that feelings of sadness and regret about sex are common among women even when sex is consensual, the explanations forwarded by scholars are abysmal. For example, although Bird et al., in their study of “postcoital dysphoria,” do not put forward a clear answer as to the cause of the dysphoria, one of the study’s authors has suggested elsewhere that because the study found only mild correlation between postcoital dysphoria and “prior sexual abuse” (as the authors defined it), “that other factors, such as biological predisposition, may be more important.”15 Another study of postcoital dysphoria, a twin study performed in the united kingdom, came to a similar conclusion.16
The appeal to genes and hormones is common in explanations of women’s experiences. It is convenient, if one is looking to avoid interrogating actual relations between people, to explain things in biological terms. Rather than investigate whether dysphoric feelings, regret, or lack of desire among women reflects a problem with sexual relations in a patriarchal society, the problem is framed as a medical issue internal to women themselves, a “sexual dysfunction” that women have. This sort of “explanation” is also the logic behind the drug flibanserin, recently approved by the FDA, which promises to increase women’s sexual desire.17 Apparently, we are more willing to encourage women to drug themselves into thinking they want to have sex than we are to question the nature of sexual relations.
Not all scholars of sex are agreed that women’s feelings of sadness and regret constitute a medical issue or “sexual dysfunction,” however. In fact, a substantial amount of the literature frames women’s negative experience with sex in terms of “selection pressures” and evolutionary psychology. This is true of the study by Galperin et al. cited above. It is also true of several other empirical studies.18 Of course this “explanation” is not any better than the “medical” explanations above. The problem of women’s negative experiences with sex is again framed as something internal to women, only this time, it does not constitute a “sexual dysfunction” but an evolved trait. According to the evo psych narrative, women just “are” this way as a product of humans’ evolutionary history. To question patriarchal sexual relations would be unthinkable in this framework, as there is nothing about these sexual relations that cannot be construed as part of “human nature” if one is committed to the assumptions of evo psych.
Both of these pseudo-scientific explanations of women’s sexual regret and dysphoria serve the function of diverting attention away from the dynamics of sexuality under patriarchy. If there is even acknowledged to be a problem or “dysfunction,” it is framed as a problem with women themselves. The solution does not involve investigating men’s behavior, nor examining the relationship between men and women in general, but it is for women to find ways of acclimating themselves to things as they are. Feminists frequently reject such biological or evolutionary explanations for their experiences. But as it happens, the “consent” model, even within feminist circles, is not so different in its function.
Explanations from the “consent” camp
There are a few ways in which advocates of consent-based models engage the problem of women’s negative experiences with consensual sex. The first and most common is simply silence. As we explained near the top of the piece, for multiple reasons the concept of “consent” tends to shield what happens after consent from criticism, so “consent” campaigns tend not to discuss what actually happens during or after sex. To briefly reiterate, when sex is framed as an exchange between ostensibly equal parties, and when the standards for whether rape and sexual assault are acknowledged depend entirely upon whether these parties came to an agreement or not, what happens to a woman during sex, and the effects the sex has on her physically and emotionally, are basically irrelevant.
Another (related) tactic, more subtle and perhaps more troublesome, is for advocates of consent-based models to actively downplay or misrepresent negative experiences with consensual sex. Take for example the canadian website ConsentEd and its description of “grey rape.” According to ConsentEd, this is a “sexual violence myth,” and at first glance, its unpacking of the term “grey rape” seems helpful:
Unfortunately, “grey rape” has become a fairly common term used to describe non-stereotypical sexual assaults. Whereas “real rape” often refers to stranger assaults or ones with high levels of physical violence, “grey rape” usually refers to acquaintance assaults, for example assaults occurring on dates, when alcohol is involved, or when the survivor has consented to some sexual acts, but not others…
The term “grey rape” has a lot of troublesome ideas behind it. Firstly it promotes the miscommunication myth that sexual assault can sometimes be an “accident,” when in reality, it is always a deliberate act of violence. It also perpetuates the idea that there is a grey area where a person may be partially consenting on some level. However, as recognized by Canadian law, consent or lack thereof is really clear and intuitive.19
However, while this passage is clearly aimed to raise consciousness about rape and sexual assault in situations which are often not recognized as such in the dominant culture, this description also contains some poor assumptions. Note that ConsentEd frames “grey rape” as referring only to situations where there is actually explicit vulnerability or force, or lack of consent. The description goes on to claim that sexual assault “is always a deliberate act of violence” (emphasis added) and that to suggest otherwise implies erroneously that sexual assault can be an “accident” (as if these are the only two options). Further, ConsentEd claims that “consent,” and therefore the line between acceptable sex and rape itself under this framework, “is really clear and intuitive.” On the one hand, this means that sex where there is alcohol involved is clearly rape for ConsentEd, which is ostensibly a progressive stance. However, it also means that sex where there is consent and no explicit force is clearly not rape, and as for that gross, uncomfortable feeling you have afterward: it’s a myth!
The term “grey rape” might be an unfortunate one, but it gained in popularity because it describes a situation which is not acknowledged as rape by all the standards we are taught (including the standards which ConsentEd and others implement), yet nonetheless leaves us feeling as if we have been raped. Although they may be well-intended in many cases, ConsentEd and other advocates of consent-based models, because they firmly stay within a bourgeois, legalistic framework, still end up protecting the dynamics of sexual relations from scrutiny. That is to say, in claiming that there is a clear line between acceptable sex and rape, and assigning the so-called “grey area” a “mythical” status, they perpetuate the idea that consensual sex cannot be harmful. Therefore, they effectively encourage women to internalize patriarchy—i.e. “I know i consented, so this horrible feeling must be a problem with me“—rather than to challenge the concept of “consent” itself.
An alternative tactic employed among “consent” advocates to deal with negative experiences with consensual sex is an appeal to the notion of “pushing boundaries.” In stark contrast to the organizations referenced above, some “consent” advocates embrace the “grey area.” Consent is considered to be flexible or fluid, and concepts like “meta-consent” or “maps of consent” emerge to deal with these fluidities.20 In this context, feelings of discomfort of even dysphoria can be understood as associated with “pushing one’s boundaries.” Sex educator Charlie Glickman describes this as akin to pushing one’s limits in weight-lifting: sexual partners may want to explore what their boundaries are and even expand them.21 Of course, Glickman attempts to distinguish the “good” kind of pushing boundaries and the “bad” kind. But this distinction is an empty one. The comparison to physical fitness frames “pushing boundaries” as a desirable or even healthy activity. And like physical fitness, feelings of discomfort are part of the process of finding and expanding limits. In short, the message is that women’s negative experiences with sex are actually part of a healthy and desirable process of finding or pushing limits—these “consent” advocates acknowledge that the negative feelings exist, but frame them as healthy or even how sex is supposed to feel.
In other words, consent-based models either ignore, downplay, or misrepresent negative experiences with sex, or in some cases, they even frame such experiences as positive. Much like the pseudo-scientific explanations for post-coital blues explored above, the “consent” framework does everything it can to prevent us from actually looking at the core dynamics of sexual relations with a critical light. Additionally, in encouraging women to internalize their negative feelings, or alternatively through framing these experiences as healthy, “consent” models actually make it harder for people to come forward about their sexual discontents. For both of these reasons, “consent” models reinforce rape culture.
The objective content of patriarchal sexual relations
In contrast to “consent” advocates, we hold that women’s frequently negative experiences with sex reflect the objective content of sexual relations under patriarchy. And in order to understands women’s subjective experiences coherently, we must also investigate this objective content.
Here, we do not have to reinvent the wheel however; a substantial body of important, feminist work on the subject of sexuality already exists. Specifically, we will focus on two works by feminist scholar Catharine MacKinnon: Feminism, Marxism, Method, and the State, and Sexuality, Pornography, and Method. We are of course highly critical of aspects of MacKinnon’s feminism. Primarily, use of the legal system as MacKinnon and other radical feminists have done—i.e. use of a bare instrument of class- and national oppression to further “feminist” aims—is an indefensible practice (a topic for an article in its own right). Yet, we also feel that MacKinnon’s work on sexuality contains important insights, and that MacKinnon got closer to the core of sexuality under patriarchy than many other feminist authors have. We will draw heavily upon some of her arguments here.
In Sexuality, Pornography, and Method, MacKinnon writes:
Post-Lacan, actually post-Foucault, it has become customary to affirm that sexuality is socially constructed. Seldom specified is what, socially, it is constructed of, far less who does the constructing or how, when, or where… “Constructed” seems to mean influenced by, directed, channeled, like a highway constructs traffic patterns. Not: Why cars? Who’s driving? Where’s everybody going? What makes mobility matter? Who can own a car? Are all these accidents not very accidental?22
In other words, although many people accept that sexuality is constructed, this tends not to mean what it should. That is, upon claiming that sexuality is constructed, we tend not to investigate what this might mean, why sexuality was constructed the way it has been and how. Instead, sexuality is taken more-or-less as given, as “presocial” to an extent and only “constructed” to the degree that sexuality may take different forms. As MacKinnon elaborates,
[T]he typical model of sexuality that is tacitly accepted remains deeply Freudian and essentialist: sexuality is an innate primary natural prepolitical unconditioned drive divided along the biological gender line, centering on heterosexual intercourse… full actualization of which is repressed by civilization. Even if the sublimation aspect of this theory is rejected, or the reasons for the repression are seen to vary (for the survival of civilization or to maintain fascist control or to keep capitalism moving), sexual expression is implicitly seen as the expression of something which is to a significant extent presocial and is socially denied its full force. Sexuality remains precultural and universally invariant to some extent, social only in that it needs society to take what are always to some extent socially specific forms. The impetus itself is a hunger, an appetite founded on a biological need; what it is specifically hungry for and how it is satisfied is then open to endless cultural and individual variance, like cuisine, like cooking.23 [Emphasis added]
Contrary to this described view, for dialectical materialists there is no platonic “sexuality” existing “prior” to social relations, nor existing somewhere metaphysically beyond social practices. Sexuality is how it is practiced in society, sexuality is what it means for people, and the process through which sexuality came to be is also internal to what it is. It is therefore necessary to uncover how sexuality is practiced, what it means for—and how it affects—the people involved, and how sexuality itself came about, if we really want to know about sex. Appealing to a “biological necessity” does not cut it. For although physical reproduction may be necessary in order for the species to sustain itself, as MacKinnon puts it, “If reproduction actually had anything to do with what sex was for, it would not happen every night (or even twice a week) for forty or fifty years, nor would prostitutes exist.”24
Another example of the above trend highlighted by MacKinnon, this time within the feminist movement, is the tendency for some feminists (e.g. Susan Brownmiller in her book Against Our Will) to essentially define violent/harmful sex out of existence by claiming that rape is “violence” and not sex. This is fundamentally flawed in that, as MacKinnon points out, rape is very much sex for the rapist, and even for the victim, “who has difficulty experiencing sex without reexperiencing the rape.”25 To claim that rape is something other than sex, despite the fact that it is practiced as such, is precisely the kind of platonism we have to challenge as materialists. Simply defining a sexual practice as “not sex” is unacceptable in our ontological framework. Our object of investigation must be sexuality as it exists in the world, i.e. as a set of social practices which at the very least include relations of domination (though as we will see, it may be more accurate to say that domination is in fact foundational to sexuality under patriarchy).
While a thorough treatise on sexuality is beyond the scope of this essay, there are a few important remarks worth making. First of all, as we have just mentioned, rape is sex, since it is practiced as such. And if rape is sex, then this reveals something about sex, and begs the question: how does such an act of domination come to be sex, both for the rapist and the victim?
A major component of the answer is that in patriarchal society, both men and women eroticize hierarchy, “variously socially coded as heterosexuality’s male/female, lesbian culture’s butch/femme, and sadomasochism’s top/bottom.”26 The hierarchical dynamics of heterosexuality are the easiest of these to see. Sexuality for men is conquest of a woman’s body. A woman’s sexuality is something to be “taken.” To the extent that men are concerned about women’s pleasure, it is because the female orgasm is a man’s “trophy,” a reward for a successful conquering, a validation of masculinity. Moreover, men see women’s submissiveness as “sexy,” while women learn to eroticize male dominance and assertiveness, and to associate their own submission with sexual pleasure. Pornography, nearly ubiquitous and undeniably, overwhelmingly an arena of objectification and dominance (“Sex forced on real women so that it can be sold at a profit to be forced on other real women…”27), teaches us all how to “fuck” or “be fucked.” Symptomatic of all of this, men’s erotic fantasies involve power, control, aggressiveness,28 while women frequently experience erotic fantasies of being raped.29 Sex (here in heterosexual relations, but as we shall argue, also in general) is “gendered to the ground,” eroticized domination at its core.30
But not only is sexuality gendered, gender also becomes sexual. In Feminism, Marxism, Method, and the State, MacKinnon writes,
If the literature on sex roles and the investigations of particular issues are read in light of each other, each element of the female gender stereotype is revealed as, in fact, sexual. Vulnerability means the appearance/reality of easy sexual access; passivity means receptivity and disabled resistance, enforced by trained physical weakness; softness means pregnability by something hard… Domesticity nurtures the consequent progeny, proof of potency, and ideally waits at home dressed in saran wrap. Woman’s infantilization evokes pedophilia; fixation on dismembered body parts (the breast man, the leg man) evokes fetishism… Masochism means that pleasure in violation becomes her sensuality.31
All it takes to verify this is to listen to how men typically talk about women. In Western culture for instance, it is common to “rate” women on a scale of 1 to 10 on the basis of their sex appeal. Routinely, the first comments made about a woman by men, regardless of context, involves her appearance, ultimately her sexual attractiveness to men. In other words, a woman’s social acceptance by men depends heavily on to what extent she arouses men, or at least indicates her sexual availability.
Socially, femaleness means femininity, which means attractiveness to men, which means sexual attractiveness, which means sexual availability on male terms. What defines a woman as such is what turns men on… Gender socialization is the process through which women come to identify themselves as sexual beings that exist for men. It is that process through which women internalize (make their own) a male image of their sexuality as their identity as women… This, the central but never stated insight of Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics, resolves the duality in the term “sex” itself: what women learn in order to “have sex,” in order to “become women”—woman as gender—comes through the experience of, and is a condition for, “having sex”—woman as sexual object for man, the use of women’s sexuality by men.32
In this light, sexuality becomes more than the act of sexual intercourse itself—it is also the whole set of practices surrounding intercourse, i.e. presentation (clothes, hair, makeup, bodily characteristics), behaviors, mannerisms, etc., which condition people for sex and indicate sexual availability. And, it must be noted, these practices are integral to gender itself. For example, a person is read as “female” if they engage in social practices (e.g. they present and behave in a way) consistent with social norms of what arouses men sexually. The very existence of womanhood and manhood is sexual. “A woman is a being who identifies and is identified as one whose sexuality exists for someone else, [and that someone else] is socially male.”33 Meanwhile, men are “a gender group characterized by maleness as socially constructed, of which this pursuit [of women’s sexuality] is definitive.”34
Thus gender and sexuality are internal to each other. As much as sexuality under patriarchy contains eroticization of gender hierarchy, sexuality also helps define the very nature of gender hierarchy. It is simply impossible to disentangle sexuality under patriarchy from gender oppression. Sexual practices—from gender presentation to intercourse itself—(re)produce non-men (women especially) as beings for men, they objectify and subordinate. On this point, drawing a parallel to the Marxist analysis of commodities, MacKinnon writes,
Like the value of a commodity, women’s sexual desirability is fetishized: it is made to appear a quality of the object itself, spontaneous and inherent, independent of the social relation which creates it, uncontrolled by the force that requires it… Women’s sexualness, like male prowess, is no less real for being mythic. It is embodied. Commodities do have value, but only because value is a social property arising from the totality of the same social relations which, unconscious of their determination, fetishize it. Women’s bodies posses no less real desirability—or probably, desire. Sartre exemplifies the problem on an epistemological level: “But if I desire a house, or a glass of water, or a woman’s body, how could this body, this glass, this piece of property reside in my desire and how can my desire be anything but the consciousness of these objects as desirable?” Indeed. Objectivity is the methodological stance of which objectification is the social process. Sexual objectification is the primary process of the subjection of women. It unites act with word, construction with expression, perception with enforcement, myth with reality. Man fucks woman; subject verb object.35
To make things plain, objectification is a crucial component of what defines gender as such. Women exist through their relation to men, and vice versa; other genders, where they exist, exist through their relations to men and women. All gender-oppressed people are oppressed inasmuch as they find themselves on the end of a patriarchal hammer, constructed by and for men. Objectification is a critical component of this oppression, as objectification means that one’s existence becomes for another; in patriarchal society the existence of gender-oppressed people most often becomes for men, especially in the case of women. And sexual practices, as we have explored, objectify non-men and especially women. Therefore sexuality under patriarchy is an oppressive set of practices: it transforms people into beings for another, usually for men. This allows us to see how rape can be a form of sex—is rape, raw objectification of a person, really so much different than patriarchal sexuality in general? Sex as objectification of gender-oppressed people is also how we understand the negative experiences with sex described earlier in this essay. These negative experiences reflect the fact that all sex, consensual or not, plays a role in reproducing gender oppression.
Keen readers may note at this point that we have thus far been primarily speaking of heterosexual relations. Heterosexuality is of course the dominant sexual practice in patriarchal society. Yet we are making claims about sexuality in general, so it would be unbecoming of us to avoid elaboration on how sexuality manifests in other forms of relationships. In the interest of time we will focus here on lesbian relations; we leave it to readers to think about other forms of sexuality.
In the first place, it is undeniable that lesbians face a particularly harsh relationship to gender. The refusal to have sex with men is something for which people are punished in a patriarchal society. In the face of a society which constantly tells lesbians that they are wrong and attempts to ostricise them (while simultaneously fetishizing lesbian sexuality as something which also exists for men), it can be comforting to invert this reality and claim that in fact there is something powerful, or even revolutionary, in the refusal to have sex with men. In other words, lesbianism is sometimes considered a subversion of patriarchy in itself.36
This is however a claim that must be challenged for a couple of reasons. First of all, recall that sexuality is not only the act of intercourse, but is also the whole set of social practices surrounding that act. The practices which define women as women are also sexual in this light. To the extent that lesbians remain women, therefore, their existence is still at least partially defined through a relationship to men, and this cannot be avoided merely by a refusal to have sexual intercourse with men. As MacKinnon puts it, patriarchy cannot be escaped merely by “men’s temporary concrete absence” if sexual existence for men defines a woman’s being.37 In other words, lesbians, to the extent that they are women, are still coerced to some degree into a mode of existence which is constructed by and for men and particularly for men’s sexual arousal.
Secondly, within lesbian culture there are additional mechanisms through which lesbians attempt to escape the “male gaze,” so to speak. Butch, as a way of being, is often considered to be a means of doing just this. But in addition to the fact that, so long as it does not negate a person’s status as a woman, butch cannot negate a woman’s existence for men, the butch/femme dichotomy within lesbian culture does not arise in a vacuum. As MacKinnon clarifies,
[W]hen women engage in ritualized sexual dominance and submission, does it express the male structure or subvert it? The answer depends upon whether one has a social or biological definition of gender and of sexuality and then upon the content of these definitions. Lesbian sex, simply as sex between women, does not by definition transcend the erotization of dominance and submission and their social equation with masculinity and femininity. Butch/femme as sexual (not just gender) role playing, together with parallels in lesbian sadomasochism’s “top” and “bottom,” suggest to me that sexual conformity extends far beyond gender object mores.38
The butch and femme roles may be supposed to be “subversions” of the male/female relationship, but only if gender is really biological after all. For instance, the adoption of practices which are socially “masculine” by someone categorized as female at birth could only be a “subversion” if a person’s gender relationship to others was in fact founded in their genitals. If gender is social rather than biological, however (and we argue that it is), then the adoption of masculine practices is just that, and the butch/femme dichotomy within lesbian culture does indeed reproduce hierarchy and eroticization of dominance/submission. This is not to say that a butch lesbian’s practices necessarily transform her into a man—womanhood or manhood is ultimately determined by the totality of social practices which place people in the gender hierarchy (though we must admit there is absolutely a “tipping point,” a qualitative leap, where someone categorized as female at birth can become male). But the reality is that there is no way to be within patriarchy that subverts patriarchy; our practices develop in the context of masculinity and femininity, manhood and womanhood, dominance and submission. At some point we have to ask: why must hierarchical dichotomies such as male/female, butch/femme, and top/bottom even exist at all?
Conclusions: if not “consent,” then what?
The dominant way of thinking about rape is that there is “good sex” and “bad sex.” Consensual sex is “good,” while non-consensual sex is rape. However, the notion of “consent” actually reinforces rape culture. The “consent” model legitimates relations of domination, shields the real content of sexual relations from scrutiny, and silences, downplays, or misrepresents gender-oppressed people’s negative experiences with sex. The reality which the “consent” model ultimately obscures is that sexuality under patriarchy is an oppressive set of practices. These practices dominate heterosexual relations but also cannot be escaped by any other form of sexuality within patriarchal society. Therefore, we need some other way of thinking about sex if we want to understand—and through our understanding be better equipped to overthrow—gender oppression.
What then, if not “consent?” Firstly we must head off potential misconceptions. Much like a lesbian lifestyle does not ultimately subvert or escape patriarchy, an asexual lifestyle cannot be subversive either. The point of our argument is precisely that there is not any lifestyle under patriarchy which is in itself subversive. Additionally, we must stress that the intent of our argument is not to moralize at any particular lifestyle. Moralizing at individuals is just as ineffective as glorifying a sexual practice as inherently revolutionary. The point rather is that sexuality without oppression is only possible if we get rid of the whole damned system.
There remains however the issue of how to address sexual practices pending revolution. Sexuality is an issue which communist organizations will have to address if they hope to advance feminist aims. It would therefore be useful to find a replacement for “consent” as a model of thinking about rape.
Such a replacement framework might be difficult to generate. We have discussed how all rape is sex. But is all sex rape? Recall that at the beginning of this piece, we said that rape is central to gender oppression because it transforms the victim into a “being for another.” But as our argument developed, we saw that this is true, to some extent or another, of all sex. Is a distinction between rape and sex in general even meaningful? Some, notably the Maoist Internationalist Movement, have argued that all sex under patriarchy is in fact rape. On the other hand, we might find that there is some usefulness in denoting some distinction between the average heterosexual relationship and, say, sex trafficking. For now, we leave this an open question.
We will however motivate a framework to help communist organizations think about this question themselves (a “how to think” rather than a “what to think”):
- A definition of rape should be centered on social practices and the effect that these practices have upon gender-oppressed people;
- A definition of rape should be purely instrumental. There is no “natural law” that defines rape. Our conception of rape should serve the fundamental purpose of enabling us to effectively deal with gender issues within our organizations, e.g. what sorts of practices constitute grounds for expulsion of misogynists from an organization? It is not possible for a communist movement to represent the interests of women and non-men if gender-oppressed people in the movement are abused and exploited. Having an instrumental definition of rape helps us create an environment where women and non-men can take leadership;
- No form of sex should be beyond critique, and no communist’s concrete practices should be beyond critique. Even if we conclude that it is useful to define rape as a narrower category than “all sex,” this does not make the sex that isn’t rape “good sex” or sex that we do not need to interrogate. It is absolutely critical that we understand that sexuality under patriarchy is an oppressive set of practices, and this cannot be altered by changing how we think about sex or by changing the specific forms of sexuality we practice.
In sum, we hope that in revisiting what is sometimes called “sex negativity,” we can take steps forward in the effort to build a communist movement that is poised not only to overthrow the bourgeoisie, but also patriarchy.
- For an in-depth discussion, see: Catharine MacKinnon, “Feminism, Marxism, Method, and the State: An Agenda for Theory,” Signs 7, no. 3 (1982): 515-544. http://www2.law.columbia.edu/faculty_franke/Certification%20Readings/catherine-mackinnon-feminism-marxism-method-and-the-state-an-agenda-for-theory1.pdf ; ↩
- Oppression is internal to what gender is. Gender can no more be abstracted from gender oppression than race can be abstracted from racial oppression, or class from class oppression (we have touched on this theme before in Alyx Mayer’s piece, The Eroticization of Gender). Therefore rape, which is a mechanism through which the victim is objectified, transformed into being for men, is internal to what gender itself is. ↩
- “consent – Online Etymology Dictionary,” Online Etymology Dictionary, accessed 6/12/2015, http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=consent. ; ↩
- See: Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan; John Locke, Two Treatises of Government; Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract. ↩
- MacKinnon makes a similar point in a speech at the Nordiskt Forum, 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rrijeaqc04A ; ↩
- Again borrowing MacKinnon’s terms. Ibid. ↩
- Zoe Ruderman, “Women Suffer From Post-Sex Depression – Feeling Sadness After Hooking Up,” Cosmopolitan, published 4/5/2011, accessed 6/16/2015, http://www.cosmopolitan.com/sex-love/news/a9179/women-suffer-from-post-sex-depression-study/. ; ↩
- Natasha Burton, “Hook Up Culture – Casual Sex and Depression,” Cosmopolitan, published 7/1/2013, accessed 6/16/2015, http://www.cosmopolitan.com/sex-love/news/a13774/casual-sex-depression/; “How casual sex is linked to depression” Cosmopolitan, published 7/3/2013, accessed 6/16/2015, http://www.cosmopolitan.com.au/sex/sex-advice/2013/7/how-casual-sex-is-linked-to-depression/. ; ↩
- Robin Hilmantel, “Casual Sex: How to Avoid Post Hookup Regret” Women’s Health Magazine, published 7/13/2013, accessed 6/16/2015, http://www.womenshealthmag.com/sex-and-relationships/casual-sex-2. ; ↩
- Jessica Booth, “How to Deal With Regret After Bad Sex & Forgive Yourself” Gurl.com, published 7/5/2013, accessed 6/16/2015, http://www.gurl.com/2013/06/05/tips-how-to-deal-regret-after-sex/#1. ; ↩
- Ibid. See comment section. ↩
- Brian Bird, Robert Schweitzer, Donald Strassberg, “The Prevalence and Correlates of Postcoital Dysphoria in Women,” International Journal of Sexual Health 23, no. 1 (2011): 14-25. ↩
- M. Bersamin, B. Zamboanga, S. Schwartz, M. Donnellan, M. Hudson, R. Weisskirch, S. Kim, V. Agocha, S. Whitbourne, S. Caraway, “Risky business: is there an association between casual sex and mental health among emerging adults?,” Jounal of Sex Research 51, no. 1 (2014): 43-51. ↩
- Andrew Galperin, Martie Haselton, David Frederick, Joshua Poore, William von Hippel, David Buss, Gian Gonzaga, “Sexual Regret: Evidence for Evolved Sex Differences,” Archive of Sexual Behavior 42, no. 7 (2013): 1145-61. ↩
- Live Science Staff, “Post-Sex Blues Plague Some Young Women,” Live Science, published 3/30/2011, accessed 6/16/2015, http://www.livescience.com/13487-women-post-sex-sadness.html. ; ↩
- A. Burri, T. Spector, “An epidemiological survey of post-coital psychological symptoms in a UK population sample of female twins,” Twin Research and Human Genetics 14, no. 3 (2011): 240-8. ↩
- Erin Brodwin, “The FDA has just backed a drug to improve female sex drive,” Science Alert, published 6/5/2015, accessed 6/16/2015, http://www.sciencealert.com/here-s-how-the-new-fda-backed-female-libido-pill-works. ; ↩
- See: Heitor Fernandes, Lief Kennair, Claudio Hutz, Jean Natividade, Daniel Kruger, “Are Negative Postcoital Emotions a Product of Evolutionary Adaptation? Multinational Relationships with Sexual Strategies, Reputation, and Mate Quality,” Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences, (2015); B. Kirsner, A. Figueredo, W. Jacobs, “Self, friends, and lovers: Structural relations among Beck Depression Inventory Scores and perceived mate values,” Journal of Affective Disorders 75, no. 3 (2003): 131-48. ↩
- “Sexual Violence Myths: Grey Rape,” ConsentEd, accessed 6/18/2015, http://www.consented.ca/myths/grey-rape/. ; ↩
- Robin Bauer, Queer BDSM Intimacies: Critical Consent and Pushing Boundaries (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 81-84. ↩
- Charlie Glickman, “What Does Pushing Boundaries in BDSM Mean?,” Charlie Glickman, published 8/15/2012, accessed 6/18/2015, http://charlieglickman.com/2012/08/15/what-does-pushing-boundaries-in-bdsm-mean/. ; ↩
- Catharine MacKinnon, “Sexuality, Pornography, and Method: Pleasure under Patriarchy,” Ethics 99, no. 2 (1989): 319. ↩
- Ibid., 319-320. ↩
- Ibid., 321. ↩
- Ibid., 323. ↩
- Ibid., 324. ↩
- Catharine MacKinnon, Toward a Feminist Theory of the State (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989), 196. ↩
- C. Crepault and M. Couture, “Men’s erotic fantasies,” Archives of Sexual Behavior 9, no. 6 (1980): 565-81; E. Zurbriggen and M. Yost, “Power, desire, and pleasure in sexual fantasies,” *Journal of Sex Research 41, no. 3 (2004), 288-300. ↩
- J. Critelli and J. Bivona, “Women’s erotic rape fantasies: an evaluation of theory and research,” Journal of Sex Research 45, no. 1 (2008): 57-70. ↩
- MacKinnon, Feminist Theory of the State, 198. ↩
- MacKinnon, Feminism, Marxism, 530. ↩
- Ibid., 531. ↩
- Ibid., 533. ↩
- Ibid., 532. ↩
- Ibid., 541. ↩
- There is probably an extent to which this sort of lifestyle-ism is present throughout the world, owing to the fact that it is a (temporarily) comforting way of making sense of an oppressive society. However, it also seems to be most prominent in the imperialist countries. There is a relationship here between the relatively privileged existence that is the First World mode of life, and the dominance of reformist politics, of which the glorification of lesbianism as “subversive” is a part. This topic should be explored in more detail at a later time. ↩
- MacKinnon, Feminism, Marxism, 533. ↩
- Ibid. 534. ↩