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Sex, Shame, and Rape Culture

2014 May 29

Since Elliot Rodger went on his rampage this past weekend after writing a manifesto detailing how since a “pretty blonde girl” in middle school bullied and mocked him (wouldn’t go out with him) he hates women and sought violent revenge on them, the media has been abuzz with commentary about the rampant misogyny in our culture. Story after story of women who have been sexually violated by men in one way or another flooded the internet reminding the world that women have ample cause to fear men because so many men see women simply as bodies they can use for their own pleasure. Rape culture is alive and well and this most recent (deadly) temper-tantrum of this boy who didn’t get to play with all the toys he thought he was entitled to is just one more scene in that ongoing narrative.

I’m appreciative that the pervasive misogyny of our culture is being called out. Women are speaking out that their bodies are their own and that is a good thing. But as I’ve watched this story unfold, I can’t help but think that what is being addressed here are symptoms not causes. We can raise our voices, perhaps get better laws protecting women from assault, but all of that simply scratches the surface. There is an entire cultural narrative at work here shoring up the systemic violence against women and until we change the very way we think about things, little will actually change.

So basically we need to be talking about sex.

How we conceive of sex is broken and results in acts of violence. Sometimes that violence is physical, but much more frequently it simply appears in the form of violating the humanity of a person by turning them into a commodity. And I’m not talking about casual visual objectification or even using porn here. That’s a scapegoat. The root of this is much deeper and pervasive in our culture.

Arthur Cho’s brilliant response to the shooting pointed out the failings of this mentality. When guys think that by being strong, rich, or powerful or even by being the sweet supportive friend they are doing things to earn or win the right to sex with a woman they are promoting the idea that women (and sex) are commodities. Seeing that pattern it becomes easy to call out the guy who calls girls bullies and bitches because they won’t have sex with him. He thinks he is entitled to sex and gets pissed off when his actions don’t earn him what he wants. Women don’t want to feel like a conquest or a whore to be bought, but having already been cast as such a commodity in the eyes of the guy, that he then resorts to whatever means necessary to get what he thinks he deserves is not all that surprising.

That aspect of rape culture is easy to spot. But we rarely go further and see that the idea of women (and sex) as commodities is pervasive in our culture. For most of Western history, women were blatantly stated to be the property of a man. They belonged to their father who then arranged a deal to transfer that ownership to her husband in exchange for power, influence, or simply hard cash. Women and their sexuality were therefore something to be guarded and used as bargaining chips in this economic exchange of goods. Fathers and husbands owned the woman, and so treated her sexuality especially as an investment to be preserved until it was possessed by her new owner. In the Western world today, this exchange is perhaps not so overtly economic, but nevertheless remains in different guises. Relationships are still arranged through State controlled legal contracts or else they are seen as incomplete or even sinful. The father often still gives the man permission to marry (or date) his daughter and then gives her away to him in front of witnesses as the contract is signed. Girls are taught to preserve their virginity above all else as their most precious commodity to be preserved for “the one.” Some girls are even encouraged to pledge their virginity to their fathers until the time when it can be transferred to their husband. It is a romanticized version of the historical buying and selling of a woman’s sexuality, but it is a commodity exchange nonetheless.

At the core of this commodification of sex, is the notion that sex itself is a necessary evil which therefore must be regulated and highly controlled. That such an idea pervades Western culture is not that surprising given our roots in Greek Platonic thought that bifurcated the mind and body disparaging the base natural functions of the flesh. That the early Christians threw out Jewish notions of holistic selves and bought fully into the Greek view ensured that sex be cast as evil and therefore have such strange economic regulations applied to it. It was begrudgingly admitted that men might have sexual needs that should be met (erections can be difficult to hide…), so women were bought and sold to meet that need, but it was still cast as a source of shame.

The problem here is that we can rail against the objectification or commoditization of women in rape culture all we want, but what is really at issue here are our cultural attitudes toward the body and sex that created (and preserve) the system in the first place. What if instead of letting our fear of those who see sex as an entitlement cause us to continue to cast sex as a corrupting force of evil that we must transcend, we (like Maslow) embrace our bodies and admit that sex is a basic physiological human need. It is a need all people (yes, even women) have that is not shameful and that we should not be embarrassed to desire to have met. Not that anyone is responsible to meet that need for us, nor that we are entitled to use others for our needs, but that we simply start to admit that our sexuality is an integral part of ourselves.

This is a far cry from the culture of shame that held well into the 20th century that women were not even capable of having orgasms and that at times insisted that a woman be sent to prison for witchcraft or to a hospital to be treated for hysteria if she showed signs of sexual arousal. If women are mere objects of economic exchange that men win or earn to meet the man’s needs, of course any sign of pleasure on the woman’s part is dangerous. Far better to teach her to be ashamed of her sexuality, to preserve her virginity at all costs, and to limit her physical activities to only the man with the right to own her (and slut-shame her if she dares to meet her own needs as she will). Keep yourself pure, preserve and conserve, conceal don’t feel, are the mantras thrown at women to keep them in their place. Let them get riled up about people finding pleasure in the human form and rage about how that objectifies women as long as they remain blind to the fact that their very lives (and especially their attitude of disgust toward the erotic) are the result of their complete and total objectification and commodification.

Thing is, it’s a lot more complicated to let people embrace their bodies and their sexuality. Instead of being a source of shame that turns sex into an economic exchange where there are winners and losers leading to attitudes of entitlement and resentment, people come to know their personal needs, desires, and boundaries. Sex can be celebrated and given not only for one’s own pleasure but as a gift to another. No one has a right to anyone else, but no one can also force someone to shut down or hide their sexuality so that they can horde that commodity for themselves. Each person having his or her own boundaries and expression of sexuality is of course far more complicated than one-size fits all shame-based regulations, but it is also far healthier than the rape culture of objectification that we currently have.

The question is, how much do we really want to change the way things are? Is eliminating rape culture worth rethinking the entire culture of shame our society is built upon? Or is tweaking the status quo and feeling like we have done something good enough? Change takes time and effort and is resisted at every turn. And as we have seen so often in this country, such equal distributions of wealth, agency and power challenge the hegemony of the rich and the powerful who want to keep it all for themselves and so they call equality evil and parade out various harmless scapegoats to be attacked instead. Will we let that happen yet again in this country? With our very bodies? Or will we stage the cultural revolution necessary to put an end to rape culture?

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6 Responses leave one →
  1. jack b nimbel permalink
    July 5, 2014

    One hand clapping, huh? Yeah. We know a Buddhist koan when we see one, and the joke is no longer funny. The road to Hell is paved with good intentions, you’ve made quite a fine start; you’ll get there in no time! Unless you repent, and that is what I advise you to do. Remember this day at your final judgment – repent now while you still can, woman.

  2. July 8, 2014

    What’s up i am kavin, its my first time to commenting anywhere, when i read this post i thought i could also
    create comment due to this brilliant piece of writing.

  3. Rylin H permalink
    September 5, 2014

    Julie, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with your commentary. I as a woman have felt this commoditization of myself acutely all my life, from struggling to try to be the commodity to the struggle to find myself outside the definitions of being a commodity. I was a preacher’s daughter, born in the fifties, and although my parents didn’t give me that message themselves, they passively allowed my very fundamentalist grandmother to feed it to me, pounding her expectations of how I should grow up and marry a minister myself into my head, and telling me over and over what shape I must mold myself into to meet that goal. My parents, meantime, didn’t encourage my very geeky interests in science the way they did with my brother, and I didn’t really succeed at much of anything without that support, because I’m a “neuro-atypical” person, and wasn’t equipped with the focus to follow through unaided. So, I desparately struggled to meet the expectations that I would be the commodity that would attract a buyer, actually unequipped to meet that goal, either, though I didn’t know that at the time. However, as I got older and began dating, I made one wrong choice after another until very late in life, because of the naiveté that is inherent to my neurological wiring. I was taken advantage of, sometimes abused, but generally ignored by the kind of man my family would have wanted me to marry. I carried a sense of shame with me throughout my life, feeling that as a single woman, then a single mother, I was an incomplete person who was not meeting God’s planned expectation of me. It took me decades to learn that I could be a complete person and be a single person at the same time. Sexuality has been a complicated issue for me – for many of the same kinds of reasons you have mentioned, and growing up in a Christian milieu, I was of course subjected to a bit of the same kinds of shame messages, but in my case my parents didn’t impart that to me as much as what I got from others in our churches. So, though that message wasn’t being pounded on me as forcefully as it might have been if my parents were the deliverers, it affected me nonetheless, and that has always been a struggle for me as well.

    I feel unsure at this point of how we can move into an age where woman can be seen as complete, fully human and complex beings throughout their lives (currently, as a now aging woman, I am dealing with the ramifications of women becoming invisible as we age). I am learning that no matter how we are perceived, first and foremost how we perceive ourselves is what counts the most in our daily lives. As an aging woman, I don’t deal with the sense of danger that I did as a younger woman and that younger women now seem to face with even greater frequency in this age of gun culture and a pervasive revanchist mindset. This is being (mostly) a non-target is seeming to me to be a great relief, in fact (though I am aware that sometimes older women are raped, too, and of course that rape is not in fact an act of passion but an act of dominance) – I feel a sense of freedom that I never did as a younger woman, and though I still think at times of how I’d like to find a man with whom I could share my life, being and interests, I don’t feel like my life is on hold until I do, or not relevant. I worry however, about younger fellow women, though, and I’m disturbed to see what seems like an increase of violence against women, what seems to be a backlash against our growing freedom and sense of ourselves as fully human beings, fully possessed of our own selves and our own sexuality.

    I think that it’s very likely that, to some extent, there’s a backlash involved here. I also see this, however, as a problem of a consumer culture that has taken advantage of the age-old commoditization of women, and pushed it to it’s most blatant possible manifestation, making it explicitly about sexual objectification, and removing any pretense of it being about “family values” and the security or sanctity of the marital relationship. In reaction to that we see the kind of backlash that shows up in fundamentalist churches where men (and some women) assert that the only solution to this is to return to the values of a previous century (the nineteenth, maybe?) and returning women to position of chattel – cherished chattel, maybe, but chattel nonetheless. I personally feel that the only way out of this is to get off the pendulum swing and insist that women be seen as human beings first. I don’t think that can happen, though, unless sexuality can be seen, as you have pointed out, as a natural human need. I think that consumerism is driving the extremely sexual emphasis of that swing, though, and so, I believe, this is at this an issue that ties into your first book (caveat: I haven’t read it yet, but have it on order). Our consumption habits are indeed a social justice issue, and as I see it, as long as women are held up as objects to be consumed, women can’t have social justice, either. Corporate culture has been profiting for some time on a hyper-sexualized, secular picture of women as a commodity, selling cosmetics, clothing, magazines etc. to women who are being fed the line that now our sexuality is something to be celebrated, but that the only way we can do that is by being a product that we market to find the mate who’s going to bring us that ultimate pleasure. Men, on the other hand, seem to be given the message that if his potency is sufficient, women will just fall at his feet, and if they don’t, well, they’re not behaving as they should – they’re denying him the conquest and pleasure he’s rightly entitled to.

    I think that because feminism never fully succeeded in the preceding decades in liberating women and men as well from these role expectations, that in the wake of sexual liberation, which left the field, so to speak, wide open for corporate culture to exploit the lack of raised consciousness to make yet another fast buck from this area of our human insecurities and uncertainties. I think that we won’t be free of this until we can liberate ourselves not just from the social chains of milennia of repression, but from the corporate media pressure to consume in order to be the most sexually attractive commodities on the market, in order to sell ourselves. We need to get off the swing and into another whole realm of being! Jesus saw women as people first and foremost, and we must see ourselves, and insist on being seen, as whole complete human beings who are coequal with men in the value of our beingness and our needs, both spiritual and physical.

  4. Ada permalink
    November 15, 2015

    It’s refreshing to hear a Christian woman talk about issues that, frankly, sometimes I feel as if I am the only one who is really upset by them. I know that actually isn’t the case, but too often I get the response of “Well, that’s just how the world is, there’s nothing you can do” (about how women are overly sexualized in media) or “there’s nothing you can do” (in a church that, while quite loving, rarely allows women to pray but never for the whole congregation, and never lets a woman stand up and talk before communion, because we can’t offend the old men who are just too set in their ways!)
    But to get more back on topic, I think it is very important to address and expose the issue that yes, women are treated like commotites to be consumed and shamed for exploring and owning their sexuality.
    And it is important to also note that most rape is not, in fact, violent. I recently read an article about a woman who talked about such non-violent rapes, both done by boyfriends who took it for granted that she would not only give them what they wanted, but didn’t even think what they were doing was rape because, one, it wasn’t violent, and two, I think they assumed she would start enjoying it after they started and that would make it not-rape.
    Also, here are two good links on the dangers of “nice guys” and victim blaming, while in the context of deconstructing Twilight.
    http://www.anamardoll.com/2011/12/twilight-problem-of-mike.html
    http://www.anamardoll.com/2012/05/twilight-when-rape-plays-matchmaker.html

  5. December 10, 2015

    I agree with all of this, but at the same time girls can be a tease. They don’t want to look too easy so they say No. They want to test how much you desire them so they say No. But they want you, execpt you, to keep asking, keep asking, keep asking until they say Yes. So often, when they say No, they really mean Yes. That’s why there’s confusion. And there’s a big problem when these girls say No and really mean No! Because then nobody takes them seriously.

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