Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Fantasyland for me

By Christopher Moses

Somewhere between his adverbial absolutism (‘fundamentally,’ ‘undeniably,’ ‘necessarily,’ etc.) and the whiplash-inducing oscillation between ‘reality’ and ‘fantasyland’ I recognized the speciousness of Brandon McGinley’s argument about rape, risk and responsibility in ‘Don’t take your guns to town’ (Daily Princetonian, 23 October 2008).

Why is rape a risk?

This question can mean two things. First, circumstantially—why might rape be a risk in a given context, in this case the party situation portrayed by the public service advertisement. Second, it can ask—for what reason is rape a risk? Why is it that one must be concerned about rape happening, say, as opposed to being teleported to another planet. The latter is an impossibility, ergo no risk.

In her EqualWrites post Peale Iglehart (who McGinley fails to identify) analyses the advertisement in terms of the first meaning—finding it pedantic, misogynistic and so forth—as a way to highlight how it completely fails to address the second.

McGinley disagrees with Iglehart’s argument. But in his piece he conflates the two issues as a way of avoiding the second, more serious case and in turn tries to foist a broader agenda about responsibility (which for him involves sexual probity, limited or no alcohol consumption, something called duty—to whom or what is unclear—leading ultimately to liberation, the meaning or point of which still leaves me scratching my head).

This conflation allows him to sidestep a hard truth: rape exists as a risk for women because there are men who are rapists. That is the cause of rape—it has absolutely nothing to do with a woman’s actions in any case whatsoever. A woman cannot ask to be raped, cannot invite it, cannot, in fact, do anything whatsoever to effect a risk of being raped.

Rape doesn’t mean a laxity of sexual consent—as in, wow, I let me guard down as to whether or not I wanted to have sex with someone and, shucks, it happened. Rape obviates the entire notion of consent—rape isn’t a choice made well or poorly. Rape is a violent, criminal act—it is not sex, even if it involves sexual acts on the part of the perpetrator.

So this leads to another dangerous conflation in McGinley’s article: he moves from rape to a ‘highly sexually charged environment’ (two adverbs!) to, in his final paragraph, plain old ‘having sex.’

Number one has nothing to do with two or three. Rape can never, ever be an ‘activit[y] which can be quite safe and productive’ even if McGinley tries to lump it together with guns, alcohol and sex under cover of the phrase ‘fraught with physical and emotional risk.’

To the extent McGinley has a different interpretation of the commercial, he’s really talking about vulnerability and not risk—they’re different. Vulnerability is neither a precondition nor an excuse for rape. If anything it just makes the rapist that much more despicable.

That’s what makes the commercial disturbing in the ways Iglehart describes: because it reinforces the preconception that women are by their nature vulnerable, a from-behind promotion of men as having greater power then women—as rapists, or protectors. From this follows ‘traditional’ limitations placed upon the fairer sex—she can be curtailed but goodness knows about those rapists.

Quite the contrary, the sole issue is the rapist—why do some men manifest sexual acts as a violent weapon for assaulting women? Only through some perverse understanding of male sexual entitlement can vulnerability—or anything, for that matter—be construed as a cause for rape. She looked too good? It was just too easy? I couldn’t help myself? She really wanted me even if she didn’t know it? All of these excuses attempt to eclipse the difference between sex and rape in order to permit the slippery transition towards ‘risks’ about plain old ‘having sex.’

The key, as McGinley shows, is to characterize in one way or another a woman as having acted sexually—or somehow chosen to be in a sexualizing environment. But when are we not sexual? Are men less or differently sexual than women—men can do it without managing to get raped? Is that the conclusion to draw?

McGinley’s frightening analogy seems to suggest as much. At first weapons stand in for alcohol, but then, with Billy, it’s a matter of guns alone. Out west with the ‘dusty cowpoke’ the meaning becomes: if you stripped yourself of sexuality, then the ‘violent neighbor’ would keep it in his pants and avoid the ‘pressure’ and ‘expectations’ to draw his ‘manliness.’

By making this comparison, does McGinley take acting ‘how he thinks he is expected to’ and ‘pressured by the expectations of “manliness”’ as commensurate with rape? As a means to view a woman first and foremost as a sexual object? Any interpretation seems horrid. (I can only hope McGinley meant to draw on some sort of poor irony with all this talk of poking, pistols and firing guns—seriously, what sort of intention did he have?—because I would be aghast if it was truly an innocent comparison.)

One last point—because after McGinley’s screed about risk he invokes righteousness to link it with a notion of responsibility. Putting it another way makes this process of objectification clearer: what does it mean to be a woman responsibly? Responsible to whom, and for what?

If the answer involves men—so they can obfuscate the cause of rape or compare a vagina to toting a gun as target-to-be-shot—then McGinley can keep his liberation. I’ll take the risk of living in my fantasyland while challenging patriarchy and misogyny along the way.


At November 4, 2008 at 1:02 PM , Blogger PeterW said...

"A woman cannot ask to be raped, cannot invite it, cannot, in fact, do anything whatsoever to effect a risk of being raped."

Do you believe that there are no actions that can influence your probability of being raped at all, one way or another? Fantasyland indeed.

At November 5, 2008 at 4:32 PM , Blogger Mike said...


It is true that rape exists as a risk solely because men who are willing to rape exist. However, why stop at identifying the mere cause and existence of a risk? Surely there are different environments in which the probabilities of realizing this risk are increased or decreased. Anyone, including women, can act in ways that will reduce these probabilities.

Forgive me for only responding to a small bit of your argument. It is not my intention to isolate the above quote from its context, but I have to go for now. I do look forward to further discussion.

-Mike D.


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