Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Let’s Talk About Sex - Part I

Contributed by Katie Foley
Intercourse. Coitus. Making love. F^#$ing. Whatever you call it, sex has been a hot topic for much of human history. Whether it's because I am twenty-something or because I read between 2 and 5 romance novels a week, I often find myself involved in discussions of cultural attitudes toward sex.

Rape Culture in America

A couple of weeks ago I attended a forum discussion entitled, “Dismantling Rape Culture, Dismantling Capitalism.” The forum was hosted by the Socialist Alternative at Mayday Books in Minneapolis.1 A presentation opened the discussion, during which the speakers sought to establish sexism (and racism, ageism, homophobia, xenophobia, etc) as a tool that Capitalists use to execute their “divide and rule” style of governance. By wedging apart natural economic allies, Capitalists are able to prevent the working class from uniting in a meaningful way, in a way that would invalidate the Capitalists’ exploitation of their underpaid employees. 

One of the hallmarks of sexism is the idea of traditional gender roles.  Have women, throughout the 200,000 years of human history, always been ideologically limited to being barefoot and pregnant in front of the hearth? What gave rise to what are now known as “traditional” gender roles?    

The answer to the first question is a resounding “NO!” For 95% of human history we are hypothesized to have subsisted in hunter-gatherer or forager societies. It is hypothesized that gender roles as we would define them did not exist in a hunter-gatherer society. The society was egalitarian, with all members contributing to the benefit of the whole. Some of the tasks associated with male physical strength were performed by men in these equalitarian societies, but it was because of their strength and not their possession of external genitalia. Furthermore, child bearing was not the “blessing” it is today because it was a huge tax on resources for a hunter-gatherer society to raise to maturity another human being.  For that reason, infanticide was not uncommon and hunter-gatherer societies tended to be very small communities of people.2

Barefoot and Pregnant 3

 Around 10,000 years ago humans stopped relying primarily on hunter-gatherer techniques and began cultivating food to grow. This allowed the establishment of permanent settlements which in turn provided for the first surpluses in human history. The need to manage these surpluses arose and a governing class and/or managing class developed.  Those in “power” were then able to manipulate the surpluses in a way that allowed them to accumulate wealth. The ability to accumulate vast amounts of wealth during a lifetime brought with it the issue of inheritance. How does a powerful man ensure that his land, possessions and other forms of wealth are secured and going to be enjoyed by his progeny? Enter sexism.

In a time before paternity testing, the best way to ensure that the baby a woman carried belonged to any particular male was for that male to have been the only possible father.  Monogamy was a tool “unilaterally enforced against women” to ensure that there were no questions about a child’s paternity. Suddenly a woman’s virtue was prized above any other contribution she may make to society and the ruling classes cosseted and protected their female offspring until they could marry her off, thus continuing the cycle of isolation and repression followed by procreation.
Women were kept cosseted at home, producing a child every once in awhile if she was a good wife who performed her “wifely duties.” Since women were home anyway it only made sense to utilize them as keepers of the household, whether she was a poor women doing all the child-rearing and household work, or an upper class woman whose job it was to ensure the smooth running of the household by the hired help.  Women bought into their own oppression by judging harshly other women who failed to adhere to society’s strictures, something that still occurs and is a phenomenon to which anyone who has spent any time with high school girls could attest.4
To this day exists the ideal of the virtuous whore, a woman who is aware of and appreciates her own sexuality, but who does not herself engage in promiscuous behavior.  It reminds me of an advertising campaign that attempts to unify the advertising axiom “Sex sells” with the ideal of abstinence.5 This idea could likewise be summed up by a line from Coyote Ugly, “The trick is to look available but not be available.” Yet even though we are still trying to idealize the nexus between sensuality and chastity, a woman who is sexually assaulted often faces probing questions about which (potentially) risky behaviors she may have been engaging in prior to the rape.  
Control your fate or someone else will.”6
Women, it seems, are in charge of their own sexual destiny.  This includes whether she will be the one in six women who is a victim of rape or attempted rape.7 To that end, a young lady we’ll call the “reasonably prudent woman” is expected to act with a certain degree of circumspection in her social dealings. For example, as a college student I knew to never let my drink out of my sight, going so far as to [mildly] physically assault a friend who had failed to babysit my keg cup. I have walked with my keys between my fingers, or alternatively, with a lanyard sporting a canister of “bear spray” around my neck. I know not to dally alone on a dark street and have insisted on accompanying more than one friend home from the bar, lest they find themselves walking alone at night.
To some extent people are in charge of themselves and there are cautious behaviors one can adopt to help protect against being victimized. But the first question that comes to mind after hearing that a woman was raped should not be anything along the lines of “Well, what was she wearing?” Focusing on what actions women can take to not be raped can force those who are raped to feel as though they could have avoided the situation if they had only ………what? Not been a woman who came into the consciousness of a man who would not take “no” for an answer?  Followed the advice of the illustrious NYPD and wear pants so as not to attract any potential rapists she may come across as she lives her life?  This type of sanctioned advice is not only insulting, it is disingenuous.  Rape is seldom about sex but about power.  If it was about sex, rape would all but disappear during winter months, since snow suits are not in the least provocative. Rape is a serious issue, yet the best solution I’ve heard is to carry a mace key chain and wear pants.
I recently went to the theater and then out for a few cocktails with the friend I assaulted in college for losing sight of my cup (among other things). While observing the dance floor, her and I noticed a particularly sketchy looking man dancing with a very young looking woman.  I looked closer and asked my friend, “Does her hat say ‘I like to party’?” To which she replied, “Yeah. I hope she likes to get raped too…” We both laughed, but then I was disappointed at myself for having fallen back into my college, it’s-your-job-not-to-be-raped mindset when the issue of how to destroy this mentality has been percolating in my brain for weeks. We have to stop “blaming the victim” in order to confront the fact that we have systemically reinforced sexism in America through how our culture addresses rape. This will not, however, be an easy accomplishment since there is not a person among has not blamed the victim either explicitly or impliedly at some point in their lives.

In order to function, capitalism needs poverty. Poverty is certainly not unique to the human existence, nor to capitalist economic systems in particular.  However, we apply our "blame the victim" mentality not only to the issue of rape, but to te issue of poverty as well. We tell people that have to "work harder" or "pull themselves up by their bootstraps." Many in our society are unabashed in their view that the impoverished are morally deficient. Maybe instead of seeking examples of how the poor are lazy or lack the requisite work ethic to "make it," we should be critically discussing the systemic forces at work that prevent most impoverished people from ever rising above their poor diets and mediocre housing. When people dare suggest that perhaps the poor are facing an uphill battle, the Right cries, "Class Warfare!" again implementing their "divide and rule" style of governance. If we could eradicate this "blame the victim" mentality we could not only go a long way toward eliminating sexism, but a long way toward meaningful discussion on how to address the issue of poverty.

Perhaps we need to change the conversation, shift the paradox in some way. Women should not be compelled to feel as though they alone are responsible for not being a victim of sexual assault, just as men should not sleep with a woman and then fear she may misconstrue the exchange as nonconsensual. The culture and attitudes surrounding rape exemplify the larger issue of sexism in our society and the "blame the victim" mentality spans across multiple social issues. By continuing to judge each other harshly, by blaming those who are victimized rather than those who do the victimizing, we are we are perpetuating the sexism that is used to drive a wedge between people with economic interests in common. People vote against their economic interests solely on the basis of wedge issues such as abortion, a women’s rights issue, which in turn perpetuates the cycle of poverty. By changing the conversation surrounding rape we can loosen the grip sexism has on our society, which would take us one step closer to spanking those greedy Capitalists where it hurts most, their bottom lines.  

1 Like many people, I experimented with being a Socialist in college – going so far as to help bake and decorate cupcakes for a Socialist Alternative fundraiser. Though I have since moved back into the fold of a mainstream political party, I remain networked through Facebook with many of my former Socialist comrades, which is how I came to know of the event.
2 I’ve never studied anthropology, but this is among the more fascinating aspects of human social history.  This is a great scholarly article on the subject, though it’s a bit dense.  You could, of course, always Wikipedia the subject. Also, here is the SparkNotes on the famous book, The History of Sex
 3 Much of the information in this section is uncited, and for that I apologize. Blame intellectual laziness if you’d like, but the information is derived from the presentation and various books I have read along the way.  For Example, I recommend Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond. If you do not feel I have been factually accurate, please tell me so that I can either correct or verify the statement.
The movie Mean Girls is pretty great and is a believable example of how terrible women can be to one another.                                                        
7 Rape statistics are difficult to measure as rape is the most under-reported crime in America. See for a discussion on the modern history of rape, statistics related thereto and a discussion of the evolution of the legal definition of rape and sexual assault.

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