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The Second Self

Rape and Slenderness: Gendered Identity in Crisis

by David Foss

Preface: Speculative His-story

Rape. So long has it been a part of human history, that some of our people are wont to claim its place among the instinctual or primitive habits of man. So deeply does its lineage run, that it is almost customary to conflate the procreative duty, the carnal pleasures, and the violation of woman-kind. For nearly all of its recorded course, rape has been understood and defined in terms of property claims. The crime of rape, as ever it has been a crime, whether against father, brother, or husband, has been one concerning the possession of (or entitlement over) woman: a crime of robbery, grand theft, and desecration. But a change of late has transformed the phenomenon of rape, or at the very least unveiled an even darker and more sinister aspect to its name. As the law, and our culture, has come to affirm the political and moral presence of women, refounding their propertied value in themselves (we still, after all, view persons as essentially self-possessors), rape has remained a central aspect to gender relations, and has possibly even experienced something of a re-valorization in modern sexual reasoning. Rape remains, even more than behind the mask of property claims, a grossly “intelligible” permutation of male sexuality.

It should be admitted that the property claims internal to rape have remained. Rape now concerns, however, an assault upon the woman’s citizenship, her moral viability, her self-possession. Her “possessor” has been telescoped within, and by such a convergence, the objects of material and psychic scorn have been compounded in her person. Prior to her political and moral emancipation, we might suppose that rape constituted, through the material harm against her, a psycho-social harm against her lord or man. Now, unfortunately, most of rape’s social and material nuances have merely been refocused, and not subverted by the assertion of her personhood.

But why should this be? Why should rape remain so prominent a phenomenon even after its value as an arena for inter-male combat has been so thoroughly muddled by her rise to full moral agency? Rape’s persistent presence is, at least in part, attributable to the broad societal momentum against the granting of female agency. Still, it is significant that language concerning the woman’s possessor, her “marital bargaining power”, and even her chastity have dropped from the dialectics of rape (even if her “virtue” remains intimately tied to sexual monogamy).

Emerging from under the cloak of woman-as-property, rape now stands exposed in a new light. Rape remains an act which deprives, if only momentarily, the woman of her moral and political presence, and has even strengthened its role as a mechanism for the insistence of male super-dominance. The act of rape is no longer, however, publicly censured for the harm it brings against men. Indeed, we rarely consider such harms today. Discursively, the two sorts of harms which have gained central stage are those within the act brought against the woman, and surprisingly, with nearly as much vigor, those harms brought against the man unjustly accused of committing the act. Unjust accusation is not, in the case of rape, generally feared on the basis of the misidentification of personal involvement. A man does not fear being accused of committing a rape where another man is to blame, any more than being accused of murder where the killer is not himself. The greatest fear among men with regard to the modern culture of rape is being told that his sexual expression qualifies under that name. He fears that his sexual advances, his sexual entitlements, his sexual nature is forever suspect to the charge of rape. And this, I submit, is something new to the institution of rape.

He may have always known there was a dangerous ambiguity between appropriate and inappropriate expressions of sexual being, but this rarely constituted a genuine concern. So long as rape was a crime between gentlemen, the voice of the woman, her willingness to engage in sexual activity, her interests and choices, mattered not at all, or only to the extent that she might thereafter be defamed. Rape only existed where sexual intercourse (and often much less), crossed the interests of her possessor. The issues of “force” and “coercion” centered about the free will of her husband, her father, and so on. If she had no possessor, she could not be, in principle, raped.

Far from the transformation of rape from the male perspective, from the standpoint of the victim, the practice of rape has, most unfortunately, not been radically changed or reduced by the rise of female autonomy. Rape brutally revokes her sexual and moral presence, not merely by the turning of sexuality against her, but also by calling into doubt her role in her own victimization. She finds herself the object of considerable scorn, from within and without, often for her naive trust, or her flirtatious insolence. It is not merely a matter of suspecting her passive complicity, but of subjecting her to the charge of initiation and (shockingly) responsibility.

This is a puzzling phenomenon. Rape. A crime committed, for the most part by men, against women, about which the two dominant fears concern the re-victimization of the victim by her own doubts and an unsympathetic legal system, and the ‘unjust’ criminalization of ‘normal’ male sexual expression.

We bear witness to a time of great social upheaval. Many of the mores of the past, having worn out their novelty or usefulness, have become the source of considerable friction and the object of widespread scorn. But with the challenges to the culture of our ancestors has come a brutal tenacity with which many traditional practices have resisted displacement. The growing acceptance of the concept of gender equity has unfortunately been accompanied by a rise (at least in the popular imagination) in anti-woman violence.

It should be noted, here as elsewhere, an investigation into behavioral and aesthetic conventions (such as the ethos of slenderness, and the construction of male sexuality as rape) principally involves the socio-political fabric of popular consciousness. Whether, as a matter of fact, more women are assaulted now than were one hundred years ago is less important than whether women are now considered more vulnerable to virulent attack, or whether they now as much as ever ought to seek “protection” in their male colleagues. “Facts” will help combat unhealthy or ethically dubious perceptions, but the perceptions are themselves the principle object of this inquiry. Gender is a phenomenon of popular perception, myth, and conceptual order. Gender is that strange sort of fact that bears little extra-social meaning. It cannot, like scientific truth-claims, take refuge in an interrogatory environment caustic to humanistic challenges. It is a fluid “fact”, and as such it is particularly susceptible to moral interrogation.

This paper, in a somewhat round about manner, will attempt to come to terms with the semantics of rape. In particular, I am concerned with the manner in which the language of rape-culture, both in terms of rape-as- expression and of expressions-about-rape, speaks from a deep crisis in modern gendered identity. It will be round about, because something needs first be said of the insight gained through the interlocking mores of slenderness and rape-sexuality. Recent attempts to make sense of the epidemics of bulimia and anorexia nervosa among seemingly affluent women have focused on the internalization of contradictory expectations, which ultimately forming degenerative notions of the self. And this feeds back again into gender politics generally, revealing there an even deeper paradox of gendered being, within the historical language of psychic anatomy. Shortly therewith will rise the spectre of modern rape, and how, by that curious twist of fate, woman has come to bear the burden of a crime which seeks to find in her person the cause of his assault. From slenderness, we will weave a curious tale, into the very heart of the gender-labyrinth of rape.

I. Identity Without Castes

The semantics of rape, like the ethos of radical slenderness, expresses a deep and troubling crisis in 20th century Western, or “post-modern,” society. It is a crisis of the language; a crisis of naming, of gender, of the nature of sexual being. But most of all, it is a crisis of identity. Persons know themselves and their world through their affiliations, the connections of sharing and distinction within and across communities, and by the affinity or dissonance felt in the company of others. Localized contexts of discourse, specialized vocabularies, characteristic inferential strategies, no matter how much overlap occurs in the wider arena of a contemporary world-culture, all help to locate the self for the self. Whether these contexts are communities of choice or of place (to borrow a distinction of contemporary post-modern thought), they are the ‘from’ which informs and rends meaningful our action, our thought, and even our individual novelty. Special interest groups, academic disciplines, social societies, political parties, and an abundance of other sub-communities, together partition the mass culture into a broad fabric of intersecting affiliations which help to locate and locally empower individuals, often by no greater a mechanism than the mere fact of belonging.

But there is a sense in which inter-group permeability, the increasing non-exclusivity of micro- communities (or at least the growing unacceptability of insularity in popular sentiment), and the modern decline of communities of place, have undermined the traditional role played by such institutions in locating us as individuals, and ultimately, in securing our notions of who we are. The anchor has been lifted, and by the official eradication of class and caste, we have been cast adrift in an ocean of often overwhelming indeterminacy and choice.

Of course, class and caste have not been entirely discharged from the contemporary complex of social and political affiliations. Indeed, much of the old machinery of solidarity by birth-right or blood has merely been pushed into the darkness of silent prejudice, whether institutional or private. Classification and treatment in terms of one’s “race”, gender, ethnicity, creed, and economic class, remains coded to personal essences, even though such coding is now far less explicit than even twenty years ago, and now receives something of a public rebuke. The result is a context in which affiliations by birth, the most common ‘communities of place’, are not entirely acceptable communities from which an individual may derive her self-definition, but remain definitional categories which are imposed from without by a largely silent system of assumptions and institutional barriers.

Woman is asked to leave behind femininity, just as the African-American is asked to leave behind the ‘negro’, while the world remains constructed in terms which universalize the condition and experiences of the characteristically Indo-European man. Kim Chernin, among others, has proposed that eating “disorders” are an expression of the deep anguish experienced by women thrown into such a dilemma. Indeed, as she originally articulates the problem in The Hungry Self, it appears to merely manifest an extraordinary degree of autonomy women now confront in terms of available life choices.[1] A sort of Sartrean confrontation with pure freedom appears to have descended upon the feminine countenance, which heretofore had been obscured by some three thousand years (give or take a millennium) of slavery. In the face of such overwhelming indeterminacy with respect to expectations and the normative propriety of a myriad of possible identity-conferring affiliations, woman has presumably sought refuge in an obsessive preoccupation with her appetite.[2]

The appearance of appetite, as the principle vehicle for the expression of such anguish, is not surprising. We are, after all, dealing with a context in which the desires and aspirations of persons are placed at the fore of personal development. And at a time when woman, as though for the first time, is finding herself in a world which ostensibly encourages the development of chosen selves, the cultivation and satisfaction of long-denied aspirations should present something of crisis.

... On the one hand, we can no longer simply swallow the “hungers” and ambitions women have traditionally distanced from themselves. On the other hand, we are profoundly agitated by the “appetites” that have erupted within us. We are in conflict, and so far, as a generation, we have expressed this uncertainty about who we are and what we may become through the disturbing symptomatology of eating disorders.[3]

It is a crisis, not only for the choices women now face, but for the failure of our heritage to provide a context in which role models might be chosen, narratives of olde might be borrowed, or community might be found among ancient sisters. Woman is facing the future without, in an important sense, a past. She is thrown, willy nilly, into the fray without a sense of possibility, beyond the simple negation of her mother’s imprisonment, or the wonder of her grandmother’s rise above gendered provincialism.[4]

Slenderness, inasmuch as body image has become the symbolic medium for the psychic combat between desires and proprietary control in the emergence of a chosen self, represents something of an inertial countersurgency of the will in the face of a perceived super-abundance of (new and powerful) female desires. For the class of affluent women coming of age in a world which still demands spontaneous adaptability, deferential malleability, and a distinctively “feminine” manliness to her character, while insisting that she has before her an unprecedented (even ‘limitless’) degree of potential for personal expression and development, an ethos of slenderness dominates the cultural aesthetic judgment, not only of her body, but of her character. She, for whom slenderness is a challenge and a choice (which is not imposed by poverty or malnutrition), is caught in a tight web of intersecting mores which demand a sharpness of identity she will likely find unattainable given the “openness” of her future and the darkness of her past. Imprinted upon her body, then, we find a scar of distinctness and clarity, which we hope satisfies our demand that she be a clear and proper woman.

But why call any of this an identity crisis? It might not be a crisis at all if it were not for the double fact that slenderness, as an ethos, is ultimately inimical (both in effect and implicit intent) to personal maturation, and that, in itself, it bifurcates and alienates the self from the self. Or, perhaps it will be clearer to notice that, slenderness, as the embodiment of the successful containment of “distinctively female” desires by a proprietary will, informs a notion of personhood, wherein the self is seen as essentially self-contradictory and intra-caustic.

When woman gained full personhood, she could no longer escape such a degenerative identity. No longer is she simply without the proprietary duty internal to “rationality” (without which we were able to dismiss her “inability” to control or clarify the shape of her desires), but must face internally the consequences of the old social order, where her gender had been constructed as parasitic to the male. Female desires, as all of her desires were so called (regardless of actual content or form), obtained that singular air of mystical irrationality, which might be controlled (or moderated) only by male intervention. These were excusable in her person so long as she was seen as incapable of full autonomy. It was, of course, a convenient myth, wherein ‘feminine’ desires demanded male direction, bringing a sense of necessity or duty to the super-dominance of male interests in gender politics. But now, as she has stepped forward to claim her full share of autonomy, we have yet to entirely transcend the gender coding of her desires and wants as things requiring strict control, direction, and moderation. She has reached up to grasp an identity which includes willful rationality, without removing the sense in which such a ‘rational will’ still maintains a distinctively ‘male’ duty to rule her passions in the name of a foreign ‘male’ destiny. Of course, the only sense in which such a duty and destiny need be seen as ‘male’, is that they are not in some manner self-chosen, or are not even compatible with her dominant set of desires and dreams.[5]

It will be helpful to notice, even at this stage, that an essential part of female desire classically subordinated to male rational rule, is sexual desire. Indeed, so strong is the classificatory affiliation that her desires, et.al., are on occasion conflated within this single name. Her sexual desire, and even sexuality generally, is the principle vehicle for the historical definition (constituting a sort of linguistic marginalization) of female power, whether political, intellectual, or artistic, as a manner in which it might be linguistically subjugated to some contemporaneous male presence.[6]

I could scarcely hope to better follow the movement from appetite and slenderness, to sexuality and female power, than Susan Bordo, in Reading the Slender Body:

The exploration of contemporary slenderness as a metaphor for the correct management of desire becomes more adequate when we confront the fact that hunger has always been a potent cultural metaphor for female sexuality, power, and desire — from the blood-craving Kali, who in one representation is shown devouring her own entrails, to the language of insatiability and voraciousness that marks the fifteenth-century discourse on witches, to the “Man-Eater” of contemporary rock lyrics. This is a message [...] that eating-disordered women have often internalized when they experience their battle with hunger in the gendered terms of a struggle between male and female sides of the self (the former described as “spiritual” and disciplined, the latter as appetitive and dangerous) ...[7]

So thoroughly does our world speak the metaphorical language of female power as hunger, that feminine body image and women’s appetites will naturally raise particular concern for those individuals politically, and parts of ourselves individually, assigned the task of rational rule.[8]

As women have come to simultaneously call for greater power, and full partnership in the ruling of society, as citizens and fully-fledged (autonomous) moral agents, the resultant crisis has been reflected into her very flesh, and soul. It is the transition from flesh to soul (e.g. from physical to spiritual alienation), and back again (e.g. from inner to outer slenderness), which first characterizes this “identity” crisis. We should not imagine that the problem lies in the fact that such a inter-transition occurs. The symbolic frame for most of our deepest psycho-social dilemmas is the body. Given a world in which women are frequently denying themselves their historical affiliations (or at least the ‘inherent’ value of historically compulsory affiliations), and are struggling to form new ones in the face of empty opportunity, an identity crisis is hardly surprising. But, arriving at the core of the ‘identity crisis’, a new face emerges. Her psychic battle is not merely fought for the marking out of new territory. It essentially involves a violent conceptual tension internal to her new-found autonomy, revealing a latent antagonistic gender-dynamic between reason and female desire.

II. Control and Feminine Desire

There is an inbred antagonism between the modern concepts of will (or more specifically, rational jurisprudence) and material desires (a general category for characteristically female wants and needs).[9] This antagonism, born of the gender-coded hierarchy within the conceptual bifurcation of the soul, is powerfully enforced and reinforced on a societal level, through traditional power allocations which mirror the conceptual split. It is, ultimately, a split which concerns a dividing of controlling and controlled parts. If the ethos of slenderness is embraced by women, in part, as an effort to fully grasp control (a control inimical to their own desires), and further, to even associate oneself with such a controlling capacity, then the continued presence of desires becomes more than merely troublesome. It threatens to consume the self in what has now become a foreign power. This is a critical transition, and one that requires careful scrutiny.

Reason, or more generally the rational appetite (the acting from reasons, according to reasons, or not against reasons), is generally understood as the part of ourselves most laudably responsible for our behavior. Insofar as we are responsible agents, who may be held accountable for our actions, we are considered guided by the proprietary control of reason.[10] Our reason may in particular instances be faulty, or ill-founded, but it is forever taken as the principle of our action wherever we are viewed as full persons.

Material desires (those desires whose objects are considered blindly fixed by instinct, or some more mysterious biological determination) are generally considered appropriately subjected to the rule of reason. As animals, we are said to possess material desires. As persons, we are said to possess reason; or, more precisely: as men, we are said to possess reason. The generality of “men” here might be permitted (we might suppose that such conventional speech is merely sloppy when using a gendered term to describe a universal condition) if it were not the case that women have been simultaneously depicted, like children, as somehow less than complete with regard to the development of their rational faculties. Women, according to our conceptual heritage, are ruled by their passions, or so weak with respect to self-guidance according to the right reason, that a simple equivocation can be made between feminine and material desires. Her reflexive judgment and intentional state are products of an (albeit fragile) animal essence.

None of this would be terribly relevant now, if it were not for the fact that the gender overlay, specifically in terms of the rendering material the desires of a woman, remains with us. There is, of course, a more pervasive gender dichotomy here, of which the equivocation of feminine and material desires is but a part. Indeed, the slip from feminine to material desires will often run in reverse, guided by the strict alignment of rational appetite with some distinctively male power of the soul.

Bordo casts this splitting of the soul in light of contemporary socio-economic class structures. A broad producer/consumer bifurcation is mirrored into the conceptual landscape of personal desires and rational decision making.[11] Consumerism is handed most of the blame by Bordo, at least in terms of a crisis in the management of subordinate desires (and where the subordination of female desires has been an historical fact). While consumer cultures, like the contemporary resurgence of feminist thought, can be identified as contributing to an environment in which the crisis is particularly acute, it cannot adequately explain the presence of selves which find an enemy within. The self must already be essentially divided in order that the duties of producer-selves find offense in the duties of consumer-selves. The contradictions cannot be internalized without some sense in which we find distinct self-parts, each of which might naturally adopt one aspect of a self-defeating ethos. Otherwise, we would more likely be merely confused by contradictory expectations and demands, rather than feeling torn by incommensurable and irreconcilable commitments. We must already have, in an important sense, at least two distinct (and antagonistic) identity conferring possibilities, internal to who we already take ourselves to be.[12] Slenderness may be a manifestation peculiar to the contributions of a consumer culture, but the underlying crisis runs deeper, and further, than such an observation may suggest.

It is nevertheless helpful, to notice that particular aspects of the crisis which consumerism brings to the fore. The contradictory expectations of the puritanical work ethic (weaning our persons of those desires and characteristics not immediately spartan in their utility) and the insatiable consumer ethic (continuously seeking a greater accumulation of personal affects), festering at the very core of our economic lives, will naturally arouse some degree of psychic dissonance. The dissonance, moreover, resonates with a psychic antithesis already built into our language, between the moral power of reason and the material power of animal desires, to generate a crisis in the management of our physicality. By the combat between willful propriety and material wants (often expressed in such behaviors as radical dieting), the material desires are constructed in terms which alienate them from the self proper. And suddenly, non-rational desires, et.al. (e.g., material, “spiritual”, etc.), enter consciousness as inimical to the self, threatening to consume, overwhelm, and conquer us from within.

I want to consider [the images of unwanted bulges and erupting stomachs in popular culture] as a metaphor for anxiety about internal processes out of control — uncontained desire, unrestrained hunger, uncontrolled impulse. Images of bodily eruption frequently function symbolically in this way in contemporary horror films — as in recent werewolf films [...], and in David Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly. The original Fly imagined a mechanical joining of fly parts and person parts, a variation on the standard “half-man, half-beast” image. In Cronenberg’s Fly, as in the werewolf genre, a new, alien, libidinous, and uncontrollable self literally bursts through the seams of the victim’s old flesh.[13]

Metaphorical language which emphasizes the man/beast conceptual dichotomy internal to common sense notions of human nature is central here. It is a conceptual bifurcation deeply felt in our culture, and prominent in western thought throughout written history. There is, by the weight of our intellectual heritage, an animal within, against which we must be constantly diligent. It is the animal whose presence explains violent crime. Indeed, it is an animal whose presence explains impropriety in general: vulgarity, insensitivity, etc.; ultimately all things which demand control, in order that domestic tranquility be maintained. Archaically, such an animal core received considerable attention in matters military, artistic, and spiritual. Uniformly, however, it has been represented as a force to be tempered, contained, regulated, channeled, and restrained.

We can now see that the categorical bifurcation of the spirit possesses a hierarchical prioritization essential to its societal (or socio-economic) correlates. There is an inbred proprietary ranking of rational appetite over animalistic desires. Once we recognize the socio-linguistic overlay of gender within this ranking, our journey to the core of the modern crisis of gendered identity is near. And for this, we need only recognize the historical conflation of woman with her body. Feminist analysis has at the very least unveiled the manner in which women are today, and have been historically, radically embodied. Whether we look to the moral-aesthetic of cosmetic mutilation (as benign as chemical colouring, or as radical as surgical “tailoring”), or to the class of occupations slated “feminine” by industrial culture (principally revolving about the duties of the physical sustenance, the erotic pleasure, and the maintenance of the households, of others), we find a moral landscape determined to judge woman by her material utility, or aesthetic adequacy. Of course, in order that the radical embodiment of woman be fully appreciated, and in order that such an embodiment be found adequate to reveal the primitive sortal character of gender in the language of the self (i.e. the primal partitioning of such language, or conceptual space, by a gender polarity), more is required than a historical alignment of feminine worth with extrinsic occupations and radically material aesthetics.

The deeper analog to this embodiment of the feminine, is found in the construction of full personhood as distinctively masculine (through the societal rebuttal of feminine autonomy). In part, it involves the popular judgment, perhaps no longer so fashionable, that the feminine countenance possesses a juvenile, or even undeveloped, faculty of reason, and that whatever constitutes her spirit given such a deprivation can only be attributed to more animalistic spontaneities, motives, and urges. Her embodiment extends to the remainder of her soul, now devoid of fully developed rationality. The extension involves a feminization of the remaining character. Her desires, those material desires she de facto possesses, emerge as essentially gendered attributes of the soul. Of rational desires, she is said to possess none, at least insofar as she is properly feminine.

The distinction between rational and material desires plays upon the deep sortal function of gender in the conceptualization of psychic anatomy. Rational desires, those formed out of the prudential or proprietary determination of dialectical thought, are properly desires which inform and guide the actions of fully developed persons. Material desires may present the rational faculty information which thereafter might be measured against the full variety of data relevant to any particular decision. However, insofar as the agent will be judged according to proprietary standards of responsibility, material desire is not considered the principle of his action. Insofar as woman is held incapable of maintaining the super-valence of rational desire, she is thereby considered principally the agent of her material desires (if agency, in such a context, is to make sense at all).

When personhood, and responsibility (the principle vehicle for its expression), is extended to include woman, a lag in conceptual coherence should naturally be expected. Indeed, rather than extend a notion of the autonomous super-dominance of reason within her psychic frame, a more direct translation of feminine autonomy places in her person a sort of responsibility (call it f-responsibility) for the constitution of her material desires. As a type of responsibility foreign to the masculine frame, f-responsibility seamlessly extends its reach to material desire generally. And from there, the interrogatory aftermath of rape can locate responsibility for the constitution of the rapist’s ‘sexual impulse’ in the person of the victim, wherever the victim is a woman.

III. Aftermath

An examination of rape culture is generally concerned with one of three distinct, albeit related, conceptual domains, following roughly the natural division between prelude, act, and aftermath.

I class as belonging to the prelude of rape those myths, norms, and institutions which are nourished by and sustain a societal landscape which is forever threatening woman with the possibility of rape. The prelude constructs a world inimical to womanhood. It is a conceptual system which forever calls her body to attention, finding in slenderness both androgyny and physical vulnerability, and laying siege to her personhood by the omnipresent fear of violent possession, corrupting her capacity to rationally trust those men she draws into her most intimate proximity (a problem which is particularly acute for heterosexual women). She is caught between the obligation to be sexually appealing (an embrace of cosmetic “enhancement”) while eschewing “illicitous (elicitous) behavior” (a “request” to be possessed — the ethos of the whore). All this results, as it were, from the structure of eminent threat in the lives of women.

The content of the threat, I class as belonging to the act of rape. The distinction between prelude and act might best be seen by the contrast between the diffuse threat of the prelude-world and the direct assault of the act-world. It is within the act that she confronts the subtext of the threat directly, personally, and devastatingly. It is here that we find the direct language of possession, penetration, violation, alienation. In the act, she has not merely lost control of her body, but is made to feel her body as enemy to her soul. Violence has appropriated sexuality, a thing most intimately one’s own, as a weapon used in the procurement of her person against her will.

Neither in the prelude, nor the act, do we see a conceptual landscape which might remind us of the identity crisis found in the ethos of slenderness. We needn’t appeal to any fancier notions than broad socio- political, or individually radical, subjugation. Indeed, most of the attention in both of these domains is directed upon the effect of rape-culture upon woman kind, and women individually, living with the threat and reality of rape. They are arenas which take issue with the space between persons, and how that space impacts upon the psychic health of women. It is in the aftermath that we find the most profound twist to the story of modern rape semantics.

The aftermath is that broad set of interrogatory challenges, conceptual and verbal, which almost universally greet a rape-claim. “Did she ask for it?” It is here that she is most clearly made the subject of a most brutal interrogation, even by her own reflective voice. Does the ‘partnership’ of her attacker’s violence and her own sexuality, imply a complicity on her part in the crime? What was she wearing? What did she say? She is retrospectively handed tacit responsibility in a scene in which she has had her authority denied entirely. Although implicitly present in the domains of prelude and act, it is in the interrogatory context of the aftermath that rape most clearly emerges as a natural expression of his affection, criminal only where she has clearly sought to disarm his advances. We ask not, was his assault a tolerable manifestation of sexual being (which it most certainly is not), but rather, did she in some manner grant permission to be violated? Both in her own mind, and in the legal and social community, the suspicion that she might have elicited or deserved such treatment is omnipresent. Not only is she suspected of having acted foolishly or dangerously, but she is handed implicit responsibility for the emotional (pseudo-sexual) volitions of her male assailant.

This is a strange sort of responsibility. It is the same f-responsibility I have formulated above. That it differs substantially from proper responsibility is shown by the failure of f-responsibility to remain rationally consistent under direct challenge. Even the act of openly labeling it a form of attributed responsibility can undermine the tenacity with a suspected victim is prosecuted. “Oh,” we say, “I didn’t mean to suggest that she wanted to be raped.” And still we persist: calling to attention her dress, her posture, her promiscuity; wondering amongst ourselves whether she is not being merely vindictive for some unspoken violation of intimacy. Of course, it is the content of the conceptual space surrounding rape, and particularly the aftermath, that reveals the singularity of f-responsibility and the interrogatory supposition of rape-claim challenges.

The contemporary construction of male sexuality naturalizes his ‘inclination’ to rape, or to express his sexual desire through the aggressive possession of a sub-dominant feminine frame. And she ought to expect it. A failure to properly disarm or counteract his ‘desire’, places responsibility for any ‘outburst’ in her hands. The reasonability constraint upon his outburst suddenly depends as much upon the form of her resistance as upon the actual veracity of the assault.

... our interpretation of rape is a product of our conception of the nature of male sexuality. A common retort to the question, why don’t women rape men, is the myth that men have greater sexual needs, that their sexuality is more urgent than women’s. And it is the nature of human beings to want to live up to what is expected of them.[14]

Conventionally, a rape claim is greeted by an analysis which seeks to ostensibly confirm the appropriateness of labeling a particular man’s sexual expression criminal, by drawing to attention the degree to which sexual contact has been forced upon his partner. It seems that the label of rape simply denotes a violent usurpation of sexual autonomy. The core of rape, however, involves a gendered sexual politic which demands aggression of the male, and public reluctance of the female. It is the core which makes rape an inevitable expression of (stereotypical) male sexuality. The game of public female reluctance ensures that a clear measure of her consent is only circumstantially available (for purposes of public adjudication), while also confining the expression of her desire in a form perilously close to authentic refusal. The collision of attributed consent and actual refusal is not merely a feature of socio-political gender dynamics, but follows the categorical polarization of character-concepts according to gender. The masculinization of aggressive desire naturalizes receptive or passive desire in the feminine frame.

... this same culture which expects aggression from the male expects passivity from the female. Conveniently, the companion myth about the nature of female sexuality is that all women secretly want to be raped. Lurking beneath her modest female exterior is a subconscious desire to be ravished. [...] ... the male psyche persists in believing that, protestations and struggles to the contrary, deep inside her mysterious feminine soul, the female victim has wished for her own fate.[15]

But it is more than this. Sexual politics demands that she refuse, and that his mission, indeed as a measure of his manliness, is to convert her; to bring her to acquiescence. Her role is not merely one of ultimate surrender, but of seeking, cultivating, and managing the interest (the material desire) of her male suitor (and beyond, to include her cross-gender relationships generally).

The generation of an identity crisis from such role allocations is best seen via an approximating model, capturing some of the central characteristics of conventional concepts of self. If we take the Master Frame (corresponding to the “mature” moral agent under the rubric of Mind/Body dualism) to look something like the following:

(where we can locate reason as the exclusive production of Mind, and material desires as a primitive production of the Mind/Body interface, and further locate rational desires as a production of the mixture of reason and material desires, and appetite as a primitive production of material desire, etc., such that the proprietary will follows directly from rational desires), then the historical construction of the feminine frame, both by the postulated malformation of her rational faculty and the general effect of radical embodiment, cripples the presence of Mind, Reason, the Rational desires, and ultimately the proprietary Will, in the conceptualization of her person. The immediate effect of claiming for her a moral presence, by attribution of responsibility, generates what might be called an f-will (corresponding to f-responsibility).

This is, admittedly, a deeply unstable frame, given our conventional notions of will and responsibility. However, even by this very instability, it seems to capture, not only the crisis women experience when attempting to fully integrate proprietary and “feminine” selves, but also the implicit suppositions of rape-claim challenges. It seems that the interposition of f-will, and the feminization of Body, Material desires and Appetite (hunger), sever (or merely interrupt) the proprietary links between Rational Will and Appetite in the Masculine Frame.

This interruption is catalyzed by a deepening trough of gender sorting, where the feminization of material control alienates the material partition from the rational within the masculine frame.

If slenderness is an expression of the deep crisis in contemporary female identity, I would suggest that rape be considered something of a male analogue. Where radical slenderness brings to expression female indeterminacies concerning personal and social roles, expectations, and limits, the language of rape, its cultural embodiment, and the pornographic cynicism of the modern male, seems to resound with a chilling message concerning a crisis in male sexual identity. Of course, just as slenderness is not an identity crisis for women alone, rape also concerns the sexual identity of women. Rape is, I would suggest, a cultural identity crisis, revolving around what it means to be a sexual being.

Rape is not a recent invention; this much is certain. It has been category and a reality in Western culture at least as long as there has been a notion of property — or even more interestingly — can be found contemporaneous with the earliest codifications of ownership in writing.[16] But there is more to rape than mere property claims, or even substantive dominance claims (by men over women; or by a man over a woman), which categorically subjugates woman to man. Rape expresses, confirms, reinforces, and manifests a deep identity crisis in the Western psyche. It is not just about the respective roles men and women play, not merely about maintaining political dominance structures through fear, intimidation, and false “securities”, but essentially involves a bifurcation of the self, into gender coded parts to which responsibility is dislocated away from the individual where her gender is in conflict. So it is that He is responsible, not only for His own, but also for Her reason; and that She is responsible, not only for her own, but also for His appetite. Rape is not just about possessing woman, or rendering woman a material commodity, but about a division and possessing of selves, of persons et.al., without (and in violation of) intimate reciprocity. Rape is not merely a subconsciously political gesture against woman — and I use “merely” loosely here — it is a gesture against persons, against intimacy, against selves.

Feminist Philosophy
Spring 1993
(© David Foss, December 1993)

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