Rape, domination, and sexuality

Matt Ruben wrote a good op-ed in the Daily News today that points out that rape is a crime of violence against women and that calls for making the hate crimes law apply to such violence.

I agree with this conclusion.

But in the course of making the argument, Matt repeats a staple of feminist thought when he says that “research has demolished the myth that rape is a crime of lust or passion. It's a crime of power: Men rape women because they seek to dominate and brutalize them.”

The standard feminist argument about rape and sex

That claim is well intentioned in two respects. First it shows us that the fundamental source of rape is that men seek to dominate and control (and I would add direct their anger at) women. This is important to know because, if we want to make rape less common, we have to address the psychological source of rape.

And second, the claim tries to get sex off the hook, as it were. By claiming that lust is not the source of rape, it allows those of us who want to continue the struggle against the repression of sex—and the right wing political agenda that seeks to control sexuality—to do so without being blamed for rape. For implicit—and sometimes explicit—in right wing thought on sexuality is the notion that the many forms of sexual liberation—from the freedom to wear provocative clothing to the freedom to engage in pre-marital sex—is responsible for rape. Or, to put the point less finely, right wingers say that in our sexually enlightened times, women are “asking for it” because they act in ways that are bound to stoke male lust. Denying that rape is a crime of lust is a way to ward off that line of thought.

But while this feminist claim is well intentioned, it is, I believe mistaken. And allowing that mistake to continue uncorrected prevents us from understanding just how deeply rooted in our culture is male aggression toward women.

If we say that it is the urge to dominate women rather than sexual desire that leads to rape it will, I believe, makes it seem as if the psychological source of rape will be easy to extirpate. After all, a whole lot of men want to have sex with women. And we would like to believe that far fewer of us want to dominate women. It should be relatively easy then, to get rid of the urge to domination that is expressed mainly in rape and other brutal forms of sex.

Sexual desire, eros and agression

The trouble with this argument, however, is that the desire for sex is often allied with, and gets it power from, deeper and broader desires. Sometimes it is the urge to love and be loved that gives sexual desire its power. Love is the most powerful aphrodisiac. Much of the pleasure of sex with those we love is precisely that sex is an expression of love.

Freud held that the urge to domination was the second of our two fundamental drives. And sometimes it is this urge that gives sexual desire its power. Rape may be about dominating women but it's also about sex. Or as an early critic of the argument Matt put forward said, "If a man wants to dominate a woman, why can't he just beat her up. Why does he have to rape her?" My answer is that rape is the product of a certain kind of sexuality in which sexual desire is allied with, expresses, and is made stronger by a desire to dominate others.

Many of us find that conclusion appalling. That certainly was my view when I first considered this idea. We'd like to think that sex is fundamentally allied with eros and love not domination.

But the connection between sexuality and domination has a long history and can be found in a wide range of contemporary sexual practices, many of which are fairly innocuous.

Dominator sexuality in Ancient Greece and our own time

If, for example, if you look back at the Ancient Greeks, the founders of Western Civilization, you will see that for many of them sexuality was what I have called in my academic writing dominator sexuality. Look at the view of sexuality in the Iliad or look at what the pottery and poetry of Athens tells us about the practices of Athenian gentlemen. You will see that for Greeks in these two disparate times, the pursuit of sexual pleasure almost always involved the exercise of power over the body of someone else. Sexual pleasure for men is, in different ways, almost always taken from someone less powerful than himself, whether it be another man or a woman. Access to the bodies of others is a reward that goes to men who have power and wealth and glory. And it’s not just that one has to have power to take sex from someone else. The connection goes far deeper. Just as love leads to male sexual arousal when love is allied with sex, domination leads to male sexual arousal when sex is allied with aggression. Where dominator sexuality is the dominant practice, men get off on dominating others.

This understand of sexuality legitimizes powerful men in their exploitation, in sexual and non-sexual ways, of both women and men. Among the Greeks, just as among the planters in the pre-civil war South, and still among too many of us today, dominator sexuality drives practices such as the sexual use of slaves, servants, and prostitutes; the rape of both men and women in both war and peace; and a great deal of, though not all, pornography.

Dominator sexuality: more moderate forms

The dominator view of sexuality is also found in many other, far more common sexual practices, practices that are often taken for granted or accepted or even praised in our own time.

When high status men—whether they are politicians or professional golfers or celebrity actors—believe that their marriage vows mean little or, even worse, when they take access to the body of the women around them to be something that is due them, they are acting on the dominator conception of sexuality. Access to, often beautiful women, is arousing and pleasurable in no small part because confirms their high status or wealth or beauty or achievement.

When men, no matter their status, take pride in "scoring." when they brag about sexual conquests and have contempt for the women they sleep with, dominator sexuality is at work.

When men expect that they will be the ones in control of a sexual encounter with women; when they expect that they will be the ones to decide where, when, in what manner, and for how long a sexual encounter takes place, they are acting on the dominator view of sexuality. Part of the sexual pleasure they receive from that encounter comes from exercising control over women.

And even men who’ve read sexual manuals that seem to have a feminist bent, like “She Comes First,” which advises men to master the art of cunnilingus so as to insure that their women come to orgasm before they do, are still caught up in the dominator model of sexuality. The assumption of this book is that orgasms are something that men give to women. And men who’ve read this book presumably take pride in and are aroused by their capacity to be good lovers.

Now you may think I’m going too far in seeing rape and taking pride in giving women head as being on a continuum rather than as two totally opposed practices. But, in fact there is a continuum here and in pointing to it; and in seeing an element of dominator sexuality in sexual practices that may seem innocuous or inspired by feminism, I’m trying, probably much more quickly than I should, to lead up to four concluding points.

Dominator sexuality will always be with us

First, I want to drive home the initial point that lust and the urge to control or dominate others are often allied by showing that this alliance is found even in relatively innocuous practices. All of us men—and women—to one degree or another, get sexual pleasure when sex gives us a sense of power or control, recognition or status.

Second, I want to point out that if we really want to do away with the worst features of dominator sexuality—rape and other basically exploitative and misogynistic forms of sexuality—we have to look beyond the specific kinds of actions of which we disapprove and understand that dominator sexuality has very deep roots in our history and in our psyches. We have to call into question far more than rape if we want to change our culture in a way that encourages sexual relationships based on eros and love rather than domination and aggression.

And, third, I want to suggest that we can’t give up the alliance between the urge to dominate others and sexuality entirely. Men, and women, will I presume, always take some pleasure in exercising some control over the bodies of their lovers, both when giving and when receiving pleasure. Men and women will always find some pleasure in having their achievements or status or looks validated by being sexually appealing to others.

Taming the sex-domination link

So then, if some, relatively innocuous forms of dominator sexuality will always be with us, because they are rooted in the human psyche, then how do extirpate the worse forms?

One answer is that, as Freud says in the conclusion of Civilization and Its Discontents, we need to bring the power of eros to bear against the power of aggression. We have to work to weaken the connection between domination and sexuality in our lives and strengthen the connection between eros and sexuality. We have to teach our children that sex is and should be largely if not always an expression of one or another kind of caring and love for others.

But since the link between domination and sexuality cannot be entirely broken, the other answer, I believe, is to more fully embrace sexual equality than we have done so far in the all too brief history of feminism. Differences between activity and receptivity and between dominant and passive roles in sex and in life as a whole have to be pried apart from the distinction between male and female. All of us, men and women, must learn to accept a greater degree of reciprocity in our sexual and romantic practices. We learn to be more willing to take turns taking the lead in and out of bed. And we have to be more open to not having leaders or followers at all by embracing relationships that are radically far more fluid and egalitarian than those found today or in the past.

(I should add that a broader acceptance of homosexuality will help attain this aim because gay and lesbian relations by definition escape from the assumption that the male is active and the female receptive.)

There will, I suppose, always be some men who express sexuality sexuality in aggressive ways and who are more or less inclined to rape women. But the more we can break with the notion that the milder forms of dominator sexuality are the province and privilege of men, the more we encourage men and women to embrace both activity and receptivity in their sexual and romantic lives, the more likely we are to reduce the number of men among us whose sexuality makes them a clear and present danger to women.

Note: this essay is a brief summary of a larger work that rests on a much broader and deeper set of arguments about sexuality and power. I’m working on a series of essay on the subject that I hope to collect in a book pretty soon. For another take on this issue, that goes a bit deeper into my larger argument, see The Culture of Viagra and Violence Against Women.

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