They used to call it rape, back in the day. For one brief, shining moment, we thought we knew what rape was, if not how to stop it. Oh, but that will come next, we thought. Now that we have our words, we can use our voices.
It didn’t turn out that way. Yesterday Morwenna Ferrier wrote a piece in the Guardian in which she described how, in Rihanna’s BBHMM video, “the themes of sexualised violence, seemingly gratuitous nudity and non-consensual BDSM sent segments of the world’s media into a state of apoplexy.” Images of spluttering, red-faced Disgusteds of Tunbridge Wells instantly sprung to mind. Imagine getting angry over non-consensual BDSM! God, I hate those bigots who spend all their time stigmatising the BDSM community!
So what is non-consensual BDSM? Well, I guess it’s like sexual abuse, but with the focus on the “sex” bit and with greater empathy with abuser, now recast as taboo-breaking participant. It’s a bit like Bill Cosby’s “sex” with the women he drugged, only edgier and way cooler. Don’t panic, though, because in the former scenario it’s just art and the way we use language to describe art has no connection whatsoever to the way we use language to describe real-life interactions (only joking!). Yeah, we used to call these things abuse, we used to call them rape. But what does it matter? Language changes, cisters. Some of the things we called abuse aren’t abuse any more. Get with the programme.
For decades feminists have fought to change perceptions of the “typical” abuser. Well, turns out we were wrong. Turns out it is the stranger in the dark alley, the saddo uncle in his stained jogging bottoms. Cool people don’t rape, they merely frustrate the dynamics of bodily exclusion and penetrative selectivity, ideally in an anti-racist and anti-capitalist context of cultural resistance. No Sex Offenders’ Register for them. Give ‘em 1,000 thinkpieces on the historical complexity of policing the female body and how, if that body belongs to someone who says “no” in an insufficiently postmodern manner, that “no” is the only real act of aggression to be countered (it’s difficult, I know. Hey, maybe you’d feel more comfortable if you left defining whether or not you’ve been abused to the clever, pomo-literate people?).
In 2013 I experienced an online “shaming” (I put “shaming” in scare quotes because I didn’t feel particularly ashamed, just very pissed off). I’d come up with the term “smugsexual” to describe feminists who use sexual boasting as a form of moral currency against their more prudish, pearl-clutching sisters, as though what one consents to sexually is a measure of one’s inclusivity and moral worth. This led to months of name-calling, based on the accusation that I’d actually been indulging in dog-whistle bi- and polyphobia (I have no defence against this, other than “bollocks”). As Morrissey might say, I can smile about it now, but at the time it was terrible. Still, looking back, I wish, if anything, I’d been harder, clearer-sighted, just more aware of the implications of what “smugsexuality” might mean. I thought then that it was a relatively self-contained form of sexual shaming – a way of bullying and pathologising women who do not share one’s own brand of feminist politics – combined with facile privilege laundering. It’s worse than that. It’s a means of breaking down any resistance to the sexual entitlement of others. It’s a way of making women feel that their “no” is not an act of self-preservation, but a symbolic hate crime.
Earlier this year the columnist Owen Jones compared lesbians who express concerns over the “cotton ceiling” to homophobic men expressing “gay panic” (he later accused feminists who criticise the patriarchal dynamics of porn of “literally” erasing gay men — although not, funnily enough, lesbians. One does start to wonder what, if anything, he thinks lesbians are for, other than perhaps gestating the odd baby to hand over to a morally superior gay couple). As far as Jones, Paris Lees and others are concerned, there is no analysis of gendered coercion within a broader structure of female subjugation. There is no corrective rape, no financial or cultural undermining of the right of refusal. That perspective has gone. Identity politics and the turn to agency have effectively meant a turn away from the woman defending her own boundaries — the woman who says no. We have moved from “no means no” to “consent is sexy” (and as one blogger astutely observed, sexy is mandatory). To say no is simply to exclude and what could be more exclusive than refusing someone permission to use your body for their own sexual gratification? To say yes to one person and no to another is discriminatory. Bigots like that need educating, right?
There is an obvious class element here. Some of the proponents of this form of shaming have taken public stands against lad and rape culture. When some bloke holding a pint who hasn’t read any Butler or Serano suggests you’re pathologically flawed for turning him down (“frigid bitch!”), he’s a sexist throwback ; when someone wearing lipstick and using the pronoun “they” does the same, they’re merely defending themselves against your questioning of their agency, you fucking bigot. It’s all about what you’ve read and the vocabulary you know. University campuses across the land are fighting the noble fight to turn every UniLAD misogynist into a Pomo hero. It’s the new version of Pygmalion, with every gender studies course leader a new Professor Higgins. “It’s not sexual entitlement, it’s a symbolic challenge to those who police the boundaries of their ‘own’ bodies.” “By George, I think they’ve got it!”
Rebranding has long been a tactic of anti-feminists. As Katherine Viner wrote back when women’s liberation was being used to sell the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, “feminism is used for everything these days, except the fight for true equality”:
… to sell trainers, to justify body mutiliations, to make women make porn, to help men get off rape charges, to ensure women feel they have self-respect because they use a self-esteem-enhancing brand of shampoo. No wonder it’s being used as a reason for bombing women and children too.
More recently, Dylan Roof picked up on the racist tradition of “defending” the integrity of the white female body to sell his “right” to massacre black people (most of them women). If feminism can be twisted into a justification for killing women, why not one for raping them, too?
In case I haven’t been clear enough so far, I will say it here: right now, self-styled sex-positive feminists, especially those who enjoy a particular level of class and educational privilege, are complicit in the rebranding of rape. Yes, they’ll put “misandrist” in their twitter bio (meaning “I hate misogynists who use the wrong vocab but everyone else is fine”). Yes, they’ll argue that sex positive = pro consent (glossing over the fact that defining oneself as sex positive implicitly defines other women as “sex negative” – what men of a previous generation would have called “uptight and in need of a good seeing-to”). Yes, they will argue that any and every critique of male entitlement to female bodies is “silencing” those women who must construct a dialogue in which entitlement is invisibilised. None of this alters the fact that they fail to recognise the cultural and social significance of consent – and how few women have the right to access it.
A generation of young women are growing up being told, on the one hand, to challenge rape culture, but on the other to embrace coercive language and include, include, include. The body, they are told, is not really “them.” It’s a construct, a possession, a thing, and if you have something that someone else wants – especially someone with the language and political nous to position themselves as having greater needs than you – then you’re obliged to share. That other person gets to write the script, to define what is and is not sex. You can consent to this or not. Whether you do so or not is positioned not as a personal choice, but a moral one. Consent is good, the withholding of consent is bad. The overriding of your withholding is edgy. Or politically subversive. Or something, whatever, but it’s not rape.
Rape is what the common people do. The kind of people who still watch The X Factor, not the self-styled voices of sexual subversion, with their books and their words and their Media Studies for Dummies readings of physical boundaries. When they shame a whole generation of women out of setting their own sexual limits, it’s not rape culture. It’s not a form of widespread implicit coercion. Anyone who thinks so needs to update their vocabulary.
But don’t worry about all this! You have the right to say yes! You have the right to enjoy it! Don’t like non-consensual BDSM? Then consent, consent, consent! Don’t be a member of that elite female class clinging on to personal integration with their own flesh, like some miserable aristocrat guarding his crusty old estate. Don’t you see how much you – yes, you – now symbolise capitalist patriarchy’s stolen goods, goods which should be distributed to all, just as long as it’s with the approval of capitalist patriarchy itself?
What’s your fucking problem?