Rape logic

by Rob Horning

15 November 2006


I woke up this morning as usual to NPR (National Public Radio, or Nice Polite Republicans, as the liberal blogosphere has been calling it), but I heard a piece of news that seemed to come from an alternate reality. It was a BBC report about how the Pakistani parliament was reforming the law that required women to produce four sworn male witnesses before they could proceed with a rape accusation. The reforms, however, did not guarantee that the accuser, the raped woman, would not still be charged with the crime of adultery herself. In my coddled and sheltered little nook of the world, the idea that rape is still regarded in many places as a kind of property crime by men against other men was a little bit shocking. (It certainly puts Borat’s admonitions to the “village rapist” in a different perspective.)

This reminded me of a recent Slate article by economist (and frequently smug contrarian) Steven Landsburg crowing about a study that correlates Internet access and its corresponding distribution of pornography to teens leads to a decrease of the incidence of rape. Landsburg seems pleased because this shows up psychologists and their silly, well-intentioned studies:

Psychologists have found that male subjects, immediately after watching pornography, are more likely to express misogynistic attitudes. But as professor Kendall points out, we need to be clear on what those experiments are testing: They are testing the effects of watching pornography in a controlled laboratory setting under the eyes of a researcher. The experience of viewing porn on the Internet, in the privacy of one’s own room, typically culminates in a slightly messier but far more satisfying experience—an experience that could plausibly tamp down some of the same aggressions that the pornus interruptus of the laboratory tends to stir up. In other words, if you want to understand the effects of on-screen sex and violence outside the laboratory, psych experiments don’t tell you very much. Sooner or later, you’ve got to look at the data.

As Amanda Marcotte points out, Landsburg and the researcher he cites blithely assume that rape is a crime commited out of sexual frustration, from an inability to find a lawful receptacle for lusty impulses, just as public urination is a crime caused by the unlucky perpetrator’s inability to find a suitable bathroom. They don’t recognize the view that rape is first and foremost a hate crime and has little to do with sexual desire—instead it expresses contempt for the victim and a desire to see them suffer and be put in their place. A reason why patriarchal societies are hesitant to criminalize it, then, is because it’s an enforcement tool (think of prisons) for assuring subordination. It reminds victims that not even their bodies belong to them. As Marcotte asks, ” if rape is motivated by sexual frustration, why do rapists so often brutalize their victims more than is ‘necessary’ to subdue them? And if it’s about getting off, why do rapists do things like throw their victims out to walk home in a humiliating state of undress, if they aren’t enjoying the suffering?”

But if Landsburg’s assumptions are correct, and porn can be substituted for rape, that might actually be worse, because then the implication would be all men who look at porn (i.e. pretty much all men) are basically would-be rapists, and that looking at sexualized women is tantamount to raping them (as antiporn feminists have claimed all along). Marcotte asks

So is porn a way to release sexual tension so men don’t rape? Or are the defenders of porn-as-a-crime-preventative saying that porn is a substitute for rape itself, the urge to violently hurt and humiliate women? If porn is basically rape-by-proxy, then are they implying that all men who look at porn want to hurt women?

Is that assumption so much of a stretch in a society dependent on female subordination? In such a society, all men are supposed to want to hurt women, to its structure apparent to all. Pornography then would have to be considered a product to accomodate men whose culture encourages them to think of rape as their natural hierarchical right but can’t bring themselves to actually enact the droit du seigneur. They are supposed to be raping, to demonstrate their rightful place in patriarchal society, and reinforce the rules of that society, but instead take the cowardly way out and merely “rape” women by consuming them in pictures or videos. These pictures and videos then stand in for all the consequently uncommitted rapes as the evidence patriarchy requires to show that it still adheres. Thus the creepy subtext of Landsburg’s article: “These women are lucky there’s Internet porn around, or else more of us would have to resort to harsher measures to show them their place.” Let’s just hope Marcotte’s right (that rape may be diminishing because patriarchy is waning and feminism has reeducated society), and that this study merely amounts to evidence of how some people strongly wish this link between rape and pornography existed, so that pornography could continue to be a proxy for the fear women are supposed to feel, but are hopefully feeling less and less (outside of places like Pakistan, that is). If the massive mountain of Internet porn is a pile of possible rapes (throw into this the frequent assumption that women are coerced, literally or economically or psychologically into appearing in pornography), then it can be lorded over women as so many cautionary tales—a gendered take on that moment in Do the Right Thing: No matter how nice the men in your life seem to be, here’s what they think about you.

Not that pornography isn’t ever a tool of oppression and exploitation, but as I’ve written before, I think pornography serrves primarily as a model for commmercializing natural experience—the leading edge in making all experience subject to mediation, packaging, impusle buying, etc.—all the hallmarks of quotidian life in consumer society. An interesting question is to what degree pornography’s position in consumer society suggests that such a society must also be patriarchal/sexist.

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