Friday, October 23, 2009

Yes Means Yes: A Review, Part I

I have finally had a chance to read Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape , a collection of essays analyzing every aspect of rape culture. The essays are compiled and analyzed by Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti and the book's structure reflects the authors' blogging experience, which makes for an incredibly helpful and original format. This is a great book, my friends. It's beautifully constructed, extremely well-argued, and offers a lot of material to think about.

The authors of these essays look at the different ways in which the traditionalist approach supports and enables rape and sexual assault. The conservative gender roles that present a woman as a secondary being actually promote the culture of rape: "While right-wing groups certainly don't come out in support of rape, they do promote an extremist ideology that enables rape and promotes a culture where sexual assault is tacitly accepted. The supposedly 'pro-family' marital structure, in which sex is exchanged for support and the woman's identity is absorbed into her husband's, reinforces the idea of women as property and as simple accoutrements to a man's more fully realized existence." So when we rush to declare ourself as male property by giving up our names, careers, interests and preferences for the huge honor of belonging to a man, let us remember where this ideology comes from and where it often leads us.

The very structure of our patriarchal vision of sexuality is informed by gender stereotypes: "Men are expected to be aggressive sexual actors attempting to 'get' sex from passive women. . . We are told that the rules of sexual engagement involve men pushing and women putting on the brakes." Every woman knows how annoying the rhetoric of female affections that have to be 'conquered' through male effort is. From early childhood, men are taught that female 'no' doesn't really mean a final and unquestionable rejection. They are told that 'no' means maybe and that effort and perseverance can eventually turn a 'no' into a 'yes.' And  this myth is precisely what leads to so many stalkings, sexuall assaults, and rapes.

I have had the misfortune of experiencing the attitude inspired by the women-need-to-be-conquered myth more times that I care to remember. It's annoying and humiliating to be the object of male attempts at winning your affections once you have indicated that you are not interested. This state of things will not change unless we revise our understanding of gender roles. Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape also points out how this vision of gender roles victimizes men: "When society equates maleness with a constant desire for sex, men are socialized out of genuine sexual decision making, and are less likely to be able to know how to say no or  be comfortable refusing sex when they don't want it."

The authors of the book analyze brilliantly how rape is used as a tool of social control: "The natural desire for freedom and autonomy exists in women, and has always been nearly impossible to smother with bribery (the carrot of the wedding and the family and the home) alone. The stick also has to come out, and that's where the pervasive threat of rape comes into play." Women have to feel constantly fearful of placing themselves in the public realm and abandoning the mythical safety of their home, even though that home turns into the scene of violence, assault, and rape a lot more often than the streets.

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