Male sexual violence

My wife recently forwarded me this article, by Rebecca Solnit, about violence against women. “I think,” she wrote, “it would be an interesting thing to repost on your blog.” She was right.

What should we do about rape, about male sexual violence against women, about male violence?

They’re epidemic, and we all lament them, but really, what do we do about them, how do we understand them?

When a social problem is as endemic as this one, it’s a safe bet that our collective desire to eradicate it is, shall we say, limited.

Sometimes, this is because of a concentration of power in the hands of the constituencies for its continuation (as in the case of, say, inequality).

Sometimes, it’s because of a difference in the intensity of emotion on one side relative to the other (as in the case of abortion, where restrictions on abortion rights progress each year because those in favor of such restrictions care more, are more energetic, than those who are opposed to them).

And sometimes, it’s because, well, because we’re not really collectively interested in eradicating the problem. Maybe, the problem isn’t even a “problem,” but instead, it’s a solution.

I’ve written before about how one way of thinking about neuroses is as complex solutions to psychological needs. Perhaps a social problem like this one in fact is a solution to our collective deep-seated discomfort with untrammeled female sexual agency.

In addition to Solnit, two other writers recently have got me thinking about this: Maggie McNeill, author of “The Honest Courtesan,” a blog that relentlessly shines light on our collective hypocrisy concerning, and fear of, unfettered female sexual agency; and Slavoj Žižek, who, in Violence, reminded me that often, even those fighting a problem play a crucial role in its perpetuation.

I don’t pretend to understand the phenomenon of male violence, sexual or otherwise. I’m not a violent guy, never have been.

But I know this much: if you read Solnit’s piece, if you allow yourself to look head-on at the reality of, the pervasiveness of, male sexual violence, there is, honestly, only one conclusion: as a society, we are ok with it. As in, seriously, it’s acceptable to us. Because if it weren’t, we’d do something, collectively.

I know, I know: some of us are activists, engaged in organizing, or direct action, or lobbying, or fund-raising. More of us are more like “feel-good activists” – posting outrageous, or inspiring, articles on Facebook, voting for candidates who support our general worldview.

But democracy (at least in the United States) is remarkably responsive to the will of the people. Look at how fast gay marriage is becoming the law of the land.

Maybe, just maybe, we’re more than ok with the current level of male sexual violence – maybe, it’s actually somehow important to us, serving some sort of a function for us.

What could that function be? Could it be that male sexual violence is a strategy for keeping women in check, for reining in female sexuality, for protecting us all – men and women – from the terror that is unfettered female sexual agency? Or that it is a strategy for making us straight men feel less impotent in the face of the ultimate control women have over our sexual satisfaction? I don’t have to rape, but I can take some (distant, unconscious) comfort from the knowledge that I could, as evidenced by those boys in Steubenville. Or maybe it’s a step less direct: as a straight man, I can’t have sex whenever I want. In fact, in order to have sex, I have to navigate a complex maze, filled with land mines and uncertainty. In the context of a construction of masculinity which values power above all else, this renders us men impotent in what is arguably the most vital sphere for us. Could it be that the sexual violence we collectively tolerate allows us men to recover a bit of the power, the sense of “more powerful than…” that we otherwise might be forced to cede to women? I think so.

And what of women? Is it possible that women, too, derive some benefit from male sexual violence? How do we understand the young women who Steubenville who testified against the girl who had been raped? The women all over the internet who posted in various places that it was “equally” her fault for having been drunk?

McNeill has, in a number of pieces, gotten me to think differently both about male sexual violence and female sexual agency. She has done this with two basic streams of thought: first, with respect to sex workers, she has helped me see just how much we all use scorn for sex workers, the very ways in which we understand the phenomenon of sex work in spite of voluminous evidence to the contrary*, to distance ourselves from the threat we feel in the face of female sexual agency; and second, with respect to rape, she has helped me see how our collective construction of the experience of rape is itself a misogynistic assertion of the power of the penis, and the vulnerability of female virtue.

She writes, provocatively, of her own relationship to rape. She was raped multiple times, but she claims not to have been especially traumatized, and says of one particularly terrifying rape, “it wasn’t even the worst thing to happen to me that year.” What do we make of this?

T and I are having a robust conversation about this, and mostly, we’re doing it through back-and-forth e-mails about this post. My wife thinks that “McNeill makes a mistake to equate rape with its legal definition,” and says that she thinks “rape should be defined as a non-consensual sexual act that endangers a woman’s (or a man’s) sense of sexual autonomy.” She is at pains to say that somehow, because “McNeill’s sexual agency, her sense of self, her basic feeling of safety, her unashamed love of sex — apparently none of these things were particularly (certainly not permanently) impinged upon by her aggressors,” she “denied her aggressors what they sought. They failed to rape her,” says T, “and more power to her.” She continues, “women can thwart and defy male violence simply by being unscathed (because the whole point, culturally speaking, is not to have sex with them but to scathe them).”

But here’s what I think: I think that the old nostrum that rape is about power, not about sex, may well be exactly right from the point of view of the person being raped, and exactly wrong (or at least, exactly half wrong) from the point of view of the rapist. The rapist certainly is asserting his greater physical power over his victim, but he’s doing so in the forum of sex, and sex is his goal. (T “vehemently disagree[s]” with me, I should note.)

I think T’s point – that McNeill’s rapist(s) failed to rape her – misses this point, confusing the effect on the woman raped with the intention of the rapist. Whatever T thinks, about agency, safety, self – that’s not what the rapist was after. And I feel almost certain that, after the event, his relationship to the rape itself didn’t in any way depend on McNeill’s reaction to it.

Charlotte Shane, writing in The New Inquiry, cited by McNeill, explains:

[T]he notion that a man can ruin me with his penis strikes me as the most complete expression of vintage misogyny available. Common sense instructs us that it is far more “dangerous” to insist to young women that they will be broken by an unwanted sex act than it is to propose they might have a happy, healthy, and sexually pleasant future ahead of them in spite of a sexual assault…When we refuse to acknowledge the possibility that a rape could be anything less than a tsunami of emotional and mental destruction for a woman, we establish a fantasy of absolute male sexual power and absolute female vulnerability. We are, in essence, honoring the timeless belief that a woman’s worth, self-respect, and ability to function within society are dictated exclusively by the sexual use of her body…

This is powerful stuff.

Let me be clear. I’m not saying that rape isn’t a huge deal; quite the opposite. What I’m saying is that the combination of our collective tolerance of men’s sexual violence against women and our collective assertion that rape is, in Solnit’s words, “a fate worse than death,” adds up to a sort of cognitive dissonance for me.

Isn’t T’s demand that in order to qualify as “rape,” a sexual assault must “endanger a woman’s … sense of sexual autonomy” itself an assault on sexual autonomy? Who is to say what a person’s reaction to an assault may be? Many of us who have suffered grave misfortunes in our lives come to value those misfortunes highly, seeing them as essential in the formation of our sense of self. And what of a woman who, God forbid, finds herself enjoying her rape? Surely, that has happened at least once in the history of humanity. Can we not find a way to understand this reaction that doesn’t deny the fact of the rape or excuse the rapist?**

T writes that she is “concerned that the message being sent here is ‘everybody should just be more like Maggie McNeill.’” To be clear, if that message has come through, then this is a disastrously poorly written and argued post. No, I don’t think that at all. I think the opposite. I think that everybody should just be their own damned selves, and have whatever reactions they have to whatever happens.

And I think that men shouldn’t rape. And that all of us should figure out how to make that happen.

Žižek’s thinking provides, for me, a way of reconciling this all. We (men and women both, progressives and conservatives both) are invested in varying ways, to varying degrees, in the constructions of male and female sexuality that currently obtain. We want to see men as powerful, to see women as vulnerable. I don’t know how to say too much more about this without getting myself in more deep water than that in which I already find myself here.

Let me just end with a few questions:

  1. How do you react to McNeill’s assertion that her rape – her violent, traumatic rape – wasn’t even the worst thing to happen to her that year [emphasis hers]? Why? How do you understand your reaction?
  2. What is the relationship between our private sexual practices and the phenomenon of sexual violence? What, if anything, is the function of privately practiced BDSM and other forms of power exchange in the larger sphere? Is it a release valve that allows men – and women – to discharge some primal, or socially constructed, hunger for violence and dominance/submission, in an acceptable and consensual way? Or does it, in some way, reinforce the norms and values that make sexual violence so prevalent? (I’ve written before that my own appetite for submission, for compliance, is a way of medicating my fear of rejection or abandonment, that it allows me not to feel powerless, but instead, to feel desired, and thus, powerful.) Or both?
  3. Are you outraged by the level of male sexual violence against women in this country? By our “culture of rape”? What have you done to change it in the last year? How does this level of outrage, and effort, correspond to your various other forms of political activism? To the other issues on which you are engaged? What conclusions do you draw from the answers to these questions?

For me, this all is kind of head-scratching. Notwithstanding my dominant sexual style, I’m a pretty gentle male. I’ve never participated in explicit sexual violence, never coerced a woman into anything, even gently. I’ve always spoken up in situations in which men spoke degradingly or disrespectfully of women, whether there were women present or not. I once pulled a chunk of business from a consulting firm because an asshole marketing said to me, of a comely colleague of mine, “I know why you hired her,” even as his eyes lingered on her unmistakably, undeniably hot ass. “We hired her because she’s damned smart,” I said. “But do you know why we won’t hire you?” But honestly, I think this – this one instance of action – may well be the only concrete thing I’ve ever done to fight male sexual violence against women.

As proud as I am of how I handled that moment, it ain’t shit. Not in a country in which, according to Solnit, there’s a rape every 6.2 minutes.

Every 6.2 minutes.

* I won’t go into it here, but some basic points McNeill makes, persuasively, on her blog are: pimps are a rare phenomenon in the real world, but are vital to our conception of prostitution; human trafficking is, for the most part, a myth; prostitution is a form of work not materially different from other forms of work but for the meaning we tend to attach to it; and men and women both are just scared shitless of a woman who, in full control of her sexuality, chooses to make money from it.

** I can almost hear the inevitable screams of protest here, and in advance, let me say that I’m not saying that I think women ever enjoy rape. I’m saying that people are varied, and there are a lot of them. And that the way I think of the world, I assume that pretty much anything I can imagine a person having thought or done or felt has been thought, or done, or felt. This has more to do with probability and the laws of large numbers than with any notion of how things are, or should be.


  1. Quite serious or heavy topic here! Rape is a form of violence and it is also a form of asserting power on others, mainly to shame or humiliate besides satisfying one’s sexual desire, as can be seen in some past wars.

    I advocate proper sexual education in schools for kids (guys and girls). Besides imparting sexual knowledge, the education should be about educating guys to be responsible in sex and how to properly treat women. As for girls, they need to have enough of knowledge to protect themselves from being taken advantage by older males and to protect themselves from being sexually abused.

    Though not a perfect solution, I think this can help to cut down rape cases.

    1. I think it’s really important NEVER to suggest, even for a moment, that women have any responsibility to “have enough knowledge to protect themselves from being taken advantage….” Women should feel free to walk down the street nude, swaying their hips, licking their lips, saying, “Here, sailor!” and know that if, at the very last minute, they say, “Actually, I’m feeling a little uncomfortable – I’d prefer not to fuck.”

      They shouldn’t have to learn to protect themselves.

      (This isn’t to say it wouldn’t be a good idea to learn to, given the realities of the universe, but NONE of the responsibility for avoiding rape rests on women’s shoulders.)

  2. Really enjoyed reading both the article and your post. May I just note that it’s not a rape happens every 6.2 minutes but one gets REPORTED every 6.2 minutes. And we all know how widely under-reported rapes are, for fear of judgement from society maybe?

    As for what I’ve done in the last year against rape? Not much I guess, except a walk with a friend whose sister had been raped, to bring awareness to violence against women.

    As a woman, I agree with you that women should never have to justify themselves in the face of rape. They are the victim, they don’t carry any of the blame. However, as a mother of a teen aged daughter, I’m sure you will understand I try to teach my daughter some sort of preventive measures…

    1. And though I don’t have time now to explore why I feel uncomfortable with the idea, I do tend to agree with you that if society as a whole didn’t get anything from this pandemic, rape would have ceased long ago… Now to find a way to have society react…

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