In recent years, while attending university, I repeatedly encountered a perception among young people, both men and women, though more men than women, that feminism is no longer a movement with the intended goal to create equality between men and women. Instead I often heard that feminism had changed from a movement about equality into a movement about creating a new inequality, with men unequal to women. This is a common allegation made against any movement that seeks to rectify an inequality. All one has to do is read the speeches of slaveholders and segregationists and one easily finds this fear of being subsumed. It should be clear to any fair-minded person that these claims are absurd on their face. A society is obviously compelled to act in the face of an injustice as despicable as racism and sexism. But we must understand what people are actually saying when they claim that a social justice movement devoted to establishing equality is really trying to reverse an inequality, with the slave now the master, and master slave.
What they are truly saying when they make this claim is that the inequality is not an inequality at all, but the true state of equality. Your attempt to overturn this equality is the real injustice. The inequality has achieved such a state of normalcy that the reality of it is invisible. Within the context of patriarchal violence this applies in such subtle ways that even the most progressive among us can be unable to recognize it. It is not our fault. The culture is teeming with messages justifying this violence, and we are inculcated with it from birth. Heterosexual sex is one area of particular concern. If the violence perpetrated does not meet the narrow definition of violence accepted by the police, or by the society at large, then no violence was perpetrated. Though it is certainly relevant to the conversation I am not talking about the incidents of rape where the victim is not beaten, but still coerced into being raped. You know, I thought long and hard about how to phrase that last sentence. Often, even among feminists and progressive writers, that sentence will usually read: “Though it is certainly relevant to the conversation I am not talking about the incidents of rape where the victim is coerced into having sex”. One cannot have sex with a person who is raping them. Sex is consensual. Rape is not. Obviously the intention of the writer is not to imply that the victim somehow consented to sex while being raped. But patriarchy is so deeply embedded into the very language we use to not only converse with one another about these issues, but to think through them ourselves, that even the best among us often fail to recognize when it is molding our consciousness.
Patriarchy is so embedded in our society that even during consensual sex it makes an appearance. Recently I became aware of just how intimate this violence can be and how the banal, every day nature of it warps the minds of women throughout the world. A quote from Reina Gattuso:
“Recently, I had sex with a man I heard afterward is a rapist… I was sitting with my friend, drunkish, on the green quad lawn when she asked me about the night before. I uttered his name. She made a face and I knew it was bad. She had heard, she said, rumors. For years. Times he did not take no for an answer. Times he finished regardless. Things he said… But through the disgust, and the weird sense of guilt, and the retrospective fear, something clicked: A feeling I’d had through the sexual encounter, a feeling that wasn’t — but that related to — rape… Sometimes there’s a moment when I’m having sex that I think a lot of us have felt. I feel it with particular frequency with straight, cis dudes, but we can feel this across all kinds of gender and sexuality experiences. It’s the fear that, if I asked the person to stop, they wouldn’t. I don’t mean when we say stop and someone keeps going, or uses threats, or pressures us. I mean another, subtler feeling. It’s not necessarily wanting to say no. It’s the fear that, if we were to say no, we wouldn’t be heard. Sometimes, I test this feeling: Slow down. Stop. Not so fast. And mostly, people listen.
But sometimes, when I feel this feeling most strongly, I don’t test it, because I don’t want to know the answer. That’s what happened the other day, with the dude about whom I later heard the rumors. I don’t think that if a sexual experience is not affirmatively consensual, it is definitionally assault. I have had experiences that have not felt consensual in a deep way, but that also did not feel like assault. We live constantly under the violence of patriarchy; a lot of our daily micro-interactions are coercive. These undertones of coercion don’t just disappear when we get into the bedroom (or the living room, or the car). And they create a lot of experiences that are hard to find language for… I mean, what was so weird about that sexual encounter — what made something click in my head, in my heart, when I heard that he had raped — is the way it felt like he didn’t need me to be there. He didn’t need me to have a head. He didn’t need me to have a heart. He didn’t seem to even need me to be awake.
A lot of sex feels like this. Sex where we don’t matter. Where we may as well not be there. Sex where we don’t say no, because we don’t want to say no, sex where we say yes even, where we’re even into it, but where we fear — some little voice in us fears — that if we did say no, if we don’t like the pressure on our necks or the way they touch us, it wouldn’t matter. It wouldn’t count, because we don’t count. This feeling isn’t necessarily assault, but it is certainly on a continuum with it.”
These interactions are common in households where domestic violence takes place. The abused, in order to survive, is forced to submit to a variety of coercions. They live in a constant state of paranoia, sensitive to every subtle bodily and psychological cue of their abuser. This is also the state of mind of many women throughout the world. A state of mind beset by the fear that a man will harm or kill them. We have a society in which women are terrorized on a daily basis by a violence that takes a great variety of forms. Living as a member of the privileged class within this society even I often fail to grasp the depth, and breadth, of this violence, and the seemingly innumerably subtle forms in which is finds expression. Thinking back on those interactions with individuals who claimed that feminism is a movement seeking to establish a matriarchy I am struck by how little of what they had to say is in any way something they independently produced. It reminds me to be aware of such a flaw in myself; for we are all susceptible, some of us more than others.