The other day, referring to Foucault views and the various feminist perspectives including Susan Brownmiller’s, I raised Foucault’s question “Is rape the same as a punch in the face?” My reference to that question was motivated by two factors: firstly, as I’ll describe later in this blog post, I think it is outrageous that some people seem to give a greater significance to a punch in the face than rape; secondly, I think it is useful to reflect on the various efforts that followed Foucault’s proposal and aimed to re-interpret the notions of rape and sexual violence.
Speaking of rape Foucault argued that rape should be conceived as an act of “…physical violence and nothing but that.” He added : “…that there is no difference, in principle, between sticking one’s fist into someone’s face and…” rape. He went on to argue that: “…what we’re saying amounts to this: sexuality as such, in the body, has a preponderant place, the sexual organ isn’t like a hand, hair, or a nose. It therefore has to be protected, surrounded, invested in any case with legislation that isn’t pertaining to the rest of the body . . . .” Foucault concludes: “It isn’t a matter of sexuality, it’s the physical violence that would be punished, without bringing in the fact that sexuality was involved” (Foucault, 1988).
Foucault argued that sexuality was constructed as a disciplining discourse and a means of social and political power, and that desexualizing rape would serve as a liberating blow against the fundamental assumptions and conceptions of patriarchy (ibid).
Fast forward to August 2012, and we have Todd Akin with his infamous interview making reference to what he called a “legitimate rape” (referring to cases of rape involving physical violence and/or injury) and how “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down”, followed by the Respect MP George Galloway stating that even if the complaints against Assange by two women in Sweden were “100% true” it would still not constitute rape. “They don’t constitute rape….At least not rape as anyone with any sense can possibly recognise it.”
This comes at a time when there has been a fall in reported rapes to the police with many, including women’s organisations and campaigners, stating that this “shows victims’ lack of confidence in Met’s sex crime unit”.
Should Mr. Assange have punched those two women in the face, it would have been considered as assault and a crime in the eyes everyone including Mr. Galloway. Hence, it begs the question why some consider punching a person in the face more of a crime than rape.
Mr. Akin’s and Mr. Galloway’s views and conceptions of rape are far from innocuous. These views perpetuate the patriarchal imposition referred to by Foucault (1988), and sustain the very socio-cultural conditions that threaten women lives on a daily basis. In this regard, Ann Cahill (2001) states: “The threat of rape in contemporary U.S. [and in my view every] society constitutes a persistent and pervasive element in women’s lives. So constant is this threat that it becomes assumed as a basic consideration in the daily choices women face.” Cahill adds “Although I myself have not been a victim of rape, the threat of rape has had a profound effect on the structure and quality of my life. It makes me think twice as I walk to my car late in the night; it discouraged me from joining a male college friend as he spent two weeks of spring break living on the streets with homeless people.” (ibid)
Therefore, the question remains: what can be done to address and rectify these misconceptions and distortions of rape and sexuality? How can the pervasive domination of patriarchal sexuality be challenged and changed?
Following Foucault’s proposal in 1970s, there have been various attempts at re-interpretation and reconceptualization of rape as a crime. In 1990s, Hypatia ran a series of articles criticizing Foucault, while acknowledging the value of his broader analysis of sexuality and the similarities between his views and those of feminist theorists such as Susan Brownmiller (Susan Brownmiller sought “… to purge rape of its sexual content in order to render moot the legal question of victim culpability”).
Rather than a singular crime, from a feminist perspective, the crime of rape is conceptualised as the epitome of patriarchal hegemony and systematic misogyny.
To return to Foucault’s question about why rape is not equal to a punch in the face? One answer is that the viability and practicability of Foucault’s proposition of addressing the fundamental source of patriarchal power by desexualising rape, is challenged by the sexualised socio-cultural context in ‘everyday life’. Hence, the argument is that Foucault’s position overlooks the gendered nature of rape and its structural and political implications. One might say, that such reasoning obscures the lived experience of raped body in an effort to destabilise the disciplinary effects of the law. From this perspective, Foucault’s position on rape is rather disturbing as it seems to overlook his own work on power and body.
However, as stated by Holly Henderson, an alternative, and more useful, answer to Foucault’s question is to focus on a feminist politics of rape prevention.
Foucault suggests that rape is realised and its’ disciplinary effects are perpetuated because sex and sexuality are constructed as the core of one’s being and foundational to the ‘self’. Our gendered identities and genitals are saturated with social meaning (Foucault, 1990 ), and Foucault’s theories of productive power and construction of meaning through discourse shed light on power and body politics, and offers an alternative for resistance to the social script that underlie rape. Hence, our timidity to raise question and engage in open debate are a reflection of the extent to which our own psyche is influenced by the social script of rape and sexuality based on disciplining notions of guilt, shame, and offence.
Gender is a lived ideology and as such it is transformed into everyday bodily practices (Judith Butler, 2004) in which we are all schooled throughout our lives. Hence, the feminist debate about rape should refocus on rape prevention, aiming to destabilise the patriarchal notions of sexuality and femininity. However, a viable and pragmatic feminist approach cannot be built on culpability, violability, or rapability of women. It should rather draw on Foucault’s discursive arguments to challenge and interrupt “femininity” and “masculinity” and their psychological and bodily practices, in order to internalise a different notion, knowledge, and interpretation of sexuality based on strength and capacity rather than passivity and vulnerability.
I would very much like to know your thoughts about this important topic and would appreciate your views and comments on this blog or @ClaudiaMegele.