To the Editor:
Re “The Sympathetic Silence is Killing Me” (opinion, Oct. 26)
Note: While it is a fact that anyone can be sexually assaulted or be the perpetrator of an assault, the article at hand focused on the relationship between cisgender men and women. It focused particularly on the dichotomy of men as perpetrators and women as victims. This is the form that I will follow in my response, with no intention of claiming the identity of perpetrator exclusively for cis men, nor the identity of victim exclusively for cis women in the larger context of life.
The author’s premise is essentially this: If we say that male fantasies about dominating women are problematic, we must also say that female fantasies about being dominated by men are problematic. Therefore, women who fantasize about and engage in sexually submissive behavior contribute to the epidemic of sexual assault.
The idea that women can and do perpetuate rape culture is neither new nor wrong. The fact is, many women identify with the perpetrator of any given sexual assault, rather than the victim. This is the essential characteristic of rape culture and a direct cause of victim blaming. Beyond the context of an explicitly nonconsensual interaction, women can certainly be blamed for continuing to idealize the aggressive male and the submissive female. Men may enforce this dynamic by calling one another “pussies,” praising aggressive sexual behavior in other men, or glorifying their own aggressiveness. When a woman calls another woman a “slut,” she is saying that this woman’s act of claiming ownership over her own sexuality is unacceptable. She is shaming her for choosing to embrace and explore her sexuality on her own terms, rather than within the borders of what is deemed acceptable by patriarchal culture. To transgress social norms and created gender roles is difficult no matter what gender one is, and women are just as guilty of upholding gender roles as men are. However difficult it may be, engaging in the work of subverting these norms is essential to improving society and the relationship between men and women.
I disagree with the author’s implication that victim blaming is a healthy way to initiate social change. The fully actualized ideal of the passive, submitting female is a woman who always gives consent and puts herself willingly in the role of submitter in any potential sexual situation. When a woman refuses to give consent, she is, in fact transgressing her gender role. She is subverting social norms, an act that often comes with a high price no matter the identity of the individual subverting. Any transgression of any gender role is often met with anger and violence; many men have had the experience of being called a “faggot” after failing to measure up to standards of masculinity. It is unjust to expect women, who are socialized to be submissive in all areas of life, to suddenly feel powerful enough in sexual situations to take charge. This is especially relevant when the potential consequences of withholding consent are so obvious. When women do assert their autonomy and withhold consent, the male reaction is all too often to commit acts of violence.
Blaming fantasy (whether that is to be submissive or dominant) for the epidemic of sexual assault is a rather shallow way of approaching the issue, which I think is part of the author’s point. However, as he argues, potential for critique does lie in the consensual sexual interactions that reinforce normative gender roles. The dichotomy of male as dominator and female as submitter is dangerous as it becomes not only the norm for sexual encounters that may or may not be consensual, but is the standard operating procedure for the rest of society. The problem is the systemic sexism as it convinces men that their success in the world is dependent upon aggressive behavior and convinces women that theirs is dependent upon passivity.
A sexual assault occurs when a woman asserts her full personhood and right to control her own body, and is not met with recognition of that personhood by men. She refuses to give into the dynamic that gives men the role of dominator and women the role of submitter. She is doing the hard work of subverting the norm. However, the man in this situation continues to perform within the role accorded him by patriarchal society. To use an example given by the author, if a man learns from another man that “sexually aggressive behavior result(s) in a successful fling,” and fails to realize that different women have different boundaries, I argue that he is failing to recognize the basic humanity of women. And here, of course, we recognize the basic principle of patriarchy shining through.
Margaret Uselman ’17