This article is taken from the February 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
Social media can throw up some strange juxtapositions. Scrolling on X (formerly Twitter), I recently saw a clip in which a hairdresser asks her client’s permission to touch her hair. The message is that consent matters at all times — though one might think, if you’re already sitting in the salon, that part is already implied. It’s hard not to view scenes such as this as an example of post-#MeToo overreach. Can’t anything be taken as read these days? Is every single thing a potential assault?
The left has claimed pro-consent, anti-rape activism, yet at times it also seems to resent it
This was shortly followed by a clip in which a female hostage released by Hamas after almost two months in captivity discussed her constant fear of rape. No one, we can safely assume, had been asking her whether she consented to have her hair touched. The comments that followed — many from good liberals, the very types to approve of the earlier scene — were remarkable. No one actually raped her though, did they? Wasn’t she weaponising an unfounded fear to justify harming innocent Palestinians? Was it even plausible that any Israeli women had been raped on 7 October if some were now emerging from captivity rape-free?
The juxtaposition was accidental, the contrast jarring nonetheless. It illustrates a crisis in pro-consent, anti-rape activism, a cause which the left has claimed as its own, yet which at times it also seems to resent.
Next year marks half a century since the publication of Susan Brownmiller’s anti-rape polemic Against Our Will. Although not without its own difficulties and controversies, it’s a work that is also credited with transforming attitudes towards sexual assault.
Brownmiller played a role in embedding certain core beliefs about rape, not least that it is a weapon of war, that the fear of assault functions as a means of controlling all women — “that some men rape,” she wrote, “provides a sufficient threat to keep all women in a constant state of intimidation” — and that the experiences of victims should not count for less than the status of perpetrators in left-wing circles.
Right now, I can’t help feeling that many of these lessons have been not so much forgotten, but deliberately unlearned. So many of those invested in “progressive” politics thought their way into caring about rape, then thought their way right back out again, leaving behind a residual, performative obsession with consent, albeit only in scenarios where the stakes are low to non-existent. Fear your hairdresser, but not your terrorist kidnapper.
A few years ago, I’d have said that there was merely debate within modern feminism on the best way to tackle sexual violence. This is healthy; not all responses have served the interests of all women, and a movement that cannot be self-critical is destined to fail. Today, however, I think we should ask ourselves whether the very fundamentals of feminist theories of rape are under attack, not just from incels, the far right and Andrew Tate, but from within feminism itself.
There is an enormous, glaring inconsistency at the heart of mainstream anti-rape activism. There is an obsession with trauma, but only in instances where we can be sure it is not being “weaponised” or, if it is to be weaponised, that it hits the right targets (the right-wing politician, not the left-wing freedom fighter).
On one hand, students are demanding “safe spaces”, according to the New York Times, “replete with cookies, colouring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies”, should they be on the same campus as someone discussing rape in a way they dislike.
On the other, increasing numbers graduate fully prepared to educate the world on why female-only spaces are no longer needed, why lesbians need to overcome their genital preferences, and why someone getting his penis out in the ladies’ isn’t flashing unless he says so.
Focusing on the minor details of consent and trauma has not just given conservatives an excuse to portray anti-rape activism as extremist and infantilising. Doing so has become a distraction whilst the foundations of feminist thought are blown apart. The male head of a Scottish Rape Crisis organisation tells female victims to “reframe your trauma”.
A convicted sex offender exposes himself to a girl in a Los Angeles spa, and the Guardian frets over any discussion leading to “anti-trans hate”. The journalist Owen Jones watches a video of the 7 October atrocities and muses over whether you can really know whether a slaughtered women with her underwear removed was raped. But all of these people probably think the Play-Doh and puppies are great. It is insane, but at the same time, there is a logic to it.
One of the striking things about Against Our Will is how much Brownmiller’s descriptions of leftist attitudes to rape mirror those that masquerade as cutting-edge today. She recalls “the shock to liberals” when she first raised the topic: “I remember the looks of incredulity and the charge, ‘Why, you’re on the side of the prosecution,’ as if that per se was evidence of racism and reaction.”
Fifty years later, protesting against rape is once again portrayed as reactionary, at least when it is done in a way that positions the rape victim as someone who wants recognition, redress and a reassertion of her own boundaries, as opposed to cuddly toys, cushions and cute animal gifs.
The trouble is, whilst many on the left may have nominally accepted second-wave arguments about sex, power and consent — at least where someone such as Harvey Weinstein or Donald Trump is concerned — they have also bought into multiple theories and political positions which directly contradict them. Just as trans activism has rendered the feminist position on gender as a social hierarchy unacceptable, numerous essential components of modern-day social justice activism have rendered the feminist position on rape unacceptable.
Namely, we are encouraged to think biological sex is undefinable and penises are just random bits of flesh; that boundaries are — in principle — fascistic; that the problem with femininity is not that it treats women as masochists, but that this masochism has been “stigmatised”; that sex work is no different to any other form of work; that real rape accusations are weapons of white supremacy in the same way as false ones; that to punish rapists is to be complicit with the “real” patriarchy; and that bigoted women like to pretend their irrational phobias are legitimate fears.
Recent books such as Andrea Long Chu’s Females, Alison Phipps’s Me, Not You, Sophie Lewis’s Full Surrogacy Now and Amia Srinivasan’s The Right to Sex play with these ideas, often in a disingenuous “just asking questions” way. What they tend not to admit (apart, perhaps, from in the case of Long Chu) is that a basic decision has been made: which comes first — tackling rape, or defending unregulated porn and the sex trade?
This decision is dressed up in all sorts of supposedly nuanced arguments (“ending stigma” is a favourite) but this is what it comes down to. This is the idea of “freedom” that has been favoured, regardless of what it means for which bodies and lives matter.
“A feminist politics which sees the punishment of bad men as its primary purpose will never be a feminism that liberates all women,” writes Srinivasan, as though earlier feminists were merely vengeful and simplistic. It’s a neat way of avoiding the central problem, which is not one of vengeance, but basic humanity. The 1991 criminalisation of marital rape has not led to endless numbers of “bad men” being punished, but it fundamentally changed the status of wives.
It is staggering that such things have apparently become too politically costly — or for some, just too much of a turn-off — to acknowledge. A vital legacy is being misrepresented and discarded, and it is women themselves who will lose.
“When the women’s movement first began to discuss rape as a feminist issue,” wrote Brownmiller, “those women who still identified themselves with the male left reacted like their brothers with noncomprehension or hostility.” What appears to be progress can in fact be a fifty-year regression. In this context, #MeToo becomes not another step forwards, but feminism’s farewell tour.
It was good whilst it lasted, but we’re back to rape as at best political inconvenience, at worst something which victims must at all costs be prevented from using against “their side” (whether that side be the husband, the broader family unit, the religious community, or “the left/right” at large).
I do not wish to suggest that all minor gestures to promote a culture of consent are worthless. But if that is all the left is willing to engage in — attempts to look busy which their opponents then treat as feminism gone too far — then it is doing more harm than good. There’s a feeling that if we obsess over the small stuff, like sticking a content warning on a 19th century novel, we can ignore the big things: the naked body right in front of you, the mass rapes in a war zone, a global industry devoted to the sexual subjugation of women. This is not enough.
That the dismantling of anti-rape activism has taken place using the language of feminism now makes it harder to build it back up. The attitudes that Brownmiller decried in the seventies are now positioned as novel, never-thought-of insights into sex and power that previous feminists missed. Only they didn’t — they merely pointed out that the perspectives of victims matter, too. There is nothing old-fashioned, regressive or simplistic about recognising that rape victims are subjects, too. This should be the starting point for our politics. If we have to go right back there, so be it, but best make it soon.
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