Pornography and Rape: A Personal Essay by Gertrude Green

Q. The creation and reproduction of gender roles causes the prevalence of rape. Discuss in relation to pornography and prostitution.

I have attempted where possible to describe my experience of rape with appropriate language. However, it is an important point that my rape was not mutual sex, nor does the word sex do what he did to me justice. Therefore I have used the term ‘fucked’ instead to convey the violent way he treated me. In addition, I have used Louis’ name in this essay despite the fact that hearing it continues to cause me great pain because I wanted to humanise him, as a normal man who represents many other men who do similar things to many other women.

Radical feminists have written extensively on how gender roles lead to the prevalence of female victimisation, including rape, pornography and prostitution. Chancer (1998) and Schwendinger, J.R and H. Schwendinger (1983) criticise radical feminism as claiming that rape and sexual inequality is a result of the ‘natural’ aggression of men. Rather, radical feminism argues that gender roles are learned through socialisation and reinforced through social institutions (such as the legal system) (Bourque 1989:15). In this essay I will focus on western women, gender roles and societies. Winter, Thompson and Jeffreys (2002) define the West as “the industrialised, urbanised, wealthy nations with high GDPs and per capita incomes, which have been shaped, culturally, economically and politically, by western European liberal capitalist philosophy: namely the USA, Canada, Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand”. Russell (1975:260) defines western masculine characteristics as including aggression, force, power, strength, dominance, competitiveness and virility. Masculinity depends on its opposite: femininity which is described as including traits like submissiveness, passivity, weakness, and masochism (Russell 1975:268). In this essay I will focus on the feminine traits of masochism and submissiveness, and the masculine “virility mystique” to show how these are created and reproduced in pornography, and as such lead to rape. Pornography is the most extreme method by which harmful gender roles are created and reproduced, and can therefore be seen to cause the prevalence of the extreme sexist practices of rape and prostitution. I will also address how dominant discourses in society serve to systematically disempower female rape victims and silence their voices. Dworkin (Evans 1991) argues that there is a need to hear the victim’s stories in order to get beyond the intellectual argument. One cannot do justice to the issues involved without listening to the victim’s voices, as the nature of the violation of rape is not well enough known (Brison 1998:15). In order to illustrate my argument effectively I will therefore use my own experience of acquaintance rape.

The depiction of femininity as inherently masochistic has existed for centuries. Daly (1978:66) describes how men fabricate the plot of women needing to “lose their self in order to find it” through pain and self-denial which recurs throughout history in the form of feminine Christian masochism, devotion to Higher Causes, or through the torture of S and M rituals. This has led to the perception of some that rape can be a liberating experience for women (Wood 1975:199). Early male theorists such as Freud, Ellis and Kraft-Ebing argued that female desire was inherently masochistic and that females have a love of force (Sanday 1996). In this way, sadomasochism is seen as the extreme versions of masculine (as the sado) and feminine (as the masochist) traits (Sanday 1996:126). Ellis argued that women say ‘no’ to turn both themselves and men on more (Sanday 1996:126). Masochism, like all feminine characteristics, is a man-made construct, which serves to describe the woman’s will as what men wish it was (Dworkin 1997:127). This is exemplified in pornography, where women are shown to love penetration, especially violent penetration. Pornography depicts the normal woman as demanding force, violence, and pain (Dworkin 1981:165). In this way, women resisting sex is seen as part of the female game in which they desire to be overcome (Russell 1975:258). This leads to the assertion that women are so inherently masochistic that rape can be a pleasurable event. Thus the victim is blamed for unconsciously taking unnecessary risks and placing herself in dangerous situations in order to provoke men to rape her (Wood 1975:200). Such depictions of femininity lead to the justification of rape and prostitution (where the prostitute is seen to enjoy and choose her ‘profession’), in addition to blaming the victim and silencing her voice.

Dworkin (1981:167) has argued that men believe what pornography says about women. Louis was an average guy, who got lucky with a school-girl he met in the state library who agreed to go on an overnight camping trip with him. I knew that there would be sex involved, and thought that I needed the experience so that I would be good enough in bed when my boyfriend finally made the move. However, the sex was not what I expected it to be. Louis never bothered much with foreplay, or with pleasuring me. Instead, he violently penetrated me in all three holes: mouth, vagina and anus. He had a large penis and I was a virgin, so the pain involved for me was almost unbearable. Louis slapped my bottom and was rough while he fucked me, occasionally saying things like, “you like that, don’t you, you dirty slut?”. I believe that he thought that I was enjoying myself, and that I wanted what he wanted me to like: violent penetration and dominance. Jeffreys (1997) describes the popularity of ‘3-Hole’ prostitutes or brothels, and how women are shown to desire ‘3-Hole’ penetration in their mouth, vagina and anus (sometimes simultaneously) in pornography. It is clear that Louis, whether he watched pornography or not, was influenced by the discourse of women being inherently masochistic and desiring pain and force in sex.

Femininity is based on submission. Freud argued that the more passive a woman is, the more feminine she is, and the more the man is turned on (Sanday 1996:130). Ideas that women are essentially passionless and that normal women have little sexual desire have been dominant in western history. In addition, women are taught not to fight, and not to learn how. This causes women to become afraid to fight a man off as they become unduly intimidated by the rapist through lifelong conditioning to be submissive (Russell 1975:268). Rape victims are then blamed by men (and women) for not making their non-consent clear enough. As a result of this, in all states in Australia except for Victoria, if a man is found to have honestly believed there was consent then he must be acquitted (Bronitt & McSherry 2005:592). In addition, some women have been oppressed so thoroughly that they do not clarify their desire not to have sex, and so are not recognised by the legal system as rape victims. Rather than try to resist sex, women often do not make their feelings clear because of their conditioning to be submissive, or because they do not want to be accused of leading the man on (Russell 1975:272). Finally, women are often ‘broken’ by their rape to become totally docile and submissive after (and during) the act. Dworkin (1981) describes some examples of pornography that depict the white woman as the totally submissive woman. White women are predominantly portrayed in pornography, and they become the standard for all other women (Dworkin 1981:164). The rape victim arguably fills the most passive and submissive role of all.

When Louis pulled up in the car park to pick me up, I knew that it was all a mistake and that I did not want to get into that car. However, I reasoned to myself that I had gotten myself in this situation and could not back out now. I did not want to be a ‘tease’. Instead I resigned myself to counting down the hours until it would all be over, and concentrating on surviving until then. It was easier for me to shut myself down than it was to resist. Later, while he put up the tent I was filled with a sick dread and panic, because I could not see a way out and I did not know how to avoid what was coming. While he fucked me, I tried to float away, and distract myself with day-dreams. Louis kept on fucking me for what seemed like forever, and sometimes it would get so painful that I could not ignore what was happening, and then I tried to temporarily die inside, so that I felt nothing. This feeling of being totally helpless, and passive continues to overwhelm me at times. I did not tell anybody about what happened for years because I was so embarrassed that I had caused such a dangerous situation. Because of my passive way of dealing with the situation, I did not state clearly that I did not want to have sex. I blamed myself for the situation because of the narrow definition of rape. My example is one which demonstrates how rape discourses disadvantage the most oppressed women of all – those who are so submissive they can not say ‘no’.

An aspect of masculinity that dominates in pornography and leads to rape and prostitution is what Russell (1975) coins the virility mystique. The sexual socialisation of men trains them to separate desire from caring, respecting, liking, or loving (Russell 1975:263). This can cause them to regard women as sexual objects, rather than full human beings (Russell 1975:263). Dworkin (1997:129) argues that even pornography without visible violence is cruel because of the sexualisation and dehumanisation of the women that in effect tells them that they are worth nothing, and are only good to be penetrated. In addition, Jeffreys (1997:3) argues that men’s behaviour in choosing to use prostitutes is socially constructed by the idea that the woman exists to be used, and that this is an appropriate way to use her. Rape is justified by men believing that they have the right to have sex with women whether the woman wants to or not, because that is her natural function. In addition, this training to separate sex from love means that men are able to get sexual satisfaction from fucking a nameless, faceless, and as such worthless, woman. Louis made me feel like I was just an available cunt (or mouth, or anus) by making me give him oral sex while he drove the car, and by calling me a bitch and a whore while he fucked me. For two years afterwards I regarded my body as only useful to be fucked by men. A couple of times I was picked up by men in strange cars to have ‘consensual’ sex with them. This clearly shows how the dehumanising of women encouraged by masculinity, exemplified in pornography, leads to rape and prostitution.

Pornography is not the only institution that creates and reinforces gender roles that cause the prevalence of rape and prostitution. There is a strong backlash against radical feminist arguments in the media and academia. I will focus on the backlash against the move to expand the definition of rape to include all non-consensual sex. Katie Roiphe is one of the backlash bestsellers, with her book The Morning After (1993). In her chapter on acquaintance rape, Roiphe systematically undermines the radical feminist position and contests statistics on the prevalence of rape (see Russell (2000) and Dragiewicz (2000) for an extensive critique of backlash techniques). Dominant discourses “prescribe the boundaries of the lives we might imagine and will ourselves to live” (Dragiewicz 2000:197). Dominant discourses on rape serve to maintain the dominant power relations by attempting to define what rape is and isn’t, while silencing alternative discourses on rape, gender roles, and sexual norms (Dragiewicz 2000:217). In this way, dominant discourses on rape and the widespread acceptance of rape myths (such as all rapists are psychopaths, or rape victims are ‘bad’ women) serve to cause women not to recognise that they are victims of rape, despite the trauma that they may suffer (Russell 1975:259). Language is central to individual attempts to understand and communicate our experiences (Dragiewicz 2000:216). My experience of rape is a good example of this.

Despite the trauma that I continue to suffer, I am only now beginning to lay most of the blame on Louis. I remain uncertain in naming my experience rape, as I do not want to exaggerate my experience when there are other rape victims who seem to deserve the definition more. I am afraid of not taking enough responsibility. In my eagerness to blame myself, I never realised that what happened could have been rape. I forgot that I was under the consent age and that Louis was 11 years older than me (I was 15, Louis was 26). I forgot that Louis had the power, and he abused it by humiliating me and fucking me without giving any pleasure back. It must have been obvious to Louis that I was hurting, but he never asked, and he never checked if I still wanted to have sex. The fact that I forgot these important facts demonstrates the power of dominant discourses of gender roles in silencing the victims of sexual abuse. There is no vocabulary for expressing the many varied experiences of rape, and the result is that victims blame themselves, and others are silent, or also blame the victim (Brison 1998:20). Feminism provides the tools for creating new discourses that give victims the language to express their experiences, and to alleviate their blame with an analysis of wider structural pressures. Feminism has taught me that no man has the right to use his power over me to ‘have’ me or humiliate me in the way Louis did.

Possible solutions to the problems gender roles create proposed by radical feminists are many and varied. Jeffreys (1997), Russell (1975) and Dworkin (1997) all argue that rape, pornography and prostitution are an abuse of power, and therefore there is a need to get rid of power differences between the sexes. In addition, from my above examples of how gender roles cause harm towards women it is clear that the roles of masculinity and femininity in the West need to be challenged. Russell (1975) argues that a sex-role liberation would mix the elements of masculinity and femininity together, so that certain characteristics that create and reproduce power differences are not only ascribed to women nor men. In order to debunk rape myths and give victims a voice and language to express their experiences, a consent based concept of rape needs to be developed (Dragiewicz 2000:217). This has been implemented in NSW with all non-consensual sexual acts being classified as Sexual Assault or Sexual Harassment (Bronitt & McSherry 2005:604). Finally, as pornography is the most extreme and harmful institution that is creating and promoting gender roles, it must be heavily regulated both in Australia and internationally. This could include allowing only pornography that does not entrench inequality, possible trade sanctions against countries who do not regulate pornography, or heavy taxes on pornography that use the money raised to combat related problems. Internet jamming such as flooding the net with false pornography postings that cut to graphic descriptions of the problems caused by pornography would also be effective in fighting the industry.

Pornography, in its representations of gender roles, socialises men to rape and use prostitutes. Without that socialisation, it is not inevitable that men will rape. I believe that there is the possibility of real change, because if we can change the institutions that create and reinforce gender roles, men will cease to have the same kind of sexual pleasure in dominating and objectifying women. Dworkin (1981:23) illustrates this connection between the patriarchy, male violence, and sex: “the conquering of the woman is acted out in fucking, her possession, her use as a thing, which is the scenario that is endlessly repeated, with or without direct reference to fucking, throughout the culture”. The connections between pornography, rape, and prostitution were illustrated in my experience. The discourses of pornography influenced my experience of rape, which made me feel like a prostitute, while my socialisation into femininity stole my voice so that not only did I not resist, but I blamed myself for my own rape. Continuing to disregard or treat as inevitable the epidemic of rape and sexual victimisation of women is gender discrimination, especially while the resources exist to stop it.


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by Gertrude Green