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My Feminist Action: Locating Sex in Sexual Harassment and Rape

by Kathleen Barry

November 16, 2011

Here we go again! Last week Mother Jones published an article, "Herman Cain's Sexual Harassment Scandal Isn't About Sex."

The claim that rape, sexual harassment, sexual abuse are NOT sex -- they are power is not new. But this Mother Jones article is more blatant than most in that it asserts that the harassment is the result of the difference in Herman Cain's status and that of his alleged victims. That is, power is a matter of a class. Poof -- gender disappears and we can drop the sexual from sexual harassment. The fact of the matter is that sexual harassment law already recognizes that class power is used by men to impose their sexual humiliations and abuse on women. So what is left, that we should call Cain's sexual aggressions just harassment?

For anyone minimally familiar with male domination, not to mention violence against women, a mind warp is required to follow the assertion that criminal sex acts are only economic class issues. You bet sexual harassment and rape are about power -- the power of male domination, which, by the way, includes the privileging of men economically and politically. Since feminism emerged in the late 1960s with our challenge to rape and harassment as male prerogative, we have established that sexual violence of all forms transgress every class, ethnicity, race or nation. That rankled leftists' nerves, hitting too close to home for many of them. And a half century later, some leftist rags still defend male sexual prerogative by trying to render the "sexual" dimension of violation invisible.

Here's the problem, if one says that rape is power, one is clearly talking about the rapist, the sexual harasser, the sexual abuser. So if the rapist has power and exercises it to rape, sexually abuse or harass, where in the world does one get the idea that having sex on the body of his victim or attempting to fondle a woman who does not want that is not part of the rapist's act or experience or doing of sex? And of the way he is using his power? In other words, how, by any logic is it possible to arrive at the conclusion that the rapist, sexual harasser or abuser is not having or getting sex and sexual satisfaction or pleasure? Does the Mother Jones writer really believe that Cain was not personally sexually engaged when he allegedly imposed himself on the women who have charged him with sexual harassment?

I'll go through my own history, although I'd like to leave it in my distant past. The man who raped me when I was in my 20s was, indeed, wielding physical power over me to subdue me. He was also exercising the power of male privilege that encourages men to take women when and where they want, and to humiliate and subdue them. That's all power. I get that. But he also had sex on/in my body and left his semen behind as proof. I tried the best I could to dissociate from what he was doing. But there was no doubt that he was getting sex and that perhaps in getting it through violence, it may have been even more exciting for him. After all. that is the lesson of pornography.

What I find maddening in this rape and sexual harassment are not sex claim is the implicit idea that sex, as in a sexual act, is something outside of a person's experience of it. It is as if those who assert this "phallacy" assume that there is something essential called sex which should be given free rein. Very clever, but none of our human instincts or drives operates free of or outside of our actions and experiences.

Sex is not a thing, an object, as sexologists would have it. It is an aspect of being human and domain of our humanity. Sex exists in our experiences of it. As with any other kind of interaction, when we interact sexually, we humanize or dehumanize ourselves and others. If Cain reduced those women to objects for his sexual gratification, we should be much more worried about the fact that, throughout the scandal, he held his own in the polls. This attests to the staying power of sexual domination and the insistent need for feminist action to hold all politicians accountable.

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Kathleen Barry, Professor Emerita, is a feminist activist and sociologist. Her first book, “Female Sexual Slavery,” launched an international movement against trafficking in women. Her most recent book is “Unmaking War, Remaking Men: How Empathy Can Reshape Our Politics, Our Soldiers and Ourselves” (2011).

Also see ”Speak Out: Sharing Passions, Tips, Techniques” by Gabrielle Korn in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

See ”Marcha de las Putas: SlutWalking Crosses Global Divides” by Stephanie Gilmore in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.


Boadie posted: 2011-11-17 17:33:40

Great article! This is so true. I understand why feminists keep saying that rape is not about sex. It's because men have tried to excuse rape by saying they need sex, or even saying that pornography prevents rape. But we know that rape is about men exercising their dominance over women. However, this analysis has now gone too far as we seem to be forgetting the fact that for many men rape is, in fact, a form of sex, perhaps even that much more enjoyable for them precisely because it is rape (which is what pornography teaches them, as you said). However, I would disagree that all sexologists are reducing sex to an object. I'm a tantric massage therapist working toward certification in sexological bodywork, and I don't feel that I'm reducing sex to an object. Quite the opposite. Tantric massage teaches that sex is a human experience, and not an object at all.

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