Monthly Archives: March 2014

If everything is rape, nothing is rape

Trigger warning for discussion of rape, childhood sex abuse and consent

Self disclosure time: I have been a victim of actual rape and actual childhood sexual abuse from cisgender men, and although I had a lot of good therapy and do just fine I’m more than aware of the impact on any human being violated in this way.

I also work with rape and sexual abuse survivors in my professional life. I work from a feminist perspective, and I am adamant that this is not a gender neutral issue. As such, I have zero tolerence for anyone that blurs or distorts the definition of rape, and that’s what I would like to blog about today.

Extremist propaganda that equates just about anything with rape, if it is done by a man or a trans woman, is offensive to people who have experienced genuine rape, and is as unacceptable as the casual use of words like “frape“. “All PIV sex is rape” is one such distortion. The presence of a young trans girl in a girl’s toilet being described as rape is another. The final trigger for this blog, though, was a trans woman having consensual sex with another woman being described as rape if she (hypothetically) does not disclose her trans status. I recently encountered an earnest feminist discussion on the subject, among people who should absolutely know better.

Robin Thicke could not blur the lines any better than that – how are we supposed to teach young people about consent if these mixed messages are floating around? If a woman freely says yes, it’s still rape? If your rapist is a woman, it isn’t rape? If you don’t tell your partner everything about yourself before consensual sex, yup, that’s rape too? Huh?

I once was super alarmed to find out the woman I was seeing voted conservative. I must admit, I felt ill to think I had been sleeping with a Tory, but it taught me a valuable lesson – if you have a particular issue or prejudice against sleeping with any group of people, the onus is on you to get that cleared up ahead of time. Okay, so saying you would never date a trans woman (if you’re into women) might well indicate that you are a gigantic transphobe but that is still your choice – your body, your rules.

Let’s get this clear, it was not “rapey” for my then girlfriend to call me prejudiced for cooling on her when I found out she was a Tory. Nor was it “rapey” of her not to tell me, nor was it even “rapey” of her to present her political views in exactly the way I wanted to hear them – it was deceptive, and it was not her nicest quality, but it isn’t rape to deceive or conceal from a lover. It’s rape to coerce or force someone into sex, it’s rape not to gain consent. There are many, many shitty things that lovers can do that don’t fall into the category of rape – fraud, deception, cheating, trickery are among the many things that rape isn’t.

Of course, if a trans woman did not disclose her status it would likely be out of fear of violence or social isolation, and the unalterable reality of being trans hardly equates to the wrong-headed choice of voting Tory, so I apologise to trans women for making this comparison, but I hope I made my point.

There’s no doubt that some anti-trans propagandists want to create a deliberate association between trans women and rape in the minds of women, even going so far as to suggest the entire process of transition is an act of rape. And of course, because rape is such a triggering world for the tragically high number of women who have been raped, it is very easy to manipulate people with such an emotive argument – a classic example of what Naomi Klein would call “shock doctrine”.

Things to watch out for – these people always use the term “trans activist” rather than “trans person” to make trans individuals seem like part of an organised political movement, rather than diverse individuals trying as best they can to live their complicated lives. They put transphobic stories alongside other actually serious cases of actual rape and violence against women, to groom you into associating the two, entirely unrelated, things. Some Facebook pages in particular will share a high proportion of trans-related stories, as if to build a feeling in the audience that trans people are the main threat.

Recently I had to complain to my local pharmacy about a wall hanging that read “If a lady says no she means perhaps, if she says perhaps she means yes, and if she says yes, she is no lady”. This is rape culture, in a nutshell, as was the pharmacist’s obliviousness to the harm in this message. The message blurs the lines around consent, and the act of consent should be clear.

No feminist should ever blur the message of what rape is. Extremist, distorted views undermine what people like myself are fighting for; to end rape culture – they are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

The underprivileged nature of cis, het, white folks

Some time ago I had a showdown with my cisgender, heterosexual, able, white male university professor because I felt he lacked awareness of his personal power. His response was somewhat surprising – he spoke of his hidden ethnicity, and his oppressed cultural heritage as an Irish man. I became acutely aware that as an English person I was to him the oppressor rather than the oppressed, and I don’t deny the centuries of oppression the English heaped upon the Irish.

It did not really change my mind about his obliviousness to his own personal power, not even, strangely enough, when he started his “you students have the real power here, you have no clue how insecure my position is!” speech. But it did give me a clue as to why he was oblivious to his own power, a clue that helps me understand why, for example, rich white lawyers persecute young, vulnerable transgender people and still delude themselves they are the ones being victimised.

Dare I say it? Perhaps the root of abuse is not simply privilege, perhaps it is more than that. People like this are driven by fear; fear of lack of privilege, fear of loss of privilege. Once we allow our brains to believe we are in deficit in humanity’s equity balance, we can start to believe that no amount of power, no amount of making up for that loss, will ever compensate. That fear-driven “it’s never enough” notion is insidious; it lets us believe we are powerless and therefore unable to affect others – it legitimises our thefts, our aggressions and microagressions, our fortifications, and our accumulations. We develop a notion of a small, vulnerable self versus an oppressive society, oblivious to the fact that we are both vulnerable individuals and a part of the oppressing collective.

Whoever we are, it is likely we are participating in some structure of oppression or other. We are oppressors and oppressed, and we are more likely to recognise ourselves as oppressed, even when we are powerful and notable cis, het, able, white male professors.

When we have obvious signs of oppression – when we are women or transgender, or both, for instance, folks will falsely tell us we have privilege because of our minority status. This is, of course, easily debunked. But who is talking about the fact we have privilege in spite of our clear and unequivocal disprivilege? Deep down, I had always understood that being born with a vagina automatically placed me in the special category of “most oppressed”, and that no amount of fighting or compensating would ever garner me enough real power in a perpetually unbalanced world. I have lately come to realise what a dangerous notion that is.

This professor of mine, this powerless-feeling middle aged little boy for whom no amount of success and status would ever feel enough was a mirror to my own insecurity. For there I was, chip on my shoulder about my lack of education and social status, but oblivious to the power of my fierce mind, my masculine verbal confidence, and my white, middle class, English sense of entitlement. I realised, looking at this man, that I, too could get myself into a mindset where no amount of power and success and acknowledgement and acceptance would ever feel enough to wash away my vulnerabilities.

I could dwell a great deal on my status as a genderqueer lesbian raised as female, my survival of abuse, my trauma and my minor disabilities, but none of these things erases my power. We all have it, and we all have a responsibility to be aware of our potential to abuse. And sure, we all come from a vulnerable, powerless place – even lofty white males were once babies. And we are all headed to an equally powerless place as our bodies and minds decay and even the most powerful among us lose their grip and get sidelined. Power and privilege are not fixed things for any of us.

The reality is, I have power in this world and so do many others who do not realise it.