On rape, and privilege, and being seen

I had an argument with a friend not long ago in which she told me she felt I was not seeing her. It was a sobering charge, and an accurate one besides. I had missed, or at least seemed not to heed, some rather clear statements she’d made about what she needed from me.
The specifics are irrelevant here. On the level of our friendship, I was upset to have hurt her, of course. But the reason I mention it here is that it was one more object lesson handed to me in the way that privilege and blindness work hand in hand.
On second thought, let’s not call it blindness. People who are literally blind don’t need one more disparaging use of the term floating around, and besides, there were certain things I was seeing just fine. They all just happened to be closely connected to me. Call it myopia, then, both for greater accuracy and in the hopes that those with the literal affliction will be less likely to take offense.

In any event, it was in large part privilege that caused my myopia, privilege ranging from the specific and personal and in some cases transitory to that which is more pernicious, more deeply rooted. For instance, being male and thus brought up with the expectation that the woman — of whatever sort: friend, lover, colleague — is responsible for doing the emotional work in the relationship. Or for that matter, being male and not knowing fully what women contend with in living their lives. Privilege has insulated me from certain unpleasant realities, exempted me unfairly from certain innate responsibilities. An ethical life demands that privilege be examined and to the degree possible discarded, and so despite the difficulty of the conversation I was grateful to my friend for the kick upside my myopic head.
Not being seen is painful enough when it’s not clearly accompanied by privilege. I had a couple inadvertent pokes in that sore spot related to my former employer this month, and despite a generous note from my old boss last week it’s clear that as far as most of Earth Island’s staff is concerned, I don’t exist and the five years I edited the magazine never happened. A petty thing, to be sure. But stinging nonetheless, and imagine if this not-seeing happened in a context in which The Eco Magazine Industry had spent centuries keeping middle-aged white male editors in their place.
Imagine, for instance, that instead of a slacker whiteboy feeling sorry for himself about a former non-profit job not lauding him to the skies, the not-seeing involved people with privilege telling someone without privilege that he or she does not exist.
It could be a socially ambitious person who’d had access to higher education saying that people without degrees who dare to associate with the formally educated have “fake[d] their way into the educated middle class,” and then claiming that the only place such people actually exist is in “pulp novel scenario[s]” about evil frauds.
Or it could be a person who — insulated from the stark realities involved in a political issue — not only claims that pundit hair-splitting is the proper opinion to hold but that in fact no one holds any other opinion, even though hundreds of thousands of people claim to.
Or — to at long last shift the topic of discussion from my own damn privileged self, to everyone’s probable long-delayed relief — it could be the consistent refrain among a subset of scarcity-model-driven “progressive” bloggers that no valid criticism of their position exists, or more accurately, that no one exists who possesses that valid criticism.
Ironically, given their claiming a place in a scientifically objective “reality-based community,” these bloggers use the same debating tactics as global warming denialists, as young-Earth creationists. They characterize calm, deliberately measured responses as “fury” or “hatred.” They take failure to agree with their positions as personal attack, as “joy-killing narrative,” as driven by individual resentment, rather than entertain, in the fashion of the scientific method, a sober appraisal of the possibility that they might not be entirely correct. To impute ill motive to those who criticize you is to engage in unfalsifiable speculation, and is thus an easy way to avoid the possibility that you won’t be able to disprove the criticism.
And if you point out that these folks aren’t seeing you, you run the risk that they’ll call you “offensive” because you haven’t been “disappeared” dirty-war style by being dropped out of a plane over the open ocean, a first cousin of the “I can’t be racist because I’ve never lynched anyone” argument.
What prompts all this? Just the most recent example of “progressive” bloggers denying the existence of a whole class of people, this time in a widely discussed book proposal on the topic of rape.
From the book proposal:

Imagine a world where women enjoy sex on their own terms and aren’t shamed for it. Imagine a world where men treat their sexual partners as collaborators, not conquests. Imagine a world where rape is rare and swiftly punished.
Welcome to the world of Yes Means Yes.
Yes Means Yes! will fly in the face of the conventional feminist wisdom that rape has nothing to do with sex. We are looking to collect sharp and insightful essays, from voices both established and new, that demonstrate how empowering female sexual pleasure is the key to dismantling rape culture.

The Theriomorph has a concise summary of the project and a cogent criticism of it, with links to other commentary useful and inane. Her take-home message, spot-on as usual:

An upper middle class 18-30 year old white woman’s screaming orgasm is not going to end rape.

I’m a little behind in my reading of blog metathreads in which people take the same old core group of A-listers to task over yet another injury-by-carelessness, so I didn’t learn of this project until about a week after the argument started. By the time I learned of it, the point had been aggressively and well-made that the book’s apparent definition of rape is, essentially, a misunderstanding of the nature of one subset of rape. The point had been made that defining rape as sexual negotiation gone wrong, and saying that female sexual empowerment would thus “dismantle rape culture,” basically disappears the vast majority of rape victims in world history.
And, predictably, the status quotidians have leapt up to say that these critics have gotten it all wrong for suspect reasons, some of them dismissive, some of them arguably well-intended [Strike that. I skimmed his post, missing the part where he refers to a critic’s reasonable arguments as “fucking insane.” This is not the hallmark of the well-intended argument.] showing every sign of not really having understood the critics. An ethical life demands an open appraisal of one’s own privilege: the dismissive folks have so far failed to act ethically.
In their defense, it’s a common trait.
OK, that’s really not a defense.
Ironically, the book may well do the most damage in “disappearing” a group that most of us agree we would be better off without: actual rapists. As Ilyka says here, in response to Sylvia’s best, shortest debunking possible of the book’s premise:

I do not believe that the men who wonder whether an act is or is not rape are sincere. I do not believe they are really that stupid. As I think I’ve said elsewhere, just because antifeminists come up with a derailing concept like “gray rape” does not mean feminists have to lend it any credibility by addressing it as if it were serious.

Which is exactly right. Generalizations are always trivially refutable, except this one isn’t: To a first approximation, rapists are perfectly aware of the degree to which they are acting without the consent of their victims. Grant the premise of the book, remake society so that assent rather than consent is a necessary precondition of sex, and rapists will merely shift to making sure their victims say “no” in no uncertain terms. If a highly contagious brain virus changed women so that they constantly wanted sex with every man they saw regardless of the setting, rapists would just find some other way to hurt women.
And the fact that women encounter some of those rapists sitting across the table from them at a fancy restaurant, clean-shaven and in an Armani suit and trust-worthy-looking enough to be invited home after, changes none of that.
Ilyka is correct in pointing to the bogus concept of “gray rape” as the underpinning of the book. It’s right there in the capsule summary. Here it is again:

Yes Means Yes! will fly in the face of the conventional feminist wisdom that rape has nothing to do with sex.

At tekanji’s blog, Yes Means Yes co-editor Jaclyn Friedman elucidates:

What we more meant is that the concept of “sex has nothing to do with rape” has gotten twisted to the point where it’s difficult in some quarters of rape prevention to talk about changing the sexual culture as a means to eradicate rape culture

Unless one defines “rape culture” to include only those rapes that occur within an honest context of sexual negotiation involving a man acting in good faith, which is to say excluding all but a vanishingly small percentage of actual rape, the argument that positive assent will eradicate the rape culture is true only in the broadest, most vague sense. And I’m betting that’s why it’s “difficult in some quarters” to discuss whether altering our notion of consent might “dismantle the rape culture.” Have the editors considered the possibility that the women in those “quarters” making it “difficult” might feel that the argument negates their own experience? That it says their experience of rape is wrong or exceptional or misinterpreted? That the argument is, well, myopic?
Have they considered the possibility that the argument, essentially, disappears women who’ve been raped in situations where their expressed lack of consent was the entire point? I’d find it “difficult” to address the proposal levelly myself.
No one denies that rape and sex are linked. They share certain obvious base characteristics. They are, nonetheless, distinct things. “Gray rape” is bullshit. A violent attack is not “sex” simply because the attacker uses his sexual organs as a weapon, or targets the sexual organs of his victims.
An argument by allegory: If someone hits you over the head with a banjo that’s assault, not bluegrass. You can offer the victim all the music appreciation classes in the world. Music appreciation is a fine thing. But it won’t change the culture of violence that allowed the attack.