April, as you probably know, is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Instead of doing a post about sexual assault, I’ve decided to do a little project. One of my favorite books is the phenomenal anthology Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape edited by Jacyln Friedman and Jessica Valenti. I read this book when it came out in 2008 and it had a profound impact on how I understand rape and sexual assault and also how I came into my late-blooming (but enthusiastic) feminism. So for Sexual Assault Awareness Month this year, two years later, I’m going to be blogging day-by-day about the essays in the book. There are 26 days left in April and 27 essays in the book, so I’ll do one a day except for one doubling-up. I’ll use cut tags so it won’t clog your RSS feed reader up too much, but I’ll try to identify the topic of each post clearly in the title so you know whether you’re interested. I won’t be blogging about the entire essay most days, but I’ll share my thoughts or vibe off of a topic brought up in the essay. So, without further ado, it’s time for Day One, reading “Offensive Feminism: The Conservative Gender Norms That Perpetuate Rape Culture, and How Feminists Can Fight Back” by Jill Filipovic.
Jill (who many of you probably know of from Feministe) starts the anthology off with a little bit of background on rape culture and how it’s steeped in a sexist society, as well as how feminist activism can combat rape culture. What I want to blog about today is a thought near the end of the essay, excerpted here:
Sexual assault is not only a crime of violence and power, but also one of entitlement. So long as men feel entitled to dominate and control women’s bodies, sexual assault will continue. While issues like reproductive justice may initially seem unrelated to sexual assault, they are a crucial aspect of women’s bodily autonomy and integrity […]
I think this is a crucial concept, and one that actually fits in well with the privilege theme we explored with the privilege carnival. Male privilege and a sense of entitlement and control over women’s bodies are inextricably linked. Though many of the laws that perpetuated this sense, such as laws allowing marital rape, have been amended to better reflect current attitudes, there are still plenty of legal and societal reminders of this type of control. (By the way, my home state was the last to make marital rape illegal, in 1993. Nice job, North Carolina). The whole idea of “silence is consent,” an idea that’s involved in many acquaintance rapes (and I’m sure we’ll get to it later in this project), depends on this sense of entitlement. It’s the idea that “unless you say no, I am entitled to your body–the default is entitlement and unlimited access to your body.”
I like the way Jill links this idea to reproductive rights, and I think she makes a very good point in so doing. Abortion and reproductive rights generally are often framed with the “choice” model, but we can also think of them in terms of privacy, bodily autonomy, and consent. Again, there is a system of defaults working here. The default is access, the default is also carrying a fetus to term. Though the choice model has some advantages, we have to be careful not to use it according to this default. When feminists talk about working towards gender equality and against poverty to create an environment in which effective choices are possible, that’s the right idea. When we advocate choices in contraception, and the choice of whether or not to have sex, we’re saying that women should be independent actors from the start. When it’s framed in terms of the choice to keep or not keep a baby, though, there’s an uncomfortable alignment with “fetus/pregnancy as default.” This alignment often takes the focus off the question of how the fetus got there in the first place–did the woman make an effective, enthusiastic choice to have sex? Did she have contraceptive options?
I would suggest that we think about bodily integrity and privacy/autonomy, not just choice, when we think about reproductive rights. When we think of it this way, we’re considering all the ways in which people other than the woman in question try to exercise authority over or gain access to a woman’s body. Whether it’s men, a particular man, the government, or anti-feminist women who run crisis pregnancy centers and harass young pregnant women, it’s important to recognize that there are many different ways to violate a woman’s bodily integrity and therefore her privacy, her individual autonomy. When any actor exercises control over a woman’s reproductive options, it’s a violation, just as sexual assault is a violation. Rape is a feminist issue. So is abortion. So are forced contraception and sterilization, environmental harm that damages women’s bodies, government policies that perpetuate (especially female) poverty, etc. Let’s stop thinking of these as separate issues.