There’s a well-known saying in feminist circles. It’s so common that it has garnered its own acronym: PHMT. Patriarchy hurts men too. On balance, it hurts men somewhat less than it hurts women, but the harm is still there.
There’s another truism: patriarchy is a system, not a group of people. (Actually, that’s my invention, but the concept has been repeated often enough that it deserves its own pithy phrase.) In other words, just because a woman is doing it, doesn’t mean it isn’t patriarchy in action. Men can be and are feminists.
Another trope in the community of people who struggle to diminish the influence of bigotry of various sorts is, “Intent is not magic.” In other words, if you repeat sexist, racist, or homophobic ideas, the fact that you were not aware of the bigoted undertones of your ideas does not lessen the harm caused by them.
This brings me to the subject of this post. I’m a big fan of FreeThoughtBlogs.com (henceforth referred to as FTB) and of international feminism and activism. FTB has made the wonderful decision to bring Taslima Nasreen, the writer, doctor, and activist for women’s rights and freedom from religion, on board. She has had her books banned in several countries and been threatened by more fatwas than Salman Rushdie for her writings. She is courageous, intelligent, fierce, uncompromising–all qualities I admire and aspire to emulate. And, on the subject of sexuality and consent, she is quite wrong. Some of her first posts on FTB have involved her making some dubious assertions on the nature of prostitution and pornography. She believes that both are inherently exploitative and oppressive, and that no woman truly consents to either. Other bloggers, particularly Greta Christina and Natalie Reed, have pointed out the weaknesses in Taslima’s arguments. Had she simply included the caveat that some women choose prostitution, and made a case for why they should not be allowed to, I think there would not be as many objections to her positions. However, she seems to genuinely be struggling with the concept of consent. Further evidence for this hypothesis was provided the other day as I was reading my Twitter feed.
The link in her tweet turned out to be a news story from Denmark about a couple in their 40s. They met and went to the woman’s house and had sex there several times. However…
“When the 47-year-old wanted even more, her partner said no.”
The man then tried to leave the apartment but the woman prevented him from escaping and demanded he have sex with her again.
“Because the 43-year-old saw no other alternative, he complied with the woman’s wishes another few times so he could finally leave the apartment,” the spokesman said.
“But when she continued to refuse and demanded even more sex from him, he fled to the balcony and alerted the police.”
Now, I appreciate that women in their 40s may indeed be having wonderful sex. But it seems to me that if you have to coerce or force someone into having sex with you, it can’t be that good. The woman in question is, rightfully in my mind, being charged with sexual assault and illegal restraint. The article does not go into much detail about what measures she took to restrain him, nor his response to the experience.
But Taslima Nasreen, who famously fights against patriarchal restrictions and for sexual liberation, does not see that there is a problem here. Her response seems in line with those who commented on the story at the newspaper website:
Arrest her? They should give her a medal. I wish my wife had this woman’s sex drive.
If it were the story of a woman reporting a similar encounter, it would be pretty clear-cut: preventing someone from leaving in order to coerce or force them to have sex with you when they do not want to is sexual assault. It is sexual assault because there is no consent. It is a terrible thing to do to another person. It should not be excused when either a man or a woman does it.
With responses like this, is it any wonder than men who are raped hesitate to report their experiences? This is why consent and autonomy are central values for atheist humanists like myself. Yes, we should fight against sexual exploitation and objectification, but why? We should end human trafficking and sex slavery, but why? For me, these questions are answered by the axiom that all humans should, ideally, have the ability to control their own bodies. This right exists, of course, within the network of social obligations all humans have to each other to varying extent, and is subject to restriction if it can be shown to cause harm to other people. But this assumption provides a useful framework through which to interpret other people’s actions on an ethical basis. It’s not ethical to imprison, or try to imprison someone to coerce them into sex with you. It’s a violation of that person’s autonomy and his or her bodily integrity. But because our patriarchal culture teaches us that women possess sex, and men must try to take it from them, and women don’t actually like sex itself but only agree to it in order to exchange it for something else of greater value–a Mercedes Benz, a house, children, emotional intimacy–the actions of a woman who is violating another person’s autonomy are seen in a jolly, joking light. The idea of a woman wanting sex more than a man is quite literally laughable.
And so Taslima, despite being opposed to the patriarchy, perpetuated it by enforcing patriarchal expectations onto this man and woman. I do not doubt for one second that she did not intend to do so–her writings on feminism and women’s sexual empowerment are more than enough evidence to convince me that she would not knowingly support patriarchy. Thus, Taslima demonstrates that intent is not magic, and patriarchy is a system, not a group of people. And perhaps because gender inequality in Taslima’s cultural background is so much more pronounced than it is in American or European culture, she was blinded to the fact that in this instance, it was a man who was the victim of the patriarchy.
Who knows how this man experienced it–maybe it was traumatic or maybe not. But if it was, you can be certain that there will be pressure from the entire culture to keep his trauma to himself or risk mockery, derision, questioning of his masculinity, and so on, thanks to the patriarchal idea that men can’t be raped (by women, anyway) and women never want sex, and if they do, it’s absurd and hilarious. This viewpoint is not supported by data, it is a lazy form of stereotypical thinking. It conceals the guilt of those perpetrating sexual assault, either men or women (though the vast, vast majority of rapists are actually men) and it conceals the pain of their victims. It makes me sad that Taslima has this blind spot, but I plan to continue reading her blog. I recognize that I owe my ability to choose these beliefs in part to race, class, and educational privilege, and I’m open to hearing arguments that may change my mind.
Update: This post has been edited slightly, mostly to add paragraph breaks in the last section of the piece. This is what happens when I publish things at 4 am. Seems I got some odd formatting up in the mix.