I was fumbling around the web late at night, and I came across the funniest bit of antifeminist backlash I’ve ever seen. It’s apparently an excerpt from a book called Sex, Lies & Feminism by some guy named Peter Zohrab. I was amazed at how cocky he gets. He has the nerve to think he’s poking holes in the arguments of respectable scholars like Susan Brownmiller, when he writes stuff like this (excerpted text is all verbatim and [sic]):
A most surprising thing happened to me: I was working on the second draft of this book, when I went to an inservice course1, where a bunch of Feminists handed me the best disproof of the Feminist position on rape I could ever hope to find ! In fact, this group of people (mainly women) is so determinedly Feminist (and left-wing, generally) that I almost had to pinch myself, and wonder if it wasn’t some sort of set-up.
One topic which was covered during the one-day course was Brain Sex, based on the book of the same name. 2 After talking about a few of the differences between men and women’s psychology which are mentioned in that book, the Facilitator, talking to the females in the audience, said something like:
“You know what it’s like when you tell your husband not to buy you a present for your birthday — and he doesn’t !!”
There was a chorus of patronising agreement from the mainly-female audience.
So, of course, I jumped at the opportunity to say,
“That’s just like rape. The woman says ‘No’, and the man’s wrong whatever happens.”
There was a surprised, but almost unanimous, reflex chorus of “No” from this same audience !!! (I might have added that he could end up in jail for making one choice, and lose his marriage if he makes the other choice.)
This incident illustrates a number of points: One is that the Feminist insistence that a woman always means “No” when she says “No” is a downright lie — as Camille Paglia, though she calls herself a Feminist, has said. Many men have gone to jail because that lie has become official doctrine in some courtrooms.
Another point is that allowing only Feminists to have serious input into Sex/Gender policies has resulted in a Society where women can have their cake and eat it too — while men are put into a Catch-22 situation.
And the other point that this anecdote illustrates is that the Politically Correct are perfectly prepared to deny obvious truths and enforce them by sheer weight of numbers. This is shown by the chorus of “No’s” I got when my made my comment. To be fair, I could see at least one intelligent and rational woman in front of me had got my point — and I felt, on the next day, that my point had sunk in to some extent — so the “No” reaction was probably the reflex reaction of people who recognise theological heresy when they hear it.
But I should add that I had been preparing the ground for many years, with the gradual introduction of anti-Feminist heresies. If it weren’t for that background, the “No” reaction would have been really unanimous and permanent, and I would have suffered detrimental consequences in the workplace for my heresy.
Delicious, eh? Well, where to begin? First of all, the idea that there is only one “Feminist position” on rape is laughable. Every die-hard feminist knows positions on rape range from the extremely cynical (pro-male) likes of Katie Roiphe to the extremely cynical (pro-female) likes of Andrea Dworkin, with many moderate feminists (Susan Brownmiller, Robin Warshaw, etc.) in between. The funny thing is that this Peter Zohrab guy pretends to be an intellectual but ends up simplifying his opponents’ (many) positions into one that suits his rhetorical needs. I admit I’m biased toward anything remotely feminist (over those things more masculinist), but I do not imagine or wish that all antifeminism and backlash against feminism are the same things. Think about it—do all Republicans have the same beliefs? Do all Muslims have the same beliefs? Is there “the” Christian position on abortion (some would have you believe there is only one)?
But simplification is a natural human tendency, isn’t it? What I don’t understand is the way Zohrab has presented the supposed catch-22 facing men. There are two things at issue here: 1. The relation (if any) between buying presents and rape, and 2. The nature of consent in sex.
First of all, Zohrab makes a false analogy here, mainly through the de-contextualization of a feminist slogan about “no” meaning “no” and “yes” meaning “yes.” No feminist I know actually believes the slogan applies to all situations—it is a slogan that derives directly out of the controversy surrounding consent as far as sex is concerned, and sex only. How do we know we can’t apply the slogan to gift-giving? Well, because if you tell someone, “No, you don’t have to get me anything for my birthday,” there is no law against him getting you one anyway; and, in fact, very few people complain about unwanted gifts (unless they are also coupled with unwanted advances or stalking-like behavior). The scenario the facilitator described had a humorously playful context—there is not the implication at all that the husband worries about whether his wife might misconstrue a gift as signifying some kind of unhealthy obsession. However, if a wife says, “No, I really don’t feel like having sex tonight,” she will unlikely be flattered by a reply of, “Oh, I know you’re being polite, honey, but I got you a penis, anyway.” The sticky situation is consent in the bedroom, not consent in gift-receiving. The two activities (the acceptance of a gift, the acceptance of sex) differ in nature, not just degree. If someone receives an unwanted gift, she can say, “No, really, please take it back,” and if the giver takes it back, there is no harm done. She can also, after having received the unwanted gift, throw it away, and usually not feel any more violated or vulnerable for having taken the unwanted gift. The same observations cannot be made about sex. If someone “receives” unwanted sex (to the point of penetration), even if she says, “No, really, please take it out,” and the rapist retreats from his position, there is harm done—the rapist has violated her. She cannot throw away that feeling of being physically overpowered, of having intimacy corrupted.
After having made a false analogy, Zohrab also makes a statement that doesn’t make sense: “That’s just like rape. The woman says ‘No’,[sic] and the man’s wrong whatever happens.” How is the man wrong whatever happens? Even Andrea Dworkin would not look down upon a man who did not have sex with a woman who said “No.” The idea Zohrab presents is that the man has no respectable option if a woman says “No.” As a matter of fact, there is a respectable option, and here it is: A man and a woman in a relationship have some quiet time alone together. They’re holding each other, talking, and maybe even kissing. Eventually, the man begins undressing the woman and begins unzipping his pants. The woman says, “No, not tonight, honey.” If the man says, “Okay. Sorry. I just got so excited. What’s the matter?” how is he then “wrong whatever happens”?
Zohrab himself indirectly calls into question one of his own statements (“the Politically Correct are perfectly prepared to deny obvious truths and enforce them by s
heer weight of numbers”) when he analyzes a passage from Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics: “It is a good rule of thumb that, if you want to look for the weaknesses in someone’s argument, you look for sentences starting with words such as ‘evident’,[sic] ‘evidently’,[sic] ‘obvious’,[sic] or ‘obviously’.[sic] These are precisely the weak assumptions that the writer/speaker needs to prop up with confident-sounding language.” Technically speaking, of course, he’s addressing only sentences that begin with those words (he uses the word obvious in the middle, not the beginning, of his sentence), but the same principle applies: Zohrab feels the need to “prop up” his argument with “confident-sounding language.” If you re-read the above long excerpt from his book, you’ll notice no “obvious truths” that he’s pointed out.
Lastly, the idea that the “chorus of ‘No’s'” shows the denial of truth by the enforcement of “sheer weight of numbers” is a mix-up of cause and effect. Just because there happened to be many people saying “No,” it doesn’t mean the people saying “No” were also implicitly saying, “And you have to listen to us because we are so many—and you, so few.” Maybe some of them thought that, but it cannot be logically deduced that all or any of them did. What he calls a “reflex reaction” is actually a logical response. His “obvious truths” on the other hand seem to be more of an antifeminist “reflex reaction.”
Even though Zohrab makes one logical blunder after another, the real issue (i.e., not the one Zohrab brings up about men always being wrong, especially when they take everything seriously, even when there are no laws to put them in prison) surrounding the consensual/non-consensual nature of sex is, in fact, a sticky one, though. There is the possibility of teasing, of an actual polite “no” being mistaken for a coquettish, playful “convince me.” That’s why when we upstart feminists ran/run our sexual assault workshops (I’m speaking specifically of ones I helped run at Wesleyan University; I’m assuming they’re still being run in the same fashion), we stressed the need for communication (between both parties) in sexual relations. We recognized that most rapes were male on female, but we did not, through our language or meaning, encourage a blaming mentality. Those who had been raped were “survivors,” not “victims.” The focus was on “How can we communicate both our desires and our limits?” not “You bad men, you very bad men, why don’t you stop raping women?!” Zohrab is, as most (not all, of course) antifeminists do, fighting a straw (wo)man—the feminazi. I am a die-hard feminist. I’ve read all of the famous die-hard, moderate, and antifeminist feminists (yes, there are antifeminist feminists—Christina Hoff Sommers, Camille Paglia, etc.), and I have not read anything so radical as to be completely unreasonable or, as the accusation has gone on for decades, “man-hating.”
The problem of backlash is quite widespread, actually. I’ve noticed a lot (and, this is probably another essay entirely) that whenever I teach students about racism, homophobia, or other forms of systematic oppression, they (especially white, straight males) tend to confuse the identification of an injustice with the perpetuation of a victim mentality. Just because someone points out a wrong, it doesn’t mean she is saying, “Woe is me. Pity me. I have it so awful. I have it much more awful than you do, you lucky bastard. There’s nothing I can do to better my situation.” Most people who try to educate others about injustices merely do so because those “others” do not even acknowledge such injustices exist. And, if we don’t acknowledge injustices as existing, how can we correct them? How can we fight them? Feminists do not want to put confused men in jail. We want to put rapists in jail, and we will work together with men, women, feminists, even antifeminists, to improve the lines of communication between partners of any genders so that we can reduce instances of rape—so that we quell the constant manifestation of injustice.