Making rape unthinkable

By Kamala Emanuel September 28, 2016 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — "'It's only a penis' rape, feminism and difference"[1] is a fascinating piece of anthropology and provides with a useful starting point for a much needed discussion. In it, Christine Helliwell provides an account and discussion of an incident that vividly illustrates what it is to live in a society where rape is unthinkable. The incident, and the essay, provide much food for thought for feminists in the West, regarding how we might imagine our society without rape, the threat of rape and even the possibility of thinking of rape, and what steps we might take to achieve a society like that. At a time when Western feminists are characterising our culture as a rape culture, the picture painted by Helliwell of a society free of rape provides us with a contrast that can help us better understand our own society and what it is in it that makes rape possible, even inevitable. Helliwell spent 20 months living with the Gerai, a Dayak community of Indonesian Borneo. During that time, she came across no accounts of sexual assault or attempted assault (which, because of the lack of privacy, she is sure she would have heard about if they'd happened). The closest was the incident she recounts, in which a man crept into a woman's house and bed at night, and told her to be quiet, intimating that he wanted to have sex with her. What to a Western eye looks like attempted rape, to the Gerai was something else altogether. The woman yelled at the man and he bolted from the house in shame, and actually left for another village for a period. She was angry, not because he had attempted to have sex with her against her will (he hadn't), but because he had assumed she had wanted to have sex with him (because she'd accepted his initiatory gifts) and hadn't discussed it with her before getting into her bed. In the loud and very public discussion that took place the next day, Helliwell's assumption that it had been a dangerous situation in which rape was averted, where the woman may have felt afraid of being coerced into sex didn't meet with any understanding among the villagers or the woman herself. There was no word for rape and no conception that it was even possible for a man to force a woman to have sex against her will. In the essay, Helliwell explores what underpins this absence of rape from thought and practice among the Gerai. The Gerai are a horticultural society reliant on rice cultivation, which both men and women participate in. Although the society is relatively egalitarian, both men and women speak of men being “higher.” In law this means a woman's testimony is worth 7/10 of a man's, and husbands have certain rights over women that women don't have over their husbands. Even so, the social inequality that does exist does not flow over into personal relationships, the construction of gender and conceptions of sex and what intercourse is, that can make rape possible. Violence is uncommon but not absent from society as a whole, and aggression is not valued but derided as a mark of laziness and incompetence. But what really stands out is the way the Gerai experience, talk and think about gender and sex, all radically different from the dominant Western experiences and discourse (to, with apology, use a rather academic term). Helliwell goes into a lot of detail, explaining the ways in which women and men are seen as mostly the same, rather than essentially different, and the crucial role of work (rather than sex) in determining gender. In emphasising sameness, men and women are seen as respectively better suited to some roles than others, rather than as polar opposites. So in work, while both men and women take part in rice cultivation, women are seen as better suited to the work of selecting and storing rice seed for the next year's planting and men for clearing fields for cultivation, and it is these jobs that are considered the ones that determine gender. Women's role in procreation is considered to stem from their role in storing seed, and metaphors for growing grain and growing children are the same. That is, being someone good at selecting and storing seed makes someone a woman, and it is this that makes some (but not all) women able to become mothers. This similarity extends to bodies and significantly, genitals. People are not considered as coming in two distinct body types, male and female, but as being basically the same. The only difference attributed to women's and men's genitals is where they are (inside the body for women – the safe place in a society where “outside” the village is unsafe – or outside, in the case of men, whose genitals are thought of as more vulnerable therefore, than women's), but to be the same shape and essence. It is said that some men menstruate; some men offer their infants their nipples to settle them and it is said that some men lactate; there is even a myth of a woman who didn't want to carry a foetus, so that her husband made a container to carry it and gestate it until it was time for it to be born. Just as sexual organs are considered basically the same, they are also thought of as producing the same kind of fluids. Sexual intercourse is thought of as a mingling of fluids, life forces and pleasures, while procreation is considered to stem from and require the mingling of likeness, not difference. Intercourse is considered to arise from mutual needs (in a society where needs that are not reciprocated are hard to imagine) and not thought of as something a person would engage in with someone who didn't need them, ie, by coercion. To put it another way, in this setting of mutuality and relative male sexual vulnerability, the thought of a man forcing his penis into a woman's vagina against her will is something that just doesn't cross anyone's mind. As the woman at the heart of the anecdote Helliwell related exclaimed, “it's only a penis. How can a penis hurt anyone?” While heterosexuality is the norm among the Gerai, maleness and femaleness (what Helliwell refers to as “sexed bodies”) and heterosexual sex itself are not constructed in the way that heterosexuality and heterosexual sex are in the West. In this cultural context, conceptions and metaphors of male penetration, conquest and aggression are absent from the way sex is discussed and practiced, along with female passivity, vulnerability and self-protection. The phallus is not the signifier of power it is in Western culture. During intercourse, the penis is "taken into" the vagina – quite a different way of even thinking about what sex entails, than in the dominant Western model of active male dominance and female receptiveness (a model that even permeates the way ova and sperm are discussed). All this together shapes the assumptions of the Gerai about sex, what it consists of and what is even both physically possible and for individuals, desirable, making forced sex something outside of Gerai experience and thought – including, I assume, even fantasy. To Helliwell, the absence of rape in Gerai society contributes to the absence of difference in Gerai thoughts and experience of male and female bodies and sexualities. By contrast, the existence of rape in the West is part of the process of creating Western masculinity and femininity of the kind expressed in male aggression and penetration and female vulnerability and self-protection, just as much as that difference makes rape possible. Helliwell's essay has many important implications and raises questions worth exploring. The obvious implication is that rape, the existence of rape in a given society, is not a universal experience. Fear of rape is not a universal female experience, even if it is a universal or at least widespread fear (and if not fear, recognised possibility) of women in Western society. It is possible to live in a society equal enough and with an experience of gender, sex and sexuality that make rape impossible. Humans are doing that somewhere, now. So it's not some kind of a pipe dream. We could really try to build a society that emulates this experience. For all of us yearning for a society without this menace (for us, for our daughters, for everyone), this can be a source of great hope, on a solid, real basis. That said, there's no way we could mechanically transfer what we see in Gerai society to ours. But we can use the understanding of sex difference, gender and rape that Gerai society provides us with, to start to imagine what might be needed to eradicate rape from our culture. Like other feminists, I have assumed for a long time that it would be possible to create a rape-free society by raising the status of women so that the level of respect between men and women, based on social equality, would preclude the acceptance of the aggression, dominance, violence and sexual entitlement that underpin rape. What the Gerai experience of life without rape suggests is that while the status of women may be important, the construction of gender and sexuality may matter even more. To develop a culture that made rape inconceivable, would we need to revolutionise sex and gender to eliminate sex difference and end the connection of gender with sex? These are at the heart of what is different between our two societies, making rape possible in one and not the other. As a society that doesn't distinguish between men and women in a fundamental way on the basis of bodies and sexual organs, Gerai experience challenges the assumption that sexual difference is (or must be) the basis of gender. The existence of a complete society in which the binary construction of gender derived from a binary construction of sex is just absent illustrates unmistakably the importance of culture in understanding and constructing sex and gender, and that there is nothing given or immutable about these categories or experiences. The Gerai experience goes further than merely challenging the assumption that biological sex and gender identity may not be aligned – a conception that still maintains that there's a link (for instance, in those trans people who speak of their feeling of bodily wrongness, of there being a problem that their gender identity and sex assigned at birth don't match, that their bodies need to change to line up with their gender). The Gerai experience illustrates that it's possible for a society to construct gender without reference (at least, primarily) to anatomical sex. Helliwell alludes to the separation of gender and sex when she suggests that it would be better not to use the words men and women when talking about the Gerai, because those terms are so loaded with sexed assumptions – but that it would be more accurate to refer to “those responsible for rice selection and storage” and “those responsible for cutting down the large trees to make a rice field.” If we sought to revolutionise gender and sex, would gender identity persist? What would it be based on? For the Gerai, it's derived from the division of cooperative work into an overlapping spectrum that's shared, with two necessary but distinct areas of gendered (but not sexed) expertise. But given the complexity of our society and the many contributions people can make to our economic and social well-being, what sort of gendering would be attached to work, and would this even be desirable? Feminists of various kinds have fought for women's work and capabilities not to be defined or confined by our sexed bodies or gender. If we should set ourselves the aim of challenging the connection of sex and gender and gender and work, would we picture there being any place for gender as an identity at all? Might it be replaced by work as identity, irrespective of sex or gender and without any connection to reproductive potential or role as parent? None of this is to suggest that just changing what we call ourselves, or the pronouns we use will eradicate rape. I'm sure there are lots of angles from which we need to tackle changing society to allow rape to be eliminated. I'm sure that better domestic violence and sexual assault support services, equal pay, women's involvement in non-traditional work, comprehensive sex and consent education in schools, and psychological work with offenders are all components of a comprehensive social project to raise the status of women and eliminate or at least substantially reduce the threat of rape. But in addition to the social, structural changes we need, do we also need to revolutionise what it means to be women and men? To transform what sexual intercourse even is – how we practice it, how we represent it in our culture, how we think about it? Will the movement to end the binary construction of sex and gender, which from different angles, intersex, trans and genderqueer activists have been working towards, also lead to the liberation of cis-gendered men and women from the practices, ideas and identities that make rape possible? Having been sexualised in a Western society, experiencing ourselves (not all of us, but enough of us) as male and female, experiencing sexual pleasure and eroticisation of everything to do with sex as penetration, is there any hope for transformation of those who actually exist in our society today? Is it something to aspire to and lay the groundwork for, for future generations, while we settle mainly (but not merely!) for raising women's status and teaching men and boys (who will still be the men and boys of Western society) not to rape? Is the rupture with how we are sexed and gendered now that would be required to create men and women who don't know rape, so great, that even though the Gerai have that society, are such men and women, it's still unthinkable that we could create a rape-free culture in any meaningful timeframe? Naturally, I don't have the answers, but I think Helliwell's essay points to these questions, and many others I haven't been able to touch on (including the racialisation of rape and the assumption it is a universal experience). The essay is well worth reading, and I look forward to engaging with others in a discussion about it all – with those who've already done the challenging work of interrogating Western conceptions of gender and sex, those who want to eradicate rape and transform the elements of our society that make it inevitable, and anyone else engaged in building the sociopolitical movements or taking practical steps to liberate sex and our lives, from coercion and oppression, in thought and action. Notes [1] Helliwell, C. (2000). "It's Only a Penis": Rape, Feminism, and Difference. Signs, 25(3), 789-816. Retrieved from