Happy Mortal

This life, well-lived.

Rape as Conformity

My Pen As I was doing a little Christmas Stumbling I discovered a provacative little blog that prompted some rather un-Christmassy talk. Lisa, who is a regular contributer to contexts.org, suggests that “some sociologists argue that rapists are not non-conformists (somehow deviant), but hyper-conformists. Rapist are men who take rules of masculinity to their logical conclusion.” You can view her entire post and the Gucci ad she uses to illuminate her argument here.

Of course, being the social neo-phyte that I am, I made this instant conversation during our Christmas breakfast prep. Over nicely browning potatoes you could hear the lovely harmony of Christmas words:

Me: “Sure, we aren’t the people in this ad, but it acts as a cultural image for us. The man is in control, the woman out of control.”

Brother-in-law: “But I don’t see rape when I see that picture; I see sex. Plus it’s Gucci, most marketing isn’t that graphic.”

Me: “But that’s the point. If we see sex there, and the man is in control…”

Brother-in-law: “I just can’t buy that Gucci is our ‘cultural image.'”

And he’s right. But the whole thing (blog, Christmast, conversation) got me thinking about the stories we tell ourselves. Rape is sex as a form of domination. Are we telling those tales? Or, is the telling of those tales creating it’s own eddy of cultural disintegration that is disconnected from the construct that created the cultural image?

It got me thinking to about who is doing the telling. Who’s behind the lens of these photo shoots? Only recently have women begun to shoot women. For time uncounted men have framed history. When I look back in time I see men, I see the phallus. “The pen is mightier than the sword,” according to Edward Bulwer-Lytton. Both are phalluses. Both have dominated history. But I digress.

There is a path of conversation that I don’t want to follow, but can’t avoid. It’s a path into sexuality. If I’m honest with myself, I can’t divorce my sexuality from power. For me, as a man, sex is, at least in part, about power. There was a time that I thought power in sex was inappropriate. I think the insidious thing about our phallocentric history is that we’ve become afraid of the power that women exhibit in sex. Men think they are more powerful than women, and so it is confounding that at the moment of what should be our greatest power (sex, or more specifically our partner’s orgasm) we find our power absolutely eclipsed. At the climax of sex, the power of a woman is revealed as wholly dominant.

Throughout most of western history the sexuality of women has been vilified, I think, for that very reason. Our cultural image could not account for the eclipse of the phallus in the act of sex.

And so, the narrative trend has been to subdue (or, in the free market, to commoditize) the female orgasm. Does that frame exist intuitively, or unconsciously, or purposefully in the Gucci image? Certainly more discussion is necessary here.

Finally, let me ask, are we still subduing the power inherent to sex by questioning rape as conformity? It strikes me that the more insidious narrative is the one that subverts the sexual power of both parties. Give men and women permission to have power, and use it.


  1. Here’s the confounding thing for me. That add is targeting women. The message, as I see it, is helplessness is sexy. And sex, as we all know, is power. Is this saying then that helplessness is power? Is one of the ways that women gain power by making men feel powerful? I’m reminded of the orgasm scene in “When Harry Met Sally.” Who really gets the credit for the female orgasm? I’m then reminded of a recent conversation when I was informed of a new evangelical movement regarding the sexual “health” of Christian marriages encouraging women to have “orgasms for Jesus”. And I wonder, whose ‘responsibility’ is the female orgasm? Honestly, I might be okay with such a movement if it was accompanied with equal zeal by the campaign “Go down on her for Jesus.” Somehow, I don’t imagine that one catching on quite the same way by even the most liberal of church leaders. But I digress.

    I guess what I mean is that I agree that the goal is for both men and women to unleash their sexual power equally, each celebrating and building upon the power and strength of the other. And I wonder, what does that ad look like?

  2. Don’t we do more harm than good when we try to make a narrative out of sex, a narrative complete with villains and heroes? Why do we need to bottle our drives and desires so we can use them to trace ideological stencils?

    Anytime we enter into “coherent” discourse we play with narrative. However, there is perhaps a space for “speaking without speaking,”or “narrating without narrative.” It may be worthwhile to try and walk the limit of a story about no-story when it comes to sexuality, to cease giving accounts and instead simply observe and see what emerges.

    The tricky part is that there is no culturally-neutral space in which (from which) to observe human sexuality, in fact there are plenty of harmful cultural spaces. Part of the critical task, then, is to name these negative narratives (to vilify them). But should we be so eager to suggest a new narrative?

    This is why I like your conclusion: “Give men and women permission to have power and use it.” The “permission” piece entails critique of existing ideologies, but it also entails a stepping back, a giving of space. So, for me the question becomes what kind of cultural space can we find/create that will allow sex to flourish without having to conform to a narrative? In a way this cannot exist, like speaking without speaking. But perhaps this is a clue. Perhaps we should move from existence to action, from sex as a noun to sex as a verb, from power as an idea to power as a flow or force.

    I am not suggesting sex with no reflection, only that we reflect obliquely, that we look at sex in a dim mirror. For now we know fully, but then we will know in part, or better, in parts. (I am not necessarily writing of sex qua sex-act here, but of sexuality).

  3. We are weaving in and out of complicated speak. It’s worthwhile, but simple is too. So, let me say that I think healthy sex is sex-without-rules. That’s the permission part. The narrative here is improvised. Duplication, when it comes to sex, is an act of gross perversion.

    Willwindow said above: “…should we be so eager to suggest a new narrative?”

    It seems the only appropriate thing, no? Especially here in our free market, fetishized, Freudian landscape of the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of the Capital orgasm.

    From purity balls (holy handgrenade what a freaky thing those are!), to porn, America exists in a phallocentric sexual locus. As long as that’s the case, the narrative needs to be challenged.

    Now, I understand your concern for the writing of new narratives–I think the answer is that we make it up as we go.

  4. The closest Christians get to oral sex is the eating of the host during communion–taking the word of god in their mouth and swallowing. Not sure another campaign would work…

    Above, you said: “And I wonder, what does that ad look like?”

    I don’t think it looks like an ad. Advertising tends to function as divorce, separating the act from its symbol, to paraphrase Rilke.

    A celebration of sexual power would look a good deal more like art than marketing, I’d wager.

  5. I like the direction you are headed Rekon–improvised sexuality, freeplay. I will go out on a limb. I think we need the following in the following order: 1. Critique of existing narratives and ideologies concerning sexuality (like critiquing the Gucci ad) 2. Creating/naming/allowing a space for the freeplay of sexuality 3. improvised sexuality. The last bit does not mean that we need to make up a new and better narrative to hand out like the latest Gap sweater. It means that each has the opportunity to make his-her own narrative, or lack of narrative.