Today we’re pleased to present an interview with two outstanding contributors to “Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power & A World Without Rape,” a collection of essays recently published by Seal Press.
Lisa Jervis, the founding editor and publisher of Bitch magazine, and Brad Perry, sexual violence prevention coordinator at the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance, take on popular perceptions of rape and what needs to be done to transform regressive attitudes toward sexual violence — in both the media and among young men.
In “An Old Enemy in a New Outfit: How Date Rape Became Gray Rape and Why it Matters,” Jervis deconstructs the latest blame-the-victim terminology. Perry’s essay, “Hooking Up With Healthy Sexuality: The Lessons Boys Learn (and Don’t Learn) About Sexuality, and Why a Sex-Positive Rape Prevention Program Can Benefit Everyone Involved,” revisits advice Perry received as a teenager and the more enlightened strategies he has encountered in his work.
Ultimately, they grapple with how to create an atmosphere for a healthy and empowering sexual experience for both women and men.
Please add your thoughts on the discussion, or your questions for Lisa or Brad, in the comments. And don’t miss the next stop on the “Yes Means Yes” virtual book tour: a live chat on Feb. 9 at Shakesville with co-editor Jaclyn Friedman.
Our Bodies, Our Blog: What is the allure of so-called “gray rape” for anti-feminists? How does it help serve a conservative agenda?
Lisa Jervis: The construct of gray rape does two things: it minimizes rape, seeks to make it seem like less of a big deal — if it was a “gray area,” can it really be that bad? — and it also justifies victim-blaming and its close friend, slut-shaming. This actually serves anti-feminists in two really different ways, though they’re both pretty much classics of sexism and misogyny.
The minimizing encourages an attitude of, “What are all those angry women complaining about now?”; and almost every feminist issue has been minimized at some point over the history of the struggle for gender equality.
The victim-blaming part is even more disturbing, as it updates and revitalizes one of the biggest obstacles to transforming rape culture. And it’s particularly insidious because of how it cultivates self-doubt and self-blame even more than previous victim-blaming discourses have. And, especially when paired with slut-shaming — which makes women and girls feel bad about the existence of a strong sex drive and any entitlement they might feel to (gasp!) satisfy their desires — it serves as an attempt to keep a tight cultural lid on women’s sexuality. It’s an updated and vastly more complex version of “good girls don’t.”
OBOB: Brad, how has the notion of “gray rape” complicated your teachings?
Brad Perry: In my experience, the attitude about acquaintance rape (which is what the term “gray rape” is usually referring to) amongst most policy makers, many students, and a good chunk of the general public has not changed drastically since it first entered the public’s awareness 20 years ago. There has been some progress in getting people to understand that usurping another person’s sexual autonomy is rape under any circumstances, but old mindsets die hard.
In that context, the gray rape thing just seems like more of the same but with a new name — as Lisa eloquently discusses in her essay. The only way my work has been complicated by the notion of “gray rape” is that now people have a convenient label. I don’t think it’s necessarily changed many people’s minds on whether or not to take acquaintance rape seriously — the people who are going to deny it are usually going to find a reason to do so until something happens to change their mind — but it has given those folks some hip new contemporary language to dismiss acquaintance rape.
We’re a country found by patriarchal religious fanatics who were (among other things) obsessed with denying human sexuality, so it’s not at all surprising to me that we keep revisiting the issue of social control over women’s sexualities. That’s not too say I think we should throw our hands up and say, “Oh, well” — in order to remember how much history we have to overcome so that we don’t lose our minds trying to make progress.
When you’re steeped in messages about looking hot at the expense of (or as a substitute for) feeling aroused or having sexual desire, it becomes all the easier for you to question your own judgment about what happened to you and believe the cultural forces telling you that your assault was just miscommunication and bad sex.
— Lisa Jervis in “Yes Means Yes”
OBOB: We seem to be making gains in educating young women that date rape is indeed rape, but there remains a backlash in the broader media discourse. How do activists intervene in larger, public spaces?
LJ: That’s a hard one. I wish I had some brilliant answers. I think we have to just keep repeating our message, in a variety of ways and in a variety of settings: calling out the bullshit in the backlash, promoting education around healthy sexuality and exposing how rape culture operates. But I actually think that the smaller, private spaces may be more important. As Brad’s work shows, we need to educate boys and men about rape in the way we’ve educated women.
The percentage of guys who want to be rapists is infinitesimally small, and a lot of the ones who do end up committing assault are confused and hurt by it — and if they had different cultural training, they wouldn’t have done it.
It comes back to one of the ideas at the core of “Yes Means Yes”: that a true embrace of enthusiastic participation as the baseline of consent would prevent an entire category of rapes. And the way to get there is probably more through interpersonal interactions than other activities more traditionally understood as activism.
BP: I agree with Lisa that repeatedly calling out the bullshit is important. A good technique to use is to get the backlashers to at least admit that unwanted sex is a very hurtful thing — even if they refuse to call it “rape” or “sexual assault.” That can cut right through the semantic hemming and hawing. Responding to the backlash — as well as proactively getting our messages out there — across multiple levels of our social environment is also crucial.
OBOB: Lisa, what do you think are some positive images in popular culture that encourage women to be sexual for themselves?
LJ: This is a little hard for me to admit, since so much of my career has been spent as a pop culture critic, but I don’t watch a lot of TV or go to a lot of movies these days. I’ve had to unplug from my intense consumption of mass media in order to preserve my sanity and, frankly, free up my time for other things. So I don’t have any specific examples I can cite.
But I do see a few cultural trends, however gradual, that bring me hope: The first is the proliferation of feminist- and woman-run sex toy shops. When Good Vibrations was founded in the San Francisco Bay Area 30 years ago, they were unique. But slowly over the last three decades — and, it seems, more quickly over the last five years or so — such spaces have proliferated. Toys in Babeland, the Tool Shed, the Smitten Kitten, Early to Bed — I could go on.
I also think the proliferation of erotica aimed at women, and the fact that the selection has generally become a lot more broad — the expectation that women want to read about soft-focus, romantic scenarios is slowly wearing away — is a heartening sign.
… I propose playing matchmaker with two disciplines that have always seemed to be like ships passing in the night: sexual health promotion and sexual violence prevention. They’re the perfect couple — philosophically complementary, yet with their own things going on. Whether they’re engaged in stimulating research comparisons over dinner, flirting about the REAL Act on a walk through the park, or making sweet, back-arching, toe curling collaboration at home with the lights on, our society can only benefit.
— Brad Perry in “Yes Means Yes”
OBOB: Brad, are there images that encourage men to see women as collaborative partners in a healthy sexual experience?
BP: Hmmmm … this is a tough one because mainstream media imagery does not usually graphically depict sexual expression, lest they be fined by the FCC and/or spark a shit-storm of outrage from concerned citizens and the like. So we’re left with either hints (the man is generally a nice guy, and we assume the sexual encounter we only see the beginning of was consensual and/or good), or the apparently equally acceptable option of making the interaction violent (which is usually shown in more detail, albeit in a LifetimeTV/”SVU”-esque sensationalized manner).
What this means is that in the mainstream media we are never able to see what a collaborative sexual encounter would actually look like. And when I talk to groups of young men about navigating a hook-up culture, it’s precisely that how-to piece that they want to know. We’re all raised to see sex as this mysterious thing that just happens. And boys are also told that they’re supposed to just know what to do without anyone ever going into detail about anything beyond why they should make sure they “call the shots.”
So they look where ever they can to get a clue. The mainstream media is one of those places, and all they’re getting there are the same old boring and dangerous “dominate her” messages, episodes of sexual violence, and a collection of vague hints for any potentially healthy options.
This is one area where I have seen some improvement though, in that at least when we’re shown the lead-up to a sexual encounter it seems more collaborative than it used to be. It used to always be either flat-out coercion or a “sweep her off her feet” vibe, so it’s not like the bar was set all that high to begin with, but at least it seems headed in the right direction.
OBOB: Brad, you discuss institutional obstacles — government-funded abstinence-only programs, the lack of sex education classes — to teaching healthy sexuality. What are some of the obstacles you encounter with boys themselves? In other words, how do you get boys to see “the game” as a game, and a damaging one at that?
BP: I haven’t actually worked directly with groups of young men in a few years, so I can only answer based on what I’ve been hearing from my colleagues who are doing that work on a day-to-day basis. There are a lot of techniques used by rape prevention specialists when working with groups of young men, but perhaps the most common one is to get them talking about what it means to be man. Pretty soon they’ll start to see how rigid gender roles can be, how they’re enforced, and how their lives are limited as a result.
Eventually, you can get to the topic of how this all relates to sexuality (assuming the school or youth institution in which you’re working allows you to even talk about sex). When that happens, you’ll find — after a few days or so of savvy facilitation — that most young men don’t want to be the ones always pursuing, always calling the shots.
Once you get them to realize/admit that, then the door is open for a deeper conversation about how to flirt and engage people to whom they’re attracted outside of the bullshit of “the game.” Such conversations can explode “the game.” But you need that institutional support to make any of this happen — the support of legislation, funding, the local setting in which you’re doing the work, the parents — across the spectrum of their social environments.
Otherwise, you might not have enough time to have these conversations, or even if you do, they might come undone in the face of resistance from other influential forces in the lives of the young men. Public health folks call this working at multiple levels of the social ecology.
OBOB: Lisa, in your essay you mention several examples of books and articles that have bombarded girls and women with damaging messages about sexuality and rape. Besides “Yes Means Yes,” what other books or resources would you recommend to combat those messages?
LJ: This is another really hard one. As with the earlier question about images, I have more general than specific recommendations. Since what’s damaging about these messages is often that they contradict or are divorced from women’s actual experiences, I think reading first-person accounts and talking to other people is one of the best antidotes. So zines, blogs, and message boards discussing rape and assault are key.
Also, for teenagers and older preteens of all genders, the absolute best place for nonjudgmental, affirming sex information is Scarleteen.com. Founder Heather Corinna’s book “S.E.X.” is also brilliant and focuses a lot on figuring out what you want and learning to communicate about it with others.
OBOB: Brad’s essay opens with him at age 13, getting advice about sex from a friend’s older brother. The instructions can be summed up as: give girls beer, make a move, and if you’re lucky you’ll “get some.” This introduction to sex is commonly passed down by siblings, friends and throughout popular culture. A question for both of you: What would an equally compelling counter-narrative look like? How would it compete with the swagger?
LJ: The simplest counter-narrative is that good sex can’t happen if it’s not 100 percent mutual and wanted by everyone involved. That if you tell someone you’re into them, find out if they’re into you, and go from there, everyone will have a much better time. Of course that’s a tough sell for any 13-year-old — communication is hard even for the most mature adults among us, and asking for what you want makes you vulnerable. But without it, any sexual experience will ultimately be unsatisfying.
BP: Focusing on the pleasure to be had in mutual and enthusiastic sexual encounters — based on informed and consensual decisions — is a start. Mind-blowing sexual experiences and the tenets of healthy sexuality go hand-in-hand. Mind-blowing sexual experiences and “the game” typically don’t.
Of course, what constitutes “mind-blowing sex” is subjective, but I think that the freedom and knowledge inherent in a healthy sexuality paradigm is more likely to yield satisfaction consistently. On a very practical level, we need to find ways to “cool” and mainstream these concepts in the same way that the swagger and boys-will-be-boys have been.
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