Trigger warning for descriptions of sexual abuse.
Some time ago, an essay I wrote called “Why I Am a Feminist Man” was published at The Scavenger. The essay was a first pass at illuminating the connection in my life between the sexual abuse I survived when I was a teenager and my embrace of feminism. Well, I have been revising the essay, first because it needed it and, second, because I am hoping to submit for publication in a different venue. “Unlearning the Equation,” the new title of the piece, paraphrases something Adrienne Rich wrote thirty some odd years ago in an essay, “Caryatid: Two Columns,” which was originally published in On Lies, Secrets and Silence:
The equation of manhood—potency—with the objectification of another’s person and the domination of another’s body, is the venereal disease that lives alike in the crimes of Vietnam and the lies of sexual liberation (another creation of the sixties)—as it lives in the imaginations of pornographers, in the fantasies of poets and presidents, professors and policemen, surgeons and salesmen.
Here are a couple of excerpts from “Unlearning the Equation:”
The obvious but also very difficult answer [to the question of why I responded to a woman's belittling and emasculating rejection of me with a fantasy in which I raped her] is that the structure of rape was already part of what I considered normal behavior between men and women, was in fact the framework through which I understood the meaning of that behavior…. Statements like this one, because of the way they can be read to suggest that men are all inherently and irrevocably rapists, are one source of many men’s discomfort with feminism. Yet women also internalize the structure of rape as part of their sexuality. They live in this culture no differently than we do, so how could they not? Still, no one tries seriously to deduce from this fact, at least not anymore, that women are all therefore inherently and irrevocably victims of rape. Indeed, one of the things contemporary feminism has done for women—and, frankly, for men as well—is to expose just how fully and insidiously the ideology of rape has been a structuring force in female sexuality, making it possible for women to free themselves from that structure. Why would it be any different for men? Why would freedom from the way rape structures how we see the world not be a welcome change for us?
I received when I was growing up two very different kinds of instruction in the ideology of rape. First and foremost, the model of masculinity to which I was taught to aspire…insists on the dominant-submissive, active-passive dichotomy that rape embodies as the natural order of all things sexual. Before the old man in my building put his hands on me and forced his penis into my mouth, I knew with absolute certainty which position in that dichotomy I was supposed to occupy. Moreover, I knew at the unconscious level of knowing that is the result of proper socialization that I could take this position more or less for granted. By the time I walked out of the old man’s apartment, however, I knew with a similar level of certainty how wrong I’d been. This realization may not have been conscious at the time, but it has shaped my understanding of the world ever since: when the old man in my building forced his penis into my mouth—because I am certain that what I cannot fully remember did indeed happen—he demonstrated beyond any doubt that everything I’d been taught about the meaning of my gender and my dominant place in the sexual hierarchy of my culture had been a lie.
[F]eminism is the only politics I know that explicitly commits itself to…build[ing] a world in which the inhumanity of sexual exploitation, along with every other inhumanity that devolves from it, is no longer acceptable.
Cross posted on It’s All Connected.