|Minotaur crouching over sleeping woman; Picasso, 1933|
I’m going to begin this essay by asking you for the benefit of the doubt. I’m going to ask you to assume
I’m not an insane or immoral person. I’m asking this of you because I’m about
to wade into the uncomfortable, murky waters of consent, intentionality and
biological imperative when it comes to sex – both fictionally and factually.
Attempts to unpack these issues, to examine philosophical, historical,
institutional, artistic and socially constructed understandings of human
sexuality reveal uncomfortable realities. They don’t always accord with the way
we want things to be or live up to our ideals. But I’d like to argue that approaches that seek to present the issue as uncomplicated for the sake of clarity, are not realistic or productive ones.
I just watched the documentary “India’s Daughter.” It
chronicles the events of the 2012 Delhi gang rape and murder of a woman
identified in the film as “Jyoti”. Some Indian feminist have
criticized the film because it allows a number of the rapists, their defense
lawyers and a few others to air, what to most Westerners and many Indians, too,
are deeply misogynistic views on where women belong in society and the part
they play in their own victimization. These statements are not directly and
immediately rebutted in the film – it allows the audience to be appalled at
them. The strategy works well in the context of a Western liberal audience that
is probably unaware of the extreme schisms of social attitudes surrounding
women. But for an Indian audience, where these views are not uncommon or unknown,
it fails. The Indian Government has banned
the airing of the documentary, ostensibly because it offers a platform for
views it wishes to eradicate. However, this decision might also have been influenced by a recent incident in which a
mob of thousands pulled an accused rapist out of a prison in Dimapur, and
beat him to death. The event is more complex than it appears. The accused was a
Bangladeshi, so there are both issues of religious and immigration tension that
have played significant roles.
I’d like to examine the myth that humans are at the mercy of
their animal instincts, driven by their biological imperatives; how old and
widespread this fallacy is and how deeply it has embedded itself into many cultures;
and what part it plays in both our fictions and our social norms.
It’s all Aristotle’s Fault.
Not really, but at least in Western culture, Aristotle’s
Nicomachean Ethics has served, through the centuries as a font of great wisdom
on the matter of the human condition. In Part Seven of the Ethics,
Aristotle submits that, once in the thrall of sexual arousal, humans are no
longer capable of exercising reason, restraint or judgement. Historicity and
language is a bit of a problem. We don’t know what stage of arousal Aristotle
is referring to. Perhaps he was referring to the moment of orgasm, in which
case he’d be spot on. The problem is that our historical unease with the
specifics of the human sexual response led to very broad generalizations about
states of sexual arousal. This myth that a human in any given state of sexual
arousal is incapable of exercising choice, or control, or good judgment, has
been responsible for a millennial get out of jail free card when it comes to
Sorry, Different Department.
By the time we did get around to studying human sexual
response in the mid-20th Century, courtesy of Kinsey and Masters
and Johnson, the sciences had specialized. People who were interested in
philosophy, ethics, sociology or psychology had all been given their own
departments – nay – buildings on another campus. Let me tell you, interdisciplinary studies of human
sexuality are a rare, belittled, and underfunded species.
However, we know humans can and routinely do exercise
enormous control over their ‘animal’ instincts. We seem to be able to restrain
ourselves from peeing in our nests, we often find ways to negotiate our
territorial instincts, and unsurprisingly, we manage to restrain ourselves from
spending all our time mating – even though some of us spend an inordinate
amount of time thinking about it. There are men and women of diverse religious
orders who manage to live a life of complete sexual celibacy. Even
hormone-addled 16-year-olds don’t generally rampage through the countryside
raping every orifice they encounter. To look at it more quantitatively and at
more extreme levels of sexual arousal, practicing the ‘withdrawal method’ (27
pregnancies in 100) is still vastly more effective than using no birth control
method at all (85 pregnancies in 100). So, even at the abyssal precipice of
orgasm, it’s clear that we can and do have the capacity to exercise some
choice, some judgment.
Once We Were Dumb Mammals
Meanwhile, in the realm of society, we consistently ignore
that fact. Historically and to the present day, we create narratives about
humans helplessly carried away by the urgency of erotic bliss. Our literature,
drama and films are full of it. But, more darkly, so are our laws, our judicial
systems, our security structures.
We may acknowledge rape as a crime in theory, but even in the most
‘enlightened’ egalitarian social systems, it is astonishing how often
responsibility is shifted from the person who refused to exert control over
themselves and onto something or someone else. It was the clothes the victim
was wearing, the fact that she was out alone, the fact that she wasn’t
accompanied by a relative, the fact that she (or he) came up to the rapist’s
apartment, alcohol, drugs, peer pressure, prison, porn, the prevalence of a
‘rape culture’. The list of reasons why an individual is not wholly, personally
accountable for their actions goes on and on. Whether you find yourself in a
culture that denies women autonomy, or one that offers them an equal legal
myth of the uncontrollable urge always rears its head.
We can control ourselves and we enjoy the lie that we can’t.
It’s not really that surprising: biological drives are compelling, and it takes
effort to refuse their call. It makes sense that humans would have fantasies
about respite from that control. In his book “Speaking the Unspeakable:
The Poetics of Obscenity,” Peter Michelson explains the liberating appeal
of pornography. It is, he says, a space where we can luxuriate in relinquishing
the very real control we have over our animal instincts. There is romanticism,
authenticity and empowerment in our fantasies of giving in to our animal
natures. I don’t wholly agree with Michelson on the specific mechanisms of
this, because I think our ‘animal natures’ are themselves a fantasy
construction. Nonetheless, he
presents an excellent argument: there is erotic pleasure in the prospect of relinquishing
control only because that control is, in fact, so real and so often exercised.
Meanwhile, romance often features motifs of being swept
away, overcome, overwhelmed, desiring beyond the boundaries of social
acceptability. The pursuer can’t help but want the object of his or her desire.
It obsesses them; it drives
them to extraordinary and unruly lengths within the context of the storyworld.
And the pursued, it usually turns out, cannot refuse the pleasure of being that
object of desire and, if all is well, return the feeling.
One of the reasons I champion
fictional, eroticized portrayals of reluctance and even rape is because to deny
that these ideations have semiotic power is dangerous. But also, to attempt to
force limits (i.e. to have rape fantasies is a betrayal of feminist ideology)
on what metaphors, what metonyms, what ‘signifieds’ might be is also futile. I
think fiction is a safe space in which to negotiate the uncomfortable fantasies
and nostalgias humans possess for the lawless, reasonless, unempathic animals
we used to be. I’m not convinced of the veracity of that earlier state of
natural ‘innocence’, but it haunts us and calls to us nonetheless. Fantasy and
fiction are the only safe places we should give it power or credence. To
situate this myth of the uncontrollable urge in fantasy and fiction is to put
it exactly in the place it belongs – beyond the pale of the everyday world and
civil society, and to underscore that it is the ONLY place it belongs.
One of the stark messages of “India’s Daughter” is
that it is social attitudes, the tolerance of real world inequities, the historical
absence of women’s voices, their lack of power and the perpetuation of utterly
baseless justifications that create an environment in which crimes like this
are possible. The shocking testimonies of rape-apologists in the documentary
are offensive as hell, but they serve to remind us that these attitudes don’t
survive and are not perpetuated through fictional works, but through entirely
real-world levels of tolerance that predate ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ and even