The Radical Feminists Denouncing Sex as ‘Rape’

Is all PIV sex ‘rape’ and a tool for the subjugation of women?

The idea that all heterosexual penis-in-vagina (PIV) sex is rape became mainstream after the publication of a controversial article a few years ago. The self-proclaimed ‘radical feminist’ author argues in this post that all instances of PIV sex should be considered rape. Unsurprisingly, this post has received plenty of attentiongarnering both considerable support and criticism—for its claims. After all, the vast majority of heterosexual men are being labelled ‘rapists’ and the vast majority of heterosexual women as ‘rape victims’.

Critical responses to this claim have come in waves, and far more denouncers exist than supporters. However, even if a number of radical feminist groups are supporting the claim, the correlation between PIV sex and rape has much stronger academic ties than it does mainstream. The idea that all PIV is rape has been adapted by some controversial claims made by the radical feminists Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Dworkin made the strongest claims regarding the morality of sex in her book Intercourse, where she claims that all sex may indeed be oppressive to women, a condition that may be beyond repair. MacKinnon, in contrast, never made such bold claims, and actually denies the statement that she supports all sex as either rape or oppressive. Nevertheless, sentiments that lean towards this idea can be gleaned from MacKinnon’s works.

To be clear, the aim of this piece is to argue against the position that all PIV sex is rape. However, it should also be made clear that positions like that of Jim Goad in the article entitled ‘PIV-Negative’ should be seen as both unhelpfully derogatory and extremely misleading in any actual productive line of argumentation. An article that demeans the extremely influential, developmental, and productive work of an accomplished and clever woman such as Andrea Dworkin, calling her a ‘hideous grey whale’ and claiming that having sex with her would be even less pleasurable than reading her work, will not be promoted as a positive example of either feminism or equality. In fact, it is positions like these that actually feed into the well-built arguments of Dworkin and MacKinnon.

Focusing on the arguments of the controversial article ‘PIV is always rape, ok?’, the overall claim of the article is that PIV sex is never actually sexual for women, and the belief that it is is a construction of the patriarchy indoctrinated into all women from birth. The arguments that uphold this view are that PIV sex is physically and psychologically harmful to women, it is a method of physical and reproductive oppression of women, and these two together suggest, along with the prevalence of STDs, that PIV sex is unnatural. Let us examine these claims in turn.

First, what about the claim that PIV sex is physically and psychologically harmful to women? Admittedly, I was born with a penis and therefore cannot attest adequately from a purely first-personal perspective on this. However, I can attest towards the validity and falsity of this claim in certain instances, as doubtless many others can as well. PIV can be intensely physically and psychologically harmful, and this is not something that should ever be denied. Despite this, the claim that it is always painful is not only extremely difficult to defend but is easily rejected. The testimony of one woman anywhere in the world would be enough to deny its validity.

However, according to the author, the claim that PIV sex is physically and psychologically harmful to women rests on the presumption that women have been indoctrinated to believe PIV is not physically and psychologically harmful, and thus do not experience pain because of this warped mentality. There is some validity in this, as people can indeed experience differing levels of pain through different upbringings, cultural norms, and a variety of other factors. This, though, is not what is being claimed in the article. The author holds that PIV is always painful, and painful to an objectionable level.

If PIV were always painful, though, surely every woman would experience this pain, especially if it were enough to be so objectionable as to claim the act as rape. But this is not the case. Many women have argued, as they do in response to the article, that they never experienced any pain from PIV sex either physical or psychological. Is the level of indoctrination promoted by the patriarchy so strong, then, that it can entirely erase the experience of physical pain? This is doubtful. If it were true this would introduce amazing levels of psychological manipulation that could theoretically be utilised for the advancement of humanity. Surely the idea that socialised indoctrination could erase pain would have been explored in detail and utilised heavily if it were undeniably possible.

If PIV were always painful, though, surely every woman would experience this pain, especially if it were enough to be so objectionable as to claim the act as rape

Another claim is that PIV sex is unnatural, and this is shown through the physical pain and prevalence of STDs. The former part of this claim has already been adequately refuted above. The prevalence of STDs, though, seems to have even less argumentative strength than the argument from physical pain. The blog post rhetorically calls these diseases ‘infections and tears and warts’ in order to attach a sense of physical repulsion to the claim. However, on closer inspection, the author seems to say that infections, tears, and warts are actually unnatural. But warts can be developed from any number of actions anywhere on the body, and happen not only to humans but to other animals. Furthermore, infections and tears also happen to multiple parts of the body simply by going through everyday life.

If I tear my mouth eating something sharp and this tear then becomes infected, is it unnatural to eat, or to eat this object in particular? I don’t think so. The claim that the prevalence of diseases infecting a certain part of the body through a certain act signifies that the act is unnatural does not hold up to analogy. STDs can be transferred through oral and anal sex just as easily, and sometimes more easily, than through PIV sex. Are all sex acts unnatural because of this? The author seems to believe on some level that exposure to the risk of disease in itself is unnatural, and not a part of the human condition, which is simply an untrue claim.

It is also held that PIV sex is unnatural because it is unnecessary for conception and reproduction. It is true that PIV is not absolutely necessary for reproduction; semen can indeed travel up through the vagina in order to impregnate a woman without actual penetration. But does it then logically follow from this that the act of PIV is unnatural? A person can eat and survive without chewing their food; it may be difficult or painful, but a person can live their entire life without chewing anything. Chewing, then, is unnecessary for survival and eating, just like penetration is unnecessary for reproduction. Following the logic of the article, chewing should also be deemed unnatural. Chewing even comes with its own dangers: if you chew too long your jaw will be sore and stiff, and you risk biting your lips or tearing gums, which could invite infection or even warts!

Beyond this, PIV sex is performed by humanity’s closest evolutionary ancestors: apes. In fact, it is the most prevalent sex act among them besides masturbation. If these animals, untainted by human indoctrination, perform PIV and it can still be held as unnatural, at what point is something considered to be natural? Surely its existence in nature outside of humanity has some claim to its naturalness.

Lastly, it is claimed that PIV sex is a method of oppression utilised by the patriarchy. This claim can be held in two different ways: PIV sex is necessarily oppressive, or it is oppressive under current cultural norms. Let us examine the first of these claims. Much work has been published concerning how sex has been used to oppress women in our society, and Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin especially have made great developments in this area. Marital rape was not even considered possible until relatively recently (it was only explicitly introduced into law in the UK in 2003!) , and the existence of sexual slavery of both women and children as a worldwide phenomenon suggests sex is used to oppress women, at least in some cases. While I am pro-prostitution and pro-pornography, it is undeniable that these industries have been, and continue to be, extremely cruel and oppressive, constituting massive amounts of harm towards women daily. Any denial of such a claim is one born through a lack of research in the area. However, these claims are different from holding that PIV itself is oppressive even through cultural norms.

PIV sex is currently believed to be the ‘ultimate’, ‘true’, or ‘real’ form of sex, which itself can be problematic, especially for those who experience it as painful; but does this constitute oppression? I think not. In our current society PIV sex is used in various ways to oppress women, but PIV sex itself is not problematic, and it is not currently solely used as a mode of oppression in our society.

PIV sex is normally more pleasurable to men than women, that is true, but that does not mean that women’s pleasure is never focused on during the act. Plenty of sexual positions allow both the male and female to access the clitoris with hands or toys in order to stimulate it for added pleasure. PIV sex only becomes oppressive through promoting the pleasure of men as both absolutely necessary and of the highest importance, and while this was believed years ago, I do not think many people still hold onto this belief readily today.

PIV sex is normally more pleasurable to men than women, that is true, but that does not mean that women’s pleasure is never focused on during the act

What about the underlying belief, one promoted outright by academics like Catharine MacKinnon and Carole Pateman, that a) sex is power, and b) men use this power to oppress women? To what extent men use sex as a tool to gain power over women is debatable, but what about the claim sex itself is power? In the philosophical tradition, power can be interpreted as power-to or power-over. Power-to is a social tool formed when people collect and perform collective action. Power-over is a form of domination that more traditionally was how power itself was understood.

The feminist idea that sex is power utilises the understanding of power-over, seeing it as an expression of male power-over female. Let us take this claim to its logical conclusion. Other typical power-over relationships are employer-employee and parent-child. Importantly, both of these, like most power-over relationships, are allowed to be legally regulated to some degree so as to avoid outright domination and exploitation. This is why governments protect worker and child rights while punishing those who breach them. While cultural norms tend to dictate the boundaries of these relationships, these boundaries can be protected through fines or even jail time.

Taking this understanding to sex, if sex were understood as a power-over relationship, government intervention could be allowed in order to protect the boundaries of the relationship and stop domination or exploitation. While this may seem theoretically tempting, what if the sanction were brought to include cheating in a monogamous relationship? It would also be questionable if BDSM relationships would even be legally allowed, as this would seem to be a form of sexual domination, albeit a consensual one.

Now, this is not to say that domination in a sexual relationship is never problematic, but this kind of domination can be stopped through other measures. For example, unwanted physical harm is still considered assault whether or not it occurs within a relationship. But the kind of intervention that should be resisted consists of the idea that any sexual relationship that does not promote the sexual pleasure of both parties equally in every transaction can be intervened on. This would seem to fit the idea of sexual domination, especially if it were promoted by PIV sex-critics. If sexual relationships could be regulated legally, a male or female could be sued for infringing on the right to equal sexual pleasure in a relationship. One-night-stands would become a very cautious and frightening encounter if this were to ever occur.

The idea that sex is power, then, should be resisted. What this means for sex, especially PIV sex, is that it can be reformed in the eyes of society to be a more equal practice. It can be engaged in unproblematically and without domination because it is not necessarily oppressive. PIV sex is not always rape and it is not always problematic; believing so requires an understanding of sex as power that entails the idea that sexual relationships should be regulated by the government. While the idea might be tempting to some, I do not think it is, or should be, a widely held ideal.

Jude Bernard

Philosophy postgraduate from Massachusetts, US.

Jude Bernard has 4 posts and counting. See all posts by Jude Bernard

Jude Bernard

One thought on “The Radical Feminists Denouncing Sex as ‘Rape’

  • Avatar
    August 1, 2019 at 10:30 pm
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    Are you joking love?
    Who have you been to bed with?

    There is a big difference just having sex for sex sake, but if you make love to somebody you actually love, it most certainly does not feel like rape.

    Do yourself a favour, have a bit more self respect for yourself, don’t just sleep with anyone, just because everybody else seems to be doing it. Wait till you meat the right person, someone you love, then you may change your unhinged mind.

    Reply

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