Workers Hammer No. 231
Women & Revolution
"Safe spaces" censorship
Down with campus anti-sex witch hunt!
As if the average university student didn’t have enough to deal with. To extortionate tuition fees in England and Wales, escalating student debt and a precarious financial future for most, has been added the indignity of the “safe spaces” policy. Students can now expect their campuses to be “protected” by student union bureaucrats and other self-appointed guardians of public morality who presume to dictate who they can talk to and what they can read or say. The notion that the inherently racist, sexist and elitist bourgeois education system can provide “spaces” in which women, transgender people or racial minorities can feel “safe” from oppression denies the fact that oppression is a material reality rooted in capitalist class society, not a mental state created by bad thoughts. In practice, “safe spaces” is a call for campus censorship and exclusionism — and exclusionism is soft-core political violence, directed against leftists and others who are deemed “non-conformist”.
A case in point is the barrage of twittered hate mail and violent threats that longtime gay activist Peter Tatchell received after signing a protest against such exclusionism. Tatchell, a staunch defender of transgender rights and an opponent of the puritanical “anti-porn” frenzy, joined over a hundred other activists, academics and others in signing a letter to the Observer (15 February) condemning attempts to ban feminists Germaine Greer, Julie Bindel and Kate Smurthwaite from speaking at campus meetings. The letter writers asserted: “‘No platforming’ used to be a tactic used against self-proclaimed fascists and Holocaust-deniers. But today it is being used to prevent the expression of feminist arguments critical of the sex industry and of some demands made by trans activists.” The letter continues: “You do not have to agree with the views that are being silenced to find these tactics illiberal and undemocratic.” Tatchell was even denounced by some of his detractors for speaking out in defence of transgender people since he is not transgender. Such is the logic of “intersectionality” — promoted by some feminists, black nationalists and reformist leftists — according to which if you haven’t personally experienced a particular form of oppression you can’t fight it. Such an approach denies the possibility of mobilising the proletariat to champion the cause of all the exploited and oppressed.
The stench of the witch hunt emanates from “safe spaces”. When the imperialist bourgeoisies seized on blatantly bogus rape allegations to go after Julian Assange for his WikiLeaks exposure of their barbarism (see “Hands off Julian Assange!”, Workers Hammer no 220, Autumn 2012), the National Union of Students (NUS) did all it could to support this vile smear campaign. Ludicrously, George Galloway was banned by the NUS as a “rape denier” for his commendable defence of Assange. Bandying about terms like “rape denier” in regards to situations where there is no evidence of sexual assault is a dangerous trivialisation of the horrendous crime of rape. But this is the stock-in-trade of “safe spaces” advocates. The late darling of the left, Tony Benn, who initially defended Assange against the witch hunt only escaped an NUS ban when he spinelessly recanted to his inquisitors.
The current anti-sex hysteria is rooted in the conservative backlash against the limited but real gains won by women and gays in the late 1960s and early ’70s amid the radicalisation caused by the long, dirty and ultimately losing imperialist war against the revolutionary workers and peasants of Vietnam and in the wake of the massive struggles for black rights in the US. From the 1980s this “family values” offensive was joined by a “politically correct” liberal/feminist auxiliary which went on to promote hysteria over “date rape” on American campuses. We reprint below an excerpted article on the “date rape” issue published by our comrades of the Spartacist League/US (Workers Vanguard no 1056, 14 November 2014). The full article, “The ‘Date Rape’ Issue: Feminist Hysteria, Anti-Sex Witchhunt”, appeared in Women and Revolution (no 43, Winter 1993-Spring 1994), which was the journal of the Women’s Commission of the Spartacist League/US until its publication was suspended in 1998. Today, articles under the Women and Revolution masthead can be found in Spartacist, the International Communist League’s quadrilingual theoretical organ.
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The anti-sex frenzy springs from the agenda of the religious right. Espousing an ideology supposed to have something to do with women’s rights, the feminists might be expected to oppose this witch hunt. Instead, there is a convergence between feminism and religious reaction in support of moralist repression. This is particularly evident in the “date rape” frenzy on the campuses which has recently grabbed headlines across the nation and the world. Egged on by feminist witch hunters, “politically correct” sex on campus serves the war on privacy by whitewashing the intrusion of the campus administration and the cops into students’ personal business as “protecting women” and “stopping rape”. One goal of the student struggles of the 1960s and ’70s at colleges across the country was to put a stop to the in loco parentis prerogatives of campus administrations and to end rules that set curfews for young women, limited the hours that men could enter the sex-segregated dorms and encouraged “housemothers” to make periodic checks of the rooms to see that “all four feet” were firmly planted on the floor when a guy visited one of the “coeds”. The “date rape” hysteria has opened the door to the return of the college snoops.
In The Morning After: Sex, Fear, and Feminism on Campus, Princeton grad student Katie Roiphe exposes the climate of fear and the self-imposed status of “victims” engendered by the “date rape” feminists. Speaking for a layer of young women repulsed by this anti-sex hysteria, Roiphe contrasts what she found when she entered Harvard with what she was taught by her mother, who grew up in the wake of the anti-Communist witch hunt of the 1950s:
“This image of a delicate woman bears a striking resemblance to that fifties ideal my mother and the other women of her generation fought so hard to get away from. They didn’t like her passivity, her wide-eyed innocence. They didn’t like the fact that she was perpetually offended by sexual innuendo. They didn’t like her excessive need for protection. She represented personal, social, and psychological possibilities collapsed, and they worked and marched, shouted and wrote, to make her irrelevant for their daughters. But here she is again, with her pure intentions and her wide eyes. Only this time it is the feminists themselves who are breathing new life into her.”
Roiphe’s scathing attack on the “date-rape crisis” has earned her the enmity of rabid feminists everywhere, and congratulations from more rational layers. In “Not Just Bad Sex” (New Yorker, 4 October 1993) Katha Pollitt accuses Roiphe of everything from poor journalism to a “privileged” lifestyle. While Roiphe’s polemic does not reach beyond the middle-class, heterosexual and largely white college milieu in which the “date rape” frenzy is centred, she has done a real service in challenging the campaign of “politically correct” sex — what the Nation (8 November 1993) labels “the new sexual McCarthyism”.
On a certain level, “date rape” hysteria is an absurdity: even literary classics like Andrew Marvell’s love poem “To His Coy Mistress” have been tagged as apologies for male sexual “coercion”! “Date rape” is indeed a fitting butt for the spate of cartoons and magazine articles that followed the publication of Roiphe’s book.
But ludicrous as it is, “date rape” feminism has a destructive logic, and it’s nowhere more obvious than on the question of abortion rights. The government has usurped the authority to determine when and if a woman wants to have a child by whittling away at the historic 1973 Roe v Wade Supreme Court decision which legalised abortion nationally. A big part of this is its assertion of the in loco parentis privilege of “protecting” young women through “squeal laws” that demand parental consent for abortions for women under the age of 18. Last November the Supreme Court upheld Mississippi’s reactionary law requiring permission from both parents or a judge.
“Date rape” hysteria serves as a diversion from the real oppression and exploitation suffered by the vast majority of women in this country. Most working-class and minority women can’t afford to go to college, but rather endure the constant menace of violence and rape as they go to and from backbreaking, low-paying jobs or to pick up their continually threatened welfare pittances. The most forceful and consistent assertion of government intrusion into private life has been the anti-drug witch hunt, which for poor blacks (including, obviously, women) in the devastated inner-city ghettos has meant massive police raids, while workers across the country are subjected to urine testing serving to enforce discipline in the workplace.
Wilfully lumping together everything from morning-after regrets to savage brutality, “date rape” hysteria trivialises the crime of rape and belittles the real humiliation, terror and agony that rape victims undergo.
Anti-sex codes and campus hysteria
The “date rape” campaign was launched on campuses in the 1980s with annual “Take Back the Night” candlelight parades to “end sexual violence against women”. Culminating in outdoor speakouts where “survivors” give testimonials of their personal experiences, the marches have taken on the aura of religious ceremony.
Far from focusing on real acts of violence against women, the “date rape” frenzy redefines as rape experiences which are instead ambiguous or unpleasant — thus trivialising the sometimes painful tribulations of young people grappling with their first sexual encounters. But the “date rape” frenzy is more than these celebrations of trauma and helplessness. Freshmen undergo required “sexual harassment counselling”; films are shown and peer-group sessions held, all with the message that sex is dangerous and dating should be done only when sober, preferably with a chaperon. College pamphlets ask, “Is Dating Dangerous?” and “Friends Raping Friends: Could It Happen to You?”
As if this weren’t sufficiently daunting, campus administrations are now enforcing in loco parentis anti-sex codes. At Ohio’s “liberal” Antioch College, a “sexual consent policy” proscribes “Insistent and/or persistent sexual harassment
emotional, verbal or mental intimidation or abuse found to be sexually threatening or offensive
unwelcome and irrelevant comments, references, gestures or other forms of personal attention which are inappropriate and which may be perceived as persistent sexual overtones or denigration”. To avoid any misunderstandings, students must get “willing and verbal consent” at each stage of the sexual encounter: “If you want to take her blouse off, you have to ask. If you want to touch her breast, you have to ask. If you want to move your hand down to her genitals, you have to ask. If you want to put your finger inside her, you have to ask.” While many of us would be begging this motormouth to shut up and get on with it, this seemingly absurd scenario is serious: a woman can now cry “rape” if she thinks a guy might want to screw her, and the administration can suspend or expel the accused, who then faces the hideous legal ramifications of a bogus rape charge. Novelist Martin Amis, speaking at Princeton in 1992, quipped, “As far as I’m concerned you can change your mind before, even during, but just not after sex.”
Lots of people think it’s fun to get drunk and screw, but if you go to Antioch it’s against the rules: if you’re drunk, your “consent is not meaningful”! At Ann Arbor sororities, one woman is picked to remain sober during frat parties; it’s her job to stop her sisters from going off with a guy to his room. The logic of the “date rape” frenzy is carried to its chilling extreme in a poster put up around Berkeley, “Dead Men Don’t Rape” and signed by the Women’s Action Coalition “We Will Take Action”....
“Date rape”: brutal reality or a political programme?
Statistics are notoriously susceptible to manipulation for political ends, and the statistics cited for the feminists’ “epidemic” of campus rape couldn’t be a better example. The evidence for “date rape” rests on a 1985 survey by Ms. magazine, financed by the National Institute of Mental Health, which found that “one quarter of women in college today have been victims of rape or attempted rape”. But, as debunkers have pointed out, 73 per cent of the women categorised as rape victims did not define their experience as rape — that was done by Dr Mary Koss, the psychologist who analysed the survey and who coined the term “date rape”. Some 42 per cent of these women later had sex with the man who allegedly “raped” them!
Roiphe astutely points out that the “date rape epidemic” is not a reflection of sexual behaviour but a “mood”. Just listen to its propagandists: “Without mutual desire” it’s a “form of rape”, according to Andrea Parrot, Cornell professor and “date rape expert”. The code words are “manipulation” and “verbal coercion” — defined as “a woman’s consenting to unwanted sexual activity because of a man’s verbal arguments not including verbal threats of force”. The etiquette guides of the 19th century told young women that attractive men “can with a subtlety almost beyond the power of her detection, change her ordinary views of things, confuse her judgements, and destroy her rational confidence in discriminating the powers of her own mind” (Advice to Young Ladies, 1848). The titles may be different, but today’s “sexual consent policies” peddle the same retrograde assumptions about the stereotype of the aggressive, violent man, who “wants only one thing”, and the weak, indecisive woman, uninterested in sex and requiring protection.
The definitions used in the “date rape” culture reflect the feminist view that heterosexual sex and rape are a natural progression. Naomi Wolf in The Beauty Myth (1991) writes: “Cultural representation of glamorized degradation has created a situation among the young in which boys rape and girls get raped as a normal course of events.” This is a rehash of Susan Brownmiller’s 1975 book, Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape, in which she argued that rape was “nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear”. According to Brownmiller’s contemporaries:
“Rape is not a special isolated act. It is not an aberration or deviation from the norms of sexual and social behavior in this country. Rape is simply at the end of the continuum of male-aggressive, female-passive patterns, and an arbitrary line has been drawn to mark it off from the rest of such relationships
most men in our country are potential rapists.”
— A Medea and K Thompson, Against Rape
At its extreme, rape is equated with sex, for example by anti-porn queen Catharine MacKinnon: “Compare victims’ reports of rape with women’s reports of sex,” she says. “They look a lot alike.” But contrary to feminist mythology, rape is not a “normative” expression of sexuality in this society. As we wrote in 1975 in “Rape and Bourgeois Justice” (Young Spartacus no 29, February 1975):
“Rape transforms what is normally a pleasurable intimacy and consensual activity for sexual gratification into an experience of fear, degrading submission, brutality and often injury for the victim and into an overt expression of hostility and aggression for the rapist. Between the actuality of rape and the sex act per se there are differences. These differences may be considered as discontinuities in the continuum of sexual relations. It is precisely the feminists who make the value judgement that there are no discontinuities, no differences in kind, between mutually pleasurable, consensual sexual intercourse and a victimization and violation filled with terror and degradation.”
Rape at the final discontinuity ceases to be a sexual act.
Susan Estrich, feminist author of Real Rape, believes many women “would say no if they could” to any sex with men. Nonetheless she is quite correct that “The legal definition of rape turns on force and nonconsent, not on the relationship between accuser and accused.” We believe that effective consent should determine sexual relations — not the age, sex, number or degree of intimacy of the people involved. Because it’s the circumstances of a sexual encounter that determine whether it is a crime or an act of voluntary sexual intercourse, ambiguities about consensuality do and must occur, particularly when the people know each other. Consent is always coloured by the society we live in. Consensuality is rendered something less than complete when sexist attitudes and economic constraints (however expressed through a complex set of social factors that make them more or less “acceptable”) keep estranged couples together. And given the tangle of race, sex and class in this bigoted society, relationships can often be emotionally exploitative and unequal — but to call them “crimes” is to bring in the government, which is the very enforcer of that bigotry and exploitation.
If among adults the psychology and sociology of sexual relations are murky and complex, they are all the more so when young people come into sexual contact with each other at the height of their socialised sexual differentiation, without any preparation or experience and without much access or opportunity. Sexual experimentation is one of the things youth is all about. Sex hormones are boiling for both young men and women, but the expressions of this sexuality differ. While the current crop of college women has been spared some of the guilt, shame and fear of pregnancy imposed on earlier generations, experiences vary from doing nothing to doing a lot. Social control over teenage boys is much less: they can be described as alienated young males charging an indifferent and hostile society with an erection, and generally bouncing off. Young men will do almost anything to get off; mainly this takes the form of masturbation, but guys will get a girl in bed if they can. And contrary to feminist myth, they are often successful: many young women do like to screw.
Of course early sexual experiences are not always the most auspicious, particularly now that AIDS is a real fear. Condoms do not make for a spontaneous expression of passion. Teenagers often have to get drunk to get up the nerve to have sex, and they aren’t experienced at handling alcohol. Under these circumstances, premature ejaculation, fumbling, miscommunication are unfortunately probably the norm rather than the exception. But awkward, unpleasant, even manipulative experiences are not rape. In an interview with the London Independent on Sunday (31 October 1993), Mary Koss revealed an underlying assumption behind the “date rape epidemic”: “It isn’t drunkenness itself that determines whether or not you get raped, it’s whether you have the misfortune to be drunk around a sexual jerk.” If finesse defines consensuality, one gets an idea of the genesis of her “one in four women raped” statistic.
The difficulties of teenage sex result in part from religious moralism which reinforces the myth of asexuality of youth in this society and in part from sexual stereotyping which tries to make bullies out of little boys and compliant dolls out of little girls. Moreover, deforming puritanism and bigotry in North American society all but seals off, especially for boys, anything but heterosexual activity.
It would surely help to have sex education that prepared young people for screwing. An understanding of the reproductive system is important, but somewhat more pertinent for youth than the placement of a girl’s Fallopian tubes is the existence of her clitoris. Instead, the federal government has spent over $31 million to develop an “abstinence only” curriculum which teaches “the only safe sex is no sex”, doesn’t mention condoms or homosexuality, and counsels girls that have had sex already to practise “second virginity”. This does not differ much from the message of pamphlets distributed at some college orientations to teach of the danger of AIDS: “To eliminate risk, abstain from sex or avoid sexual intimacy beyond fantasy, massage and mutual masturbation.” In this sexually charged society, the message that teenagers get from these moral strictures is that when adults tell you “what’s good for you” it’s all hypocrisy and lies.
Rape laws and “family values”
...Rape is a hideous crime, one which embodies all the sexual myths and stereotypes of this deeply racist society. But the juridical basis of the current rape laws has little to do with protecting women against violence. The laws exist for the protection of women as property, based on the moral code embodied in the institution of the family. Thus the real crime of rape in patriarchal societies of all kinds is that the woman is “defiled”; her value as a “pure” transmission belt for the inheritance of private property is damaged. In the US this is expressed in the notorious harassment of the victim by the police. Victims are sometimes denied immediate medical attention and frequently find themselves on trial as courts subject them to rigorous moral scrutiny. For the cops and judges in America, a rape victim with a sexual past has no value to protect.
In strict Islamic societies, rape victims are often killed by their families; at best they cannot marry. Shrouding women in the veil in countries like Iran and Afghanistan is the ultimate in “protection of women”, meant to keep them in a condition of chattel slavery to husbands or fathers. This was not the least of our reasons for hailing the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in 1979, which alone held forth the prospect of freeing women from this bondage. Indifferent to the plight of their Afghan “sisters”, American feminists backed the CIA’s cut-throat mujahedin allies in their fight against the Red Army.
Despite the inherent contradictions of “justice” in the bourgeois court system, we do not oppose the rape laws per se and could well support prosecution of an accused rapist in a given situation. We take a very different attitude, however, to the statutory rape laws, which prohibit any sexual intercourse with any girl under the age of consent (which varies from state to state). Such laws exist only to oppress young people and are almost always prosecuted in a vindictive manner by the state. In New York, for example, a 19-year-old boy can go to jail for spending the night with his 17-year-old girlfriend.
The social tinder of race and sex
The reform of the rape laws in the 1970s made it easier for a woman to prosecute, but it also made it easier to railroad the accused on purely vindictive charges. In this racist society the new laws have been used to further victimise black people. In a country where the ultimate taboo is interracial sex, the ruling class never hesitates to pull out all the stops in their manipulation of sexual fear in the service of racial oppression. Nor are the feminists wanting in this regard.
Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black youth, was hideously mutilated and murdered in Mississippi in 1955 for “reckless eyeballing” a white man’s wife. This monstrous racist lynching was a touchstone on the race question. But 20 years later Susan Brownmiller disgustingly insisted that Till had something in common with one of the murderers: “They both understood that
it was a deliberate insult just short of physical assault, a last reminder to Carolyn Bryant that this black boy, Till, had in mind to possess her.” In her book Katie Roiphe recalls Emmett Till’s case, and describes how at George Washington University a female student fabricated a story about “two muscular young-looking black males” in “torn dirty clothing” raping a white student; she later recanted.
Roiphe rightly points out that the feminist insistence that male catcalls and leers are tantamount to rape is no different from the accusations of “reckless eyeballing” that formed the basis for white lynch mob attacks on blacks in the South. But Roiphe relegates it to a lesson of history, asserting that “lynchings and Jim Crow are not the current danger”. In fact, the protection of “Southern white womanhood” remains the bloody battle cry of the Ku Klux Klan. Legal lynching is a current reality: in 1990, a 21-year-old black man, David Scott Campbell, was found hanged in a Mississippi jail, one of 24 blacks who were declared “suicides” in the state’s prison system in the past five years. Campbell was arrested on a year-old warrant, but in the eyes of the cops his “crime” was dating a white woman.
The institution of the family inculcates powerful anxieties and superstitious fears which are especially prone to social control by reactionary forces. “Take Back the Night” marches are reactionary, not-so-thinly veiled calls to strengthen the state and its repressive apparatus, the racist cops; along with slogans like “Dead Men Can’t Rape” and “Castrate Rapists”, they’re a lynch mob waiting to happen. (The demand for castration is especially horrifying: this brutality was performed on black men by the slavocracy until as late as the 19th century, when even they abandoned it as too barbaric; and for decades the Klan performed it in lynchings.)
The “date rape” hoax is a cynical and dangerous business because it invokes government authority to intervene as moral arbiter in our most intimate affairs and fuels a state-sponsored campaign of sexual regimentation in the service of bolstering the reactionary institution of the family. While Marxists cannot decree either a just or a pleasurable solution to the ambiguities that arise out of the intersection of sex, race and class in this capitalist society, we can and do oppose all attempts to fit human sexuality into legislated and decreed “norms”. Back-alley abortions, prostitution, unwanted pregnancies, physical and sexual violence and racial oppression are the sordid reality behind “public morality”.
The “date rape” fraud deflects attention from the real violence perpetuated every day against women and children under this class system. Social degradation and dehumanisation (which permeate sexual relations as all else) is rooted in the nature of this society and the exploitation of labour. The social alienation of a system in which the vast mass of people are tools for the enrichment of the very few is compounded by the institutionalised inequalities of race, nationality and sex. Violence against women springs in part from the deep sexual insecurities fostered by repressiveness and social irrationality.
This system is also imperialist, reaping billions off the Third World masses who are deliberately pushed down into starvation, illiteracy and endemic disease, and held down by brutal dictatorships. Subjected to oppressive practices like female genital mutilation or enforced segregation under the veil and in the home, most women get to watch their children die and to die young themselves, often in childbirth or after some botched abortion.
To create genuinely free and equal relations between people in all spheres, including sex, requires nothing less than the destruction of this class system and the creation of a communist world. In a classless society social and economic constraints over sexual relations will be nonexistent, and in the words of Friedrich Engels, “there is no other motive left except mutual inclination”.