Monday, June 21, 2010

Sexy rape: What Ayn Rand, Michael Winterbottom, and Ang Lee have in common

Atlas Shrugged is at long last being made into a movie, on the cheap and with a largely unknown cast.  As someone who was a big fan of, shall we say, large portions of the book (there are certain parts I think strongly reflect arrogance on Rand's part, and reflect a morality I'm uncomfortable with) in my teen years, I can't help being disappointed that an adaptation once rumored to be starring Angelina Jolie is being set up for mediocrity.  Any fan of Rand knows that mediocrity is the ultimate sin.

But what is the ultimate virtue in her world?  I would say "excellence," but Amanda Hess points out that it's an excellence tinged with an ugly sort of male dominance, one that translated into both Rand's personal life and her works of fiction.  Two pivotal scenes in Ayn Rand's most famous works of fiction revolve around the "sexy rape" of the lead female characters.  In The Fountainhead, it's Howard Roarke's rape of Dominique, with whom the sexual chemistry is so sizzling, he needs to break into her home and take her by force.  From Amanda Hess's transcription:
She tried to tear herself away from him. The effort broke against his arms that had not felt it. Her fists beat against his shoulders, against his face. He moved one hand, took her two wrists and pinned them behind her, under his arm, wrenching her shoulder blades.…She fell back against the dressing table, she stood crouching, her hands clasping the edge behind her, her eyes wide, colorless, shapeless in terror. He was laughing. There was the movement of laughter on his face, but no sound.…Then he approached. He lifted her without effort. She let her teeth sink into his hand and felt blood on the tip of her tongue. He pulled her head back and he forced her mouth open against his.
Of this scene, Rand has said "if it was rape, it was rape by engraved invitation," presumably because Dominique had flirted with Roarke beforehand.  A lot.  Rand also wrote in her letters,
But the fact is that Roark did not actually rape Dominique; she had asked for it, and he knew that she wanted it. A man who would force himself on a woman against her wishes would be committing a dreadful crime. What Dominique liked about Roark was the fact that he took the responsibility for their romance and for his own actions. Most men nowadays, like Peter Keating, expect to seduce a woman, or rather they let her seduce them and thus shift the responsibility to her. That is what a truly feminine woman would despise. The lesson in the Roark-Dominique romance is one of spiritual strength and self-confidence, not of physical violence.
In Rand's view, not raping a woman is apparently what hurts her, by shifting responsibility for seduction to her.  This. Is. Terrible.  And I say that as someone who, again, has enjoyed Ayn Rand's books and really really wishes her views on gender and sexuality were any measure less messed up than they are.

In Atlas Shrugged,  Dagny and John Galt finally consummate their unspoken affection (which exists because she is the smartest, most capable woman around and he is the smartest, most capable man--except for Francisco D'Anconia, who always seemed pretty awesome to me, but somehow didn't deserve her) when he tracks her down in a train tunnel, sneaking up on her from behind.  As a teenager, I didn't know how to read this scene.  Now I see it as rape, pure and simple.

The problem with Ayn Rand's philosophy is that she admires strong and powerful (and of course beautiful women), but admires more when they are crushed by a man of the same characteristics.  This is what she means by "femininity": submission to domination and violence.  From Amanda Hess and Sady Doyle's Sexist Beatdown on the subject:
SADY: This was always my favorite part of Ayn Rand: There’s always ONE WOMAN who is, like, super-smart and super-competent and super-skilled at all this industry stuff that everyone else sucks at because they’re socialists. (Also, this woman is always thin and “angular.” “Angular” is the key defining visual attribute of Virtue, in the Rand lexicography.) She is, explicitly, better at this than every man in the entire world. EXCEPT FOR HER BOYFRIEND! He chooses her to smack around or rape or whatever (AND SHE LOVES IT) because that is how very superior she is. Like, I’d really rather NOT be superior if it means getting slapped all the time?
...AMANDA: Ayn Rand loves gender equality, to a point—the point where she personally thinks it’s really not sexy, at which point the greatest man in the world rapes the greatest woman in the world, who he knows will just love it. Because that’s how great she is. Are inferior beings allowed to rape people in Ayn Rand novels? Or is middle-class intimate partner violence not as glamorous?
Make no mistake, the idea that powerful women want nothing more than to be put in their place by an equally powerful man is dangerous.  And the people who defend it are rape apologists.

But also make no mistake that this mindset died with Ayn Rand.  Artists who examine the nature of sex for some reason cherish the idea of women secretly loving sexual violence against them.  And the viewers who watch these scenes far too often approach them uncritically, accepting the confirmation of their preferred status quo of male domination and female submission.  [Note: What I am talking about is completely different than voluntary, agreed upon BDSM.  All of the examples I am citing are ones where the woman offered no consent before the sex act.]

In the recently released film The Killer Inside Me, directed by Michael Winterbottom, the main character beats a woman after she slaps him, then carries her into the bedroom and rapes her, which (I gather, haven't seen it and won't) she suddenly begins to enjoy.  He later kills her.  Male reviewers were momentarily bothered by this scene, but notes that overall it paints a picture of the character as a sadistic murderer, and so its depiction of violence are warranted.  Is it ever warranted to promote the idea that a woman wants to be raped, though?

For a more nuanced portrayal, take Ang Lee's film Lust, Caution.  In it, a Chinese revolutionary spies on a Japanese collaborator during the WWII occupation of China, intending to lead assassins to him.  She plans to seduce him.  But, when they meet for their first sexual encounter, he brutally rapes her.  She is in a strange position, because she must maintain the relationship and her cover or risk her life.  So after this experience, she continues to have a sexual relationship with him, that is by turns tender and sadistic.  In the end, she grows to have deep feelings for him, that she potentially mistakes for love.  However, what I saw portrayed on screen was more a depiction of Stockholm syndrome than one of love.  Forced to act as though she enjoyed the company of someone who was abusive of her, the main character adjusted to this reality to such an extent that she couldn't envision herself without it.  Unfortunately, male reviewers saw this as a simple case of "He raped her, and she liked it." (ETA: Ang's eroticization of the relationship is still troubling, but the portrayal is definitely one of him as abuser her her as victim with torn loyalties)

Is it realistic that a woman who has experienced psychological harm might think that she deserves sexual violence?  Might believe that she enjoys it?  Might not fight back against her attacker?  Might protect him?  Yes.  All of these things are realistic.

But it's not romantic.  It's tragic.

And if I ever had lunch with Dominique or Dagny, I'd tell them so.  And then I'd call the police.

7 comments:

  1. I have a problem with any cultural analysis that would attempt to evaluate the ethics of a work of art (not, incidentally, that I would call Ayn Rand's work "art"--or philosophy, for that matter) so simply and straightforwardly. You cannot demand that people who create art curtail what they choose to represent because of the various possible impacts the art may have on their audience's behavior or mindset. Rather than trying to police what kinds of representations are acceptable (or how they can acceptably be interpreted), it's more interesting to ask why, again and again, this conflation of sex, violence and power keeps reappearing, and keeps (why lie?) fascinating people. (You can claim it's all a social construction, but if so, social constructions have been awfully stable, transculturally, historically, and even across species.) It seems to indicate that, for many people, there is something inherently sexy about power dynamics and violence, plain and simple. You can try to make that "healthy" by confining it to very well-defined BDSM relationships, but what if much of the sexual charge and interest lies precisely in the ambiguity that "sex-positive" types keep trying, fruitlessly, to eliminate? What if sex is about risk? It may be that sex can't be reduced to some clean, gymnastic activity, and every effort to do so will result in some equal and opposite attempt to push the envelope and make sex dangerous and exciting again. In other words, you'll always have the pleasure of fighting this battle, if you do find these sorts of rhetorical violence pleasurable...

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  2. JMM, a lot of what you're saying makes sense, and certainly literature is one of the venues through which many women play out rape fantasies (trashy romance novels, for example.) It sounds like you're saying, however, that people naturally want to be raped. I want to give you a chance not to be saying that.

    Rape is by definition unwanted (by the raped party). If you're saying, however, that some people naturally want to rape others, I guess that makes more sense, but some people also want to murder people. In other words, should we as a society accept behavior because it is the result of a "natural" impulse? (No.)

    Finally, sex is (hopefully) not all about risk. Coca Colo is talking about violent rape in this post. She doesn't imply the alternative is "clean" and boring. I can pretty safely say that no one at Femonomics is opposed to dirty, rough-and-tumble, exciting, charged, and / or pleasurable sex. More for everyone, I say! Rape, however, we are completely, 100% against.

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  3. mongoose6, I meant what I said, and I don't think I need the extra "chance"! Thanks, though. :) I will use that generous chance, however, to re-state what I said before.

    Never did I say that people want to be raped--a paradox that would require either a redefinition of "want," or a redefinition of "rape". But I think a good percentage of people want to watch/read/listen to scenarios in which the distinction between rape and pleasurable, desirable sex is pushed toward such a paradoxical limit. (I think it's also possible that a [probably much smaller] group of people wants to play with that ambiguity in their own lives.) Mostly I'm concerned with the way this post approaches representations of ambiguous sexual acts by condemning the acts represented (arguably, but not necessarily, an unfair move), then erases the boundaries between the representations of the thing and the thing itself to actually condemn the representations--along with the desire to represent it or watch/read/listen to those representations--as forms of "promotion" of the thing represented. THAT I find very unfair. (It's not likely to provide an effective approach to understanding human culture and society, either.)

    Sex isn't ALL about risk, but I think it is about risk, on every level (emotional/physical/psychological/etc.). I know CC wasn't trying to imply that the universal acceptance of a form of sex purged of risk might be boring--because that's what I was trying to imply! I think that boredom is a possible unintended side effect of any widespread social/political program that tries to promote a form of "healthy" sexuality, one that (again more or less by definition) doesn't make any space for risk's role in sexual excitement and satisfaction.

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  4. Right then, so I think we just disagree, or have very different sexualities (both can be true!) Because, for me "dangerous sex," in the sense of "you might get pregnant" or "it's possible you're catching Chlamydia" are major, instant boner killers. Like, from 60 to 0 in no seconds flat. If other people are into that, it's cool, I guess...

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  5. Thank you, Coca Colo!

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  6. I have to say I enjoyed this article for many reasons, and truly thank the author.

    One of the reasons for this is because as a male who enjoys rape-play [BDSM role-play involving rape] it's something that took me a while to come to terms with and an issue which I always like to see female viewpoints on, especially from a feminist[my apologies if I'm making assumptions]. As the author noted, however, there is a clear-cut difference between role-play where both partners give consent beforehand, and the I-could-tell-she-wanted-it type of rape Ayn Rand promotes. I think that sort of act is an ugly, horrible thing to do to a person[but this could be why I find acting it out increases arousal, being that it's about as taboo as it gets].

    That brings me to the second thing I thank the offer for: the well-written explanation of Ayn Rand's stance. Having not actually read her works, I at first thought maybe she was simply into rape-play, herself, since it actually surprises me how many women I've met that also enjoy it. Especially strong, empowered women[which aside from being submissive in the bedroom, I've always preferred partners who are otherwise intelligent, strong-willed and autonomous], but the author clearly showed that this is not the case, and proved with Ayn Rand's own letters that she supports non-consenting, REAL rape.

    In my own opinion, based on what the author has brought to light for me, I'd say that I think Ayn Rand does simply have a rape-play fetish, but as intelligent as she seems to be based on many of the quotes and ideas of her's I've read, it seems she failed to make the distinction in her own mind between rape-play and actual rape. Sure, giving consent and discussing rules and safewords for the role-play undoubtedly takes some of the thrill and even arousal out of the act, but how she can fail to see the necessity of this is beyond me.

    And that's another thing I fully agree with the author about: it is terribly irresponsible for Ayn Rand to promote such things, especially the idea that men should just "know" when a woman wants it and act on that. Hell, I just recently had a girl yell at me the next day for NOT taking advantage of her after she intentionally got herself wasted over my house. Yeah, I was pretty sure that's what she wanted, but she never made it clear beforehand and even having sex with someone when they're too inebriated to make a rational decision simply because you think that what they wanted is really pushing the borders of morality. While always having to say "I consent and agree to have intercourse with you" would take the fun and spontaneity out of many sexual encounters, the are situations like the one I just mentioned[and any involving rape-play] where anything less just won't cut it. The damage you risk doing to a person is just too great to leave any amount of uncertainty as to whether or not the person actually wants it.

    I don't see any way to subscribe to this thread, and so far the conversation looks very interesting, so if anyone else comments or wishes to discuss this further or dispute my opinion of the matter, please feel free to e-mail me: harmonioushypocrisies@yahoo.com

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  7. femaleliberationarmyMarch 29, 2012 at 4:49 PM

    Thank you Richard. Your view is encouraging in a world where rape-apologism, sexism & bdsm sadly are conflated often. As a militant feminist who has always loved what I term 'power-play' (as the word 'rape' immediately conjures something I despise) I've had some serious ethical qualms. But as I’m disgusted by many scenes that superficially resemble what I enjoy, I've forced myself to look hard at my sexuality & how gendered socialization may affect my sub tendencies.

    My findings are this: the crucial difference in what I perceive to be rape & power-play fantasies I enjoy is the forceful destruction of autonomy. What makes me sick to my stomach is a rape victim's autonomy is destroyed, the victim is essentially dehumanized, & used for the sole pleasure of a violent attacker. When I play, I choose to give up autonomy & it’s not a wholesale loss of my being. I choose a partner who knows my sexual likes & dislikes & would never trample on my desire for the sake of his own. There is concern for the pleasure & experience of the sub, as well as the dom, & measures are taken to ensure this. In rape, it's never about the victim's pleasure or desire - it's only ever about the attacker's pleasure, reducing the victim to an object-status.

    The problem with this rape scene is that it's vehemently NOT about Dominique's desire or pleasure. Rand's working notes for the novel indicate that she thought of Roark as feeling that Dominique "belonged to him", that "he did not greatly care" about her consent & that "he would be justified" in raping her. This proves, along with his actions, that in the mind of Roark, Dominique is HIS to do with what he wishes & if she happens to like it, added bonus. Surely, even if real life subs get excited at the *fantasy* of being 'forced,' its only exciting if that submission results in pleasure - & ideally orgasm. & in order to consider what is pleasurable for a partner, you have to talk to them about it & most importantly, you have to give a shit

    More troubling, Ayn views femininity as a natural truth & that being feminine means submitting completely to males. Even her descriptions of Dominique's 'pleasure' are really about feeling & identifying with his pleasure. This is a dangerous view of gender relations & in a nutshull, is what bothers me about my own desires. Given that sex has only recently even become a realm where women have ANY say - maybe the last 35 years - how much are masculinist views of sex affecting my sexuality? How much are ideals of femininity in line with complete submission to the point that I deny my own pleasure? And how much are het-dom males socially conditioned to need to possess & control 'their woman?'

    Most studies cite that more than 70% of women cannot reach orgasm w/ penetration alone - clitoral stimulation is necessary. Yet there is a great social focus on penetration as the sole source of pleasure. If in ayn's world, a man is to decide what sex is based on his desires alone, why would he stimulate the clit – something that does nothing for him?

    For me, at least on a conscious level, power-play has nothing to do with gender. It’s based on the psychological not the physical. & more than anything it is based on my desire & what is pleasurable sexually to me. If the pleasure of any sub is completely irrelevant to the encounter - as it is for Roark in the rape of Dominique - then it is rape - not power-play - & it is not sexually exciting but rather dehumanizing & traumatic.

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