Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore

Rape and pleasure

Filed By Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore | July 09, 2007 8:01 AM | comments

Filed in: Living, Media, Politics
Tags: consensual sex, heterosexual privilege, masculinity, rape, sexual pleasure, sodomy, structural homophobia, violence

In Sean's post from last Thursday, "Why 'sodomize' and not 'rape'?," he writes:

Every time the media or law enforcement uses the term "sodomize" they are really talking about rape. The more we allow that term to be used and seen as a violent act of aggression the more we allow society to define consensual anal sex as some kind of horrible thing that happens to you. Here is my point. Being sodomized can be consensual. Being raped cannot.

I think Sean makes a great point about the seemingly casual workings of structural homophobia/heterosexism. I would actually build on that point to say that when men, boys and other male-assigned/male-socialized individuals are raped in our culture, what is often seen as a problem is not the rape itself, but the fact that the victim of rape supposedly had his masculinity challenged. I encountered this view quite a bit when I first started to come to terms with being sexually abused by my father as a kid, and found that every book for male survivors of sexual abuse available at that time (1992) focused on how to recover one's masculinity.

I wasn't interested in "recovering" my masculinity. Rather, I saw (and continue to see) unquestioning and non-negotiated masculinity as part of the problem of structural violence of all sorts, including sexual abuse, rape and sexual assault.

Sean also writes:

Rape is a horrible thing. Of course it is not about sex, it is about power and control and exerting dominance over someone. It is also about humiliation. The universal way for men to humiliate other men is to call them a queer or treat them like one. Rape is a tool of choice for men in many settings, including prison, to solidify their masculinity and dominance in the pecking order of any social group.

While I certainly agree that rape is often used as a tool for solidifying masculinity and dominance, I do think that rape is also about sex (yes, even in prison). It's important to separate rape from consensual sex, but I do think that rape is one specific type of violence that always involves sex. It's not enough to say that rape is about exerting power and control and sex is about pleasure, since, in a society where power and control are fetishized, rationed and hoarded, there is far more overlap with pleasure than we might like. Just a quick glance at mass advertising, Hollywood movies, or "love" stories on television will certainly reveal the ways in which coerced sex is often seen as the norm, something slightly forbidden and therefore mythologized as a necessary ingredient in romance.

Of course we should work to de-link sex from violence, but to say that the two are separate doesn't help with this process. Unfortunately, sex is often about violence. Sometimes the violence is blatant, as in forced penetration by a stranger (or mass rape in times of war), but often it works more subtly, within relationships that are otherwise loving (or hidden from public view, in the case of child sexual abuse). If we are working towards ending rape, we also have to address the ways in which rape is seen as pleasure, both by the perpetrator and the larger culture.

In order to address some of these issues, Mattilda edited a book in 2004 called Dangerous Families: Queer Writing on Surviving. Mattilda blogs at

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