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“Archaic and Libertine France”

Notes on:
Sylviane Agacinski, Parity of the Sexes.

Though in many ways “modern” in its sophistication regarding sexual mores and the appreciation of one sex for the character of the other, France still seems to have marked out the sphere of public power for men.

Private morality is never brought up to qualify a public one. [The Clinton-Lewinsky scandal could never have arisen in France, for example.]

This, of course, redounds to the benefit of men, for the most part.

Agacinski mulls over the Anglo-Saxon stir surrounding the notion of “date rape.” The concept seems contradictory on its face: a “date” is by definition a voluntary affair. “Rape” is not. There is just “rape” whether it occurs during a date is beside the point. There is no call for a peculiar kind of rape that occurs only in the course of a date. Women know or ought to know that male sexuality is prone to aggression.

To emphasize this risk-taking is not to accuse the victim of ‘provocation,’ nor to attribute to her responsibility for the crime of which she is the victim; rather, it is to recall a dissymmetry of situation that it is naive and dangerous to neglect. That man’s desire can be at times impetuous, even violent, is a matter of clearheadedness that our grandmothers already possessed.


On Rape

If they have been weaned away from belief in this “dissymmetry,” this is another pernicious consequence of too easily buying into the idea of the interchangeability of the sexes—as though men were just women with oddly shaped body parts.

The impulse to force sex upon a woman is common, if not near universal, in men. (Or just force sex upon whatever, woman or not.) It is not inevitable, certainly, but the risk is great. FBI statistics, very likely understated, assure us that one out of every four women in the United States will be raped at least once in their lives. If it doesn’t happen more often, it is not because the idea never occurs to most men, it is because most men are too fearful of attendant public shame, private remorse, or, oddly enough, sometimes just alienating someone they do not want to repel. And it would be naive to think these disparate fear-inspiring restraints cannot all operate in concert. Indeed, isn’t it the precise object of the proper sentimental education of young men that they should?

A woman who volunteers to place herself in close and private proximity to a man is taking a risk. Part of her education should be to make her understand this and prepare her for minimizing the risk of something she does not want to happen. It would be disrespectful to assume that she is always or even usually powerless to manipulate the situation.

In those situations where she truly is powerless, we call that “rape,” pure and simple, and it cannot matter what relationship she may or may not bear to her rapist.

However, nothing said about the risks she assumes in wanting to gain something from such a close approach to maleness, excuses in the least his behavior. There is a very real sense, as Weininger and others have noted, in which a man rapes—implying the full censure in that term—whenever he succumbs to his desire, her assent notwithstanding. [Ed. Note: See Luno’s Notebook VIII comment on the planet’s population by rapists.]

But without her consent, the gravity of the crime is doubled—and perhaps more than doubled. He degrades her in his own eyes even when she is complicit. This is so because it is an essential part of how he sees the world that he is himself a conscious, autonomous actor, his merit rooted in his choosing his every breath. To the extent he succumbs to instinct, desire, sensuality, fear, even joy or any other heteronomous force as motivation for his behavior—to that extent he falls short. Of what? Of being fully human. For it is exactly pure autonomy that captures the essence of humanity for him… (I am not alluding to Kant: I am explaining Kant as phenomenon.) And where does she fit in? She is the occasion of his downfall. As such she is the ultimate object, the bit of nature set to trip him up.

Needless to say, this is not how she sees it. It is also not how he, in his weaker moments, if not the better part of his time here, wants to either. Part of her attraction to him is, in fact, that she is not so burdened. His wanting to be close to her, through the act of coitus to merge with her, is in great part his desire to experience, however fleetingly, a loss of urgent self, a loss in which he imagines a measure of peace, of relief from a heterocosmic mandate bearing ever down on him. But this form of transcendence seems to come with a price. It appears to leach his life of a meaning proprietary to him. A post coitum triste descends upon him and obviates him altogether, a once proud locus of unfettered consciousness.

He may find consolation in that now she has come into her own through his intervention (or fall), the baton handed to her, her greatest scene in life is to begin now, but his is done, he now is a glorified servant at best. This apparently is sufficient consolation for most men most of the time. But not for a significant number of men much of the time. There remains to them a way they may recover a semblance of autonomy: in criminality and destruction, in war and rape, in the creation of emergencies for staging the exercise of villainy and heroism… It is responsibility, above all, they crave, if not for good, then evil will do in its place.

But it is all semblance… In lieu of bearing children, he bears an entertaining world in which they may live and die…

But to return to the idea of “date rape”, what is going on here? It is important because in a sense nearly all rape in “date rape”. Rape by a complete stranger, more understandably pathologized, is considerably rarer. “Date rape” is the paradigm of male sexual aggression: it must occur with a frequency she dare not admit to herself, let alone publicly, for it would imply she has become calloused and impermeable to hope and she is simply too young to become wizened and cynical. It would already mean she had passed beyond, to another stage of life with unbelievably modest expectations. This would happen if she somehow came to believe that every close relationship—familial, occupational, at school, at social events, etc.—with a male past puberty was fraught with this possibility.

She wants to enter a lion’s cage armed with a whip and chair and resents it when the lion uses his teeth or claws? Or rather, she is fooled by a veneer of domesticity, thinking this cannot really be a lion, or in any case, confident in her skill at reaching out and subduing and palliating him with gestures and blandishments? Has she momentarily forgotten what she wanted from him in the first place?

But, no, it is not this she wanted, she wanted the whole process to draw itself out unto a lifetime—or at least the next day?

Perhaps we are left with the more hopeful thought that the overwhelmingly vast majority of men do not rape women who are strange to them. The act, if not quite the urge, to leap out from behind a bush at a cold target requires a level of gall, courage, or stupidity truly scarce in men. But the minimum he may need to claim that a “relationship” ready to exploit exists may be little more than knowing her name. Thus, “acquaintance rape.”

In using the contradictory term, “date rape,” she seeks to capture somehow the wrongness, the unfairness of the situation where one party wants to give less than the other wants to take—where neither owes or is owed anything and where external constraints and inhibitions, all but her own, have receded beyond screaming distance.

It is unfair. It is wrong by any moral scale to which one may wish to defer. And because it happens all the time and we owe our existence to it, the ancients dubbed it “original sin.” It explains why we come into existence already lacking innocence….

But some of us surely were born love children, children conceived in undisguised mutual passion? Nature gave us eyelids to close and sometimes we close them and allow her waves to carry us off shore in a momentous, rapturous act of faith in which neither premeditation intrudes nor clearly defined identities contend… consequences be damned. Thus, we, the damned consequences, acquire charm.

The mistake we never fail to make is to think that morality has anything to do with the beginning or end of life.* It is all about the interval between. It has to do with how we comport ourselves before we commit it and then after the crime is done.

*See my remarks on capital punishment, abortion, euthanasia, etc. It is because these are not ultimately ethical problems but failures of nerve—they show up a weakness of convictions that goes unremarked in other situations where outcomes are over determined—that they remain insoluble.


…a condemnation of seduction as such, no doubt because the idea of seduction already contains the loss of absolute mastery, a certain self-abandon, and this element of abandonment seems contrary to the ideal autonomy that, in general, drives ideologies of emancipation, and above all women’s emancipation.

For all that French culture may famously seem enlightened about the dissymmetry, the political recognition of it there, as elsewhere, is still mired in the “archaic”. And this sets the stage for Agacinski’s call for power sharing that reflects the fact that, in an importance sense, men cannot represent women. Power-holders must then be divided 50/50.

Posted by luno in rape, political philosophy, parity, philosophy and sex, male criminality (Tuesday August 1, 2006 at 1:24 pm)

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