Saturday, April 22, 2017

The Nitty-Gritty of Rape Culture, Part 2

[Part 1]

There must be something in the water. Laura Kipnis opened her talk at Wellesley by expressing not so much her admiration as her envy over Philip Roth's artistic liberties—his ability to write freely about sex (even when the acts in question are as strange as masturbating on a grave). Later, she mentioned a recent episode of Girls ("American Bitch") in which Hannah gets harassed (or allows herself to be harassed) by an author. Kipnis's interlocutor in my previous post also liked that episode (though she doesn't like Lena Dunham.) In the episode, Hannah and the famous author bond on their appreciation of Roth. To close the circle, the episode apparently also resonated with Sarah Ballard. It looks like I'm going to have to find some way of watching it.

Kipnis praises Lena Dunham for her honesty about the conflicting emotions that play out in sexual harassment situations. In the context of her other remarks, I think her point is that we can use these artistic representations to better understand such situations and, by extension, help us navigate them safely. Norman Mailer suggested, to my mind plausibly, that literature helps us draw maps of the social world that can guide our way through it. Kenneth Burke called literature "equipment for living" with, I imagine, similar thoughts in mind.

In this spirit, I want to propose for our consideration three scenes from the canon, all which of are arguably "major" contributions to American letters, and therefore the American experience. In an important sense, they are part of what America knows about sex. Actually, in a sense that I think Kipnis laments, they are more accurately part of what America has forgotten about sex and therefore no longer teaches its college-aged women. The first was published in the early 1920s, the second in the late 1950s and the last at the beginning of the 21st century. They are by Hemingway, Mailer and Roth respectively. I will provide some capsule summaries here but I will insist that any further discussion should proceed on the basis of reading them.

In A Moveable Feast, Hemingway recalls Gertrude Stein telling him that "Up In Michigan" was a good story but that it was ultimately "inaccroachable", by which she basically meant "obscene". It includes a quite explicit sexual encounter that it would not be very controversial to describe as a rape. But even so, it also includes a lot of the ambiguities and conflicts that might, more controversially, be seen as distributing, if not blame, then responsibility, or desire, or perhaps more neutrally, agency to the victim: "Jim had her dress up and was trying to do something to her. She was frightened but she wanted it. She had to have it but it frightened her."

As if to anticipate the case I discussed in my last post, however, I don't think Jim thought of it as an assault, though Liz clearly told him no: "You mustn't do it, Jim. You mustn't." (Perhaps, then, it does help me to imagine what I said I would have a hard time getting my mind around.) I think we can agree that it tells us something about what a 20th-century woman could do to avoid having sex she doesn't, finally, want to have. By extension it can, perhaps, be part of the curriculum for teaching men not to rape, as some Title IX activists like to put it.

By the time Norman Mailer wrote "The Time of Her Time", explicit sex scenes were no longer inaccroachable. And Mailer certainly tried to do something with that freedom. The story is about a Village stud, Sergius O'Shaugnessy, who sets his mind to bringing Denise, a young woman—nineteen years old and a college student no less—to orgasm. This turns out to be a very demanding task, and, in desperation and frustration, and with an almost plainly declared desire for retribution (he calls his penis, "The Avenger"), he finally commits what, on paper (as it were), looks disconcertingly like an anal rape. It certainly seems to anticipate the kinds of encounters that Title IX officers have been asked to adjudicate, with "mattress girl" perhaps the most famous example.

Neither character in Mailer's story, however, seems to think of it in those terms, even though the woman leaves in anger over what he has done. As in Hemingway's story, there is enough detail and enough perspective to help us think clearly about the agency of the participants, and the contingency of the situation. While Hemingway, it must be noted, wrote his story in the third person and peeked into the heads of both characters at key moments, Mailer chose the first-person perspective of the man alone. But in both cases we are able to see, not only how things could have been different, but who could have done something differently.

Finally, let us consider a story that provides a rich and nuanced view on perhaps exactly the kind of the situation Kipnis is most interested in. In The Dying Animal, Philip Roth imagines a relationship between a sixty-something university professor, David Kepesh, and a 24-year old university student, Consuela Castillo. For many of today's campus feminists, the relationship might be considered sexual harassment almost by definition. Even though Kepesh is careful to make sure the affair happens after the course is over and the grades have been given, there's no question that he deliberately "targets" her, nor that the power imbalance remains throughout the story.

Early on in the relationship (p. 30ff), as a continuation of a consensual encounter (again, much like the story we considered in the last post), Kepesh takes control of a sexual encounter and forces oral sex on the student in a manner that has much of the violence of Mailer's story. In both cases, the man is doing something that the woman "does not like" in order to "make something happen to her". O'Shaugnessy describes the woman as "thrash[ing] beneath [him] like a trapped little animal"; Kepesh says he "kept her fixed there, kept her steady by holding her hair." Roth suggests that this act of violence "freed her", though she "looked not just horrified but ferocious" afterwards; Mailer has Sergius say, "I gave you what you could use" after Denise tells him he did a "lousy thing". Like I say, the objections of the women notwithstanding, I think both Mailer and Roth would balk at the idea that an assault took place.

This aspect of sex, in which our partner pushes us across our boundaries, beyond, in an important sense, the limits of our "consent", is increasingly frowned upon in our culture. It is a boundary that Title IX officers appear to be only too happy to patrol and police. Indeed, in order to find O'Schaugnessy and Kepesh guilty of sexual assault, I think we'd have to project our 21st-century "academic" concept of consent into those situations. In those bygone times, the woman might be angered, and even genuinely hurt, by such actions, but she would see it more like the pain of the boxer than than that of a victim. I'm not here, not yet, taking a position on it. I'm saying that we have a literature that can provide us with what Ezra Pound called "the data for ethics".

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