The Mirror headline reads, “Woman aged 91 suffocated during sex game with married neighbour.”
The woman’s killer left her with bruising on the face, what the article describes as, “extensive genital injuries,” and lying in bloody sheets. The judge released a neighbour identified through DNA testing on bail as it’s “believed” that the woman died accidentally. Who believes this and why?
A man kills his neighbour then flees the scene. When he’s identified by DNA evidence, he makes up a story that others believe and repeat uncritically about the whole thing simply being an accidental mishap in a “sex game.”
This is how you turn oppression into a titillating taboo that isn’t taken seriously. This is how you turn public health and safety threats like rape, torture, and murder, into “sex.” Which is private.
Talking about sex in public is obscenity. So talking about the way women are threatened and physically abused becomes obscenity and, in turn, becomes “sex.” As a result, everything about women’s bodies and oppression is turned into private obscenity that can’t be discussed like other topics.
The pictures from Abu Ghraib depicted the torture of men, though. No one would believe that men want to be treated that way. It’s obvious to everyone that it was torture. But a 91-year-old woman who’s no longer alive to tell her version of the story? This murder is “sex” to the media, much like it was “sex” to the jury who acquitted the man who stabbed Cindy Gladue in the vagina and convinced the court that it was an act she consented to because he was paying her for sex.
What do you have to believe first to come to the conclusion that a woman could have consented to her own murder when all you have to go on is the word of her killer? Maybe it’s enough to have to have a lifetime of typical cultural exposure to sexualized images of women in what my mother would have called “bad situations.”
A man in chains is being oppressed. A woman in chains is “sex.”
A man being publicly humiliated is being abused. A woman being publicly humiliated is sexy.
A man harassed by another man is said to have been provoked. A woman harassed by a man is said to have been complimented by a sexual overture.
An adult having intercourse with a minor boy, whether he was groomed to “like” it or not, is described as a pedophile assaulting a child. When an adult man has intercourse with a minor girl, everyone from judges to reporters are willing to describe what happened as “sex” and discuss whether the child liked, encouraged, or “consented” to it.
Where do these ideas come from, anyway? The idea that it can be “sex” when a woman is assaulted, possibly fatally, by a man?
When I attended church as a girl, I was told on a regular basis that rape was when a stranger assaults a woman and she screams and fights to the utmost, but he overpowers her anyway. That’s straight from the Bible. I was also told that women shouldn’t put ourselves in bad situations; that we shouldn’t be at unsupervised parties, or out alone, or out late by ourselves, or generally unattended. In marriage, it was understood that it was an important spiritual duty for wives to be sexually available to their husbands so that he wouldn’t be tempted and stumble in his faith.
There’s nothing in particular from what feminists describe as rape culture that couldn’t have come from a sermon or casual discussion about sexuality from that church community, or from many other conservative faith communities.
It’s a ubiquitous feature of male-dominated faith teachings that if the woman doesn’t fight and scream to the utmost in resisting, she’s degraded, loose, immoral, and spiritually worth less for not waiting for marriage. The condemnation is leveled squarely at the “fallen” woman, who is recategorized as an agent of supernatural vice and temptation. There’s no loophole in this for occasions where compliance is coerced.
When I was older and left that church and my family, I ended up with a series of abusive partners. It took me years to realize that it had been rape that time I said no, and kept saying no, even though I’d put myself in a “bad situation” by being intoxicated and alone in a house with someone I was dating. I didn’t feel good about what he’d done to me, but I didn’t know why — words matter.
Another partner’s retrograde ideas about his allegedly natural place as the leader of our mutual household seemed perfectly normal to me after my upbringing. He liked literary porn — old style science or fantasy fiction novels where women were all damsels in distress, if not actually enslaved by their male sexual superiors. When he did eventually hit me, it was only a very little bit past the line of his otherwise total ownership of my life.
Then there’s mainstream porn. The usual kind people mean now, where it’s a still or video of a sex act, rather than the nude photography of a woman by herself that used to sell copies of Playboy. Type in the wrong search term on Twitter and you can find accounts that aggregate unrestricted pictures, short stories, and video of “greedy” “pigs” and “teens” being smacked around, tied up for group rape, being hurt until they’re crying, being drugged for easier raping, having their “holes destroyed.”
The women involved supposedly like this. I don’t know any teen girls who dream of anal prolapse in their 20s, and it doesn’t seem very sexy to me. But if men are entertained by the idea of destroying women’s bodies then I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise when men destroy women’s bodies.
One of the porn aggregator pictures I saw — again, from a public Twitter account — was of a woman face down on a bed, prone would be a good word to describe her pose, with a nothing but a pool of blood visible between her splayed buttocks. This was meant to be a sexy picture. An entertainment. Men masturbate to that picture, where a real, live woman was sexually abused until she was bleeding and someone who was party to her abuse continues to distribute the image for profit.
Another scene was a brief gif — still on that public Twitter account — of a white man wiping what was described as his “sweaty ass” on the face of a kneeling black woman. We are meant to infer, from the context of this as porn, that this woman consented to and liked having her face used as toilet paper for the comfort and convenience a white man. We’re told to infer that she consented to have this video out on the internet for anyone in our white supremacist society to see. That was among the least explicit — but one of the more haunting — of these casually, freely available “sex” pictures.
There are men who are entertained and pleased by these images. Millions of such men. It’s frightening.
To see a commercially produced picture of an obviously terrified and restrained woman with a knife held up to her face, presented as an object of sexual entertainment, is to infer the existence of an audience that is pleasurably aroused by this scenario. I hope that I know no such men, that I never meet them, that no one I care about crosses the path of such a person. Because how would you know? There is no “type” of man who rapes and abuses — such men are everywhere, they look like everyone else. No woman has any reason to give a man who enjoys a picture of a woman being abused the benefit of the doubt that he would not like to experience that in person, that he would not like to cause that fear himself.
This is part of how a woman’s fear becomes something other than evidence of intimidation, as it should be, how instead our fear becomes evidence to men of sex, romance, even love. A man can fear for his life and kill a stranger in self-defense after a single encounter. A woman fears for her life because of a long history of threats or violence, and if she stays, or complies, or even retaliates, her actions will be viewed through a lens that sees fear as a normal part of a supposedly consenting sexual relationship for women. Any injury the man commits will often be seen as her shared responsibility, part of their relationship.
Too many men see the torture and abuse of women and think it’s an especially sexy kind of fun. Too many women, anxious to avoid being called “sex-negative,” want to be game and go along with it. The existence of some women who like their part in pornography or religiously compelled submission are held up in male-dominated politics as the only women’s voices that matter; no one is supposed to care about women who experienced these cultures as a long series of abuses that they couldn’t find their way out of at the time, or the other women who have to deal with the consequences of how men behave after such indoctrination.
Through men’s enjoyment and sexual acculturation, abuse and domination are naturalized as “sex” or as a “game.”
Who told us that “sex” should be about domination? Who told us that “sex” was something a man “needs” or has a god-given right to “get” from a woman who is vulnerable or in a bad situation? Who suggested that it was boring to be loving, gentle, and respectful?
There is no part of male supremacist culture that doesn’t believe that women owe men sex, by which it is usually meant, she owes him sexual subservience and arousal over his use of force or coercion. Porn and church teachings are simply the most prominent outlets for this view, almost universally held.
Women often even come to believe these male stories about sexuality. But no, those weren’t compliments shouted at you on the street — you know how fast they could have turned into insults and threats. No, it wasn’t sex after he shouted, sulked, and whined for hours until you gave in — it was coercion, it was rape.
Of course, when a man assaults a woman, it is his own fault and he should bear the full blame for it. Though, as he will rarely blame himself and is likely to try to come up with an excuse to avoid such blame, it’s up to the rest of us to apportion that responsibility. How will we do it? If she is dead when he’s done with her and can’t speak for herself, will we believe it when he says it was a “sex game” gone wrong, or will we see beyond the male-serving stereotypes of women who are “fallen” or “like that sort of thing” to understand that a bruised corpse with extensive genital injuries should be taken as evidence that a human being was tortured to death?
Maybe this man would have tortured his 91-year-old neighbour to death regardless of any external cultural influence. No one can know for sure. But we can guess a lot from the fact that the killer offered this particular justification in the apparent hope that it would minimize the seriousness with which others took his crime. Judging from the court’s response so far, and the fact that the Mirror ran the story headlined with his excuse above a stock picture of an elderly couple in an intimate embrace, he guessed right.
Fearing for your life is a good enough reason for a man to get away with killing an unarmed stranger. For a woman, fearing for your life is seen as “sex.” And all too many men are too busy getting off on it to think it’s a problem.
Natasha Chart is an online organizer and feminist living in the United States.