By Jane Ward
Jane Ward is a guest blogger from the University of California Riverside and the author of Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men (2015).
Many of my students’ comments about sex have surprised me in recent years, and regrettably, this is not because they are introducing me to interesting erotic subcultures I haven’t yet encountered, or to inspired, new sexual terminology. No, it’s that some of them define sexual assault with such a broad brush that I nearly fall out of my chair. Some tell me that any sex involving alcohol or drugs is, by definition, non-consensual and potentially rape. Others tell me that all unwanted sex is rape (or “at least a form of violence “), including when someone offers to give a blowjob they don’t really want to give because they feel general social pressure to conform to hook-up norms, or when someone consents to have sex with their partner when they are tired and not into it.
Some students tell me that queer people my age are too obsessed with sex practices, and that queer liberation is about identity-based self-determination (the freedom to identify in multiple and evolving ways, mostly on the internet). I tell them I disagree with their framing of many of these points. I tell them about how sometimes people choose to have sex, and also choose to drink alcohol before they have sex. I tell them about Nicola Gavey’s distinction between rape and “unjust sex, “‘ and how heteronormativity and patriarchy set up the field of hetero sex to be a vast expanse of unwanted and unsatisfying sex for women. A rigged and unjust system? Yes. Rape? No.
Rape is not a metaphor, I tell them. I tell them I think we need more and better language to describe the bad sex that many of us consent to, and that developing this language will also allow us to see that “consent ” is hardly the endgame when it comes to good, and maybe even ethical, sex.
Cultural flashpoints, like the recent news about Kevin Spacey’s pattern of sexual harassment, can throw these apparent divides into even sharper relief. Scrolling through my Facebook feed, I saw many queers posting with fury about how Spacey had set back the lesbian and gay movement by reinforcing the gay pedophile myth. They declared that his reference to being gay was a distraction and a manipulation. They said he was using being drunk as a way to excuse sexual assault. Some called him a rapist before any evidence of forced penetration had been presented. Again, I was shocked by how quickly queer people were making facile and confident conclusions—Spacey is the same as Weinstein! —with relatively little information and with what seemed to me to be an anachronistic sense that it’s our job, as queers, to anticipate and prevent straight people’s most outlandish fears about us (like that Spacey’s actions mean all gay men are pedophiles).
The claim that Spacey had abused and sullied the otherwise beautiful act of “coming out” seems to me especially bizarre and off-the-mark. For one, everyone in Hollywood, Spacey’s social world, already knew he was queer, making this ineffective as a distraction within the industry. Spacey’s coming out was more likely an obligatory offering to the public, who demand that celebrities (and all people) account for their sexuality with an easily consumable identification and narrative. Had Spacey not explained himself as gay, the media frenzy about the homosexual element of the story would likely have eclipsed what was truly important: 1.) that Spacey sexually harassed a 14-year-old boy by drunkenly laying on top of him, scaring and later traumatizing him, and 2) that Spacey acknowledged the harassment, apologized, and said he was “truly horrified. ”
Before I had a chance to think through how I might draw upon the power of queer, feminist complexity to characterize what Spacey had done to Rapp, I was overwhelmed by the panic emerging from mostly gay white male commentators. Spacey is a pedophile! Spacey is gay! So now everyone will think gays are pedophiles like they used to! Given our history of criminalization and subjection to false accusations of child molestation, gay men and lesbians have good reason to be vigilant about how the public perceives our relationship to children. But wrapped up in this panic are also other presumptions fueled by assimilationist forces in the gay and lesbian movement and mainstream/white feminist responses to sexual violence.
The mainstream gay critique of Spacey’s “inappropriate timing ” to “finally come out ” seemed to me very clearly anchored in a belief I do not share—that coming out is a genuine moral obligation, a proclamation of tremendous significance, and an act of finally telling truth about oneself. What if you feel, as I do, that coming out is a tedious social requirement designed to appease straight people and dumb down the complexities of queerness by telling a tired story about how you always knew you were different, how you are just like straight people except for your “love of the same sex “, and so on? From that view, “coming out ” almost always diminishes us, even as it may feel empowering. It’s almost always “bad timing, ” because it is almost always timed to help straight people understand us—in other words, it is timed to accommodate heteronormativity. It makes perfect sense to me that in this moment of global attention to his sexual assault of boys and men, Spacey would believe this is precisely the time to do that discursive thing we require of people who are oriented toward the so-called same sex: tell a story that explains why he was attracted to boys and men in the first place.
Critiques of Spacey’s apology seem to be forged by the same blunt mainstream feminist instrument that my students often bring to their analysis of what counts as sexual assault. As Sarah Schulman has described so vividly, we are living in a time in which many young feminists are not interested in why sexual assault happens, because to even ask that question is to potentially extend a degree of humanity to the rapist, who should burn in hell or be locked up for life. I find myself wishing torture upon rapists as much as the next feminist, but I also want to see us undo rape culture systematically, rather than focus purely on how we can partner with police to lock up rapists one by one. Somehow, I have become afraid to ask in my classroom the very questions that I know we must be asking: what happened to men’s humanity, did they ever have it, and how can we repair them? How do we address sexual violence and oppose the prison industrial complex at the same time? Does restorative justice work in cases of sexual assault? (See INCITE’s The Revolution Starts at Home to begin thinking about this). How do we distinguish between rape, on the one hand, and all the other bad sex people have out of obligation, self-doubt, fear, and confusion, on the other?
No one I know thinks that Kevin Spacey’s sexual harassment and possible assault of teenagers, or adults, is worthy of defense. That’s a given. Sexual harassment and sexual assault—by which I mean repeated, unwanted sexual propositions and forced sexual touching, respectively—are violations. And they are often, though not always, traumatic for the people who experience them. But the rush to meme-ify sexual harassment and assault with our righteous rage, and to reduce our thinking to the level of “what will straight people think??! ” is hardly our best way forward. For me the question is, as always, how do we draw upon decades of feminist and queer activism and theorizing to see our way through the complexities of sex and its intersections with violence?