Child sexual abuse · Personal · Sexual libertarianism

Feminism, sexual libertarianism and statutory rape

 

As a feminist coming to terms with the ramifications of my own ‘consensual’ relationship with an adult man as a teenager, the recent Milo Yiannopoulos controversy has given me pause for thought. In particular I am interested the process whereby victims of child sex abuse internalise the arguments of sexual libertarians and extract some psychological comfort from them; and the links between this ideology and endorsement of other kinds of sex-based harm such as prostitution.

Let’s begin by defining sexual libertarianism. I was to argue that it is important to view defenses of statutory rape as  constitutive of and not incidental to sexual libertarianism, an ideology which, to paraphrase Dorchen Leidholdt, undermines feminism in the guise of being its best friend. The logic of sexual libertarianism underpins and structures anti-feminist responses to not only child sexual abuse, but prostitution, pornography and commercial surrogacy. It is not the only argument that defenses of these practices rely on but it forms an essential part.

According to Leidholdt, sexual libertarianism is “a set of political beliefs and practices rooted in the assumption that sexual expression is inherently liberating and must be permitted to flourish unchecked, even when it entails the exploitation or brutalization of others.”  On the one hand, sexual libertarianism rests on a endorsement of sexual expression as a universal good, with the implication that, so long as it is not being unduly curtailed or criticised, it should not be subject to political scrutiny. This is not to say that all sexual expression itself is good; sexual libertarians rely on a thin theory of consent to adjudicate whether any given sexual encounter is good or bad. Taking the atomistic individual as its starting point, sexual expression here becomes analogous to a kind of rational, economic exchange between two equal parties. Any element of coercion or cultural inducement recedes into the background.

On the other hand, displaying affinities with cultural relativism and moral subjectivism,  sexual libertarianism diagnoses political dissatisfaction or discomfort with sexual practices  as attitudinal. According to this view there is nothing inherently harmful about sexual expression or relationships themselves. It is feminist discourse around sex which, infused with ethnocentrism, ‘whorephobia’ and (most bizarrely) misogyny, causes and perpetuates harm. Stigma is the primary locus of harm and therefore we are to eschew terms like ‘victim’ since they unfairly mire women in the uncomfortable psychological state of being exploited or victimised. Similarly perpetrators are exonerated on the grounds of respecting women’s ‘agency’. According to sexual libertarians it is feminists who oppress women by complicating understandings of consent and denying the sexual pleasure constitutive of many debased sexual encounters.

I would like to discuss this ideology in more detail with respect to child sexual abuse, in particular statutory rape. Feminist and incest survivor Valerie Heller argues that sexual libertarians

“create myths to disguise and distort the effect of exploitative, abusive behaviour on the victims of incest and child sexual abuse. These myths serve to absolve both society and the abuser from accountability, placing responsibility for the continued oppression of the victim on the victim herself. These myths distort our perception of reality, so that those being harmed do not know they’re being hurt, and those perpetrating the harms do not believe they are hurting others.”

We have encountered some of these myths above. The narrative of sexual exploitation as empowering is born when problematic consequences of necessarily ‘choosing’ or ‘consenting’ to certain kinds of sexual acts confronts the presumption of sex as a universal good.   By changing how we think about children’s emergent sexuality, for instance, and conceiving of them as agentic beings, acting in the pursuit of a universal good we can effectively annul judgments of exploitation and abuse. Here feminists who criticise  certain kinds of sex are seen as ‘manufacturing’ victims. They do so in cahoots with the religious right, relying on misogynistic, repressive and infantilising  ideas about  sexuality.

For example, Gayle Rubin conceives of sex as a hierarchy, arguing that “extreme and punitive stigma maintains some sexual behaviours as low status and  is an effective sanction against those who engage in them.” This hierarchy is rooted in religious taboos which are endorsed and strengthened by feminist critiques. The implication is that this “sexual stratification” needs to be dismantled, beginning with the repealing of, and an embargo on sex laws. Here sexual expression is univocally good in all its forms and must not be curtailed lest it infringe on our identities as autonomous freely-choosing individuals.

It is telling that one of Rubin’s most prominent examples is what she euphemistically calls “cross-generational relationships.” Not only does Rubin defend the North American Man/Boy Love Association (NAMBLA), she frames it positively as a civil liberties organisation, arguing against child pornography and age of consent laws as unduly constraining children’s sexual expression. The law, she argues is “ferocious in maintaining the boundary between childhood “innocence” and adult “sexuality.”” Children are not innocent victims but sexual beings who are infantalised and punished  for consensually exploring their desires with older partners.

These arguments are not new to me. Between the ages of 14 and 16 I engaged in a ‘consensual’ relationship with an adult man. Parents, teachers, medical practitioners and other adults in my life were aware of this relationship and either explicitly or tacitly endorsed it on the grounds that I was unusually intelligent, mature and sexually precocious. I was also in a fractious, destabilising school and home environment: my father was an inpatient at a psychiatric hospital, we were going through a bankruptcy and I was experiencing difficulties at school. Around this time sexual libertarian apologetics for child sexual abuse, such as the work of Pat Califia, herself a victim of incest, were extremely attractive. The neoliberal injunction to see oneself as an autonomous, freely choosing individual and the unequivocally positive appraisal of sex as a site of power and liberation squared nicely with my abuser’s manipulation of my young ego- what Natasha Chart describes as an “exploitation of the pull between childhood and adulthood in adolescence.”

It was exhilarating to feel I was in control of my sexuality since I certainly wasn’t in control of anything else. It  felt like I was freely and enthusiastically consenting to this relationship, and my abuser undoubtedly provided me with  a great deal of comfort and sexual pleasure. Surely that feeling was the most important factor  in adjudicating whether the experience was harmful or helpful? Good or bad? Sexual libertarianism supplied me with a narrative of control and self-mastery. It was only when I truly became an adult that I came to terms with what had actually happened to me and how devastatingly I had been failed by those around me.

I don’t think my negative evaluation of what happened to me was purely attitudinal, a post hoc application of dominant, oppressive discourses around child sexuality and female sexual innocence. Rather, I think it was a process of maturation. A more objective, comprehensive perspective of what happened to me as child gave rise to theories with more explanatory purchase, however uncomfortable they might be. I see how I was groomed, how I was isolated and robbed of my childhood. Seeing it all as a matter of attitude is a form of victim-blaming: the idea that there is nothing objectively wrong about any form of sexual expression or relationship so long as it meets this thin definition of consent, and that he rest is just oppressive stigma absolves perpetrators and puts the onus for ‘feeling better’ on victims. Maybe I’m just swapping one attitude for another,  but I can think of lots of ways that I was damaged which does not turn on my subjective evaluation of that relationship or my enmeshment in repressive discourses.

I still feel ambivalent about my abuser and society’s tacit endorsement of my abuse and this has ramifications on my mental health. According to Heller, “the inability to distinguish between what is abusive and painful and what is desired and pleasurable is central to the self-hate of most adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse.” This has been my experience. Do I feel angry or grateful? Was he my rapist or my boyfriend? The idea that sexuality is the locus of power for women and girls in a patriarchal society is damaging:  not only does it erase and simplify the logics of men’s sexual appropriation of women and children, it forecloses the possibility of articulating sexuality as a site of oppression and coercion.

When I read cases like Milo Yiannopoulos’ I feel compassion. I see an attempt to preserve a narrative which is not only fully endorsed by society but just barely functions insulate you from experiencing all the ways in which you have been failed and damaged.

 

 

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