Sex isn’t necessarily the chaotic good to power’s lawful evil at all.
“Sexual violence isn’t about sex; it’s about power.” This phrase has been repeated again and again and again and has recently resurfaced in conversations, public and private, throughout rape culture’s arguable year of reckoning.
This statement is at once a reassurance and a protest: the aim of sexual violence (including harassment and assault) is not the act of sex itself, but the power one asserts through the act. But the more we pass this phrase around, the more we establish a false binary wherein there is such a thing as sex untouched by power dynamics, a “pure” sex that is safe from the threat of power.
What’s insidious about this phrase is that it assumes we have stable and agreed upon definitions of fraught terms like “sex” and “power.” The phrase ushers us past the physicality of sex and violence all together in favor of an abstraction.
Power remains diffuse in this formulation, only showing its “true colors” in the faces of the bad people who abuse it and the institutions (the fast food industry, Hollywood, academia, the District Attorney’s office…) that enable it. The conventional wisdom demurs: sexual mores may change, but the quest for power is forever and there will always be bad people. That’s just the way it is.
Admittedly, the phrase can be employed in good faith—to say rape is “about power” is to make the necessary claim that institutional power facilitates and perpetuates abuse. Those with power—even and especially those who make their dime critiquing power—will close ranks to protect their hierarchical kin. But we don’t need to avoid talking about sex if we want to understand power. Instead, we can ask how power is part of sexual asymmetries and the demands of intimacy.
Sex disappears in this binary. The framework implies an unrigorous sex-positivity wherein sex is inherently good, as opposed to power, which is inherently abusive or predatory, the corrupting agent that ruins an otherwise consensual sexual experience.The conventional wisdom demurs: sexual mores may change, but the quest for power is forever and there will always be bad people. Click To Tweet
As Charlotte Shane points out in her evaluation of recent publications and films on rape culture, consent is only a binding agreement insofar as the power differential between participants is even-keeled.
“Properly introduce consent to a potential date rapist, and you’ll be rewarded with a sexually law-abiding citizen,” explains Shane about this logic. The consent framework and the sex/power line go hand and hand, both concealing the need to think about sex at all, let alone ask when sex is ever unburdened by power differentials.
As if straight sex is ever free from the curse of its coercive history. As if queer sex can ever be enjoyed without the knowledge that someone wants to, and perhaps could, punish you for it. Making room to think about sex, as Shane acknowledges, means “admitting that the capacity for rape is determined by man-made conditions rather than some inborn evil.”
Sex isn’t necessarily the chaotic good to power’s lawful evil at all. In fact, Emily Yoffe argues in her essay, “Understanding Harvey,” that when we assume sexual violence is only a question of power, we refuse to look at darkness in sexual desire. That is, abusers don’t do it merely because they can get away with it, but rather, because they have a particular desire that power gives them the ability to fulfill. Power is the means by which that desire can be satisfied. If abuse is not about sex, then desire drops out of the equation, and the exercise of power is the only thing to be reproved.As if straight sex is ever free from the curse of its coercive history. As if queer sex can ever be enjoyed without the knowledge that someone wants to, and perhaps could, punish you for it. Click To Tweet
But even in Yoffe’s more careful examination of the sex/power framework, she still works from the premise that power only ever belongs to those who abuse it, not to those who are victimized by it. Too often, this assumption is behind the sex/power framework.
To say “it’s not about sex, it’s about power,” is to fetishize power and proffer it as the abusive kind of power that only exists when it is stolen, and therefore only ever belongs to the few.
A variation of “it’s not about sex” can be found in two articles from the early days of #metoo: Atossa Araxia Abrahamian’s essay, “The Problem Isn’t Sex, It’s Work” and Rebecca Traister’s similarly titled, if qualified, essay, “This moment isn’t (just) about sex. It’s about work.”
Sarah Leonard has also employed the phrase “The fact is that sexual harassment is more about power than sex” to argue that, under capitalism, sexual harassment is inevitable, given the imbalance of power between boss and worker.
Examining sex and power in terms of work is an excellent way of getting at what we mean when we say “power,” even though it still sounds an awful lot like “it’s not personal, it’s business,” and even if we’re still not saying “class.”
In the workplace, sexual harassment is a specific form of exploitation because what it does to the body cannot be collected for profit; there is only the abuser’s pleasure in cruelty.
Sexual violence targets the most vulnerable across lines of race, class, gender, immigration status, ability, and age, as well as workers in particular conditions of precarity, such as undocumented workers, those in the gig economy, and sex workers. It is a means of claiming ownership of the worker’s body beyond what they can produce as labor.
Our body is our first and most visceral relationship, even more immediate than anything else the boss steals (like time or wages). Sexual violence in the workplace, too, is a kind of theft. Work steals so much of our body from us: our posture, our eyesight, sometimes our fingers or limbs. But unions have yet to win tickers in the workplace that count “X days without unwanted touching” or worker’s compensation for therapy necessitated by incessant humiliation.
Sexual violence in the workplace is a violation which proves that the worker’s body is not only exploitable in every way, but also that workers do not have the right to consent to any of the conditions in which they work. To say that this reckoning is “about work” does not give us a framework to understand sex’s particular relation to power and labor. That is, it doesn’t account for the specificity of sexual violence, what makes it, as Law and Order reminds us, “especially heinous.”
Reluctance to talk about sex when we talk about sexual violence also makes it easier to leave sex workers out of the story of workplace harassment. Sex workers have a 45-75% risk of physical violence, contrary to ill-informed claims that sex workers can’t experience rape or that rape is merely “theft of services”.Our body is our first and most visceral relationship, even more immediate than anything else the boss steals (like time or wages). Click To Tweet
In this collective moment of reckoning, something like solidarity has been shaping up: a rally for International Whore’s Day against SESTA/FOSTA, the quickly organized week of protests against Kavanaugh, a hexing, and more to come. There is power in solidarity. But the binary nature of the sex/power framework doesn’t allow for a definition of power which encompasses the ability of the victimized to fight back and demand transformative justice.
Between people, power is the ability to make change or to stop change through work over time. It is also the ability to either obfuscate or clarify the forces that enact it. The danger of the “it’s about work” phrase is that it has the ability to distract our attention from sex and the structures with which it may be difficult to personally identify with.
If we admit that sexual violence is about sex, that sex is always entangled with power that enables and perpetuates abuse, there might also be less hand-wringing over cases that trouble our perceptions of who commits sexual violence: a Holocaust survivor who made startlingly accurate films about psychosexual horror, say, or a queer, allegedly feminist professor.
For those who have been exploited and hurt—what is their power? Is it a comfort to be told that a physical act of violation was actually about power? Will it heal bodily injury, or prevent those with PTSD from dissociating during consensual sex? Will it return our time? There are so many explanations for why people engage in bad behavior. How many of them are satisfying? Who really wants, as Yoffe proposes, to “understand” Harvey?
What if instead of—yet again—examining the psyche of damaged men (that Yoffe begins with the nineteenth-century Austrian psychologist Kraft-Ebbing suggests that this fascination was not born in “our” era of prestige television and true crime podcasts), we spoke to the vulnerable ones about their own darkness?
What if we were to consider to their relationship to power?
There is a reason why we encounter this framework in thinkpieces but rarely in testimony. In the stories I’ve heard and read and told and wrote since the early days of #metoo, we observe our own bodies as though floating above, find bruises that change color but never fade; we trace and retrace our footsteps and still don’t know how we ended up face down.
Sometimes, talking about it feels compulsive, as we detail our trauma to anyone who will listen, like the Ancient Mariner interrupting a straight wedding or the vengeful ghost of It Happened To Me. Other times, the hurt is compartmentalized, the dazzling feats we accomplish make it unclear if we push ourselves in spite of our hurt or because of it.For those who have been exploited and hurt—what is their power? Click To Tweet
And yet, not every incident of sexual violence has the effect of trauma. Sometimes, the offense is mundane, a waste of time, as Melissa Gira Grant has written. “Our conflict is not over sex,” she stresses, “or with men in particular or in general, but over power.” I agree that sexual violence is a theft of power, but our conflict over who possesses power does extend into the sexual.
Sexual violence is very much about sex—it is a particular way of hurting someone where they will stay hurt, since their wounds are discouraged from being publicly bandaged.
Acknowledging that it is about sex allows us to treat our wounds and to tell stories of healing, as #metoo founder Tarana Burke urges us to do. It allows us to admit that even if it wasn’t personal to them it was personal to us, and most of all, it allows us to feel like we can move forward without relying on individualistic conceptions of strength and empowerment.
The phrase obscures the uncomfortable truth that “sex” and “power” are not incommensurate terms. By ignoring this truth, we make it harder to create a world in which sex doesn’t hurt and power isn’t exploitative. Instead, power can be the means by which we refuse, or by which we work together to negotiate what we want.