|Review by: Lisa Johnson||
By Loolwa Khazzoom
"You like to read about rape, huh?"
This guy had been in my house for approximately twenty minutes before coming out with this loaded observation. He noticed the clippings on my bulletin board of recent publications on rape (Aftermath, Watching Rape) while waiting for me to finish getting ready for our second date.
Our brief relationship up to that point was already marked by tension and miscommunication, a low-grade grappling over the nature, direction, and pace of our interactions. I didn't even completely realize our first date was a date until he kissed me in the kitchen of his house, apropos of nothing, after we had gone out for dinner as, I thought, colleagues. I wasn't ready for the kiss or particularly interested in being kissed by him, but, polite southern girl that I was, I tried not to act surprised or ungracious. I kissed him back, kind of. We listened to music for a while with his neighbor and drank a cup of hot tea on his back porch, then watched some TV. I went to the bathroom, and when I came back out, he was outstretched on his bed.
Maybe this would have seemed sexy in some spontaneous, impulsive, body language driven kind of way if I had been interested in him romantically, if there had been chemistry between us, if we'd known each other better or longer or on some ESP level like long-separated soulmates finally finding one another. But we didn't. I did a quick internal check: had I missed the signals? did I inadvertently indicate interest? was this normal, what all the kids were doing these days?
Then another layer on top of the self-doubt, rationalization: it's been two years since I had sex, so okay, why not? I took my clothes off, too, and we did it. Not until I described it to a friend several weeks later did I realize how coercive this "date's" overtures had been, and I only saw the event clearly through the lens of hindsight, after he had become increasingly intrusive, showing up at my house when I asked him not to, edging over the line of normal behavior into near-stalker mode. "There is something violent in what he did to you," my friend counseled. I nodded my head hesitantly. I have been socialized to avoid the melodrama of crying rape every time a man looks at me askance, but as much as I might like to distance myself from Dworkinite feminism, more and more I am perceiving the violence that shapes much interaction (and intercourse) between men and women. Pretty much every person I know would agree that a stranger attacking a woman in a dark alley and penetrating her is wrong; most would even agree that a date or acquaintance penetrating a woman when she says no is wrong. These are relatively easy judgments to make at this historical moment. Fewer people talk about the vast arena of heterosexual behaviors in which the invasion is less obvious, the line of penetration less concrete.
Loolwa Khazzoom takes this arena on in Consequence: Beyond Resisting Rape. In fact, only one page addresses rape directly, about halfway through the book, in a chapter called "Options and Opportunities." The rape described is an acquaintance rape, and more striking than Khazzoom's description of the rape itself is her reflection on her own emerging understanding of the event as a rape. She "didn't call it rape at the time" (37). She gave him the benefit of the doubt while they were making out, not wanting to ruin the moment (not wanting to acknowledge the fact that he was ruining the moment). She had defined the boundaries of their interaction, telling him she didn't want to have intercourse, yet he suavely tried to penetrate her. "Maybe he doesn't feel it going in," she considers. Later she decides that he violated her:
The more she reflects on this dynamic, the more its inherent absurdity emerges. Would it only be "real" rape "if he had tried pinning me to the bed and forcing his penis all the way in, as I screamed loudly in protest?" (39). This argument about the "gray area" within heterosexual relationships "where energy begins shifting from intimacy to violence" is Khazzoom's strongest point (38).
Her lucid critique of women's lack of bodily integrity is undermined, however, by the book's driving point: that women should consider hitting men as a pre-emptive strike against these invasions, that the legal system should support this strategy as self-defense, and that while men may resort too often to violence, women don't resort to it often enough. Even though in places Khazzoom makes this point sound almost sensible, I find myself turning away from her more extreme assertions. During a visit to Israel, she becomes very finely attuned to the range of ways that men's behaviors and remarks intrude on her sense of solitude and joy. She dances on the street to express solidarity with the universe, and men invariably approach and ask what she is doing. I can't help but think, "so stop dancing in the streets." Khazzoom would categorize this response as a symptom of my assimilation to a misogynist culture. It does sound a lot like the "she was asking for it" school of thought that blames the victim for her rape, charging her with dressing too sexily or going out too late at night. I hear the flaw in this line of thinking, and still I can't get completely behind her defense of the right to dance without interruption in the streets. Maybe it's my hang-up, but it makes me at best ambivalent about Consequence. She writes about men's passing commands to strange women that they should smile as another form of oppression, and the truth is, I hate when men tell me to smile, and she's right to say this behavior comes from men's socially sanctioned freedom to comment on and interact with women's bodies. But when she returns to her main point-that women should start hitting men in response--she sounds like a caricature of feminism, like the angry cartoon chick on the cover of her book.
In all fairness, she argues that women need not necessarily hit men, but that we only need to entertain the possibility as among our choices of response. Once she had actually hit a man who taunted her as she danced in the street, in subsequent conflicts she more often chose not to hit. The choice of whether to hit or not is empowering enough that she does not need to hit every time. Ultimately, her tactics and goddess-loving rhetoric strike me as extreme, but this extremity underscores the severity of circumstances that we've accepted as normal. I'm not crazy about all of what Khazzoom says, but imagine the world without the motivations behind her work, a world without danger and fear and verbal/physical/remote-correction forces circumscribing women's bodies and lives. In a chapter on "The Prices We Pay," Khazzoom recommends keeping a journal in which we take inventory of our own gray areas and near conflicts within everyday heterosexuality, "chronicling the various forms of assault that happen to us every day" (67), and further, "chronicl[ing] our patterns of avoidance, as well" (68). If women can wade through the at times uncomfortable rhetoric and unpolished prose of Consequence without becoming alienated from the author, they will arrive at these moments of insight and good sense, and find it has been worth the trip. Hitting men may be as far from a solution as I can imagine, but a world where women are chronicling their interactions with men and learning to pay closer attention to their own boundaries and desires is an exciting prospect. As controversial as Khazzoom's position is, Consequence could certainly stimulate heated debate in a women's studies classroom or book discussion group. Questions like "where is the consequence for sexual behavior that is still violent but not quite [illegal]?" merit a wider conversation. We might all ask ourselves and each other, "Where do we draw the line and say no, this behavior is unacceptable?" (38).
Girls from thirteen to thirty-five could do with a little more critical inquiry on this subject.