Salman Rushdie has an op-ed today on the “shame” that is assigned to women who are raped. He’s talking specifically about cases in Pakistan and India, but here in the States, we all know the statistics about the number of rapes that go unreported, and the shame that gets attached to rape here.

I want to try to tease out the source of this shame, and I think the first thing to sort out is the difference between “guilt,” and “shame.” Guilt is the internal barometer that tells us that our individual moral codes have been violated by something we have done. Shame is an external thing–it is given to us by our culture that tells us we should feel badly about something. Often, that manifests itself as guilt, even if we have done nothing wrong, and there, in that intersection, it gets confused. But shame begins as an imposition upon us.

There’s a temptation to go off on a riff about Marx, Levi-Strauss, and Irigaray and the “fetish,” but I want to leave that alone. Going there will take me into my head and away from my heart, and I’m trying to understand, on a visceral level, why men, apparently, feel such deep shame (or is it guilt?) when the women in their community are raped. And how, rather than taking on those feelings themselves, they project them on to the victim.

I’m about to engage in an essentialist argument, I think. I’m not an essentialist, but sometimes, going back to these archetypes helps me to try to understand seemingly unexplainable things. If you’re up for a thought experiment, continue reading.
I have tried to write about this before, but I come back repeatedly to trying to understand what happens when a man has sex with a woman. I know what it feels like as a heterosexual woman to be penetrated, but I’m trying to understand what I would feel if the roles were reversed. If I were the one inserting part of my body into another’s. And not just any part. Not a finger, but a penis.

If a man rapes a woman, he is using his penis as a weapon. But what if he is making love to a woman? Is there surrender there?  
What is it for a man to surrender to a woman? Is it to imagine what it is to be the glove, rather than the hand. To be the sheath. That is what vagina means, you know. Sheath. From the Latin. I find it fascinating that a part of the female body, the canal through which women bring forth new life, the first journey we experience as human beings–sliding through a fleshy tunnel into the light and cold–that the name for that conduit is not related to its function in birth, but rather, bears the name of a holder of a weapon. A scabbard–the covering in which you insert your sword.

Is this what men think of their penises as? Weapons? Swords? But a sheath is where you keep your knife to keep it safe, to keep it when you’re not using it for violence. It’s a place for it to rest until the next time it’s needed. When you place your sword inside its sheath, you’ve put down your weapon, you’ve disarmed yourself, you’ve made yourself vulnerable. You’ve surrendered.

Julia Kristeva has written that the “abject,” literally, the things we “throw away” from ourselves, the things we attach the most disgust to, are the things that show to us that our bodies are not self-contained units. Piss. Shit. Vomit. Tears. The fluid that leaks from our bodies, that reminds us that we are not immortal, solid, that we will eventually dissolve, rot, become one with the earth again.

For women, we are reminded every month that we are fluid. We bleed. When we give birth, we open up, send new life out into the world. We feed children with the fluid from our breasts. When we have sex, we are penetrated. And, we are fluid. When we are fully aroused, we leak copious amounts of fluid; it is the condition that makes a pleasurable penetration possible. When we have sex, we smear our lovers with that fluid; when he is at his most vulnerable, when he climaxes, he leaks fluid, too. Men leave their fluid inside women. What happens if another man has contact with some other man’s fluid?

Fluidity is openness. Fluidity is vulnerability. Fluidity is the abject. Fluidity brings shame.

Here, I’m speaking of heterosexual sex. But I think at the heart of this shame is wrapped up in penetrability and fluid. Thus, male homosexuality is implicated here, too.

The notion that a rape victim is “unclean,” then, is about the possibility that any  man who has sex with her afterwards will be exposed to another man’s fluids. It’s a crude argument, and yet, I think there’s some truth to it. What do you think?

 Cross posted at Culture Kitchen

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