Australian columnist Clementine Ford has reminded us that it’s apparently time for yet another round of “No, actually, comparing vaginas to personal property is not OK.” Whether your extended and clever metaphor involves cars, wallets, possessions strewn on a lawn, or some other new and clever way to use a personal property analogy for a part of someone’s anatomy, it’s gross. And it reveals all kinds of very telling attitudes that explain why this culture has such persistent problems not just with rape and sexual assault, but with the general disrespect of women.
These tortured metaphors always come up when people want to twist the blame for rape and sexual assault onto women, instead of the people who rape them. Implication being, of course, that people who don’t want to be raped shouldn’t be showing off the goods by wearing short skirts or walking in the wrong neighborhood at night or drinking too much at a bar or, like, existing.
So, naturally, the best way to convey the brilliance of this logic is with some kind of cockamamie argument about how if you left your wallet on the table at a cafe, you wouldn’t expect to find it if you came back to look for it later, because, you know, you’re the one who left it sitting in plain sight.
In other words, you have no bodily autonomy, just a troublemaking body part that you need to be responsible for. You’ve got to keep your vagina under lock and make sure to keep a close eye on it so it doesn’t run off, because other people can’t be blamed when they see a vagina just lying around and decide to take it. Really, you ought to be using more common sense; everyone knows that vaginas can’t be left sitting about like that.
The idea of the vagina as a disembodied object of property is already dehumanizing enough, reducing people to nothing more than an anatomical structure. It’s also a way to strip people of autonomy and control over their own bodies and sexuality.
As Ford puts it, “Viewing a woman’s clothing [or anything else] as any kind of sign that she’s abandoned ship just confirms the idea that women aren’t truly in possession of their sexuality -- that it exists for them to guard and for other people to take.”
And it hearkens back to very old and troubling attitudes about women as property. There’s a reason that “rape” originally referred simply to plundering or taking, rather than sexual assault, and that the meaning of the word shifted over time. And there’s a reason that women’s sexuality has historically been very tightly controlled. If we think attitudes about women’s bodies have changed so radically, why are we still using rhetoric about rape that wouldn’t be that unfamiliar to people who lived hundreds of years ago? Why do we still talk about rape like we talk about robbery?
This is a rhetoric in which women’s bodies are property to be taken, and it’s up to women to safeguard their virtue from men, rather than to men to, you know, not rape people. In this metric, there is nothing holistic; there’s no discussion of what rape and sexual assault feels like emotionally. There's no admission that there is a huge difference between a living human being and an inanimate object. It’s reduced simply to a disembodied vagina floating around, as immortalized by Wanda Sykes:
Your anatomy is not like an inanimate possession. It is a part of your body, and you have the right to control what happens to your body and when, who you invite into your personal space. The repeated use of this kind of rhetoric is incredibly damaging, and it sends unmistakable messages to the rest of society about how bodily autonomy and integrity are viewed. It suggests that women in general are property to be bought, sold, and bartered at will, which contributes to the undermining of women's rights and social autonomy.
So long as rape prevention campaigns focus on telling women not to get raped, or telling their friends they're responsible, rape and sexual assault are going to continue being social issues.
Education needs to shift to the people who are actually in a position to prevent rape: the people who would be doing the raping. And some of the people in the best position to do that are fellow would-be rapists, which is why sexual assault advocacy and solidarity from men is so important.
When women and men alike are repeating these comments about how people should safeguard themselves from rape just like they shouldn’t leave their wallets out (and let’s talk about how “meat wallet” is a vulgar slang term for genitalia, shall we?), prospective rapists hear that loud and clear.
They don’t need to be accountable or responsible for their own actions; they’re just doing something natural, taking what someone else left out for the seizing. They couldn’t help themselves.
And, of course, this language is awfully patronizing to men as well, suggesting that people rape because they have no control over their actions and just stagger about willy-nilly picking up abandoned vaginas because, hey, why not, they’re sitting right there.
It’s incredibly damaging not only to strip people of their humanity and act like physical violation is equivalent to having your car stolen, but also to suggest that rape should be excused as a biological impulse or something that’s just going to happen no matter what. Those poor hapless men, at the mercy of their urges. Is this really what we believe?
This rhetoric reinforces the idea that sexual assault and rape are about sex and desire, not what they actually are, which is the exertion of power and control. People don’t rape because they want to have sex and can’t control themselves, caught in a flood of hormones. They rape because they want to demonstrate their power and put their victims in their place.
As long as we treat rape as a conversation about personal property and sexuality, we cannot get at the roots of why rape happens and how to actually prevent it: by deconstructing attitudes about power, control and gender in society.