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Death To Desire


new internationalist
issue 187 - September 1988

Death to desire
Female sexual desire must be controlled - or murdered. In some
countries this is done by cutting out the clitoris. In others by rape.
What's the difference? Asks Clara Czerny.

Something strange is afoot, Fatima feels. Three village women she has never seen before are standing in the yard of her Nile Delta home, talking in hushed tones with her mother and grandmother. Normally, Fatima would just carry on playing but she is uncomfortably aware of their eyes upon her.

She is eight years old. The time has come, her mother says. It's a quick and simple operation. All girls have it done. It is for their own good, adds her grandmother as she and the mother take hold of Fatima. The child tries to wriggle free but the women are holding her down firmly now.

Judge Harradence reduced a two and a half year rape sentence to 18 months because there was 'no visible bodily harm'.
(Canada, 1985)

Two village women part her thighs while a third - an older woman - takes a blade to her clitoris. The pain shoots like a flame through her body. She screams - and then everything goes black.

A few days later, when she is still lying in bed unable to move for the pain, her mother explains. The operation is done for purposes of cleanliness and in order to preserve a good reputation. A girl who does have this is liable to be talked about. Her behaviour will become bad and she will start running after men. No one will want to marry her.

Egyptian feminist writer and doctor Nawal el Saadawi goes somewhat further in her analysis of why 74 million girls - mainly in Africa - have their clitorises removed.1 This custom - which causes sexual shock, reduces the capacity for sexual pleasure and often produces frigidity in women - has its roots in wealth and power. That is male wealth and male power.

At some level, patriarchal societies have always recognized that female sexual desire is extremely powerful. Unless women are controlled and subjugated, argues El Saadawi, they will not submit themselves to the moral, social, legal and religious constraints with which they have been surrounded - in particular the constraints related to monogamy.

Judge David Wild: 'Women who say 'no' do not always mean no. If a woman does not want it she only has to keep her legs shut and she wouldn't get it without force and there would be signs of force being used'.
(UK, 1982)

A woman's sexuality must be kept in check so that she limits her sexual relations to one man - her husband. If she did not and subsequently bore the children of other men the patriarchal system and inheritance of property through the male family line would be thrown into confusion.

People in the West express shock at the continuation of this custom - still widespread in Egypt, Sudan, Somalia, Mali and other African countries. It seems such a crude, mean trick - to control a woman's sexuality by cutting out her organ of pleasure. We forget that up until fairly recently Western women diagnosed as 'nymphomaniac' would receive similar treatment at the hands of male surgeons.2 But more importantly we often fail to recognize that the West has ways of trying to sexually murder women which - it can be argued - are just as customary and institutionalized. Rape and fear of rape serves much the same social function of disempowering women, telling them that their sexual desires do not count and keeping them out of the male-controlled - or should we say 'patrolled'? - public domain.

Judge Bertrand Richards fined rapist John Allen £2,000 for raping a 17-year-old girl. The judge said the girl had been 'guilty of a great deal of contributory negligence' because she had hitched a ride home having missed the last bus.
(UK, 1982)

For women in the West sexual survival is, from an early age, rather like a game of cat-and-mouse set in a prison camp. Whatever decision a woman may take about her own sexuality there are still the ubiquitous 'patrollers' whom she must be careful to evade and outwit. She must be ever watchful of the signs of possible attack and watchful of the way in which her actions might be interpreted as an 'invitation' to be violated. In short, to ensure her own survival she has to censor herself and her range of activities. This self-limitation becomes second nature.

Even if she does this as dutifully and carefully as she can, success is far from guaranteed. One in six women living in London is raped.3 One in seventeen in Canada.4 And half the women in San Francisco are likely to experience rape, attempted rape or sexual assault.3 But the advice to women offered by the presumed 'guardians' of society - the legislators, the judges, the police - rarely does more than reinforce the barbed wire of the prison camp. Usually it takes the form of a series of 'Don'ts' whose only logical conclusion is 'Don't exist'. They are also absurd and misleading. What is the point of advising women not to walk alone at night if half of all rapes occur in the home? Or of advising women not to talk to strangers when most women are raped by men with whom they are already acquainted?5

The only definite 'do' on offer is that a woman attach herself to a man for protection. But if that man then rapes her she must not complain. Indeed, complaining is discouraged whatever the circumstances. Between 50 and 75 per cent of the women raped in Western countries do not report the incident to police because they do not believe they will be treated sympathetically.6

An Ontario Court of Appeal reduced a rapist's prison sentence because the crime, they said, was 'not accompanied by many of the unpleasant features often associated with such an offense'. The rapist had threatened to kill the woman and had a gun.
(Canada, 1988)

There are of course laws against rape; there have been since Biblical times. But these should not be confused with the rights of women. They are, if anything an indication of the opposite. Rape laws are essentially property laws. Even the word 'rape' means 'theft'. In making such laws the Patriarchs were not trying to stop violence against women - they were trying to stop men stealing each other's property. In several Western nations - including Britain, West Germany, and some North American states - this emphasis remains unchanged. Rape within marriage is not recognized as a crime because it is viewed as the equivalent of a man stealing his own property. What the woman wants - or more accurately does not want - is irrelevant.

Even when the law does seem to be punishing sexual violence against women the male-centred nature of the law, both in economic and sexual terms, is apparent. Take the example of the young officer, Guardsman Tim Holdsworth, convicted by a British court in 1977 of causing grievous bodily harm to a 17-year-old girl by ramming his ring-studded fist into her vagina when she refused to have sex with him.6 The girl was left partially paralyzed and lost her job as a result of the attack. But three Appeal Judges decided that Holdsworth should be set free and receive a six month suspended prison sentence because they said they did not want to see his 'promising army career in ruins'. During the trial itself the girl had to endure a defence lawyer exhibiting her blood-stained underwear and suggesting she had 'torn it herself'. Holdsworth meanwhile was reprimanded for allowing his 'enthusiasm for sex' to overcome his good behaviour. A backhanded compliment from the bench?

For men to treat women this way they have to deny these women their humanity, treat them as unfeeling objects. Patriarchy lays the foundation for this - pornography builds the edifice by presenting women as a degraded sexual commodity to be consumed by males.

Judge Vanini gave a rapist a 90-day sentence to be served at weekends and said: 'He comes from a good family. She has not suffered any long-lasting effects'. (Canada, 1980)

Some men have taken to heart the feminist slogan: 'Pornography is the theory. Rape the practice' and are genuinely trying to change their attitudes. But by and large Western societies still sanction rape - even if they do not see themselves doing so.

Ray Wyre, who counsels male sex offenders says: 'Just listening to the ways schoolboys talk about girls or considering how certain popular newspapers and comedians continue to confuse sex, porn and rape persuades me that improvement remains a distant hope. In fact the more I am involved in counselling male sex offenders, the more struck I am by the fact that their attitudes reflect those of ordinary members of society.'7

To imagine that the sexual violation and control of women that is happening in the homes and on the streets of London, Christchurch, Sydney, Toronto or New York is fundamentally any less customary or institutionalized than the circumcision of women in Africa is at best self-delusion - at worst racist hypocrisy.

Clara Czerny is a freelance writer based in London.

1 Nawal El Saadawi, The Hidden Face of Eve, Zed Press 1980.
2 Adrienne Rich, Compulsory Heterosexuality, Signs Vol.5 No.4, 1980.
Various, Self-Defence for Women, Marshall Cavendish 1987.
Robin Morgan, Sisterhood is Global, Anchor Books, 1984.
5 London Rape Crisis Centre, Sexual Violence, Women's Press, 1984.
Jane Dowdeswell, Women on Rape, Grapevine, 1986.
7 Ray Wyre, Women, men and rape, Perry Publications, 1986.
8 With thanks to Women Against Rape, Britain, for press clippings.

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New Internationalist issue 187 magazine cover This article is from the September 1988 issue of New Internationalist.
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