Two stories today, of a religious nut who had kidnapped a girl when she was 11 years old and fathered children by her over the course of 18 years and of a Roman Catholic Church diocese appealing to the Supreme Court a decision “refus[ing] to dismiss claims by hundreds of alleged victims of sexual abuse” call to mind, yet again, the string of stories of evangelical Protestant and conservative politician sex scandals. Mainstream media coverage conveys an inescapable impression that sexually repressed individuals are more likely to rape, to abuse, and to otherwise behave inappropriately with vulnerable people in a sexual way.
Conservatives would rather we focus on the more ordinary, less powerful offenders all around us and to imprison them for long periods of time. We are to see their fellows among the powerful as exceptional cases, individuals who can repent, who can be forgiven, even if a residual stigma limits their power. And our focus on powerful sex offenders is out of proportion.
At the other extreme, Gayle Rubin in a classic essay, “Thinking Sex,” criticizes a social attitude that sex is guilty until proven innocent and ends up endorsing the National Man-Boy Love Association. She neglects the problem of consent, that given the inherent power relationships between children and grown-ups, children cannot meaningfully agree to sexual relations.
The common theme in all these cases is power. Historically, it appears in Spanish soldiers’ routine and systematic rapes of Indian women, which Antonia Casteñeda understands as introducing hierarchy in the relationships between Indian men and women and thus making Indian society susceptible to the hierarchy of the Spanish and of Catholicism. In The Chalice and the Blade, Riane Eisler interprets the introduction of patriarchy as fundamental to the displacement of the partnership model of human relationships with a dominator model. Following the Civil War, when African American males got the vote; a massive wave of immigration brought darker-skinned, Catholic, and non-English speaking southern and eastern Europeans to the United States; and middle- and upper-class white women began exercising greater control over their fertility, nativists decried “race suicide,” abortion became an issue, and the Comstock Act regulating contraception and sexual information passed into law. Patricia Murphy Robinson writes, “Inside this reality woman’s strength as a sexual being is a constant threat. We have to face the biological fact that she is the sex that harbors and brings forth the very human beings the ruling class must have to create wealth.” In short, she has a necessary power which men cannot match.
That a “respect for society and those social traditions that, over time, have demonstrated that they exist for everyone’s benefit” now privileges Eisler’s dominator model over her partnership model; that those who most strongly advocate this view are the same people who prefer a fundamentalist view of religion, society, and family; and that those powerful people labeled conservatives form the ranks from which so many sexual scandals are drawn cannot and should not escape notice. Conservatives use sexuality not only as a release from their own repressed needs but to assert dominance. Sex thus becomes bullying.
In Rubin’s view, (stigmatized) transgressive sexual practices challenge patriarchy. I argue the contrary, that through the injuries, no matter how minor, of masochism and sadism; through bondage; and explicitly through dominance and submission, they perpetuate the conflation of sexuality and hierarchy that in Eisler’s view create an oppressive structure of human relationships so institutionalized that the vast majority of us cannot imagine life without it. Perhaps if we begin in our most intimate relationships, we can start to unravel this horrible hierarchy.