Last year the journal Studies in Gender and Sexuality published a panel called “The ontology of the rape joke,” organized around a performance by Vanessa Place of her piece, “Rape joke.” The panel included responses from Jamieson Webster, Jeff Dolven, Gayle Salamon, Kyoo Lee, Katie Gentile, and Virginia Goldner, and ended with a reprint of Patricia Lockwood’s arresting poem, “Rape Joke.” The panel sought to examine the roles rape jokes play for the cultural body. This issue went to press just as the allegations against Harvey Weinstein hit the headlines. As the powerful white men tumbled and #MeToo ramped up, the panelists decided they wanted to expand their analyses and rethink these forms of sexual violence. Katie Gentile’s “Give a woman an inch, she’ll take a penis” was published here in January, followed by Virginia Goldner’s “Sexual harassment: Seeking the pleasures of ‘consent’ under duress.”
Now we are pleased to feature a work co-authored by criminal defense attorney and artist Vanessa Place and writer and psychotherapist Cassandra B. Seltman. Their essay will join the others in a future issue of the journal Studies in Gender and Sexuality.
Feminists say all men are potential rapists. Not true. Some are convicted.
“This passion of the signifier thus becomes a new dimension of the human condition in that it is not only man who speaks, but in man and through man that it speaks; in that his nature becomes woven by effects in which the structure of the language of which he becomes the material can be refound. Jacques Lacan.” (C.S.)
By which I mean both that some sex offenders have gotten whatever process was constitutionally due and are now locked up, and I’m naturally on their side, because I’m always on the side of the convicted because there’s that other side, the side of the state, which is the side of the law, and this side, the side of the convicted, which is the side of the outlaw. I am on my side, the side of the antilaw, particularly when the law is trying to circumscribe or regulate or proscribe something as dumbly driven as sex, which is always a bit of sexual violence.
“…sexual opposition, which has always worked for man’s profit to the point of reducing writing, too, to his laws, is only a historico-cultural limit. Helene Cixous.” (C.S.)
If we can easily say that most low level economic crimes are committed because of the inherent bad faith and bother of capitalism, we may yet not want to be victims of robbery, but we get that it’s not personal to us, that we happened to be, by virtue of bum luck and the lack of anticipatory hindsight, the more or less contingent locus of this particular incidence of economic inequity and the way that the powerless will properly wrest whatever power can be wrestled out of structural misery, then it would appear that we might also say that many commonplace sex crimes are similarly the effect of bum systems of inequity and rage and that perhaps the remedy is not an insistence on the humanity of women, but on their inhumanity, by which I mean to say that the reason one should not engage in nonconsensual sexual violence is not because women (whatever this means in the situation) are people too,
“The violence that the men dream and the violence that they do ensures they are lonely forever. Only the man in the dunes is finally in a state resembling happiness, having been beaten up by the woman when he tried to rape her: having a chance now because he failed. Andrea Dworkin.” (C.S.)
…but because it doesn’t matter– rules are rules, and you can’t park where it says no parking unless you have a permit no matter how impressively large your car. So even if women are just objects as we are all just objects, by which I mean you, darling, at least to someone, at least now and again, not at least en masse and not least as some abstract figure of contempt and derision by someone, and sometimes it’s even personal, like it is for you, which may make it better or worse, depending on the weather, there are these rules, and then we are left with figuring out whether there may be degrees of their violation,
“But by a just punishment, the disobedience of their genitals was the retribution to the disobedience of the first man. St. Augustine.” (C.S)
…shades of, as it were, beige. Because who put what there and how many times when it was demonstrably or even partially unwanted in that case is a matter for juries and mobs to decide and while all this seems fairly or unfairly obvious, it is as obvious to me that one, meaning me, must be always the antilaw on the side of the outlaw because the law is the side of authority, and in some ways, the rapist is another fall guy for authority as a thing to both have and suffer under. There’s a joke: You know you’re a good rapist when she gets on top. Sometimes this Zeitgeist, or history as we are now writing it, feels like being on top.
“From an analytic point of view, the only thing one can be guilty of is having given ground relative to one’s desire. Jacques Lacan.” (C.S.)
Because by convicted, I also mean those lucky few who are dedicated in their doings, because there is something terrible and lovely in the human demand that whatever’s broken can be fixed. Or should be. And if it wasn’t broken when we find it, well, we can fix that too. Because we also do adore the broken, that bit we can wail and whinge around, believing that if only this could be amended, we could get neatly on with our jackboot march to special improvement. Which is mostly a matter of wanting better manners.
My last girlfriend was a screamer. Though, to be fair, she wasn’t really my girlfriend.
“Desire, a function central to all human experience, is the desire for nothing nameable. And at the same time this desire lies at the origin of every variety of animation. Jacques Lacan.” (C.S.)
By which I mean that this is the dry howl of what we want when we want too much that isn’t ours, but why shouldn’t everything be ours, including good manners and better morals in every situation, and by good manners here I mean the way that better morality will seed itself into the daily, so that we may be more or less bothersome to the bucolic fantasies of our fellows on the metro or in the public toilets but also that sometimes the very sight of me is a bother,
“But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. Matthew: 28.” (C.S.)
…an offense that demands redress by way of a good-mannered response, such as “stupid bitch,” or “naff cunt,” or the moral observation that I seem insufficiently moved by the suffering of others, which is a demand that I move myself publicly in a way that performs appropriately, that I be a good girlfriend, or at least scream convincingly on the side of whatever is right at the moment, which is how morality and manners will be, endlessly right at the moment, as determined by a jury or mob of whoever happens to be right at the moment.
“The woman who still allows herself to be threatened by the big dick, who’s still impressed by the commotion of the phallic stance, who still leads a loyal master to the beat of the drum: that’s the woman of yesterday. Helene Cixous.” (C.S.)
But if sexual ethics depends not so much on manners or morality but an ethical l’appel du vide, meaning nothing no matter what, which may be as well personal and impersonal to me, then oftentimes I will be neither your girlfriend nor a screamer, but a blank-faced bother to the too much that is met with indifference, disinterest. Because I am not interested in morality as much as style.
“Male activity, creating values, has constituted existence itself as a value; it has prevailed over the indistinct forces of life; and it has subjugated Nature and Woman. Simone De Beauvoir. ” (C.S.)
And I do have style. And this here offends my sense of style. By which I mean that there seems no stylistic difference between the vulgar cat-call and the vulgar demand that I respond in a certain manner to this or that more overtly political proposition. Put another way, telling me to smile or to shag or to sign or to slogan all sound the same, you want my lips, all lips, to stretch to your liking, to scream for you, by which I mean to want you. And while I am by way of law and art something of a mouthpiece and a dummy, and even a bit of a cunt, I, like you, enjoy the fantasy of my autonomy, the notion that this is, after all, my mouth, that these are my lips,
“You would really have to have the oddest idea of natural symbolization to believe that a ring is the natural symbolization of the female sexual organ. Jacques Lacan.” (C.S.)
…that I can use or abuse as suits my style. This is the quite determinate contingency of my particular ontology, and isn’t this illusory and necessary freedom — and what is freedom if not a necessary illusion — what intersectionality is all about?
I was raped in jail. My father takes Monopoly very seriously.
By which I mean that part of the magnificence of the contemporary is the way that it wields its sparkling ambivalence with such one-eyed pride: the rape joke isn’t funny, can’t be funny, because a rape joke is another kind of rape, and rape isn’t funny, and wouldn’t it be funny if, or rather when, the rapist got raped in prison, which is of course, just a joke, though really, it would be good, or justice, which is suggested, and possibly opined, when I am asked whether I have been raped,
“Man tries to satisfy his need for aggression at the expense of his neighbor, to exploit his work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to appropriate his goods, to humiliate him, to inflict suffering on him, to torture and kill him… Sigmund Freud.” (C.S.)
…but such justice is being played as a joke, although the joke’s on you if you get it, and you all get it, or will, by the looks of you, and it’s always from behind as you face forward, much in the way of history. By which I mean to say that there is beauty in brutality and brutality in beauty and this explains seas and sopranos, sonnets and volcanos, and that jawing jury mugging the Mona Lisa. And why a little blood is good kept under the nails.
“Will, utility, and tranquility are pure but any turbulence or tumult is forbidden as it’s indicative of pleasure. St. Augustine.” (C.S.)
Vanessa Place is an artist and a criminal defense attorney. Recent performance venues include Museum of Modern Art (New York); Museum of Contemporary Art (Los Angeles); Getty Villa (Los Angeles); Detroit Museum of Contemporary Art; Kino Šiška (Ljubljana, Slovenia); New Holland (Saint Petersburg, Russia); Garage Museum (Moscow); Kunstverein, (Köln, Germany); Swiss Institute (New York); Silencio (Paris); and Whitechapel Gallery (London).
Cassandra B. Seltman is writer and psychotherapist. Recent work can be found in The LA Review of Books, Flash Art International, _Zeta_, Logos Berlin, and DIVISION/Review.