Mary Gaitskill: “The definition of rape has changed a lot”


Mary Gaitskill was raised to say no. Growing up in the American South in the late sixties, her parents taught her that men cannot be expected to take responsibility when it comes to sex because they are “driven by these strong urges.” They said that men would “try to get sex from you,” so women had to refuse. “And if you don’t resist,” she told me, imitating the voice of her parents, “well, then you’ll get pregnant, and that’s your fault. You will be expelled and this is the end of the world. “

Gaitskill, who was born in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1954, believes that today’s attitude toward sexual consent is “almost the opposite of how I was raised.” Obtaining verbal consent After all, all sexual activity is now understood as the moral standard of intimate contact. Because men are more likely than women to be the perpetrators of sexual violence, in heterosexual relationships this often means that the man must ask the woman’s consent. In her youth, Gaitskill would never have trusted a man to take on such a responsibility. “My father – and this is when [I was] 13, 14 years old – once said: “There are guys who will cut out your guts to get this!” We were almost taught to believe that humans are animals. “

The author of a stunningly candid collection of stories. Bad behavior (1988) and novels, including Two girls, fat and skinny (1991) and nominated for the National Book Award They (2015) is used to writing “contrary to prevailing thinking,” she said over Zoom from her upstate New York home. Her stories are filled with sadomasochists, sex workers, people involved, and lonely and self-destructive characters. Gaitskill, who wore a light gray jumper, did not choose the title of her latest book. Opposition, a collection of essays first published in the US in 2017 as Someone with a hammer… But she understands why her publisher found it appropriate.

Gaitskill considers the current feminist regime “tough”, which, she says, is an inevitable reaction at a time when “moral guidelines have been taken away for a time.” She believes that this cultural shift took place in the seventies, when the attitude towards sex became: “Free love! Live for today! And yes, women want sex too! The sex lessons that Gaitskill’s parents taught her have been discontinued. This change was liberating in many ways, but the notion that sex can only be positive has also created confusion, especially for young women.

“I know I definitely got hurt in certain situations because I just didn’t know what I could say no to,” Gaitskill said. She recalls one such case in an essay, “The Compliance Challenge,” first published. v Harper in 1994that appears in Opposition… In it, she describes sexual contact with a man in Detroit after taking LSD. Gaitskill was then 16 years old; he was about twenty-five. She didn’t want to have sex with him, but, as she writes, “when he put his hand on my leg, I allowed myself to be drawn into sex, because I could not agree with the idea that if I said no, everything could change. ugly. I don’t think he had any idea how much I resisted. ”

[see also: The limits of “consent culture”]

For a long time, Gaitskill perceived this event as “rape.” Since then, she has changed her mind. “Finally, at some point I realized:“ No, I was not raped. I never said, “No, I don’t want to.” This again runs counter to the dominant thesis of modern thought: consent is active, not passive; saying yes is the only invitation to sex.

“I disagree with that,” said Gaitskill, a statement that many modern feminists might find not only controversial but potentially dangerous. “If you don’t even try to tell a man“ No ”, whether he asks personally or not, I don’t know how you can then say,“ I was raped. ” She defended this point of view, citing the context in which she grew up: “Men tried to get women to have sex with them. This is what was expected of them. If you don’t offer resistance, if you don’t fight and don’t say anything, I don’t think you could expect a man in this context to really know, “No, she doesn’t want that.” This, in her opinion, removes the blame from them, but today any person who went to college, where consent workshops are the norm, would be taught “to get consent, but then no one said that.”

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“The definition of rape has changed a lot,” Gaitskill said. She invited some feminists to state that “practically everything is rape”; Meanwhile, she pointed out that very few rape charges lead to condemnation. “Especially in America, people seem to be rolling wildly from one moralistic pole to another. In fact, I think America is a crazy place. ”

Rather than sticking to a “hard and fast rule”, each situation should be considered on a case-by-case basis. But nuance is something that is often lacking in modern conversation, Gaitskill said. “This is partly why I never wrote an essay on #MeToo. I thought about it, but it just got too confusing for me to try to come up with a rational level. ”

In the end, she wrote It’s a pleasure (2019), a short novel that she says is “a #MeToo story.” (“Actually, I can simplify!” She added with a smirk.) The book asks how we should treat those accused of wrongdoing. Quinn, a middle-aged book editor, allegedly raped several women. He is also a longtime friend of Margot, who considers him a better person than many of her friends. “I want to try to understand how both things can coexist,” Gaitskill said. “I really feel it’s important to voice these areas of confusion so that we don’t forget about them.”

According to Gaitskill, especially many women find it difficult to say no because “women are still being raised to feel like they need to be liked. Not only sexually, but in general. ” In fact, she said, this is what she observed professionally. In others interview she said the interviewer often comments on the fact that she is not smiling. “Even these women journalists, who I’m sure are feminists, feel uncomfortable when I don’t smile when they expect it. I don’t think they will be the same with men. This is an unconscious bias. Personally, I don’t like forced smiles. I feel like I can feel them – and it does me inconvenient.”

Neither in his letter nor in the conversation Gaitskill lives up to expectations.

Oppositions: Selected Essays by Mary Gaitskill is published by Serpent’s Tail.

[see also: Reviewed in short: New books by Alwyn Turner, Mary Gaitskill, Paul McVeigh and Luke Kennard]


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