The Violence of Touch

by kto

“[R]ape is most of the time understood as an offense against morality and not as a crime against the bodily integrity of a woman. Other forms of sexual violence are often understood and articulated in the law as an outrage upon the modesty of a woman or against her dignity. There have been significant developments in international law moving away from understanding sexual violence as a crime against the dignity of a woman, to an invasion or an attack on the body of a person. Such developments are yet to be incorporated in the national laws of many countries around the world, including Africa.”

—Vahida Nainar, Litigation Strategies for Sexual Violence in Africa (The Redress Trust: London, 2012).

Here we have two definitions of rape, not merely different but opposed; one frames it as “a crime against the dignity of a woman,” the other as “an invasion or attack on the body of a person.” The shift in object between the two—from “woman” to “person”—is significant, as are the contexts in which they were created—one self-consciously universal, global, committed to abstractions supposed to be valued in any human social arrangement; the other, particularistic, national, negotiated according to cultural and contingent notions of right and wrong. Immanent in these competing accounts of sexual violence is a host of dichotomies that have historically been gendered:

Women // People

Particular // Universal

Moral // Legal[1]

Subjective // Objective

Emotional // Physical

These legal theories imply a choice: is rape an invasion of the flesh? Or a violation of the mind? Such a distinction is, obviously, false; rape participates in both components of each of these oppositions. It is an attack on one’s agency and on one’s body. Any accurate definition of rape will acknowledge this duality, and incorporate two necessary elements: consent (the subjective experience of desiring or not desiring) and breach (any physical act that proceeds despite the absence of consent). These categories ally themselves rather neatly with those outlined above:

Consent // Breach

Contemporary feminists have developed a comprehensive theory of consent, and it gets a lot of play in our media and our praxis. This emphasis makes a certain sense. In a country where the majority of assaults are committed by acquaintances and are not accompanied by catastrophic injury, it has been necessary to foreground the mental anguish caused by sexual assault to dismantle the notion that rape is only “legitimate” if committed by a stranger with a gun. And our culture’s distorted ideals of female sexuality have required us to offer alternative visions of women as active, desiring subjects who know what they want and are capable of articulating it. For these reasons and others I’d never argue that consent isn’t central to our work. But has our problematizing of consent been matched by the development of a comparably complete concept of breach? Or have we neglected the second, but equally crucial, prong of the definition of rape?

In our thorough examination of consent, our furious defense of its necessity, and our detailed description of its semiotics, I think we’ve become single-minded, our balance skewed. Our fervor to conceptualize consent has eclipsed our critique of the act that disregards it—the breach, the unwanted penetration, the violence of touch. We need to refocus at least some of our analysis on the bodily harm that rape does even when it leaves no scars.

Our word touch comes from the Italian toccare, to strike—a consideration that should remind us that an unwanted touch does a physical violence all its own. “The risk of reaching out to touch you is an engagement in an ethio-political decision…in negotiation with an economy of violence.”[2] All the more so for an unwanted penetration. This violence is not coterminous with the medical consequences (injuries, pregnancy, or STIs) that may—or may not—result from a rape. Neither is it purely mental or emotional. Using one’s body as an instrument to assert power and control over another is violent whether or not they end up bruised and bloody when you’re finished; as such, there is no such thing as a “non-violent” rape. We need to work harder to make that violence known. Not just so that our theory will be more complete, though that’s important, but so that we can avail ourselves of the rhetorical strategies that follow from foregrounding the violence of unwanted penetration in and of itself.

Take, for example, the “grey area” objections we so often hear, from the misguided (“It’s all just a misunderstanding”) to the malicious (“She just regretted it in the morning”) to the popular hypothetical “What if they’re both drunk?” People who proffer these “arguments” are myopically focused on consent (which both partners either give or do not) and ignore reality of its violation (which only the penetrating partner perpetrates).[3] They don’t understand the structural inequality inherent to most (not all) heterosexual sex—though both partners participate in desire, only one is vulnerable to an undesired penetration. That inequality is the reason we distribute responsibility for ensuring the presence of meaningful consent in a correspondingly unequal way. It’s like a bar fight—a disproportionate share of fault lies with the instigator, even if “it was all just a misunderstanding” or “they were both really drunk.”

These considerations can function as responses to victim-blaming as well. If one places too much emphasis on consent, and views rape as something that happens only in the mind, then a failure to clearly telegraph consent becomes the primary cause of its violation. As such, “sending mixed signals” or an inability to communicate become the fault of the victim—“what did you expect if you went back to his room?” “If you were dressed like that you were asking for it.” &c. &c. The breach suffered is legitimated by an appropriation of the victim’s ability to give or withhold consent.[4] The physical violence, and the legal violation, that occured are obscured by an emotional violence that becomes irrelevant when visited upon someone whose moral citizenship we’ve revoked.

When the violation of rape is moral, its content subjective, its damage emotional, and its definition predicated too singly on consent, we risk distortions of our discourse by those who seek to pardon perpetrators and cow victims into silence. And we can’t let that happen. We need to dissolve the boundaries between these dichotomies, not reinforce them by allowing asymmetrical analysis of intrinsically linked categories. The potential consequences of doing so are compelling. When we see rapists not just as amoral (as “creeps” or “bad guys”) but as criminals, then we can prosecute them as such. When we view survivors’ experiences not as purely subjective (and thus prone to embellishment or mistake) but as something that actually happened, we can stop doubting and shaming them.

But there are even broader gains to be had from a more thorough combination of our ideas of consent and breach, a deeper analysis of the violence of touch. When we are able to elucidate the violence in se of any violation of a person’s right to control his or her own body, we will make visible the constant, endemic incidents of aggression that are the deepest foundations of rape culture. They’re everywhere, those little assaults, those small brushes with terror: the guy who keeps pulling you back into bed even when you tell him it’s not cute. The stranger who grabs your hips from behind at a club. The man on the street who tells you that you are your body, and that it is enough his for him to pass judgment on it. Not to mention the politician who thinks he should be in charge of when and how you have sex or get pregnant or stop being pregnant if you don’t want to be anymore. Such violence, unseen, unremarked, and unanswerable, can, as Gramsci says, be remedied only with the violence of revolution.

There is power in the destruction of dichotomies, progress in the blending of opposites—fission and fusion. We need to break down the categories that define the structural violence we encounter as anything other than patriarchy’s fetters on our bodies. We need to see those things, and name them the violence they are, and demand for ourselves a world in which women and people are one.


[1] Both Shelly Ortner and Leslie Miller locate this dichotomy as a derivation of the public/private split that developed in Western society in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Ortner describes it from the male side, arguing that with women increasingly confined to the home, man’s demesne came to be seen as “interfamilial relations representing higher-level, integrative, [and] universalistic…aspects of human thought—art, religion, law, etc.” Miller derives it from the opposite angle, positing that the sentimentalization of domestic relations constructed woman as the enforcer of proper behavior and a conduit of social control—while excluding her entirely from political engagement and the rights discourse of the Enlightenment.

[2] Erin Manning here refers to all touch, utilizing a Derridean concept of violence as articulation toward an other; as such, she does not see such violence as deserving of sanction. Nonetheless, in the circumscribed context of nonconsensual or undesired touch, certainly such violence takes on a more sinister character than the reach toward the unknown Manning describes.

[3] There is, obviously, an argument to be had here about the modalities of female-on-male rape. Some scholars (like Helen Moffett [see footnote 26]) have argued that rape requires penetration, and most popular references to male rape take penetration as a given. However, such definitions seem to me grossly mistaken. Certainly there are circumstances in which the penetrating partner is actually the victim—possibly the most obvious example is that of forced oral sex with a female perpetrator, generally associated with child abuse. Such instances are obviously nonconsensual or coerced; the argument then becomes a semantic one over the usefulness of constraining the referents of rape to penetrative assaults. However, my purpose here is not to offer an account of penetration that encompasses every instance of sexual assault, but to suggest a reading of it in male-on-female attacks that I believe to be under-represented in our discourse.

[4]A double violation that parallels the rapist’s. The attacker considers the victim’s subjective capacity for desire irrelevant to his possession of her body; the victim-blamer considers the presentation of the body sufficient to determine whether or not desire was present. In both cases the body is privileged as the only meaningful component of the victim’s personhood.

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