A history of violence we cannot ignore

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

I confess I didn’t learn about “Labia Majora Carnage,” or the controversy now engulfing both it and The Gazette, until very recently. I don’t regularly read The Gazette, and thus the “Spoof” issue had passed me by. When my e-mail inbox was suddenly flooded with concerned postings from my feminist colleagues across campus, however, I found myself unable simply to press delete; there was something all too hauntingly familiar about what I was reading. And no, I am not speaking of what many men and women around campus have lately called The Gazette’s, and Western’s, culture of misogyny; the familiarity I speak of is a historical one, both broader and deeper than you may imagine. I think all of us at Western (although sadly, not everyone, everywhere; not yet) can agree today that sexual violence, even the intimation of such violence, is never a laughing matter. Rape, we understand, is not a joke. But do we understand its history?

I’m currently writing a book about the representations of violence against women in 16th and 17th-century English theatre. I’ve been reading a lot over the last few years about what rape meant to the men and women of Shakespeare’s time, a moment we valorize in departments of English (not to mention in theatres, and in bookstores) the world over. It might surprise you to know that rape has only quite recently been understood in the West as a traumatizing act committed against a woman’s mind and body; for centuries, rape was understood as a property crime, something that men committed against other men using women’s bodies as the conduit. A raped woman was damaged goods; a raped virgin was a fortune potentially lost. Raped women who became pregnant as a result of their violation were in deeper trouble: the Renaissance medical theorist Galen argued that in order for a woman to become pregnant she must experience orgasm, and orgasm meant, to Galen, pleasure. Pleasure meant consent; ergo, for Galen, pregnancy negated a woman’s claim of rape. In England, a woman’s consent, or non-consent, to a sex act only became a major determining factor in rape suits very late in Elizabeth I’s reign, near the turn of the 17th century.

I know it’s very easy to dismiss the individuals and groups on campus crying out against “Labia Majora Carnage,” but I believe as a campus community we owe it to one another, and to them, to understand from whence they speak. The history of violence against women, especially sexual violence, is a history of silence, of cultural erasure, of effacement in both literature and the law; feminist theorists and activists like me get angry over articles like this one precisely because it seems so clearly to replicate this terrible history, out from under which we are still slowly digging. I appreciate that the author of “Labia Majora Carnage” wanted us to laugh at the ridiculousness of the claims he or she made in the article, but I think the fact that we have not, in overwhelming numbers, speaks to the reality that these claims have, for a very long time, not been viewed as ridiculous at all. The article sought to pillory outlandish beliefs about who controls women’s bodies, but forgot to account for a very raw, very recent history of violence against women, and the representations that have, for centuries, called it nothing but a bit of a laugh.

Freedom of speech is not only a key component of our citizenship as Canadians; it is also a core pillar of our scholarly work on this university campus. Never would I advocate against it. But speech acts like “Labia Majora Carnage” risk the very freedom under which they purport to write when they forget that freedom of speech must never impinge on another’s right to walk, talk, think, act and be safely and securely. The balance between speaking freely and speaking responsibly is a delicate one; every satirist must ask him or herself a host of ethical questions before he or she sits down to write. If we can take any lesson from this troubling event, let it be this one: no language is neutral, and no text is exempt from an ethical responsibility to its community.

Share this article on:

Facebook | DiggDigg |

Copyright © 2008 The Gazette