Thursday, 2 September 2010

Sex and Violence

[Trigger warning for discussion of domestic violence.]

So. The Eminem/ Rihanna video, featuring Dominic Monaghan and Megan Fox:

There has been an awful lot of discussion of this video online over the last month. It's great for Eminem: just out of rehab, 2nd single from his new album, the most controversy he's generated in a long time.
Asking Rihanna to appear in the video was a canny move: she's second only to the Free Bitch in terms of fame atm, and she's a survivor of DV so it's a good way of adding credibility and generating comment.

(Fox has donated her appearance fee to a women's shelter; and it's slightly odd seeing a hobbit look so hot.)

A couple of points regarding the song and video (with emphasis on the video):

1) There's a great debate to be had (as always) about the relation of the artist's personal life and past to the actual piece of art; a discussion of intention and who is reading. I don't feel particularly qualified to talk about this: I can't bring myself to watch a Polanski film (for example), but I'm prepared to give Eminem the benefit of the doubt in terms of assuming he's not just released this to further his career, and I like the song. But some of his back catalogue - e.g. 'Kim' - is fairly distressing and to listen to a song about DV by a guy who actually has perpetrated abuse - am I condoning it?

2) There is a pretty big disjunction between the video and the lyrics to the song in terms of the framing of the relationship that's described (as Shakesville points out). The song has an imaginably realistic description of a cycle of violence, with Eminem rapping from the abuser's point of view, Rihanna singing from the abused's (though another reading could be that she is voicing his fantasy of what his partner is thinking). But the storyline of the video is much more ambivalent, with both the partners fighting with each other and their hot hot steamy making-out following the violence and certainly sexifying if not glamourising the whole thing. (NB I am not saying that DV survivors don't fight back; or that if an abused partner tries to protect hirself that zie is an 'abuser'.) Fox is beautiful; Monaghan is stacked; Rihanna is only wearing pants and not much else. There's a lot of fire. It's a sexy video.

What interests me really is the 2nd point: especially given that the song has been so incredibly successful. What are people relating to here? Perhaps not much. I asked my sister about it and she said "It's about domestic violence? I hadn't even listened to the words - I just like the tune." It is a great hook, I love Eminem's voice (at the risk of sounding like the awful Julie Bindel) and it's a hot video. But that gives me pause for thought. What does it say about our attitudes to sex and violence that we like this song?

Clearly, there is a strong connection between sex and violence in our society. We do live in a rape culture, where aggression and misogyny are linked. (The link is a great introduction to the concept if you're not sure what I mean.) However, does this mean that there is no 'good' violence in sex and sexuality? When we watch and enjoy the glamourised 'fight-fucking' in I Love the Way You Lie (or Mr & Mrs Smith, or Buffy, or an infinite number of [sometimes even pro-feminist] films/TV shows/books) is it inevitably false consciousness? Are we enwrapped inextricably in patriarchy and misogyny and is there no way out?

The answer is with Rihanna's lyrics. She sings:
Just gonna stand there/And watch me burn
But that's alright/ Because I like/ The way it hurts
Just gonna stand there/ And hear me cry
But that's alright/ Because I love the way you lie
I love the way you lie
"I love the way you lie": this is in every way describing a relationship which is dishonest, disrespectful, abusive. But "I like the way it hurts" is much more ambivalent.

The thing that struck me most when I first watched the video was the real sense of straining towards something transcendent: expressed through passion, sex, pain, fire, music.

Sex is inherently 'violent'. It's a giving up of oneself, it's a vulnerability, it's a kenotic act. It is a straining towards the Other. What it doesn't have to be is abusive in the sense of being coercive - and this coercion is in our society more of a risk for those coded as women/feminine.

With the inevitable turn to theology, we can see this in Sarah Coakley's work. She is concerned to see sex in terms of a longing for the divine, and the longing for God as an erotic desire. She writes of the self-emptying in prayer and contemplation that is based in erotic yearning. This is a positive vulnerablity, and, crucially, it is a mutual kenosis grounded in the incarnation. Arguing with Daphne Hampson, who wants women to be independent (from men/the divine) and closed, she says
for me, the right sort of dependence on God is not only empowering but freeing. For God is no rapist, but the source of my very being; God is closer than kissing… indeed God, being God, is closer to me even than I am to myself.

Back to pop music: the track 'Sex and Violence' from the Scissor Sisters' new album (which is fantastic) sums it up excellently:


  1. It's interesting that in lots of this eros and God stuff the assumed position of the contemplatives is passive/recipient/vulnerable/kenotic. It is always about relinquishing power, even the identity of the subjects themselves. When eros is aggressive/dominant/possessive it is usually about sin. And above you write: "Sex is inherently 'violent'. It's a giving up of oneself, it's a vulnerability, it's a kenotic act." The juxta-position of the two sentences is almost shocking and assumes the kenotic position.

    But didn't Jacob wrestle with God until dawn?

    Should we not try and possess, dominate, catch hold of, bite and kick God? And if, with Augustine, we find God in our own deepest interior, this really must be our own desperate struggle with discovering, coming to terms with, and creating and destroying our selves.

    This is a wrestling match that I think is fought - maybe even primarily - in our loving others. "As your lover describes you, so you are." Perhaps there is a violence in the human spirit that is always seeking ways to play itself out. Perhaps it's integral to love. What is essential is to never allow violence to coerce, abuse, disempower, injure or humiliate another.

  2. I was also wondering about that same sentence: "Sex is inherently 'violent'. It's a giving up of oneself, it's a vulnerability, it's a kenotic act."

    I wonder, though, whether this "giving over" seems violent *precisely because of* how we tend to figure intercourse - Dworkin et al consider penetration fundamentally violent, so that each act of penis-in-vagina sex is basically an act of rape. That's extreme, but it mirrors a broader conception of the penetrator as powerful, dominant, aggressive, which I think could do with being queried. Quite apart from reinscribing a kyriarchal, phallic normativity which feeds into female submission, it's also a very inadequate way of describing what's going on in common-or-garden sex (which I'm using as shorthand for PIV, but y'all know perfectly well that there's more to it than that even between married heterosexuals, however much the bishops might like to pretend otherwise).

    I don't especially like the way some people have tried to refigure the process as the woman/vagina "enveloping" or "swallowing" the man/penis rather than that man/penis penetrating the woman/vagina, both because it's pretty essentialist and reductionist, and because it still relies on violent language (shades of the vagina dentata, Gnostic fear of deep dark caverns, etc.) and the assumption that power/control are unproblematic goods. Nonetheless, the language of "swallowing" at least gets away from the tarring of all males as rapists which is also grossly inadequate (and might become a self-fulfilling prophecy).

    But I'm interested in *why* we can't seem to describe that "wrestling" in anything other than violent terms - is it because we've been taught that equality with God is not something to be grasped at, and that (as James Nelson wonderfully debunks) God is the biggest hardest "uppest" penis of all so there's no point even trying to compete? I love what Ramping says: "Should we not try and possess, dominate, catch hold of, bite and kick God?" Yes, totally; and it's in this that God's continued generation, continued coming-into-being, relies on our continued negotiations of intrahuman relationship (as per Carter Heyward).

    I'm also fascinated by the prevalence of rape fantasies etc. even among people who would consider themselves deeply feminist, egalitarian etc. - do they point to a distorted kind of sexuality which has been marred by the broken model of gender we work with? Or is what's going on here not "violence" at all, and do we just call it that because we assume that proactivity, "biting", "scratching" and so on are unseemly/indecent?

    I put this on Gemma's Facebook wall earlier, but check it out -

    It is deeply hot, but I'm interested in *why* it is. The person who first told me about it said she liked it because he looked so subjugated. I find that problematic; but also, I don't read him as subjugated at all (and, incidentally, I get that this is meant to be boy-porn; but who says it can't be to do with breastmilk fetishism instead? Why do we have to assume milk stands for cum - why can't milk stand for *milk*?). I read him as angry and ready to pounce - and that's just as problematic, because since when did I get off on anger? I sometimes wonder whether there is some kind of collective unconscious of sexual fantasy that we all tap into - else why are we so cliched?

    Susannah xxx


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