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Today is Ursula K. Le Guin's 80th birthday. I'm celebrating by thinking about The Dispossessed, which I re-read recently for my book club, Beer and Marmalade.

In Ursula K. LeGuin's The Dispossessed, Shevek nearly rapes Vea, an Urrasti woman.

In our discussion of this scene at book club, I was startled at how easy it was for me to fall into patterns of rape apology: Shevek was drunk for the first time in his life, he was in a different culture with foreign gender dynamics, he was unclear of the expectations, he did not know the rules.

Did Ursula LeGuin trick me, her faithful reader, into becoming a rape apologist here? If so, why? Perhaps it says something about how easy it is to do in a culture that supports and encourages such an attitude, how easy a pattern it is to fall into, even when you know it's wrong. And perhaps there is a point here about Shevek as a sympathetic character. It is too easy to think that rapists are monsters, that they are evil, and so therefore they cannot be our friends, our neighbors, our relatives; they cannot be famous movie directors. Even great men like Shevek can be rapists. They are people, they are not monsters with claws.

In another recent discussion, some friends brought up the Open Source Boob Project (Read about it at Geek Feminism or FanLore.)
In short, someone with a well-read journal suggested, wouldn't it be nice if people (ie men) could just go up to women and ask to grope their boobs? Wouldn't that be a good society?

NO! Said many people. For one thing, there are many reasons why a woman might not feel comfortable saying no to someone in this situation. People at WisCon responded with tags of "Proprietary Boobs" to counteract this sentiment. "Even on Anarres, where people don't own anything, they still own their bodies," I said during this discussion.

But later I thought, no! Actually, the anarchists do not even refer to their bodies as their own. When they do, they are chastized for being propertarian. They say, "the hand hurts me," not, "my hand hurts". This strikes me as dissociation from one's own body. And how far does dissociation go? If there is no property, do you own your organs? Your eggs? Do you own the actions your body takes?

There are many reasons why feminists are vehemently propertarian about our bodies, and why we insist that our bodies ARE our selves. Rape is just one of those reasons. Reproductive rights are another. Control over what happens to our bodies, and what we choose to do with them, and asserting the boundaries of our bodies: these are the things for which being propertarian about your body, taking ownership of it, are essential.

Taking ownership can go too far, perhaps, making you feel guilty when you get sick, as if it's you're fault, as if you are a bad house owner who neglected to take care of your property. But even the Annaresti feel guilty when they get sick:

Most young Anarresti felt that it was shameful to be ill: a result of their society's very successful prophylaxy, and also perhaps a confusion arising from the analogic use of the words "healthy" and "sick". (p.96, 1974/5 paperback edition)

Look! Look how she notices disabling language!

Do you think that Shevek's training in being anti-propertarian about bodies contributed to his actions? What else does this book have to say about bodies?

I think...

Date: 2009-10-23 08:33 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
... that Ursula was well aware of what she was doing with that passage that she was making her readers into rape apologists. But other tha you I always interpreted this passage as the zenith of Sheveks propertarian behaviour. He is so steeped in property- culture that he is willing to just take what he wants. He does not consider that his wanting/power is directed at a person who perhaps should share that power, rather than just be an object. On Anarres, though bodies are not owned, they are attached to a person who feels pain and humiliation and can not be separated from them. So I think that even in a world were bodies are not owned you still have to ask for consent. Not so in a world were bodies are objects to be owned, traded and stolen. Might we not see feminists as being fiercly anti-propertarian? Nobody gets to own our bodies, no men, no state, no fetus?

Thanks for this post. I have always avoided thinking more closely on that passage in the book.

Re: I think...

Date: 2009-10-24 01:52 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Pain can be cathartic, or act as a focusing point/ an anchor for an internal process. I let myself be tattooed for this purpose and I imagine Shevek to be motivated similarly. On the other hand he is a very lonely person and pain can be a way to connect with other people and to express that loneliness. Loneliness is pain. Need to think on this more as well. Thanks.


Re: I think...

Date: 2009-10-26 04:15 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Yes, powerful. I have hardly ever met a book that was so complex and had so much to offer even after reading it 20 times. I feel really good about giving it to my grandparents for christmas, even though they never read science fiction.


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