The greatest power that someone can have is autonomy or the right to freely choice for oneself, especially in regards to one’s sexuality, but this power is not always equally given to men and women. In the 1980s women were not given the proper tools to excerise their sexual autonomy and thereby had difficulties overcoming sexual dicrimiantion, resisting the physical power of male sexuality, and having their sexuality protected and respected. The ideas prevalent at the time privileged a man’s sexuality and denied a woman’s right to refuse it as seen in the widespread rape culture. Controversial policies were developed that failed to address sexual assault, blamed victims of rape, and normalized male violence towards women. This could easily be seen in courtrooms as rules were applied differently in rape cases than in other crimes to make it more difficult to prove that a rape occurred, as emphasized by Estrich in Sex and Power. The courts could look at a woman’s track record but a man’s sexual history was not allowed to be talked about in order accuse him of rape. Also the definition of force or force of threat and the line between consensual and nonconsensual sex were not clear under the law and this created a lot of problems in the rape cases. Estrich explains that in many cases during the 1980s, most men said that they wanted to have consensual sex with a woman but for some reason it was interpreted as rape. This did not happen on the account of some reason unknown to them but it happened because they blurred the lines by ignoring a woman’s power to say no and disrespecting her instructions. This is strongly connected to idea that a woman’s voice still was not as important as a man’s at the time. A woman in the courtroom could not be trusted because she could lie to a jury in order to lock away an innocent man for a crime he did not commit. Fear then spread throughout the judicial system and this allowed legislators to pass less strict rape legislation to prevent women from gaining too powerful of a voice to that may harm men. The idea that women would lie about being raped is absolutely ridiculous because it was more likely that men would lie about not being rapists and they were thereby the greater threat to the preservation to the perfect and untainted judicial system. This social construction also allowed a man to have sex whenever and however he wanted because he would not be punished for it. This took away a woman’s sexual autonomy because it gave her no power to refuse any man. A woman’s sexual independence and desires were often not seen as “she defined it, but as he (the man) perceived it” (Estrich 176). A culture developed on these ideas resulted in the abuse of women’s sexuality and denied all male responsibility in it. A lack of sexual autonomy leads to a dystopia for women’s sexualty because it creates a complete loss of female power and control over her own body.
Atwood ties many ideas of rape and sexual assault in her novel to shed light on the abuses of female sexuality in the 1980s. The handmaids are isolated to exclusively sexual duties and their bodies are defiled when they are raped all for the sake of bringing new life into the world, even if it destroys the very lives of the women who experience it. Instead of being praised as heroes and saviors bringing salvation to the world the women are seen as disgraceful, shameful, and dishonorable for their position. The handmaids are forced to wear red uniforms as a “sign of their sinful condition” but this sin is not of their own doing but forced upon them (Slonczewski). Atwood does this to show how rape victims in the 1980s were also blamed for what happened to them either because they were asking for it, they were too weak to manage themselves, or they had nothing to complain about because they only thought they were raped. For rape victims to be blamed for their own sexual abuse is disgusting and senseless to us but when looking at cultures that truly believed these ideas it can be understood how they could have been thought of as true because they always treated women this horribly. The most elaborate ideas of rape seen throughout the novel are in the celebrations of the Ceremony and the Particicution. When the people participating in the Ceremony are having sex it is not within a loving relationship between a handmaid, Commander, and wife but is actually a celebrated form of rape. The handmaids are first kidnapped and forced to become sex slaves by the Aunts, they are then physically held down by the wives during sex, and they are finally penetrated by the unwanted males. This act is not consensual by any means and should have been abhorred as a disgusting crime but it is instead hailed as a religious, social, and evolutionary necessity. This shows an extreme form of what the rape culture of the 1980s represented. Ideas of rape are further examined in the Particicution, which is the execution of rapists in Gilead by the handmaids themselves. In the town square, the handmaids are encouraged to gather to rip suspected rapists limb from limb in a torturous and perturbed form of punishment as seen in the video clip. Gilead seems to crack down on the prosecution and punishment of rapists, the one thing that maybe the government does right, but in reality it also has deep foundations in rape and sexual assault. The government is actually only concerned with the type of man who is allowed to rape instead of the actual female victims. Only men of status and authority are allowed to sexually abuse women while men of lower class and power are forbidden. Gilead justifies severe punishment for rapists who are not at the top of the social ladder but praises those who are. Much like in the courtrooms of the 1980s, high and mighty men of wealth and status are never punished for rape because they have of the power of their voices above everyone else’s. The themes of rape and sexual abuse in “The Handmaid’s Tale” shows the extent of the horrors experienced by women in the 1980s in regards to their sexuality.
The relationship between sex and power shows how the sexual abuse of the female body, whether it be through childbirth or rape, creates a dystopia for women. Power in Gilead is directly connected to the sex roles of men and women that gives men all the control int the relationship. In the new Gilead the “women are socially powerless in respect to the very reproductive capacities that might make them powerful” because the ruling males of the regime so powerfully and strongly control them (Eisenstein 237). Fertile women should have been given a power and significance over all infertile members of society but, because males already had so much authority, the women never had the chance to become powerful. Once bound by the shackles of their positions, the handmaids lost all power and could not even run away without being threatened by the government. Any handmaids that resisted her position would be immediately executed or banished to the colonies. The greatest control over women was seen in “those other escapes, the ones you can open in yourself, given a cutting edge” (Atwood 67). The women were not only forbidden from killing themselves but given absolutely zero opportunities to attempt suicide as their rooms were detailed with extensive preventative measures and they were always being watched. This extreme control over their choice to live or die emphasizes their complete lack of power, freedom, and independence. The women are forced into their duties with absolutely no emotional or physical escape but must accept to their inability to change their situation. Atwood warns us of the effects that giving all power to one sex could have while also shedding light on the potential of men in power to one day control women to this extent given the continuation of their status even during the twentieth century.