In the car last night, Ed and I were discussing the blog I Blame the Patriarchy by Twisty Faster. It is a favorite read of mine even though my style of feminism is pretty far away from Twisty's in many ways. For Ed, the blog goes wrong in many ways, and he appreciates it less than I do.
Twisty could be reasonably accused of holding that all heterosexual sex is rape, a position that strikes most people as ridiculous. It's an idea that is often used as a straw man. But we were talking about this last night and I wanted Ed to understand why I see this argument, like many on Twisty's blog, as wrong but not ridiculous. (I can't find an instance of Twisty actually arguing that all heterosexual sex is rape, and she may not actually espouse that position, but it doesn't actually matter for the purposes of this post. You could read this delightful post about anal sex, or this one proposing a legal solution to rape to get a general idea.)
I argued it to Ed this way. Is consensual sex possible between a slave and a slave owner? Even if the slave wants it? You might answer yes, but surely you can see how it's possible to answer no.
Consent is really a continuum, from the enthusiastic and informed "yes" of free, sober persons, to actual forced sex. At some point, we draw a line and say, "This isn't consensual enough." I think sex with a willing but drunk lover is fine, but sex between a teacher and a horny 16-year-old is not consensual enough for me.
So, slaves and masters: consensual enough or not?
Assuming you can see this point, it's not such a stretch to say that insofar as women are subordinate to men in a culture, sex between the two is less consensual than sex between free people. If you don't think there's real consensual sex between masters and slaves, do you think there is consensual sex between husbands and wives in Saudi Arabia? What about 1940's America?
What about present-day America?
For me, the question about present-day America is easily answered: sex between willing adults is plenty consensual for me these days. It's not really a close thing for me at all. But Saudi Arabia is.
That's why I think the position (which may or may not only be held by strawfeminists in any case) is wrong but not ridiculous.