Rape is Violence

7 February, 2012 § 7 Comments

It is slightly depressing to have to write this post. Maybe it’s just that I was raised in a particular political environment (amongst a very liberal rural population by a self-critical second wave feminist mother) but my feeling is that, when I was younger, the dialogue around rape as a crime was “rape is not a crime of sex, it’s a crime of violence.” In other words, rape is not “sex gone wrong” it’s “violence gone sexual.”

More recently this has seemed considerably more muddled to me: I see a lot of people who are putatively anti-rape and pro rape survivor using “sex gone wrong” formulations (most egregiously and omni-presently the vile Men Can Stop Rape meme.) This lends to me a distinctly panicky and frustrated feeling when in anti-rape discussions: that I am actively losing ground, and having to fight basic definitional battles with people who are at least claiming to be my allies. It’s tiring.

(I think that there are particular reasons for this ideological shift, but they’re off topic for this post. Foreshadowing!)

So let’s be clear, here: Rape is not a form of sex, it’s a form of violence. Rape is no more a form of sex than beating someone with a baseball bat is a form of sport.

One of the most positive developments in terms of how our society handles rape and, thus, rape survivors, is the decrease in the use of the term rape in criminal codes and the increase of the considerably more precise term sexual assault. Despite this, I use the term rape in my own discussions, mostly, because it has an emotional and cultural impact that the more clinical term sexual assault lacks. But, culturally, sexually assault is simply the better term. I have seen it repeatedly argued, for instance, that men can’t be raped and that women can’t commit rape. I’ve never seen it argued that men can’t be sexually assaulted or that women can’t sexually assault someone. Likewise, for instance, the horrible “are you SURE it was rape?” meme is exposed as the vile shit it is when you rephrase it as “are you SURE it was sexual assault?”

The best thing about sexual assault as a term is that it places the adjective and noun in their correct places… what we are talking about here is assault — direct physical violence — with sex as the means of perpetuating that violence.

Apologies for the rather blah essay: this is really a preliminary, but I want to make sure that we’re clear on this and to have it to refer back to in the future. It is something that I want to make sure we are all absolutely motherfucking clear about.

Note 1: This essay was very heavily pruned: the discussion topic has a lot of tangents coming off of it and I had to only allow myself to go down one or two. So I apologize in advance if it’s somewhat incoherent in the segues. If you do notice weird jumps of either logic or style, please let me know and I will fix them up.

Note 2: Because of the cultural dialogue around things like “rape rape,” “forcible rape” and “honest rape” that de-legitimizes non-ideal rape victims, I feel the need to add this: my discussion of this absolutely, irrevocably and completely includes date rape, rape by coercion, and other forms of rape that do not include additional components of physical violence. They are no less sexual assault than jump-out-of-the-bushes rape. Rape is not “sex + physical violence” it is “the mechanics of sex as a form of physical (and emotional and social) violence.”

§ 7 Responses to Rape is Violence

  • Joe Mcdaldno says:

    I have a qualm with this post. But before I get into that qualm, it’s important that I say: I am absolutely in agreement with your definition. Rape is violence, not sex. Check.

    My qualm is about calling the Men Can Stop Rape campaign “vile.” When I read that, I assumed that your criticism included a range of male-targeted, assaulter-targeted anti-rape campaigns (like the one featured here: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-DkUtW2u0Yok/TwYKG67nStI/AAAAAAAAALY/TTVsnrSYP9A/s1600/men-can-stop-rape.jpg).

    Maybe you were actually talking about a specific campaign, and not the general approach of targeting PSA campaigns at potential male rapists. If so, probably disregard this comment.

    Men Can Stop Rape, My Strength, et al… they have the issue of creating an ideal-type rape survivor and an ideal-type rapist. That’s unfortunate. But I also think it’s important that by-men-for-men campaigns exist to cry out the fact that men don’t have the right to dominion over women’s bodies. It’s an effort to wield peer pressure for good. Having male voices speaking directly to male voices is an attempt at bypassing misogynistic or patriarchal barriers/excuses/defenses/dismissals.

    Or, to put it differently, I don’t think those campaigns are exclusively about rape. I think they’re about the intersection of sexual and patriarchal violence. (Is that intersection what we commonly call “rape culture”? Maybe.)

    So, yeah. I think those ad campaigns are addressing a compound need, and they’re being structured in a way that bypasses a lot of misogynistic mental defenses. I think that’s a good thing. Why is it not?

    ***

    I might guess that an answer is, “Because it blinds us culturally to female-perpetrated rape and the male survivors of rape.” Yeah. I see that issue. And now, a serious and genuine question that I wonder about: Does a single campaign need to address every facet of an issue?

    • benlehman says:

      Hey, Joe.

      I was wondering who the first person to make this comment was… I had a long bit in the essay about it, but decided it was tangential. Let me reconstruct.

      I think you have the context wrong here. For instance, I have nothing against the “my strength is not for hurting” campaign and think it’s probably positive in effect, plus I like the imagery of it. I’m talking specifically about “Men Can Stop Rape,” and specifically about other horrible elements in it than the sexist ones you mention*.

      Particularly, I am talking about the way that it adopts wholesale rape culture narratives about “rape is sex gone bad” rather than “rape is violence.” If you look at the campaign, you receive the message the the primary cause of rape in our society is, somehow, men accidentally raping women.

      Not only is this not true, it’s not true in a specific and corrosive way. It leads us to believe that rape is, somehow, an honest mistake that we can educate our way out of, rather than a particular act of violence perpetrated for the reasons of its own (I’m not going to get into it here, but there’s a whole essay here about the relationship between society and violence.) In the view of “Men Can Stop Rape,” the “well you wouldn’t want to ruin a nice boy’s life just for a mistake” meme is wholly accurate and acceptable, rather than a lie shoved down the throats of rape victims to keep them silent and ashamed.

      In short, the reason that “Men Can Stop Rape” is vile is because, instead of actually confronting and deconstructing rape culture, it perpetuates it. If you see this in a rape survivor frame, it is equally as vile as the “women can stop rape” shit it parrots. This is regardless of how well-meaning its construction is: the opposite of a wrong thing is another wrong thing. Outside of logic puzzles, you can’t arrive at the truth by simply inverting a lie.

      yrs–
      –Ben

      * Telling, isn’t it?

      • Both “rape is violence” and “men can stop rape” are necessary, though I find that once we simplify either concept to the point of a catchy phrase like that we’ve pruned off much of their usefulness.

        When you put the two thoughts together, you get: sexual assault is a method of violence used to assert dominance that has some amount of social sanction. “Men can stop rape” erodes that social sanction and says “no, that behavior is not okay. I don’t do it, and nobody should turn a blind eye to it.” You’re correct about the ways in which the message can be twisted, but I don’t see that gloss inherent in the concept.

        And you are absolutely correct that the other half is necessary as well. When I was sexually assaulted it didn’t *seem* like violence. But what else do you call it when somebody’s physical agency is wrested away? For me your “Note 2″ was the most important part of this essay. It was several years before I realized that what happened to me *wasn’t okay*. And then a few more years before I understood that it wasn’t my fault. Explicitly framing sexual assault as violence would have made it much harder to be that confused.

        For the last decade or so, I’d mostly stopped talking about my sexual assault other than in the vaguest of terms. Inevitably, it seemed, somebody would see himself in the story — the socially inept guy who, in the absence of an explicit & immediate “no”, couldn’t understand that somebody else’s body is off-limits. And then they’d start defending the perpetrator because they fear it could have been them. These guys *are* afraid they might have accidentally raped somebody. They think that while treading all over somebody else’s physical boundaries might be a bit of a jerk thing to do (and the cultural ideal of masculinity often includes being a little bit of a jerk), as long as they’re not actually forcing intercourse on a someone, they’re okay. And the idea that other forms of coercion or trickery are also sexual assault terrifies them.

        For those guys, the “rape is violence” message is insufficient, because they hear it as something that gets them off the hook: they didn’t use overt physical violence, so they don’t think it’s rape. They get it exactly backwards.

        The core message that both “rape is violence” and “men can stop rape” needs to convey is that we need to stop looking at the erosion of somebody’s physical agency as a lesser crime than hitting them.

      • lesleymac says:

        I’m not sure that the “Men can stop rape” meme is really trying to conclusively define what is and isn’t rape. I think it’s reasonable enough to assume that a male rapist (who doesn’t want to believe he’s a rapist, because he doesn’t sneak up on women in dark alleys) wants to think that most other men act as he does, and really don’t give a shit about consent. And “Men can stop rape” is a good answer to that.

        If anything, it says to me that there’s no reason not to expect that men get this– yes means yes, don’t settle for less than enthusiastic consent. The more people who understand that, the less people will be able to blame rape on a simple misunderstanding.

  • benlehman says:

    Hi Cheryl! For some reason we’ve run out of reply depth so I hope you see this.

    It seems to me that we’re speaking somewhat at cross purposes… I totally agree that male-targeted anti-violence campaigns are, as a general category, useful and important, for all the reasons you say.

    But the “honest mistake” narrative is both toxic and wrong and I’m not willing to put up with it for the sake of some imagined “greater good.” Particularly not when there exist better campaigns that actually accomplish their stated goals without perpetuating rape culture wholesale.

    I can’t speak to other’s experiences: I can only speak to my own. I personally get dismissed with the “it must have been an honest mistake” meme with fair regularity. I was raped starting from age four, by my grandparents, and there are still a fairly large number of people who want to write it off as “honest mistake.” This is how deep this lie runs, culturally, and I simply have no tolerance for it. When all of my friends are linking to “Men Can Stop Rape,” I really can’t see anything but that. (Note: I have a similar reaction to the “Women Can Stop Rape” lie campaigns propagated under the banner of anti-rape activism.)

    To use an analogy, it’s like if someone took a shit in the middle of your ice cream sundae. It doesn’t matter if it’s otherwise a great ice cream Sunday. I have no desire to eat it, see it, or have it anywhere near me.

    Note 2 was really upsetting to write. It really upsets me that it’s needed. The degree of public disinformation about rape is so high, it’s often overwhelming.

    • I absolutely agree that the whole narrative around ‘honest mistake’ is broken. I don’t see what you see in the “Men Can Stop Rape” campaign, but my not seeing it is irrelevant. Even if they don’t think that’s what they’re saying, just the fact that they sound *just like* the people who are dismissing your experiences means the message is problematic.

      I find it interesting (and a little disheartening) that while the messages that each of us are getting can be summarized as “honest mistake,” yet they are different enough that I can’t see what you see in those posters. It just underscores how huge the whole icky narrative is.

  • clweeks says:

    What’s violence?

    I’m asking because I’m not sure if you’re saying that every instance of behavior that fits some definition of rape should actually be understood as a violent act — even when it might not seem like one at first blush. Or maybe you’re defining rape to only include the cases that are obviously violent (this doesn’t seem likely). Or something else entirely.

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