Three ways to talk about rape

23 January, 2012 § 2 Comments

I’ve run into some real stumbling blocks talking about rape, previously. To some degree this is simply unavoidable: for both personal and cultural reasons rape is an incredibly emotionally fraught topic, and naturally people’s dander gets up when you talk about it. The other is that rape functions at multiple levels in society, and people feel a strong sense of “ownership” over the issue depending on their relationship to it. So I’m going to lay these out early on to have a post to refer to later.

1) Rape as an individual crime, with a perpetrator and a victim, including causes and effects. This is the baseline of experience, and when we talk honestly about rape to some extent we need to talk about this. In particular, I think that we don’t often talk about the motivations of perpetrators in any coherent sense. This is because the dialogue around rape is so culturally fucked that we feel a need to dehumanize both perpetrators and survivors: thus, talking about motivations and effects as things which are done by humans to other humans becomes very difficult. I’d like to talk more about this, upcoming.

2) Rape as a social institution. Rape isn’t an aberration: it happens in every human society throughout all of human history. It is fundamentally built into our social structure, and it forms an important part in both generating and enforcing social norms. If we’re going to take serious action to confront and reduce rape in our society, we’re going to have to address the ways it is part of our social structure. In contrast to “rape culture” we might call this “rape society.” I don’t think a lot of people talk about this, at least not in the corners of culture I frequent, so if anyone has any reading links please toss them out. I would like to eventually get to a point where I can analyze and discuss this level, but I’m not there yet.

3) Rape as a cultural concept. This is separate from the above, because it’s not about the actual practice of rape, but the idea of it and the use of the threat of rape to enforce and perpetuate social norms. A lot of anti-rape activism exists at this level: this is where the gender differences are most pronounced for instance (as a guy, for example, I have never been told that I shouldn’t walk home alone at night because I might be raped, but I have been told that if I break the law I will be punitively raped in prison.) This is where “rape culture” lives.

Of course, these things are actually so interconnected that placing them in three bullet points is misleading. Individual acts exist in a social and cultural context, the cultural context is not separate from the social hierarchy, and so on. But I think that confusion about the differences here leads to a lot of mistakes and mis-steps. When a feminist activist who is not a rape survivor tells me, a male rape survivor, that “I can’t understand rape,” she’s talking about the cultural level, where rape is strongly gendered and I will never have the female experience of it. (This is a charitable reading: she also might be a male rape denier or just ignorant and bigoted.) If I hear her as talking about the other levels, where I clearly have experience and understanding, I’m not going to take it well. So having this laid out will hopefully avoid some of those problems.

§ 2 Responses to Three ways to talk about rape

  • Mike says:

    Your last paragraph got me thinking about my own sexual experiences.

    There’s a fourth way to talk about rape: rape as a subjective experience.

    The feminist movement has constructed rape as an experience defined by consent. Either the sex act is consensual and thereby permissible or it is not consensual and therefore rape. In my experience, sex acts do not divide so easily. Consent is a temporalized process that is strongly affected by expectation and perception. What may have been wholehearted consent at the time of the sex act may turn into regret the next morning. Consent itself is, of course, both conditional and grey. Conditional in the sense that consent can be given for some things and not others and revoked without warning and grey in the sense that consent is a matter of degrees. I will often demonstrate consent physically, but in reality I have only consented to a degree. For example, I am 40% willing to perform some particular activity, but 70% too ashamed to admit my unwillingness. And that’s just the problems with consent.

    I think different people construct rape differently as well. For example, in assessing whether or not I have been raped, I don’t even factor in consent. I consider physical harm, situational control, the ability to escape, etc. Have I had sexual experiences in which an individual performed an act for which I had explicitly refused my consent? Yes. Was that act therefore rape? I don’t know. My subjective experience does not match my understanding of rape as a concept even if my material experience does match the strict definition of non-consent.

    Obviously, this subjective experience cuts both ways. I do not think that I have ever raped anyone, but I have no way of knowing because I have no way of knowing to what degree the consent I was given (as often intuited as spoken) was valid. That scares me.

  • Ben Lehman says:

    Hey, Mike. Thanks for coming and commenting.

    I think that subjective experience is completely part and parcel in #1.

    I want to be able to respond more carefully to your post, because it hits a lot of interesting points, but right now I don’t have the time and emotional energy for it. I’m sorry.

    I will be writing a lot more about these issues upcoming, and I hope we can read some of that in light of your comment.

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