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.”

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.

Four kinds of Wrongness

11 January, 2012 § Leave a comment

Given the title of the blog, I feel like I should start with a bit of a taxonomy of wrongness. For no other purpose than to be able to refer to it in the future.

An argument can be wrong in one or more of the following four ways.

First, and most trivially, it can be wrong grammatically. An argument that does not have basic grammar (since I’m a descriptivist, not a prescriptivist I mean “can be parsed by a native speaker.”) In that case, the rest of the argument doesn’t really matter: it’s not parseable to a native speaker, so it’s just wrong in a purely functional sense. This sort of wrongness generally isn’t worth commenting on.

The next three modes of wrongness are actually independent from each other.

Second, an argument can base itself on the wrong assumptions. For instance, if you are making an argument for increased defense spending, and you start with the assumption that the US spends less on its military than any of its neighbors, you would be wrong in your bases and assumptions.

Third, you can be wrong in your argumentation. This means that, even if we take your basic assumptions as fact, you pursue a spurious argumentation about them, where you assume that those facts imply things that they in fact do not imply. Often the argumentation will be quite muddled. If we are being generous with the author, we can say that this is because their thinking was muddled. Another possibility is that the author is intentionally attempting to befuddle the reader. An example of this kind of wrongness is “English has 10 different words for snow and thus it is suited to people in cold and snowy climates.” The “and thus” simply does not follow, regardless of how many words English has for snow or whether or not it’s suited for cold and snowy climates.

Fourth, your conclusions can be wrong. This is relatively trivial: at the end of your argument, the point you are trying to make is, in fact, incorrect.

Something which I find particularly fascinating is that these three kinds of wrongness are often at a disjoint from each other. For instance, it is perfectly possible to have the correct bases, correct form of argumentation, and draw totally incorrect conclusions* (often such writing is really rewarding to read: I call it “wrong but thought provoking.) Also, you might reach a correct conclusion from from incorrect bases and incorrect argumentation: this is often the case when the author knows what the right answer is, but isn’t sure how to get there or from where. All sorts of other crazy mixes are possible as well.

One important thing is that a lot of these, particularly those that are correct in some aspect, can still be important learning experiences for the reader, especially if we notice and note when things are wrong. Wrong writing is not without value, as long as we don’t fall into the relativist trap of “anything could wrong or right so it doesn’t matter.”

* In a formalistic logic sense, this isn’t possible, but there are so many examples in the real world that it’s worth mentioning.

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