What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape

Next week, I will post the much-anticipated Hello, You’re a Mom, the follow-up to my much-lauded Hello, You’re a Girl. (I’m lying, as usual. No one is anticipating, and by “much-lauded,” I mean two people have asked me if I’m okay. I am fine, thank you for asking.) But this week I feel like I’ve got to address . . . rape. Sorry.

So The Atlantic, which seems to exist in order that I might be annoyed when I don’t care what Ross Douthat is writing about, published this article yesterday morning. And Kate Harding, who I wish were my friend (she lives in Chicago! It could totally happen!) tweeted about it, which is how I know about it. And then I read one of her links and now I think it’s time to write what I’ve been thinking about our discourses on rape. Be warned – this is going to be a long and twisty road with possibly no point whatsoever.

I think the biggest problem with our discourses on rape is that there’s this cultural understanding that Rape is the Worst Thing a Person Could Possibly Do Ever, and anyone who does it deserves to be torn limb from limb by wild horses, tarred and feathered, and then left alone in a room with Catherine Kieu Becker. (That’s another shameless link to a pretty popular post of mine.) And then they, themselves, should be repeatedly ass-raped, although, by whom, I don’t know, because wouldn’t we just have to do the same thing to their rapists?

And obviously, I think rape is a very bad thing to do and if you do rape someone you should stand trial and then, if you are found guilty, which, if you actually have raped someone, I hope you are, go to prison (to the extent that I think prison is a good idea as a criminal justice system, which I guess I do, as I don’t have any really good alternatives).

But when you set up this thing that is The Most God-Awful Thing You Can Ever Do, there then has to be a lot of hedging. That’s the line that got me in the Atlantic article, the hedge. “I speculate that something neither violent nor completely consensual happened, such as an aggressive attempt at seduction to which she consented for fear of angering a wealthy hotel guest,” writes Stuart Taylor Jr., as if there’s such at thing as “not completely consensual” that’s not also “rape.” “If so, Strauss-Kahn’s conduct was deplorable – but was not the forcible sexual assault with which he has been charged.” This is clearly the move of, “Look, if he had forcibly sexually assaulted her, I’d be all for stringing him up, putting his head on a spike outside the city gates, cutting off his balls with no anesthesia, sure. But this doesn’t sound quite like forcible sexual assault to me.” (Of course, Taylor’s speculations as to how this doesn’t sound like forcible sexual assault are . . . bullshit. I kept trying to come up with an elegant hedge, here, but my momma always said that if the word you mean is “bullshit,” you should just say “bullshit.” But that’s not the point I’m trying to make here.)

I don’t know what the legal answers are here. I wish I did. Sometimes I think there ought to be degrees of rape, like there are degrees of murder. (And I know there’s rape vs. sexual assault, but I think that’s a distinction based solely on where he put his penis, and not on degrees of consent. Which, of course, I imagine requires that most female-on-male – and all female-on-female, I guess – rape be downgraded to sexual assault, which is its own problem. Which is again not my point.) But I don’t really care that much about what you should charge a rapist with after s/he’s raped somebody. I care about preventing that rape from happening in the first place and I care about creating a model of romantic/sexual behavior that holds “aggressive seduction” as an oxymoron.

And this is where rape culture comes in. I think the heart of rape culture is the assumption that the normal sexual landscape is that women don’t want sex, they want love/commitment/money. In order to get sex from women, you have to successfully convince them that you can offer them love/commitment/money. Once you have convinced them of this and they have given you the sex, you are not under any particular obligation to give them love/commitment/money, although it’d be nice (but not Dudely). But if you’ve ponied up enough love/commitment/money, or even the illusion of it, they do, in fact, owe you sex. Many acts which these irritating feminist broads call “rape” because they’re so nitpick-y are really just men either a) taking what was due to them because of their offering of love/commitment/money, or b) cheating the system by taking sex when they haven’t offered these things. I mean sure, a man with a gun jumps a stranger, a virgin on the night before her wedding who’s never so much as stepped on an ant, and brutally attacks her in a way that leaves obvious marks that can’t be mistaken for anything but assault marks, and rapes her, well, that guy is a Rapist. But this case? This case of the old, overweight ladies’ man who maybe “aggressively seduced” a woman who was afraid to say no? The college boy who goes ahead with sex after the person he’s been making out with passed out? The husband who just really wanted sex and his wife had been claiming she had a headache for, like, a month? The guy who thought when she said, “No, don’t, please, don’t!” it was dirty talk? They’re just dudes trying by hook or crook to get girls to sleep with them. The ideal of sex in this system is tricking a beautiful, hard-to-get woman to sleep with you and then getting away without having to pay her in love/commitment/money. Consent? Getting consent is getting a girl to say, “Oh, alright. I suppose. If I must.”

And then the other side of this, the side that says, “Hey, consent is ‘yes'” or even “Consent is ‘oh, God, please, yes, now,” the feminist side, is accused of being anti-sex and anti-male because we hate the idea that women don’t want sex and therefore whatever one does to get sex from them – short of brutal attacks on wide-eyed virgins who are preferably the sisters of the we-swear-we’re-not-misogynist dudes that always hedge when this rape stuff comes up – is acceptable. But we’re not anti-male and we’re definitely not anti-sex. We love sex! That’s why we believe it’s possible to get the “Oh, God, please, yes, now” kind of consent from women, and not settle for the “Well, if you insist. You did get me these diamond earrings, after all” kind of consent.

But I’m not saying that every time you have sex with a woman who is not saying “Oh, God, please, yes, now,” you’re Raping her in that kind of rape that means you deserve to be branded a monster, shunned by polite society, drawn and quartered, blah, blah, blah. First of all, let’s just say this, I am married, and not delusional. I’ve definitely had sex when my consent was more “Alright” than “Yes, please!” And if it wouldn’t get my husband on the list of Asses to Kick that the Dudes keep handy, I’d venture a guess that he’s also been more “If you really want” than “Please, now!” once or twice. That doesn’t mean either of us has raped each other. It just means that sometimes we’ve had less-than-ideal sex. Mixed in with plenty of “Yes, please” sex. It happens.

But there’s lots of other kinds of not-really-consent that seem to get a pass as long as we’re operating on the model of “Non-consent is one thing, but Evil Monster Rape is quite another.” I’ve always been confused by how men who act the way Dominique Strauss-Kahn has apparently acted – groping women against their will, “aggressively seducing” any number of them, possibly raping one or two – are called “ladies’ men” or “womanizers.” Maybe they’re sort of pathetic in that Pepe LePew way, or maybe they’re naughty and oh-so-wild in a very women want them, men want to be them way. But they’re not laughed at or roundly mocked for being unable to get “Yes, please!” consent and for settling for “Oh, alright, if you’ll stop bothering me already” consent when they get consent at all. Plenty of arenas of male culture will slap you on the back for getting less-than-fully-enthusiastic consent; plenty of arenas don’t even think that it’s rape if a girl’s unconscious or clearly incapable of giving consent or, say, eleven and wearing make-up and a short skirt. They think it’s a party and if she didn’t want to be treated that way then she she shouldn’t have been where she was, doing what she was doing. Much like you shouldn’t wander into a lion’s cage and expect not to be eaten. Except we keep lions in cages; we don’t let them wander about the city streets. We let men wander freely and tell women to watch themselves lest they attract the lions’ attention.

But that’s a whole ‘nother post.

What I’m saying here is that in order to create a sexual culture that can call rape rape when it’s rape, we need to let go of the idea that the act must be the kind where you could cheerfully imagine torturing and mutilating the perpetrator and not feel any guilt about it whatsoever. We need to accept that sometimes, rape is committed by people who are not monsters, who do not stand outside the normal stream of humanity by some defect of mind, heart, or soul, but who have nevertheless committed crimes for which they ought to stand trial. We need to understand that some of the ways of thinking about sex that we’ve completely normalized feed into and encourage the committing of acts that are, in fact, rape, even if they’re played for laughs in Revenge of the Nerds or for sexy drama in Gone with the Wind. We need to understand that by normalizing the idea that women don’t actually want sex, so consent is always obtained by hook or by crook, and never enthusiastically, we encourage perfectly normal men to commit rape while not even being able to recognize that that’s what they’re doing.

This post is a call to create and to support culture and ways of engaging in sexual education that holds up “Yes, please” as the ideal and does not accept the underlying premise that women don’t want sex, so some version of not-really-consent is the only way to get it.

A discourse about what should be punishable by law and how the law should be enforced is a worthwhile and important one. I have nothing to add to it. What I do want to add is a focus not on what happens after a rape is committed, but what can happen such that fewer rapes are committed at all.

(By the way, I’m aware of the enormous hetero-centricity of this post. This is partially because I am heterosexual and have that bias. It’s also because it’s a post about the discourse on rape, and the discourse on rape is so heavily hetero-centric that I don’t even know how not to be in this case.)

6 thoughts on “What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape

  1. Clarence says:

    Back later when I get more time.
    I just want to applaud for right now. Certainly much more nuanced and intelligent than the usual discourse on this subject.

  2. rowdy mcfarlane says:

    I find it interesting that you cannot talk about rape without bringing up sexually mutilating men, in the case of the Becker incident, a completely innocent man.

    Do you raise the spectre of mutilating women for those that rape or abude children? Why not, I wonder?

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