Tuesday, October 16, 2007

On "Accidental Rape"

One of the comments that came up in Jill's post about rape and power was the point that rapists always know that they're raping. Several people pointed out that "rape is never an accident." There was also the suggestion that rapists always know what they're doing- or, to reword it slightly, rapists know that they're rapists- they don't rape without knowing that they're raping. Personally, I'm really not completely convinced of this.

One of the reasons that I advocate a shift in the ways that we think about sex is precisely because I think that the current model leads to rape. Right now, we're taught to think about sex as thing- largely a thing that men want and women have. Under this model, sex is often seen as a conquest- you're victorious if you have sex. This, I think, is at least partially responsible for some of the ways that people pursue sex- this is why people think it's okay to lie in the pursuit of sex, or why people think that it's okay to get someone drunk and "take advantage of them."

I'm going to try to find the stats, but I remember reading that surveys have shown that there's a divide between what people say and what they believe surrounding sex and rape. Most people will, if you ask them, agree that rape is wrong. But, when you start asking about specific situations, you start to see a divide form. There are many people who firmly believe that a situation is only rape if it meets all or most of the following:
The attacker is unknown to the victim.
The victim explicitly says "no".
The attacker threatens the victim with a weapon of some kind.
The attacker beats/chokes/strikes the victim.
The victim fights back, but is overpowered by the attacker.
The attacker penetrates the victim.

And, certainly, those are sufficient conditions to consider an attack a rape, but are the necessary? I think that many of us can agree that the first condition isn't necessary at all, given that most rapes are apparently perpetrated by someone the victim knows.

The fact is, there's not widespread agreement about where we draw the line regarding rape. I think the line ought to be obvious- but, unfortunately, that doesn't make it so.

I think that SarahMC was the first to mention rapists knowing whether or not they're rapists:

Even if women aren’t able to say “no” or get away for whatever reason, you’d think the fact that they freeze up and aren’t active/enthusiastic during the act would give these oh-so-innocent men pause. If your partner fucking freezes while you go to town on her body, it may be because you are raping her.

No, I totally agree with this- if you're with someone, and that person is giving you anything less than enthusiastic consent, you ought to check in and find out what is going on, because it could be the case that the other person is not on-board with what is happening. If you don't, you very might be raping that person.

So, yeah, these sorts of people- the sort of person who doesn't really care whether his/her partner is particularly enthusiastic and interested in the sex- the sort of person who sees the other person as a means to getting off? They're not exactly innocent. I think that the analysis that these sorts of people just don't care is right on. They don't care about the other person's feelings particularly.

Which is not quite the same as saying that they realize that they're rapists. It's possible to be a shitty, selfish human being without being a criminal. It's entirely possible- and, given the skewed model of human sexual relations that I think our society embraces, not particularly surprising- that some people who rape think that they're just participating in typical sexual behavior. When you have a conquest model of sex that you're working from, "taking advantage" of someone who is drunk and passing in and out of awareness doesn't parse as rape, because that person hasn't told you "no."

See, part of the problem is with the way many people read consent. For some people, consent isn't an affirmation, it's lack of a negation. In other words, some people think that it's only rape if the other person actually says "no" in a forceful way. If the other person is drunk and passing out, well... you can't say "no" if you're passed out, so it's not really rape.

Do they think that they're being nice?

Oh, absolutely not. But, they see sex as a struggle- a conquest- a thing to be taken from another through almost any means. They see the drunk victim as a person whose guard has been dropped, and is no longer capable of denying them access.

So, in that way, yes, I think that there are people who are rapists who simply don't realize that's what they are. I think that they probably think that they're just participating in typical sexual behavior. No, they don't care about their victim's feelings.

That's why I think it's so vital that we reframe the nature of consent and the ways that we view sex. If there's as much misunderstanding of consent as I think there is, we need to get people on the same page. We need to make it clear that lack of resistence is not the same as consent- consent is consent. We need to make it absolutely clear that, if you engage in sex with someone who is not giving you enthusiastic, affirmative consent, you might be raping that person.

Sarah reall nails another important part of this idea in her response on that thread:

As for the issue of whether or not the rapist knows they are raping in these cases, I would argue that they may not label the action as rape themselves and then justify the action to themselves because they feel entitled to their victims’ bodies.

I think our culture is so caught up with the idea that rapists are only strangers who jump out of trees and brutalize their victims in ways beyond the rape, that recognition of what rape actually is in most circomstances is often both unknown by both the rapist and the victim. If there was a pre-established relationship or freindship, the victim does not always recognize it is rape and blames herself. I’d argue the same could be true for the rapist, given the pre-established relationship, as well as our cultural misogynistic attitudes towards women’s bodies, a rapist may be convinced he is ENTITLED to her body.

And I honestly believe that education and changing the ways that we view sex are the best ways we have to change that.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post Roy. I've been struggling with these issues for many years and I think if both men and women took a closer look at many of their sexual encounters they'd realize they come a lot closer to rape than they thought.

I don't believe in the idea of "gray rape", because rape is rape but I think often times people engage in sexual behaviour without getting or giving consent and then feel shitty about it and don't know why. They don't even think to use the term rape, or avoid the term because it's so scary.

I've certainly been in a few sexual situations where I didn't say no but felt horrible about the experience during and after. I tell myself it wasn't rape because I really don't think the men in question knew they were doing something wrong. I think for a lot of men, sex is something they DO TO women, not something they HAVE WITH women, but not because they are evil, because that's how they were raised and they never questioned it.

Great... now I'm depressed. I should really stop reading your blog because it is so often depressing. =/

Roy said...

Aw, please don't stop reading- I need good comments like this.

Maybe the problem is that I need to point out some positive stuff once in a while. I do tend to be a bit of a cynic, so I guess I might focus more on the things that make me angry or upset than the things that make me happy.

I think you're absolutely spot-on, by the by: There's no such thing as gray rape. If someone has been raped, the attacker's knowing or not knowing doesn't change whether it was a rape or not- it might be a mitigating factor with regards to how that person is punished, but it doesn't change what happened to the victim.

Jaclyn said...

I'm all for that, Roy. Maybe you could start an "Awesome Thing of the Week" feature?

Roy said...

Hey, that's a great idea. I'm totally going to steal... er... borrow that idea. =)

baby221 said...

Oh good, because you wouldn't want it to be a "theft of services" right? :p

Anyway. This is about the fourth blog I've seen this topic come up on ... I'm starting to think I should write a post on it myself, but I just can't bring myself to do it. It's too close. I believe you read that one protected post ... that's where I lose the trail between "rape is always rape" and "rapists always know they're rapists." It's what makes me believe in "gray rape," or at least believe that there is a possibility that what happens may not always be enthusiastically consensual without being rape. It's just that I feel that what happened in my situation, to call it rape, is demeaning to other women who have experienced rape.

...and I'm starting to write a post in your comments, so I'll just cut it off there.

Jaclyn said...

I gotta say, as a woman who's experienced rape, I don't consider anyone who describes a nonconsensual sexual experience as rape "demeaning." Let's not play hierarchies of suffering/oppression -- let's talk about the things we have in common and act from those places. If you and I have rape in common, even if our rapists used different tactics, I want to know about it. You're not going to make my experience less important by describing your own.

Torri~ said...

there is a weird cultural area to this. I remember watching the first episode of Torchwood and being horrified at one segment where a member of the team goes out to a bar and tries to talk up a woman, she tells him to get lost and he then uses some kind of alien mouth spray to make himself irresistible and she starts hanging all over him. I'm horrified to find my mum and dad laughing at this and I try to explain that he's going to be raping her and that really shouldn't be funny. A little later the woman's boyfriend meets him on the way back to his place and he also uses the mouth spary to avoid being beaten up by him and takes the boyfriend along with them back to wherever he was taking them to have his way.
ever since then I have been unable to form any attachment to that character and am horrified whenever I hear someone likes him

Anonymous said...

Torri - I haven't seen Torchwood but there are plenty of shows/books/movies with characters like this who do inappropriate things, sometimes even criminal things and it's played for laughs. This is all part of the same problem that Roy brought up, the fact that we live in a rape culture that excuses rape and sees it as no big deal.
It's exactly those types of things that make women like me feel like the things we've gone through aren't worthy of being called rape, because our society excuses and even celebrates them.

Also thank you to baby221 because that's exactly how I've often felt about my own experiences and thank you to jaclyn for helping me to see that I don't need permission from other victims to feel violated.

Shit, I'm actually starting to cry. Must stop reading this blog when I'm at work!

Anonymous said...

Am I a coward for posting under "anonymous"? I usually use my real name when posting here...

Roy said...

Am I a coward for posting under "anonymous"? I usually use my real name when posting here...

Absolutely not. I'm certainly not passing judgement on anyone's choice to use or not use their names. I want everyone to feel comfortable posting here, and if you're not comfortable using a particular name, I totally respect that.

Cara said...

I agree with you, Roy, that not all rapists know they're rapists. And I think that you and I agree that just because they don't realize they're rapists doesn't mean that they aren't rapists. They are.

baby221, I think that you may be confusing the two. A man not realizing that he is raping a woman, but thinking that having sex with a woman who has said "no," is passed out, or who has not said yes, but hey we making out so she won't mind me sticking it in, is normal behavior doesn't make it not rape. It also doesn't make the man who doesn't know what he's doing not a rapist. He is. And it's not gray rape, it's a woman being raped by a man who is an asshole who doesn't understand personal boundaries or care about anyone other than himself. Does that make him "not as bad" as men who actively go out and drug women for the purpose of raping them? That's subjective, I suppose. But they are both rapists.

baby221 said...

Jaclyn, thank you -- it's just that, well, I don't really feel violated. More like, annoyed. That's why I don't really feel comfortable calling it rape; I don't want anyone to be able to point at my experience and extrapolate from it something outrageous like "see, it's not as bad as those hairy feminists say it is" or someshit. That, and the circumstances around what happened ... well, given that he was drunk and I was sober, I have to wonder whether I'm actually the rapist. Which is not a comfortable thought.

Cara -- yeah, I agree with you that a guy like that is a rapist, even if he's not "as bad as" some other kind of rapist.

I just ... have a lot of issues around this, because again of what I've experienced. It's just difficult, and I don't think that saying that I raped him or that he raped me is getting the full story.

humbition said...

Based on my ongoing study and thought about these issues I am becoming more and more sympathetic with the "rapists always know" argument. I don't think rape is accidental, or miscommunication. I think that "protocol" approaches to consent education, that emphasize the "getting" of (often specifically) verbal consent at various points in courtship, actually have made it harder to see this point or to make it.

The "protocol" ideas of consent, which featured in some very well-intentioned anti-rape education, actually seem to me to presuppose the idea that well-intentioned persons can accidentally rape by "misreading signals." But in nearly every case of rape or date rape or so-called "gray" rape that one reads -- and in a couple of years of reading feminist blogs, for example, one can come across many indeed -- the "signals" in question should be obvious to anyone. I should think that even a five year old generally knows when a playmate doesn't want to play with her or him, at a particular moment.

I have taught nonverbal communication as a subject. It is not this second-best, unreliable thing. It is more highly developed in humans than in apes, for example; which wouldn't be the case if verbal language simply replaced it. Nonverbal communication is foundational for how people interact socially (which is why disabilities which make it harder to understand it are real disabilities; but people with those disabilities are not monsters or potential criminals either). Now, that's not to say that explicit verbal consent is a bad thing; of course it isn't.

But in just about every example one reads the issue seems really to come down to indifference to whether consent exists, as a real human reality among two people (not a construct or protocol). Not lack of knowledge or misunderstanding or bad interpretation, but active indifference. Indifference to whether the other person wants to do what you do, to whether you are actually playing "together." I think that people who do this are not engaged in the same "game" as people engaged in normal flirting/ courtship. To me it makes a kind of sense to say it is about power and not sex, because to me sex intrinsically means something which is a mutual and pleasurable co-creation. And I think that for most people, men and women, this is what they actively seek and desire as sex. I do not pretend to understand the motivations of the other thing, and the word "power" is not really very transparent either. Maybe it comes to some kind of "victory" model as you argue, although you could also have a life-affirming "victory" model in which what made you "win" was a positive interaction with the other person.