Rape Isn't Always Rape, Or It Is, Or Whatever
There is something seriously wrong with Nick Ross' argument in Saturday's Daily Mail of the United Kingdom. Unfortunately, few if any are noticing it. He writes
The real experts, the victims, know otherwise. Half of all women who have had penetrative sex unwillingly do not think they were raped, and this proportion rises strongly when the assault involves a boyfriend, or if the woman is drunk or high on drugs: they led him on, they went too far, it wasn’t forcible, they didn’t make themselves clear... For them, rape isn’t always rape and, however upsetting, they feel it is a long way removed from being systematically violated or snatched off the street.
Such stranger attacks – the sort most often reported by the newspapers – make up only a small proportion of rapes that women divulge through surveys.
The assumption is that any woman who chooses not to pursue a claim is being let down by the State or is acting irrationally. But could it be that she is right? What if she feels partly responsible for what happened? What if she realises there is no evidence other than her word against his? What if her life is bound up with that of her assailant? What if she feels humiliated as well as violated?
Should she be expected to disclose all this in public and then put her life on hold for the greater good? Do we want a justice system that overrides the victims’ sense of what is in their own best interests, or one that, in order to accommodate them, ceases to be just?
Salon's Mary Elizabeth Williams notes
Ross’ comments quickly stirred up an inevitable tempest over consent and assault — Sarah Green of End Violence Against Women told the Guardian the remarks were “horrible” and “trotting out the same spurious myths about rape.” And columnist Martin Robbins scoffed at “the myth of the self-guiding penis,” noting that “it allows offenders to abdicate responsibility for their actions, and transfer it to seductive women; it leads people to assume that rape is a crime of passion rather than a cold, premeditated act of psychological manipulation and physical oppression.”
Williams herself claims Ross "insists that 'I’m not saying rape isn’t rape' – except when he says, 'Rape isn’t always rape'.” But hes did not contend that rape is not always rape; rather, that there are women "who have had penetrative sex unwillingly (who) do not think they were raped." He does seem insufficiently perturbed by that, prompting Williams to argue "In other words, if a woman blames herself for her rape, that's just dandy, because ladies are always using their feminine wiles anyway."
Certainly, many of the women "who have had penetrative sex unwillingly do not think they were raped," though their perception makes the reality of the horrific experience no less real. They may, in fact, blame themselves without cause. Were that not the case, all acts of rape would be reported to the authorities when, as Ethan Bronner of the New York Times reported last year, "scholars and practitioners are certain that rape is heavily underreported, especially to the police." Failure to recognize rape as rape sets back the cause of personal liberation- and crime prevention. Acknowledgement of reality- in this case, that many women forcibly sexually assaulted do not report the crime- need not imply acceptance.
If Williams is aghast that Ross believes there are degrees of rape, her argument is less with the British author than with the (U.S.) Federal Bureau of Investigation. Bronner explained
The very term “rape” has such a tortured — many would say ignominious — history that the F.B.I. just this year changed its definition after eight decades, and a number of states have purged their criminal codes of it entirely, referring instead to levels of sexual assault. Many experts now believe that rape is best understood as an act of unwanted bodily invasion that need not involve force.
And it's not only the F.B.I.:
States have been adjusting their definitions of rape for the past 30 years, many moving away from the insistence on evidence of force because most rapes do not result in harm to the woman separate from the act itself. The armed rapist and severely bruised victim, what some have called “real rape” or “legitimate rape,” account for 14 percent of rape cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control study.
Like the word “terrorism,” the word “rape” comes with so much baggage that some are tempted to avoid it. A number of states, including Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and New Jersey, and the federal government no longer refer to rape in their legal codes but rather to degrees of criminal sexual conduct. This was something pressed by feminist lawyers in the 1980s in the hope that by removing a crime from its patriarchal origins, judges and jurors might assess it more like other crimes. It is not clear if the change has had the desired effect.
Bronner wrote, also, "Scott Berkowitz, president of Rape Abuse and Incest National Network, said that stranger rape is more typically reported but that most rape is committed by someone who knows the victim." Bronner's paraphrase of Berkowitz' observation sounds a whole lot like Ross' comment "Such stranger attacks- the sort most often reported by the newspapers- make up only a small proportion of rapes that women divulge through surveys."
If all forms of what is commonly thought of as "rape" were treated in an identical fashion by the court system, either: a) each perpetrator would receive a punitive prison sentence, which would have one heck of an impact on prison overcrowding; or b) all rape, including that by a stranger, would result in nothing more serious than a probation term. If Williams believes either is a viable option, she ought to say so, though one hopes she is far too aware to think that all such acts- and all offenders- are identical.
It's a shame, really, that in response to a truly offensive argument, Williams says only "A woman’s body is not a laptop in the back seat of a car." Ross claims
Rape victims were once treated appallingly, as though it was all their fault, but have we now gone too far the other way? Many of the victims seem to think we have. The main argument of my book is this: we can aggravate crime by tempting fate, and we curb it by playing safe.
We have come to acknowledge it is foolish to leave laptops on the back seat of a car. We would laugh at a bank that stored sacks of cash by the front door. We would be aghast if an airport badly skimped on its security measures.
Well, yes, it is foolish- not illegal- to leave a laptop on the back seat of a car, though one suspects that such a careless action (actually, inaction) is actually more common than rape. But consider this scenario: You, your immediate family, and your close friends, all of whom desire an upgraded model of a laptop computer, happen by an automobile with one in view in the backseat. There is no police officer anywhere in sight to suggest that a theft would be stymied.
Do you, your loved ones, or your acquaintances with values approximating yours, swipe the laptop computer? Of course not. Others may, but only because in a large, random group of individuals, someone is going to be sufficiently malicious, bordering on evil, to enter another person's property and commit a theft.
And if it was you who thoughtlessly (not criminally- thoughtlessly) left a laptop on the back seat, do you deserve to have it stolen in what is clearly and legally a criminal act? If you think so, please seek professional help. Victims of crime, whether of rape, theft, burglary, or other illegal acts, are not responsible for the crime. The offender is, a simple concept both Nick Ross and Mary Elizabeth Williams, each in his/her own distinct way, are struggling with.