Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Redefining Rape

Fruition Design
by Lucas Spiegel

The way we define a given word, and more specifically, who does the defining, has an enormous impact on how we think about that word and what it represents. It also dictates the nature of our relationship to the thing or concept the word symbolizes. This could not be more true for the word rape.

The legal definition of rape (in Oregon) is sexual intercourse where "forcible compulsion" is involved. This is pretty basic, right? Someone uses force to have sex with someone else; this more or less mirrors most people's definition.

So what's wrong with this definition? First of all, the definition of sex is limited exclusively to "the insertion of the erect penis into the vagina" (Webster). By this definition gay and lesbian sex do not even exist, period. It takes a complex, multi-dimensional, and primarily subjective experience, and reduces it to a two-part mechanistic exchange. Then, if the element of "forcible compulsion" is introduced, it becomes rape.

In contrast, lets look at the definition of sexual assault taught by Sexual Assault Support Services. "Sexual assault happens when one person abuses their power by acting in a sexual way by crossing another person's boundaries without their permission." This fills in a lot of the gaps left by the legal definition. Rape happens when there is a power imbalance. Rape happens when boundaries are crossed. And rape happens without consent. This is not to say that these are the only criteria, only that they fill gaps left by the legal definition.

So if rape is essentially coercive sex, then we need to examine the extent to which sex is a subjective experience. Contrary to Webster, sex is not limited exclusively to penile/vaginal penetration, or to any kind of penetration for that matter. Some folks have a hard time with this idea, and think that the word sex would be demeaned if it was not reserved to describe acts of sexual penetration. Ask any lesbian if she is incapable of having "sex" without a substitute phallus. This should make it clear how hetero-centric and patriarchal the "penetration definition" is. And if you still insist that sex isn't sex without penetration, then you are just proving that different people have different definitions of what level of intimacy and/or physical acts constitute what is called "sex". The point is not even to expand the number of situations we describe as sex, per se, but rather to point out that sex can only be defined by the person having the experience.

The idea of boundaries is also a very subjective concept A person gets to determine her or his boundaries, and furthermore, those boundaries can change from person to person, and from minute to minute. And the only way to tell that a person's boundaries have been crossed, is that they feel like they've been crossed.

Consent is much more complex than "yes" or "no". One cannot deny consent if, for instance, there are explicit or implicit threats against her or him. One cannot give meaningful consent if she or he is not fully informed. And consent looses even more meaning when it's given by someone taught from birth to be submissive and to give consent (or at least not deny it) even against her own needs and wants. (Especially when giving consent to someone raised to be domineering, demand what he wants and not take "no" for an answer.)

So, if sex is subjective, and boundaries are subjective, then rape is also subjective. It happens when someone feels violated. The standard definition, not coincidentally, standardized by the same patriarchs who have traditionally considered rape a crime against the man who "owns" the victim, takes this subjective experience, holds it up against mechanistic criteria: penis, vagina, force, resistance, and in the eyes of the law, effectively proves that the victim doesn't feel the way she or he feels.

This means that one cannot prove or disprove that a given experience constitutes rape. Furthermore, this means that when we assert that one must prove they were raped to be believed, it only serves to undermine that person's ability to define her or his own experience, further traumatizes the rape survivor, and promotes the continuation of an unsafe environment where abusers, "innocent until proven guilty," can get away with anything.

So how do these definitions affect the way we deal with rape on a societal level? To put this into perspective, consider these statistics which concern our rape culture (from I Never Called It Rape: The Ms. Report).

1 in 4 women surveyed were victims of rape or attempted rape
84% of those raped knew their attacker
Only 27% of women whose sexual assault met the legal definition of rape thought of themselves as rape victims
2,971 college men reported that they had committed 187 rapes, 157 attempted rapes, 327 episodes of sexual coercion, 854 incidents of unwanted contact.
84 % of the men who committed rape said that what they did was definitely not rape.
41 % of the raped women said they expect to be raped again.


About 16% of rapes are reported. Of those, about 62% lead to an arrest.
98% of the victims of rape never see their attacker caught, tried, or imprisoned.
Over half of all rape trials are either dismissed before trial or result in an acquittal.
The very least that we can do is believe wimmin (and men, and children) when they say they've been raped. No, we don't need to know "what happened", and no we don't need to know what the rapist thought he (or she) was doing. We don't need to prove or disprove anything. If someone feels violated, they were violated!

One of the main concerns raised over these ideas was that automatically believing people who say they were raped is too dangerous, because they might be lying. It was even said that the security of the community (from infiltrators/saboteurs) would be compromised by always trusting those who allege abuse. (Of course with no mention of the current "security" of those being raped and abused in our community.) This threat, hypothetically, is legitimate, but no more likely (especially considering that currently, we don't believe survivors) than it is that those who oppose our community's ideals could use rape as a method of systematically intimidating, silencing, dividing and destroying us, individually and communally. And you could also say of this scenario, that yes, we are already doing it to ourselves.

If we "automatically" believe people when they say they were raped, one thing can be guaranteed: that no one who goes through the atrocity of being sexually violated will ever be made to endure even further pain, fear, shame or trauma because of an unsupportive, disbelieving community. This was my primary intention behind the first editorial: to say that if someone claims to feel violated, without being made to justify their emotions, they should be given the emotional and physical support they need to cope with their experience.

As a community, we can do so much to support survivors when they've been violated, counteract the effects of our rape culture, and promote a truly safe environment, without even broaching the topic of what to do with or to alleged abusers – so much that we are not doing.

Many people criticize wimmin for using violent or confrontational tactics against abusers (at least if there's no "proof" of the claims). They might consider the "Dead Men Don't Rape" mentality to be misandrist (man-hating), and divisive. But until we all – men and wimmin alike – are working to end sexual violence, we can't pretend that survivors have many other options. It is the responsibility of us all – especially men – to take action to foster a sexual assault-free environment, and when we don't, it is our "fault" that people must resort to violence and confrontation in their own self defense.

I don't claim to have all of the answers (or any of the answers in a definitive sense), but I do have hope for the future. I hope that someday we can deal with abuse and interpersonal violence in ways that address everyone's needs (when possible). At this point, we don't even come close to having the wisdom, the relational and emotional skills, or the infrastructure to deal with these problems in an effective and functional way – especially without dependence on institutional agencies (i.e., police, hospitals, Services for Children and Families, Cahoots, etc.). But before we can even begin to pursue these solutions, we must all be on the same page. This doesn't mean that we all have to agree on everything, and I certainly hope that we don't! It does mean that we have to be willing to give up the power we wield when we assume the authority to define the experiences of others. It means that we are going to have to deconstruct the ways in which we oppress others and have privilege, and give up that power. It means that we are going to have to take responsibility for our (collective and personal) emotional dysfunction, despite the abusive culture which bred said dysfunction, and commit to a path of healing. Only then can we start to build a genuine community based on mutual aid, cooperation and compassion.

The longer we take the easy way out of our problems, intellectualizing, depersonalizing, and shirking responsibility, the longer those who have no choice but to deal with violence and abuse (primarily women) will be forced to surrender, or take dangerous, violent measures to insure their continued (and relative) safety.

(Note: I've used "he/she" because anyone can rape or be raped. But FYI, perpetrators are about 95% male and victims are about 90% female.)

One step in the right direction that everyone can take is to go through a free volunteer training provided by Sexual Assault Support Services (SASS). Obviously volunteering for SASS is a great step with which to follow the training, but it also provides tools for support friends, family, and community members who are survivors of sexual abuse/assault. To ask questions, or sign up for the next training call SASS at 484-9791. To learn more about SASS see give them a call, or visit their website at sass.willamette.net

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