Originally published in the Oxford-based intersectional feminist print zine, Cuntry Living in February 2014.
First, a definition: “rape involves the non-consensual intentional penetration of the vagina, anus or mouth of the victim with the perpetrator’s penis.” Non-consensual means the absence of consent which is not “affirmative (not the absence of a no but the presences of a yes); active (silence is not consent, and mere participation may not be consent); freely given (not something you can be pressured into giving); [and revocable] at any time [during].” Finally, and crucially, it must be remembered that “people can’t give consent if they’re unconscious or incapacitated by drugs or alcohol.”
This is the legal definition of rape.
But ask people to think of what rape means to them. Ask them, just for a moment, to picture it. I would hazard a guess that it would look something like the following: a woman, possibly walking home alone, possibly at night, is violently set upon by a suspicious-looking male. She is dragged into an alley, or maybe the woods, physically overpowered, and then forcibly penetrated.
Variations on the theme undoubtedly exist. For some, date rape might spring to mind. For others, gang rape. I would argue that violence – mark-leaving, bruising, scarring violence – would remain a constant.
When people decry rape, it is, I think, against this model they are often reacting – the Delhi gang rape of December 2012, or the Oxford sex abuse ring convicted in 2013 are two recent examples. Their reaction is vehement, their rhetoric hateful, and their intentions are supposedly good. But this model, which I will call the “rape paradigm” hereafter, is dangerous, aiding none but the rapists themselves.
Women are silenced when their rape doesn’t fit the paradigm, a contributing factor in why only 15% of rapes are reported. Their rape wasn’t violent enough. They haven’t got the bruises. It was someone they knew, not a “weirdo”. It might have been someone they’d flirted with. They didn’t fight hard enough. They were wearing something too revealing. They’d been drinking. Essentially, their rape was inadequate. It wasn’t “real” rape.
More insidiously, the violent rhetoric used against rapists Others them. Rapists are “monsters”, “psychopaths” and “weirdos”. They are different from us. They are worse than us. That they live amongst us and that they might well seem like “nice guys” creates an incongruity with the notion of the paradigmatic rapist that stops people identifying or reporting assaults. Around 90% of rape victims, male or female, know their attacker. All too often, though, the thought process among victims or others in that milieu is, “What?! _____?! Of course he’s not a fucking rapist! He’s a nice guy! He’s never violent!” When the image of the rapist is the suspicious Other, the identification of anyone in one’s environment becomes a near impossibility.
Society thinks it is anti-rape, when in fact, it is only anti-paradigmatic rape. Moreover, it thinks it is doing the right thing in railing so vehemently against high-profile, paradigmatic rapists. Yet this confidence in its own morality renders society less likely to reconsider its own position, to reconsider how prevalent rape might actually be, and to reconsider the boundaries of what constitutes sexual violence. Keeping rape paradigmatic, that is, extreme, successfully keeps it at arm’s length. “What rape culture?” society curiously asks itself, allowing sexual violence to continue proliferating.
The more extreme the archetypal example of an act that society holds in mind, the more permissive the environment it creates for less obviously severe (though not less emotionally severe – that’s the survivor’s call, not mine) manifestations of the act.
The extremity and narrowness of what we conceive of rape (and sexual violence more broadly) as being, creates an ideal space for it to take place, while simultaneously convincing us we are already hostile to it and fighting against it, consequently stopping the possibility of any real change.
The solution isn’t hierarchizing rape, as is so often discussed. It’s exploding the rape paradigm, and providing the public with the definition of rape as it stands in law. Information and education will allow the sheer extent of rape and sexual violence begin to be realised, and consequently confronted.
Only then will women be able to use the word “rape” about their experiences, without fear of inadequacy or illegitimacy. Only then will rapists who don’t fit the paradigm of the monstrous Other cease to be invisible. And only then will society realise the limitations and incompleteness of what it had railed against, and be able to comprehensively reform itself.
If, that is, the will to reform is really there at all.
The original formatted article can be read here.