Sunday, June 24, 2012

What's wrong with "Don't rape"

This post is about why I don't like this sign:

Trigger warning: A detailed discussion of rape and morality to follow.

Maybe you've seen it making the rounds on Facebook or Tumblr. It's popped up for me a few times, and each time I cringe, but don't comment to explain why because I'm afraid that my comments will be interpreted to suggest that I disagree with it. I don't, but I need to some room to say what my problem with it is.

First, I get what the sign (and the person holding it, though I have no idea who she is) is trying to say. The ever-present concern with advising women on how to protect themselves from being raped is that you run the risk of treating rape like a natural disaster. Like some act of God (no, I'm not going to delve too deeply into that) that is just going to happen, no matter what we do, but here are some measures you can take to make it less likely to happen to you. Like rape is a thing that happens; it's not a thing that some people do to other people. That's a really bad way to portray it, because it removes the agency from the rapists. If you hear someone complaining about blaming the victim, that's what she's talking about-- all responsibility for a rape belongs on the rapist, and there are a lot of ways, some of them bizarrely well-intentioned, that end up placing at least some of it on the victim instead. She shouldn't have been out drinking late. She shouldn't have been so easy with other guys. She shouldn't have allowed that guy to take her home instead of her boyfriend. He or she shouldn't have committed a crime and gotten sent to prison-- prison rape is a phenomenon that is often celebrated for males and ignored for females, and I'm not sure which is worse. Even for people who are rapists themselves-- there were "jokes" flying around on Friday about Jerry Sandusky's fate in prison after being convicted of child abuse, and also attempts to shame those making the jokes. The shamers understood that if you are willing to excuse rape under any circumstance, even or especially to laugh about it happening to someone who committed it himself, you detract from the seriousness of rape against every victim. You add a little bit of credibility to the claim that any of them deserved it, and that is unacceptable.

That's clear and simple, or at least it should be. I prefer things to be clear and simple, as most people do. I favor simplicity to the extent that I think if you can't explain something simply you probably don't really understand it yourself, which is not a predominant view in academia but it does explain why my dissertation was short. So you'd think I would be a big fan of the sign above, but I can't be, because this is a case in which ambiguity is really important. Ambiguity should always be cut out of the picture except when you can't, and I think this is a time when you can't. Here's why:

Rapists don't always know they're rapists. So telling them "Don't rape" will not work, because they don't realize it applies to them. 

Yes, really. In order to unpack that I'm going to need to compare rape to murder, but I hope it's clear in which regards I think they're similar and in which I think they are different. See, murder is wrongful killing. The dictionary says it's illegal killing, but you and I both know that murder would still be murder even if it wasn't against the law. We know what abortion foes are talking about when they call abortion murder, even if we don't agree with them. We know what PETA means when it says that people who wear fur or eat meat are accessories to murder, even if we do one or both ourselves. Killing, however, is not always wrong and even abortion foes and PETA are aware of that. The same people who oppose abortion are often just fine with soldiers killing each other on the battlefield or being sent to the electric chair after receiving a death sentence, and they generally would not say no to a big juicy steak if you set one in front of them. The same people who refuse the steak, oppose all war, and regard the death penalty as abhorrent likely see nothing wrong with pulling the plug on someone in a persistent and final vegetative state, mentally. Possibly they would also regard it as acceptable to allow a person in constant pain with no solutions to end his or her life, though the war-mongering meat-eating abortion opponent might shriek in protest. Killing is not necessarily wrong. 

Sex is also not necessarily wrong-- you're probably not enjoying the fact that I feel compelled to point this out, because sex should never be wrong. But sex with a child is wrong, and sex with an adult unwilling partner is wrong. It's so wrong that a lot of opponents of both of these things want to claim that it's not even sex, because it's not "about" sexual desire. It's about power, they say. I get why they say that, and I think it goes to the heart of what's so wrong about sex without consent-- it robs the victim of his/her ability to have control over his/her own body. It takes that control away, and places it squarely in the hands of the rapist. It makes the victim's body simply a tool for the rapist to use, and in doing so the rapist utterly dehumanizes his/her victim. The rapist renders him/her a non-person, and the victim has to live with the fact of having experienced that for the rest of his/her life. Even if the victim can't comprehend it at the time of the event, he/she will have this knowledge later. That's why it's wrong, even if the experience involves no physical damage or overt threat of such. That's why it's still rape even if the victim doesn't emerge bruised and bloody, or was fourteen years old and not six. That's why consent matters. 

I apologize for saying what probably seems blatantly obvious, and you may think I'm insulting your intelligence just now. If that's the case I really am sorry, but the fact remains that it's not obvious to everyone. It's not obvious to people who compare sex between people of the same gender to sex between an adult and a child or an adult and an animal, and it's not obvious to rapists. Yes, they might get what's wrong with leaping out of a dark alley and attacking some woman walking by, but that's not how most rapes happen. Most rapes are called "acquaintance rapes" because they happen between people who know each other. People who have spent time together before, know each other's names, may have even expressed an interest in dating. I don't think that the men (usually men) in these situations who force sex on a woman generally think that what they're doing is rape. They think it's "rough sex," or not even that-- that the woman who said no, or was unconscious or very drunk at the time, or was underage but seemed like she wanted it, and had had sex before, was either a willing partner or a partner who didn't need to be willing. And they apparently think this a lot:
If a survey asks men, for example, if they ever “had sexual intercourse with somone, even though they did not want to, because they were too intoxicated (on alcohol or drugs) to resist your sexual advances,” some of them will say yes, as long as the questions don’t use the “R” word. . . 
The men in your lives will tell you what they do. As long as the R word doesn’t get attached, rapists do self-report. The guy who says he sees a woman too drunk to know where she is as an opportunity is not joking. He’s telling you how he sees it. The guy who says, “bros before hos”, is asking you to make a pact. 
The Pact. The social structure that allows the predators to hide in plain sight, to sit at the bar at the same table with everyone, take a target home, rape her, and stay in the same social circle because she can’t or won’t tell anyone, or because nobody does anything if she does. The pact to make excuses, to look for mitigation, to patch things over — to believe that what happens to our friends — what our friends do to our friends — is not (using Whoopi Goldberg’s pathetic apologetics) “rape-rape”. 
So the solution, as I see it, is not to say "Don't rape." Or rather, not to say just that. You absolutely have to say what rape is and what's wrong with it as well, because some people really don't know. And you have to say it often, and have to say it to your friends. You have to say it so that they don't have a Pact, and don't operate under the illusion that they do. It isn't good enough to simply hate rapists and publicly wish for every horrible thing you can think of (including rape) to happen to them-- that's allowing the most obvious and acknowledged perpetrators of sexual violence to act as scapegoats for the rest, for the "accidental" rapists. It's actually disturbing rather than touching to see explicit declarations of how much someone would like to punish a convicted rapist, especially a child molester, when they come from men who generally seem to regard women's sexual consent...loosely. It suggests that their regard is more for women and children's "innocence" than their autonomy. Hint: rape isn't bad because it leaves a person tainted. It's bad because he/she didn't choose it. Yes, being raped can certainly make a person feel tainted, but that's an artifact of both his/her control having been taken away and the bizarre, sad cultural construct of sexual purity which says that sex-- especially virginity-removing sex-- somehow permanently changes a person, usually a woman, into something...lesser. Something worldly, and therefore a little more profane and a little less sacred. Sex is necessary according to this thinking because we can't make the babies without it (yet), but it lowers a person-- especially if they have a lot of it, or enjoy it too much, or have no intention of making babies using it, ever. This is called puritanism, and it's the friend of pastor and pornographer alike.

But I digress. Point being...we can't just say "Don't rape." We may not be able to stop it altogether, like we're not going to stop murder, but we can do a lot more toward that end by articulating what it is, why it's wrong, and not accommodating the thinking that enables it.


  1. Strong insights, but I think it's unfortunate that you have to qualify so much of what you say to head off faulty assumptions people might make about you and your views. The nature of the intertubes, I guess, but it does bother me that someone would read a post that clearly shows that the poster is a very thoughtful person, but they presume the poster is an idiot who has hasn't had even the most elementary insights into the subject at hand, so then you have lace the post with apologies and caveats to head off those who don't read in good faith.

    One thing I really enjoy about talking with my friends is that we don't need to apologize and head off unwarranted assumptions about our intellectual ignorance or moral failure. The caveats would derail us on the way to what we're more deeply interested in exploring together.

    Okay, this was more of a process comment than a content comment. The content is more than worthwhile, but process interests me as much as content. Hope you don't mind.

  2. The places to lose attention on this subject are numerous, and they open up like sinkholes after a flood. I think it's worth potentially treating the reader like an idiot (sorry, reader) if I can manage to keep some people on board who really don't see room for ambiguity, whether they're with me or against me. So long as there are people who deny that rape has anything to do with sex and people who deny that sex can be rape up to the point of involving a gun aimed at the head of a toddler, it's important to cast the net as widely as possible. But no, I don't mind at all if you prefer to comment on the process over the content. :-)

  3. "The places to lose attention on this subject are numerous, and they open up like sinkholes after a flood."

    Metaphor filed for future use.