Terrible Ways We Talk About Rape

In no particular order, a few of the most wrong-headed and damaging tropes.

1) Rape is like theft

This is one of the most insulting and most insidious analogies; I’ve caught myself using it . “A man carrying cash in a bad neighborhood would only be prudent to lock it in his car.”

No analogy is perfectly symmetrical with its analogue, but rape-theft comparison fails so obscenely because women’s bodies are not merchandise. Her body is not detachable from her–it is her self, her person. Her body is not the good china, to be locked up safely and displayed at appropriate times. Rapists do not steal sex or take from women–they attack and violate the woman herself.

When we say, “Here are the proper times, places, and protocols for being openly female in public” when we treat these restrictions as a legitimate and obvious solution to the evil of rape, we are effectively saying “Women are not for public space and public space is not for women.”

Of course, the word rape comes from rapere, which often means to snatch or pillage. For much of human history, the crime of rape has been construed as a sub-species of theft: theft of virtue, theft of marriage prospects, theft of a daughter or wife from her rightful owner. The current rape as theft discourse might associate the ownership and right of disposal of female bodies with the women in question, but idea that woman is a tradeable and alienable asset remains.

A consent based model for rape rejects the female body as commodity. Under this model, promiscuous women can be raped, sleeping women can be raped, women who give and then withdraw consent after penetration can be raped, because the fundamental premise of this model is that women are sexual agents and full human subjects, whose agency and subjectivity must be acknowledged and respected not only by   individual men, but by the law and culture at large.

Comparing women’s bodies to diamonds, Rolexes, and other luxury goods objectifies women and obscures what rape is: a deliberate assault on the victim’s personhood. It actively perpetuates rape culture by encouraging us to think of woman’s bodies as possessions of which women are the putative caretakers, rather than embodied human subjects.

2) Rape is like swimming with sharks

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: “If you get raped, it’s not your fault, and if you go swimming with sharks and get eaten, it’s not your fault. But you can make a choice to be there in the first place.”

But sharks are animals with sub-rational biological instincts, and rapists are people who consciously choose to violate other human beings. They are not another species that we can simply avoid, and their behavior is not fixed and pre-determined. Our social spaces are not oceans that must always contain some element of lurking Silurian terror; they are groups of rational humans in which predatory men can hide and flourish precisely due to the assumption that their behavior is inevitable, that the community cannot really be complicit in their lack of accountability, and that the only viable option left is to re-shape female behavior around a certain level of mandatory predation. The people who benefit most from rhetoric that casts rapists as sharks are…rapists.

3) Rape is like riding a motorcycle

“You can engage in risky behavior like promiscuous sex or binge drinking, as long as you’re aware of and comfortable with the risk of rape.”

Here are some obvious risks of binge drinking: a hangover, developing alcoholism, making  a complete ass of yourself via text, serious physical injury if you fall down stairs or off balconies. Here are some risks of promiscuous sex: venereal disease, unplanned pregnancy, wasted nights on terrible lovers. Getting raped is not a risk attendant on either of these activities per se. There is zero risk of rape attached to any of these pursuits until someone decides that he’s going to attack you.

Rapists, funnily enough, tend to disproportionately exploit social situations in the aftermath of which they will be handed maximum cover; not only “Well, she was drunk, are we sure she’s reliable?” or, “Well, she was making out with him and banging a different guy last night, are we sure she didn’t want it?” but “Rape! it’s so terrible! If only we could get women to drink less! Alas, and alack, when will women start being more careful!” Rapists are handed a discourse that immediately shifts the focus away from their actions, a narrative that casts rape as a terrible, unfortunate accident, an unsafe situation that got a little out of control, and for which there was probably some contributory negligence.

This rhetoric is used to prop up rape culture in deliberate and devastating ways. At my college, sexual assault has been an unchecked rampage for so long because smooth-tongued fraternity social chairs were adept at convincing administration and trustees that sexual assault numbers were misleading, that they were regrettable incidents that stemmed from freshman girls unable to hold their liquor at dorm parties. The school doesn’t have a rape problem, they told those in power, it has a drinking problem.

This isn’t an exhaustive list of all the terrible ways we talk about rape, just the ones most common among basically well intentioned people–that do terrible work and smuggle in terrible ideas without ever directly saying “you asked for it.”


3 thoughts on “Terrible Ways We Talk About Rape

  1. One thought on point 1: It seems to me that looking at theft primarily in terms of loss of property misses the primary upsetting aspect of the crime. Yes, when one experiences theft, there’s a lack of property, but the really upsetting thing is the sense of attack or violation.

    To draw on a trivial example: A few weeks ago my four year old son managed to accidentally shatter the car rear windshield. It was the sort of freak accident where one couldn’t even blame him for what he was doing all that much. As soon as I saw it, I knew that I was out a couple hundred dollars, and that I had to hurry to get it fixed before a trip, but it wasn’t upsetting in a personal sense. I just thought, “Well, that happened.”

    By comparison, on a couple of occasions I’ve had cars broken into and various things stolen from them. The cost of the damage was pretty similar (replacing a shattered window and a very cheap stolen stereo) but the personal experience was entirely different. Someone had smashed my window, climbed in my car, stolen my things. The experience was similar when the apartment we lived in when I was growing up was broken into and robbed. One didn’t feel safe for days, even in one’s own home. The loss of the VCR was nothing by comparison.

    I would imagine that being robbed face to face by an assailant would be like this only much more so. There instead of simply finding one’s possessions stolen, in that case one is forced under threat of violence to hand them over. So again, I would think that the really upsetting thing is not the loss of possessions, however much one may like them, but the personal violation of having them taken.

    That’s not to say that it’s the same as rape. While being robbed may mean experiencing a violation, the violation is clearly vastly less personal. But, FWIW, I don’t think the analogy is necessarily suggesting that women are like possessions so much as pointing to a lesser form of personal violation and comparing it to a far more severe form.

    • Well, all crime is some kind of violation insofar as it is a tearing of the social fabric, right?

      Where I disagree with you is here

      “I don’t think the analogy is necessarily suggesting that women are like possessions so much as pointing to a lesser form of personal violation and comparing it to a far more severe form.”

      I don’t think we’re talking about degree of difference here, I think we’re talking about entirely different kinds of crimes. As much as theft, and violent theft, might feel violating, as much as it would be traumatic, it is not in fact a violation of the person–not only in the same degree, but in the same way rape is.

      This chasm is so deep, I think, that to try to compare the two crimes does in fact end up suggesting women are possessions, although that might not be the intent of the speaker.

  2. Especially because in theft there is a sort of mediating object–there is something to be gained, to which the gaining of the violence involved is incidental (of course, theft can coincide with crimes like rape, so it’s not like they must always be temporally separate even though they are different crimes.) Rape is not like that, which is why people who say it’s about lust and objectification are so far off. Even the most lustful objectifier who treats women as things to be used is on a different plane than the rapist who likes hurting or subjugating women–who sees them not as things to be used, but people to be degraded and devastated.

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