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.”