Thursday, March 19, 2015

Feminism 101: Rape

Because the subject matter of this post is horrifying, I will give you cute animals to look at. Image source.
Feminism 101 is a series in which I define some of the terms that feminists like to throw around. My goal is to help those who are totally new to feminism understand what it's all about.

trigger warning: rape

Rape is one of the biggest issues talked about in feminism, because it is so common, and it is so rare for society and the justice system to do justice by punishing the rapist and helping the victim.

RAINN reports that 1 in 6 American women and 1 in 33 American men have been victims of rape or attempted rape. 68% of sexual assaults are never reported to the police, and victims who do report are often re-victimized, as people continuously question whether they're lying, whether it was really rape, whether it was their own fault.

So why is it that, though everyone would agree that "rape is a horrible crime!" in reality victims get treated badly and we have all these statistics about how scary common rape is? It's because of a misunderstanding of the definition of rape.

It is widely believed that "Person A was raped" means "Person A was forced to have sex." This is the definition I used to hold, and this is what purity culture believes.

However, in feminism, we would say "Person B raped Person A" means "Person A did not want to have sex, but Person B had sex with them anyway."

(Actually, these definitions could be expanded to include other unwanted sexual actions. Also, some feminists would argue that rape is not sex; instead, it is using sex as a weapon, a way to hold power over another person. Maybe we should say "did sex to them" instead of "had sex with them.")

These two definitions are worlds apart. In the first one, the focus is on whether or not the victim was "forced." Forced? What does that mean? Surely it means that Person B was physically holding Person A down and there was literally no way out. Also, wait, why was Person A in that situation anyway? Could they have avoided the whole thing by taking some precautions, like don't go out at night, don't get drunk, etc? Was it really forced?

This line of thinking examines the victim's actions to determine if there was something the victim could have or should have done differently, and then concludes that maybe it wasn't really rape. After all, the victim made choices that led up to it. (It seems as though anything other than "a masked man jumps out of the bushes" can be blamed on the victim's choices.)

(And technically, it's true- if Person A had done something differently, they wouldn't have been at that particular place at that particular time, giving a rapist an opportunity. But that doesn't mean Person A deserved it, that doesn't mean it wasn't a rape, that doesn't mean that whichever actions Person A had taken were self-evidently risky at the time. And usually when people bring up anything along these lines, it's because they want to blame the victim or somehow justify the rape. So don't do it. The victim's previous actions do not matter. All that matters is whether they consented to this specific sexual action. That's it.)

This conclusion is, of course, horrific. But it follows logically from the definition of rape as being forced to have sex.

Let's look at the other definition, which says you have raped someone if you had sex with them when they didn't want to have sex. THIS IS A COMPLETELY DIFFERENT THING. Now the focus is on whether or not Person B checked if Person A wanted to have sex. It doesn't matter what the victim's previous actions were, all that matters is that they did not give consent, and someone made a choice to have sex with them anyway. (Again, it's not really "having sex", it's using sex to take advantage of someone, to hurt someone.)

When viewed this way, the focus is on the rapist's choices. Oh goodness, what a horrible thing, to choose to have sex with someone when you know they don't want it. (Or when you don't know whether they want it or not. Horrible.)

That's the definition of rape. It's that simple. Does this person want to have sex with you right now, or not? Did they consent or not? (And of course, as all the other feminists will tell you: Being drunk is not consent. Silence is not consent. "Not right now" is not consent. Being unconscious is not consent. Having had sex with you in the past is not consent.)

But too many people are working from the other definition, which says a victim is only a victim if they were forced, thus requiring us to analyze every point at which the victim had a choice, to see if they ever took a step which helped to bring about a situation where someone could rape them.

Image source.

trigger warning: yeah, all the trigger warnings about rape and rape culture for this story, it's pretty awful

Years ago, back when I was first learning what feminism was, I was reading a blog post on a feminist blog, where the writer was telling us about a totally terrible blog post she read about a rape. (Because this is getting complicated, and I don't actually remember where I read this, I'll give them names. Alicia and Dave.) So Alicia, who writes a feminist blog, stumbled across a post by Dave, and she became so angry because it's a post about how he raped someone.

Here's how it went: A woman was flirting with Dave's friend at a bar, and she ended up telling the friend where she lived and inviting him to come over later. Friend wasn't really interested, so Dave decided to show up at her apartment instead. She told him to go away, but he didn't. He stayed outside her door, until eventually he was able to force his way into the apartment. She told him to go away. He didn't. A lot of time passed, with Dave continuing to not leave when she clearly wanted him to leave. He even forcibly kissed her, and she didn't try to stop him. Finally she was like, okay fine. She agreed to have sex with him. And they did, and then he finally left.

And Alicia is writing this post, about how she cannot believe what an awful person Dave is, raping someone and then writing about it on his blog as if it was some kind of accomplishment.

And here's me, reading Alicia's blog post, completely baffled at what Alicia is saying and why she's so angry. "That's not rape," I thought, "that's giving in to temptation."

Please, let's just stop and appreciate the horribleness of that statement. "That's not rape, that's giving in to temptation." I'm ashamed to have ever held that opinion. AND I SWEAR ON MY LIFE, THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT PURITY CULTURE TEACHES.

Let me be clear: This is not some kind of misunderstanding of the teachings of purity culture. No. This IS what purity culture directly teaches. This is not an example of me taking those ideas to their logical, unexpected conclusion. This is not a conclusion. This is what was explicitly taught. "That's not rape, that's giving in to temptation."

The books about purity culture like to tell a story that goes like this: There was a girl, and her boyfriend was pestering her to have sex. Because of course all boys do. And finally, because he kept going on and on and on about it, eventually she decided to just have sex with him. She made a choice to give in to the temptation. She sinned and lost her purity.

For those of you following along at home, this is rape. This is having sex with someone who does not want to have sex with you. She was not physically forced. She technically did choose to have sex. But not because she actually wanted to- she was coerced. And he knew she didn't want to. He raped her. What an awful and clearly wrong thing he did to her.

But in purity land, this is presented as a very normal situation which women have to face, a test to see if they are truly pure or not. Of course your boyfriend will badger you forever about having sex. All guys do that. They have no morals. And being "pure" means standing strong against this "temptation."

Umm... How, exactly, is this "temptation" anyway? In the narrative given by purity culture, it's certainly not the woman being "tempted" by her own sexual desire. Really, it seems to me like she's in a bad situation and she's trying to choose the least bad option for her own health and sanity. Her boyfriend is abusing her, trying to control her- she is the victim, how can you judge her and say that she has sinned?

Unfortunately, purity culture has an answer to that: You can judge her and say she has sinned because her body does not belong to her. Sex is not something she can weigh against her other options and decide which one is the least bad- no, her sex belongs to God and her future husband, and she has a responsibility to protect it at all costs.

For more about the awfulness of the "you are not your own" concept in purity culture, read Sarah Moon and Dani Kelley.

Image source.
And that's pretty much all the awfulness I can handle in this post. This is, to me, one of the darkest parts of purity culture, darker and more horrific than anything that's happened to me, and you guys know I'm angry enough about purity culture already.

Anyway, here's the point: Don't have sex with someone unless they also want to have sex with you. Otherwise it's rape. End of.


  1. I remember reading a popular bible commentary when I was younger on Deuteronomy 22, that disturbing passage that says a girl who's raped in a city deserved to be stoned--and the pastor said it was meant to warn fathers to warn their daughters to be absolutely careful not to get into a compromising situation. Implication: she then is at fault.

    The thing is, the very people who read those commentaries I've seen on facebook in the past weeks crucifying the Delhi rapist in India for saying his victim was at fault for putting herself in that situation. Not sure if it's coming from xenophobia or what. But either way, it's horrific.
    I also don't understand why so many people don't understand the concept of "consent." Coercion is not okay. I remember the first time someone kissed me, it was a MUCH older, self-proclaimed feminist atheist coworker, who, after I had agreed to watch a movie with him and then said I wanted to go home, said "first, I'm going to kiss you," backed me into a corner, and kissed me. I pulled away and he kept kissing me until I finally insisted that I really had to get home. Later on, after I'd told him I had no romantic interest in him, he said to me that consent is almost never verbal and asking would interrupt the mood. I wanted to scream.
    I haven't told any Christian friends about that incident. Because I know they'd view it as me comprising by simply kissing someone (because that's how crazy purity culture is)--the fact that I didn't *want* to kiss him wouldn't matter.

  2. Oh my goodness, that's horrible. Especially how he acted like he had done nothing wrong.

  3. Thanks. Having to see him every day at work is rough. He makes my skin crawl.