Cognition & Reality

Monday, 7 March 2011

Rape & “Rape”

Filed under: Date Rape,Propaganda — drtone @ 10:01 am

Most sexual assaults that are reported to the police occur between strangers. These assaults, however, represent only a small proportion of all sexual assaults. At least 80 percent of sexual assaults occur among persons who know each other. Alcohol and Sexual Assault (2001).

The above sentences, if I read them right, are pretty disturbing, but probably not in the way the authors intended. When I combine what they say with another widely reported rape statistic, that 60% of rapes go unreported, a huge credibility gap opens up beneath the issue of rape. It would be natural to assume that, when speaking of “80 percent of sexual assaults,” the authors mean those that have been so identified in court. That does not seem to be the case, however. Under the most conservative interpretation, that the 80% figure applies directly to unreported assaults, about half of all rapes (80% of 60% equals 48%) would be acquaintance rapes never subjected to legal scrutiny. Of course, that would be a ridiculously low figure, because most of the rapes that are reported, according to the above, are precisely not acquaintance rapes.  Consequently, acquaintance rapes account for almost all of the unreported rapes, and are therefore defined in terms that do not include anyone actually being identified by police or the courts as a rapist.

In this post, under “What Causes Date Rape,” we read, ” Often, it’s a mix of misread signals and misplaced expectations, fueled by alcohol and drug use.” That description echoes one found in the article from which the opening quotation comes, which identifies “misperception” as a major situational factor in date rape. In that same article, we learn that, in the last few decades, the image of the typical rapist has changed: Previously he was an armed stranger who accosts women in parking lots or breaks into their houses, threatening them with great bodily harm if they do not submit to sexual relations with him; now he is a college student who drunkenly won’t take “no” for an answer when he is with a girl on the couch at her apartment.

I’m sorry, and I know it must mean that I’m a male chauvinist pig, but the the two forms of encounter don’t seem at all the same to me. In the one, the man obtains sex by holding a woman at knifepoint. In the other the man obtains sex by acting like an asshole (according to the woman, the next day). Nevertheless, both are included under the same rubric in counting the number or rapes that have occurred.

Understand. I’m not endorsing a method of getting laid that relies on literally or figuratively twisting a girl’s arm, but I am saying that lumping that sort of behavior into the same category with assault by an armed stranger seems like a huge stretch. It produces statistics about which it is an understatement to say that they are distorted. When RAINN, for example, claims that only about 6% of rapists see jail time, what they’re basing their numbers on is all the alleged perpetrators in all the alleged rapes, the majority of which involved “misperceived signals” between individuals who know each other at least a little. Again, I’m not saying that the nebbishy college student who bullies a girl into sex shouldn’t face some sort of sanctions, legal or otherwise. That is not the issue. Instead, I’m saying that misrepresentation fueled by outright hypocrisy permeates the discussion of rape. Although it is widely recognized that “consent” in sexual situations defies rock-solid definition, rape activists continue to operate as though it is easy to determine whether a woman gave her consent to sex.

On the contrary, every description of rape in the current context concedes in one way or another, sexual encounters belong on a gradient of consent. On one end are the great many consensual encounters of all types, and on the other end are the far fewer encounters that begin with a man jumping a woman he does not know in a deserted alley. There’s room for a lot in between. There are cases in which a man beats his date until she fucks him that surely deserved to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law, but that are not reported because the woman feels intimidated by the man and by society. There are instances in which the man genuinely believes the woman consented and the woman genuinely believes she did not do so. The consent continuum also includes the many instances in which the woman wasn’t sure she wanted to fuck, but let the man “have his way.” The way is wide open in such cases for the woman to decide later that she was coerced into sex. No doubt, there are instances in which she would be justified in believing that she had been, but others in which it would be questionable, at best, whether the man used force or intimidation. There are, of course, many other possible sets of circumstances that confound any attempt to determine precisely whether consent to sex was given.

Complicating the picture further is the enormous range of responses to the actual quality of sex. There’s the woman who feels used by a guy who ejaculates three seconds after getting inside her or fucks her mechanically, as if she’s not there; consent she may have given, but not to being treated like a dirty sock. On the other hand, sex can trigger strong emotional responses that might be experienced as positive by most individuals but that could be experienced as frightening by some, particularly those who are immature or inexperienced (e.g., the typical rape victim, a woman of college age). In either instance, a woman might decide that what happened was unpleasant enough to be called rape, and describe it as such later. Considering the complexity of human sexual response, there is a lot of room for confusion here, even about what counts as sex.

All of this murkiness prevails as long as we’re not in court and confined to the definitions of sex and rape one finds in legal codes. Those definitions might be limiting or wrong, but they are quite specific and invoke recognizable standards of human conduct. In addition, a rape case that has gone any distance through the criminal justice system, however it is adjudicated, has been subjected to intense disinterested scrutiny. In that system, a rape has occurred when a judge and jury say it has, or at least when the cops say it has. Even if the behavior in question was horrific and might ultimately meet the legal standard for rape, the same is not true of the report by a young woman to a college rape counselor that she was brutalized by the guy who picked her up at a bar the night before. In that situation, a “rape” has occurred when the young woman and the counselor say it has. To present statistics that amalgamate these two different definitions of rape and treat them as the same thing is deliberately misleading. The wide acceptance of such “rape statistics” as the truth in this area reflects deep conflicts in our society regarding women, men and sex.


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