Do we really say what we mean about rape?

I’m not sure why I started reading about Rehtaeh Parsons. The briefest summary of her life and death (at age 17) leaves you in little doubt that the more you read, the angrier you’ll get. That’s assuming you care about girls being sexually assaulted, photographed and then bullied by their peers until they kill themselves. Of course, Parsons’ assault remains alleged rather than proven. The same is true for the rape of Audrie Pott. Pott committed suicide at age 15 after photos of her alleged assault went viral around her school. According to reports, Potts was unconscious during the attack and awoke to find messages of “X was here” written on her body. There was more than one assailant, many more who saw the photographs.

How strange, these little pockets of society where suddenly the idea that rape is acceptable – a spectacle for the amusement of others – bubbles up from deep underground. How strange, given that we usually disapprove of rape. Sure, we argue about it – about what causes it, about how it can be proven, about whether some rapes are “worse” than others – but not about whether it is A Bad Thing. Even George Galloway won’t stoop to that. All the same, I’m starting to wish that he would.

I look at cases such as Rehtaeh Parsons’, Audrie Pott’s and that of the Steubenville survivor and I start to wonder whether rape is genuinely despised or even disapproved of by those who are not victims. It’s all very context-specific; you might say you hate rapists, but it’s just one of those things you say and don’t mean. After all, everyone else says it, too. It clears the air. “We’re all non-rapists here!” It says a lot about what we want people to think of us, precious little about what anyone thinks about rape.

Unless a woman is gang-raped in a war zone or literally assaulted to death with a sharp implement, I suspect many people aren’t all that bothered. They might say it’s an odious or abhorrent crime but that’s because they’re meant to (especially when they’re all set to follow such adjectives with a “but …”). But what if, for once, we all spoke the truth? If you think rape is no big deal, at least say so. At least defend your position (it might become more unnerving once you hear the words out loud). You might think you’re doing people a favour by obeying “rape discussion etiquette” – saving them all that upset which, deep down, you consider to be self-inflicted – but in truth you’re taking away their right to reply. You take their pain and repackage it – “there, see, all acknowledged and done with!” – and leave them to carry on as though the world cares, all the while knowing it doesn’t.

I simply don’t believe that young people can share photos of girls being assaulted – girls they know, and girls whom they go on to judge – without this forming part of a broader cultural context in which people don’t just say “rape is a grey area” or “some women deserve to be raped” or all the other rape culture crap we’re used to. What’s also there, and what’s really chilling, is the belief that yes, rape happens and it happens a lot, but it just isn’t that bad. This invasion of another person is essentially a bit of a joke. “She is so raped” as one of the Steubenville bystanders said. People know what rape is – they just don’t care. It is not accidental, not something that gets out of hand, not something committed by a vicious few. It is linked to social approval. The point about Steubenville wasn’t just that so many people attempted to cover it up but that there was so much that needed covering once questions were asked.

I wonder what would happen if, instead of getting embroiled in debates about “insertions” and “serious rape”, some of our politicians just stood up and said “unless you’re about to be killed I’m not that interested?” Because I honestly think that’s what some of them believe and what many young people start to understand. So blame is internalised (an attempt at self-protection, perhaps) while the trivialisation of rape – its elevation to extreme sports status – grows. Meanwhile, rape victims are left justifying and re-justifying their right to feel appalled at the lack of humanity shown by others, including those who get in all their “I’m not a rape apologist but -” excuses early. I don’t think this can work, plus there’s more than a little colonial smugness to the idea that the UK and US are countries in which rape is no longer viewed as simply acceptable. This is no more the true than the suggestion that we live in “post-feminist” societies. We’re lying to ourselves. It might now be the done thing – it certainly keeps an odd sort of peace – but I worry that our simulated horror is becoming more dangerous than hurtful but honest indifference.


11 thoughts on “Do we really say what we mean about rape?

  1. Frankly? Arrant nonsense. A few young people have done vile things. Some older people are still not getting it, but by and large it’s understood that rape is wrong. There are clearly issues with prosecution and legal outcomes and nobody should be anywhere near complacent. I understand that this is a ‘think piece’ and most probably designed to elicit a response but ‘our simulated horror is becoming more dangerous than hurtful but honest indifference’ – seriously?

    1. I’m not sure that “by and large it’s understood that rape is wrong.” What I have seen, and heard, and what I am working against, is that far, _far_ too many people will tell us it’s wrong buuut… if she dressed that way, she was asking for it. Or, if she went out of her house she was asking for it. Or, if she was drinking. Or — or — or — In fact, survey after survey shows that not everyone understands that if s/he doesn’t say yes, it *is* rape.

      Hell, I’ve been told I have to expect to be fondled and harassed because I’m busty, and so “they” just can’t help themselves.

      So no. I am not at all sure that people understand that rape is rape, and rape is wrong. I think we still have a hell of a long way to go.

  2. I agree with you – the simulated ‘rape is terrible’ attitude is the same as the disdain that is expressed when women protest against any kind of discrimination. The underlying agenda is ‘FFS, I wish she would shut up. It doesn’t happen to me, therefore I don’t care. You’ve got the vote so stop going on and on.’

  3. Having taught teenagers (both sexes) who yell “Rape!” in a class room when a peer takes a pen off them, because you know, it’s funny, and then when you speak to them sincerely about the word “rape” and how it is one that can’t be used in jest and they say “yeah, I know rape is proper bad, I’m not stupid”. For that reason, I totally get where you are coming from. I would have preferred them to say, “Well nowadays we don’t think rape is that bad” or “it’s just a word” because, even though that is a pretty terrifying concept it would at least be an honest reflection of how the word in bounded about by the youth.

  4. I think we have a culture where not only do men, generally, not understand women’s experience of life, but they don’t care to find out. It’s far easier to dismiss and belittle than to see something from someone else’s perspective, and a woman’s perspective is, I think, regarded as inferior and not something men have to concern themselves with.

    Too many boys have bought into the abhorrent idea that rape is something women shout when they regret having had sex. I certainly don’t intend this as a defense for the rapists in the Rehtaeh Parsons and Steubenville and all the other cases, but when the culture at large has so little respect for women, is it surprising that boys have none either?

    Too much lip service is paid to simply saying ‘Rape is wrong’ without teaching young people what rape actually is. The threats and insults thrown at the woman in the Steubenville case or Amanda Todd show young people policing women’s behaviour in line with a ridiculous set of rules.

    Anway, this comment is getting a bit long – really thought-provoking post, thank you.

  5. I agree with you so much!!! I also think we need to move away from trying to get boys and men to understand the wrongness of rape by saying “what if she was your sister?” and towards “what if it was you?” but I don’t know how this could be done without inspiring, instead of empathy with girls and women, homophobia. I think it would be a much more effective line though, despite the fact that we’d still have to contend with attitudes like “but women want it really”, “women lie” and “women are sexually passive anyway so what’s the difference?”. That last one I think is a key issue as well. Because of how men are supposed to dominate and pursue and women are meant to put up a resistance (play hard to get) and “be conquered”, it’s hard to then be like “yeah that’s all a twisted game, everyone’s actually supposed to be actively consenting, never submitting”. You can’t get rid of rape culture without getting rid of gender roles/ role play and gender essentialism.

    Also I had this very same thought in January so I’m going to share my article on it again:

  6. Really interesting food for thought, and I share your suspicions 100%. I never understood why so many Steubenville commentators took quotes like “She is so raped” to indicate that boys just don’t understand what rape is; the explanation most parsimonious with their actions is that they are simply callous about it.

    I absolutely think a large minority (even small majority) think “unless you’re about to be killed I’m not that interested” – despite knowing this is unacceptable to say. I think part of the reason for this is to do with how ‘normal’ sex is conceived of in patriarchal culture; always penetrative, coercive and centred on male pleasure (or, as many anti-feminists like to derisively caricature, “all sex is rape”). If this is how sex is defined, then we can better understand why, for many, it is the level of violence that must set rape apart. In a sickly depressing way, this position is a logical one.

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