The Blog

When Is Rape Not Rape?

Perhaps we need to change campaigns about rape from telling women how to "protect" themselves from rape to telling men that if they can't tell the difference between a woman consenting and a woman who is being coerced or is unconscious, then they are too stupid to be having sex.

When is rape not rape? I would like to claim that the answer to this question comes under the heading of stating the perfectly obvious; that rape myths and victim blaming are the reserve of misogynists. But, it turns out that a whole lot of people are a bit confused as to what the actual definition of rape is. This isn't exactly shocking in a culture which presumes that most women lie about being raped. Google miscommunication and rape and you will discover a list of blogs suggesting that rape occurs when people "miscommunicate", despite this being one of the most well-known rape myths. The assumption that men are too dim to understand that an unconscious woman is incapable of consenting is a constant trope in films and television.

Just two minutes on the website for the campaign Ending Victimisation and Blame [Everyday Victim Blaming] will demonstrate just how insidious victim blaming is and how often we attempt to mitigate men's responsibility for the sexual violence they commit. Crimewatch presenter Nick Ross likened vaginas to laptops in an effort to explain how women were responsible for getting themselves raped by "leaving their car unlocked"; as if women can magically leave their vagina at home every time they go out to buy a pint of milk. Prosecutor Robert Colover stepped down from his role at CPS after public outcry following his labelling of a 13 year old victim of sexual violence a "predator". Convicted child sexual offender Gary Karn was given an 18 month jail sentence suspended for two years after Judge Mark Lucroft decided an actual jail sentence would cause too much hardship for Karn's family; the 'hardship' experienced by Karn's victims seemingly less important than Karn's ability to pay his mortgage.

AR Wear are trying to fundraise to develop a line of "anti-rape" clothing under the tagline of "when things go wrong" as if rape is on par with snagging your tights on a nail. The fact that they can't use the word rape in their advertising is telling. How often do we see the term 'child sex' used when the crime is that of child rape? Or, the term child pornography used when we are talking about images of children being raped and abused? Or, child prostitution when we are discussing children being groomed and raped by men who believe they have the right to buy children's bodies? How often do we see rape victims blamed for being raped because they were drinking alcohol? Or, wearing a skirt? Or out in public at night?

The question when is rape not rape may seem facetious but an examination of media coverage of sexual violence shows just how far we go to deny rape is rape. This weekend the BBC ran a story on a survey from the UN which was widely reported as claiming 1 in 4 men in Asia admit committing rape. This statistic doesn't actually surprise me but then I wouldn't be shocked if the UN undertook a similar survey in the "West" and found the same results. Of course, the findings of the study were far more nuanced than reporting suggested and there is more than a whiff of racism in some coverage of the report. Yet, in an otherwise interesting examination of the survey, Ruth Alexander makes this statement:

But is it clear from the question that we're talking about making someone have sex, or someone not consenting?

in response to the question

Have you ever had sex with your current or previous wife or girlfriend when you knew she didn't want it but you believed she should agree because she was your wife/partner

Alexander is trying to demonstrate the complexity of making large claims about patterns of sexual violence from a study with only 10 000 men from a diverse geographical area but she doesn't seem to understand that both of the above situations are rape. "Making someone have sex" is rape. Sex without consent is rape. Consent through coercion or 'persuasion' in a space where a woman cannot say no due to "oppressive gender norms" are still rape.

This is what feminists mean when we write about rape culture: the idea that "making someone have sex" can be anything but rape is the problem. An article on a major media platform like the BBC which suggests that there is a difference between lack of consent and making someone consent is a problem.

A major media platform like the BBC listing this as 'advice' to rape victims is the problem:

If you have been raped, you really must consider reporting your rape. This is for your own safety and well-being and that of others.

Being silent only helps your attacker. Telling someone means you can get the physical checks and support you need.

Both of these statements are classic victim blaming. Demanding that a victim of rape respond in a specific manner is damaging to them, as is holding rape victims potentially responsible for any further crimes committed by their rapist. Rape victims are never responsible for the behaviour of the rapist. Suggesting otherwise is tremendously unkind, untrue and it helps rapists negate their own responsibility.

The answer to when is rape not rape should be perfectly obvious: anything less than enthusiastic consent given in a situation where a woman has not been pressured, coerced, cajoled or forced through oppressive gender roles is not rape.

Perhaps we need to change campaigns about rape from telling women how to "protect" themselves from rape to telling men that if they can't tell the difference between a woman consenting and a woman who is being coerced or is unconscious, then they are too stupid to be having sex. Somehow, I doubt my campaign will take off anytime soon.