I originally posted this on December 27, 2008. In light of the news of the decision of the Steubenville rape case, and some of the diaries posted in response to that, especially Jessalyn Radack's powerful post (which if you have not yet read, you should), I thought beyond merely linking to it, as I did in a comment on my diary on the verdict, I would repost it again. Perhaps some might find it of some value in the larger discussion.
It's not rape if she is my wife.
It's not rape if she is my daughter.
It's not rape if she was drunk.
It's not rape if my culture mandates intercourse.
No, I do not agree with a single one of those statements. And yet all have successfully been used as defenses for people charged with rape in various nations.
Marianne Mollmann, director of women's rights for Human Rights Watch, writes about these in detail today in Washington Post op ed entitled Ending Impunity For Rape. Read it. I have more to say, but what I have to say is totally unnecessary if you read and absorb what Mollmann has written.
Still here? Did you read the Mollmann? If not, here's the link again.
And if you are still being stubborn, let me quote her second paragraph:
Over the years, in the course of my work at Human Rights Watch, I have spoken with dozens of rape victims around the world, read rape-related court files from many countries and scrutinized legislation. Although most people agree that rape is bad, legislation and government action on sexual crimes are not always that clear. Indeed, rape seems to be graded on a scale from "unconscionable" through "bad luck" to "much deserved." Exactly where a particular incident falls on that scale often seems to depend on factors that include family status, sobriety and ethnicity. In all too many cases, laws and judicial systems have determined that forced sex is not really rape.Mollman follows this paragraph with the successful defenses I listed above the fold, each explained in some detail.
And at the very beginning of her piece, she reminds us that this is not just a problem in nation's with ineffective systems of criminal justice; in her first paragraph we read
Conviction rates hover just above 10 percent of complaints filed in the United States and are a measly 6 percent in Britain. Because the vast majority of rape victims don't file complaints, it does not take precise studies or statistics to conclude that most sexual assaults in most parts of the world end without punishment for the perpetrators.in most parts of the world also means here in the U.S.: only 10% even result in complaints being filed.
We have had much discussion about rape here recently, whether it has been discussions of whether that was the intent (I would have said thrust but wanted to avoid any implications) of the remarks by Dennis Prager. We have read about the distribution of little blue pills to aging Afghan war lords, with invocation of the term rape in the subsequent discussions.
My reaction is perhaps odd. First, I am male. Second, perhaps because I had an older sister, I am a bit more sensitive on the subject than I might have been given the culture and times in which I grew up. IIRC, in Pennsylvania, where I attended college and where I lived until moving to Virginia in 1982, a woman who stayed under the same roof as her husband did not have a legal right to say no until sometime in the late 60s or early 70s. My memory might be flawed, but such a law would have seem appropriate to many of the attitudes in existence when I was growing up and into my younger adulthood. After all, guys would swap stories about conquests (while totally ignorant of the fact that girls also talked), and those stories might include how "she was saying no but I know she meant yes." While the "It's not rape if she is my daughter" defense was probably never acceptable in this country accept possibly among the likes of Warren Jeffs, all of the other lines of defense that I quoted from Mollman have been used here - hell, I have heard them from males I have encountered in various circumstances.
There is a further problem. Like the word "holocaust" which first came into common usage to describe something discrete, the attempt by the Nazis to eradicate the Jews of Europe, but which is now applied far more indiscriminately and thus debased, we have seen a similar application of the word "rape."
So let's be clear. Rape is sexually forcing oneself upon someone else unwilling. Yes, it can be same sex. But traditionally it has been an action of males against females. Males in general are physically stronger, and also tend to wield more power and authority. And in far too many settings for far too long women were considered inferior, unable to act for themselves. In reality, men probably feared unbridled feminine sexuality even as they were drawn to it. After all, women are capable of more sustained sexual performance, in general, than are men. Womne' sexuality had to be circumscribed, restricted. Whether it was cloaking of the entire body as in some expressions of Islam, or Orthodox Jewish women shaving their heads, men seemed to want to confine access to the attractiveness of women they considered "theirs." Women became possessions, even trophies. And debasing women through forced sexual activity, rape, was a way to shame their men, who were thereby shown as too weak to defend their women. Rape has too often been a tool of war, of conquest. We saw it on a wide-scale in Bangladesh, and to a lesser degree in Bosnia and Kosovo.
Rape is no joking matter. It is a term that should not be loosely or casually applied. While it involves sex, it really involves power and shaming. It is destructive.
Let's be clear. If you believe that females have equal rights to males, then there is no defense for coercion in sex. Even if consent is initially granted, the person granting it has the right to withdraw that consent at any time. It is not a blanket permission - for that time for various actions, for any future occasion. To argue otherwise is to argue that the person attempting to withdraw or deny consent is not capable of so doing - that diminishes the person - usually but not always female - by asserting s/he lacks full capacity to decide independently.
In our society we recognize that some people cannot properly grant consent. Thus we have established the crime of statutory rape - sexual activity with a person of insufficient maturity to be legally bound by his/her actions. We allow the age of consent to be lower than that for being bound by a legal contract, but the same principle applies. As until recently it did as well for criminal culpability, but that is a subject for a different time.
Some will argue that different cultures approach the subject of sexual actions differently than do ours. That does not make them right, any more than we were right to continue chattel slavery after Britain, for example, had banned even participation in the international slave trade.
Appealing to "tradition" and culture is often a cloak for discrimination and inequity of many kinds. I would suggest,however, that before we place all our focus on other societies which seem to tolerate rape and not protect women, we need to fully live up to our own principles. Look again at the low level of reporting - 10% here, 6% in the UK. And ask ourselves why that is - do not we not also have an attitude which in some fashion blames the woman for being in a situation where should could be raped? And if so, how is that different except in degree from societies and cultures which more formally tolerate or even approve of rape?
I am male. I have some experience of unwanted sexual attention, from both males and females. In several cases, it has risen to the level of harrassment, although that was years ago when some might have found that I carried some level of sexual appeal. I have never, even in those situation, feared that I might be coerced into sex against my will.
I compare that experience to many of the women of my acquaintance and from my age cohort. I know several who were raped, but found they could not really take action - they did not want the opprobrium that so often falls upon the women who asserts she was raped. I know many others who felt they were pressured - some gave in to the pressure. It was coercion. No knife or gun was used, but it at least approaches rape, a diminishing of the will of the person who felt the pressure.
I have to acknowledge that as a male I would in my younger days be aggressive, to a point. Looking back I have to ask myself if I were overly aggressive, and thus applying coercion? I can think of several occasions where I wound up apologizing, sometimes before full intimacy when I realized I was over the line. I was certainly no saint. And I will not attempt to justify my wrong actions, even if under the law they never came close to qualifying as rape.
I have been thinking about Mollman's piece for a number of hours, since I first read it early this morning. She is writing in the context of US Foreign Policy. Her final paragraph makes that clear:
Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton can change this. During his time in the Senate, Biden has championed draft legislation that would make violence against women a foreign relations priority for the United States, through, for example, supporting legislative reform abroad and a victim-centered approach to violence. As a senator, Clinton supported this legislation. As vice president and secretary of state, Biden and Clinton could make central to U.S. foreign policy the fight against perpetrators' getting away with rape and other forms of violence against women. They should start by creating a coordinating office at the State Department to build on this work. Rape is bad no matter what country it takes place in, whatever the age or marital status of the victim. There is no other way to look at it.I acknowledge the importance of that issue. I think it equally important that we examine our own society and culture, our own acceptance of inappropriate treatment of women, and in some cases of men - acceptance that tolerates coerced sexual actions, and is some cases even glorifies it.
If we are going to talk about rape, then let's cut to the heart of the issue. We still live in a society that tolerates application of force by those who perceive themselves as powerful against others. We see this in our economic transactions, in our politics, in our societal acceptance of gender and race based discrimination even in the 21st century.
And if we need any indication of how far we still have to travel to a fully equitable society, it is contained in that one figure cited by Mollman - only 10% of rapes are even reported.
Rape. It should be an issue for all of us.