Last year the legal definition of rape was expanded for the first time since 1927 to include victims of oral and anal penetration, rape of males, rape of females by females, rape with a foreign object and non-forcible rape. I almost shat myself when I heard that. I was aware that before then, the law had defined rape only as “the carnal knowledge of a female, forcibly and against her will.”(1) That’s kind of a dinky definition, isn’t it?
The former definition speaks volumes as to how this nation addresses the topic of sexual assault. There is a laundry list of unsound assumptions attached to the former definition. Among them are the assumption that only a certain kind of man rapes, the assumption that only men are capable of rape, and what I concern myself most with in this article — the assumption that rape only happens when physical violence occurs. That a woman who calls coercion rape is essentially “crying wolf.”
What I find most problematic about the words we’ve used to define rape for the past 80 years, is that it highlights a troublesome way of thinking that has lingered in our collective conscience since at least the 1800s. Riding tenuously on the idea that humans are nothing more than animals at heart, the ‘biological viewpoint’ finds an almost convincing way to naturalize sexually coercive behavior. In the essay Rape and Sexual Coercion, D.E. Critchlow writes of this biological viewpoint:
“Playing the role of hunted animal the female conceals her sexual passion by adopting a demeanor of modesty in order that the male be more ardent and forceful. …as the hunt becomes more sexually charged, ‘an element of real violence, of undisguised cruelty’ is introduced.“(2)
We may have matured enough since 1886 to note that ‘real violence’ and ‘undisguised cruelty’ are a huge no-no in the bedroom, but this biological explanation of what normal sexual behavior is remains a familiar sentiment today.
We all learned “No Means No” in our high school health classes, but how many of us have also seen the countless scenes in movies and television where arguments are solved with passionate love scenes? Where the woman objects at first, but then gets carried away by ecstasy? The way it is presented to us in the media — the way it has been presented throughout history — is that sexuality and violence go hand in hand.
The two are so inextricable in our culture that we fail to even recognize coercive sex as a violent act. Both men and women tend to view coercion as part of a normal, sexually active relationship and don’t know how to react when lines have been crossed. A recent episode of the HBO show “Girls”, and the collective reaction to it, brings to life exactly what I’m talking about. When presented with what is a very uncomfortable and non-consensual act, many people have an unclear idea of how to react — and whether not we should even call it rape.
How is it that we think “But don’t you love me?” or “It just makes me question how you feel about me” or “If we don’t have sex in this amount of time, we’re breaking up” are completely normal things for a girlfriend to get from her boyfriend? How is it that in a 1985 study by Ms. magazine, “the great majority of rape victims conceptualized their experience in highly negative terms and felt victimized whether or not they realized that legal standards for rape had been met”?(3)
How is it that, despite the fact that it leaves an emotional stamp of hurt on its victims, we are still reluctant to categorize coercion as a violent act? I, even, have trouble thrusting coercion onto the same level as what most define as rape — something that happens between a stranger and an innocent virgin, something that leaves a physical mark.
The thing is, just because physical rape may be more easily quantifiable than emotional rape doesn’t mean we get to gloss over the just as traumatic effects that coercion has on its victims. The fact of the matter is that emotional rape is far more prevalent than stranger rape, and so it must be addressed.
Legally, we can recognize that coercion does not meet the legal standards for consent. Culturally, we still lack the words to hold up conversation about this. If we aren’t comfortable calling coercion “rape” because we want to shy away from the ugly connotation it brings….
Then what else can we call it? Do you consider coercion to be rape? When do you consider the line to be “crossed”?