Unfortunately, exactly when an act of sexualized aggression becomes rape remains a matter of some controversy. And our sense of what qualifies as consent needs a lot of clarification as well.
Just last year, Republicans in the United States Congress attempted to change the rules that allow for federal funding of abortion in the case of rape. These Congressmen wanted to make sure that funds would be available only in cases of “forcible” rape. They quickly backed down in the face of public outcry – criticism that included a withering piece on “The Daily Show” that pilloried them for their inane attempt to differentiate between “rape” and “forcible rape” – as if rape could ever not be forcible. (See story here: http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0211/48766.html)
And it was just a couple of months ago that the Obama administration finally got around to updating the U.S. Federal Government’s definition of just what constitutes rape. Previously, rape had been defined as "carnal knowledge of a female, forcibly and against her will." The new definition now also includes male victims, as well as other forms of sexual penetration, and, according to the website politico.com, the new language “also changes ‘forcibly’ to ‘without the consent of the victim,’ expanding the definition to include cases where victims do not physically fight back or are unable to consent, whether because of drugs or alcohol or other reasons.”
While I am very glad that this second effort broadened how we define rape, I actually think the definition is still far too narrow. I much prefer the approach that many feminist anti-rape organizations use when it comes to addressing issues of sexual coercion. Rape, they argue, occurs when there is a failure to obtain meaningful consent before having sex with someone. And meaningful consent, they argue, not only must be clearly communicated, but it must also be given without fear or confusion. Meaningful consent simply cannot exist if a person is not in her (or his) right mind due to intoxication or other forms of confusion, and it cannot exist if a person is afraid of the outcome should she (or he) refuse to have sex.
And I want to add yet another condition that should also be necessary for true consent to occur: that the person giving consent be free from any and all pressure and manipulation. For consent to be meaningful, it must be given without fear, without confusion, without pressure, and without manipulation!
Anything else is rape.
A lot of rape going on. There is a hell of a lot of sexual activity going on that does not reach this threshold of meaningful consent. There is a lot of rape going on. Far more than will ever be reported or prosecuted. And from what I have seen and heard, there is in fact an astounding amount of sexual coercion, sexual pressure, and sexual manipulation occurring as men (and sometimes women) pursue their own sexual gratification at the expense of another human being. It plays out like this: I want what I want, and any consequences (and the woman herself) be damned. What she wants is irrelevant. All that matters is that I get to get off inside of her.
In a recent interview, Dr. Imani Perry, a professor at Princeton University, addressed the issue of what she sees as an epidemic of sexual coercion:
“I think there is an under-discussed area of sexual trauma and woundedness that comes from women ‘going along’ with sexual encounters… I’m thinking of instances in which they haven’t said no, and may have even explicitly said yes, but really don’t want to. I recall a conversation with two friends, many years ago, explaining how they’d both said yes a number of times because they were afraid that if they didn’t that they might be raped. That is technically consensual, but emotionally tragic. I find this heartbreaking, and the fact that we have a culture that socializes women into this kind of acceptance, infuriating.” (source: http://campus.feministing.com/2012/01/24/the-academic-feminist-using-th… )
Dr. Perry does say in the interview that this situation is technically different from a legal definition of rape. But my sense is that for these women the harmful impact is likely going to be as bad as (if not worse than) what the law recognizes as rape. The women wound up having sex when they did not want to. And because they gave (unwilling) consent, they may well feel as if they are to blame for what happened to them.
But they are not to blame for this sexual exploitation! If a woman is fearful of being called names, or of being criticized, or of being bullied, or of being punished, or of being given the silent treatment, or of being even more aggressively violated against her will, and thus she gives in, none of that is true consent. If the guy who wanted to have sex with her did not give her the option of freely saying “no” without the risk of punishment, then that is not free choice.
Any guy who does that to a woman is being a bully.
And, in my opinion, a rapist.
Society tells women to ignore their needs and desires. And Dr. Perry is absolutely right when she asserts that we have a culture that socializes women into ignoring their own needs and desires, and into sacrificing their own sexuality to the whims (and erections) of men. Even the briefest traipse around the world wide web shows how common these messages are: The health-focused website prevention.com (tagline: “passionate, persuasive, powerful”) has the following suggestion for women who are not feeling amorous:
Not in the mood? Do it anyway. Desire increases during intercourse (in a good vicious cycle kind of way). As you begin to feel turned on, your libido spikes and you feel that much more aroused. (http://www.prevention.com/sexpackage/jumpstart/3.shtml)
So there you have it, ladies: have sex even when you don’t feel like it! Because chances are your body will respond anyway. Forget about consent. Forget about your feelings and desires and just give yourself over to the “vicious cycle.” Become every bit as self-sacrificing in the bedroom as society expects you to be everywhere else.
In my opinion, this is very bad – and decidedly unhealthy – advice. Another health-related site strikes a similar chord:
Even women who aren’t ill can have a lowered sex drive and it becomes less and less a feature in their relationship causing problems outside the bedroom dept but actually it’s normal for women to not feel like sex until they actually get started, so get stuck in and do it anyway! (http://livinglifefromabed.com/2011/05/25/chronic-sex/)
“Get stuck in.” How nice. What a lovely piece of advice. And, guys, just go ahead and “stick it in” whether she is in the mood or not!
(Okay, guys, just to be crystal clear: I was being sarcastic. Do NOT just go ahead and stick your penis into a woman regardless of whether she is in the mood. Never do that. Find out if she wants you to first! And if she doesn’t want you to, then leave her the hell alone! Do you want someone to be penetrating you sexually when you don’t feel like it?)
The official website of The Cleveland Clinic, where “one of America's top hospitals provides truth and guidance for your total wellness journey - 360 degrees, 365 days a year,” contains remarkably similar advice. The site cites the work of Michele Weiner-Davis, MSW, the founder of DivorceBusting.com:
Have you ever said to yourself after sex, “Wow, remind me why I didn’t want to make love”? According to Weiner-Davis, it’s extremely common to not be in the mood until your partner starts touching you. We think we have to be turned on in order to have sex, but for over 50 percent of the population, desire comes only after you’ve been sexually stimulated, she explains. Even if you’re feeling neutral about sex, do it anyway. (http://www.360-5.com/mind/HealthySex/Pages/Marks-the-Spot-Find-Your-Mis…)
So the health experts all seem pretty unanimous: if women don’t feel like having sex, they should just force themselves to do it. And the men whose partners don’t feel like being sexual don’t even need to become sexually aggressive in order to get some action. Society is already doing that work for them by telling women: If your guy wants it, you must give in.
These kind of messages are a rapist’s wet dream.
And these messages tell women that sexual self-determination is just not something that they are entitled to.
The real message we need to hear: Rape hurts. In other blog entries I have explored how society tells men to be sexually aggressive and to just take what they want. And as we can see here, society also tells women that they should just give in to men’s desires even when they don’t want to.
These messages are both terrible.
They turn men into aggressive predators and they turn women into passive prey.
These are messages we simply don’t need.
The message we do all need to hear instead is this one: Rape hurts. And one of the most powerful ways that I have seen the message conveyed recently is through a brief video by Colleen McDevitt wherein four extremely brave women tell their stories of having been raped: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RdlVSuMAnr0.
They were raped by men they knew.
They were raped by men they trusted.
It is my hope that if more men saw videos like this, then we would all worry a lot less about the technical definition of what legally comprises rape. Instead, we would all begin to understand that when we use our penis to penetrate a woman’s body without her total consent and full participation, we are causing a lot of harm.
We are hurting her.
And we need to stop.