This may seem a bit off-topic, but as we see more and more young men being tried for sexual assault for engaging in sexual activity with young women who were intoxicated, and ending up on sex offender registries where they will remain for decades or the rest of their lives, I think it’s important to talk about. So I’m going to talk about rape for a few days.
The first idea I want to address is the idea that “rape is rape.” On the surface, it seems like an airtight argument, if a circular one. But then you realize that what the person making the claim is really saying is that anything they describe as rape is just as serious as any other act that can be described as rape. This is where I disagree.
If we are talking about date rape–a rape where a woman is forced against her will to have sex with a man she knows or is on a date with–versus stranger rape–a rape where a woman is forced against her will to have sex with a man who is a stranger–then, yes, “rape is rape.” But, statutory rape is legally considered rape, and I’m not sure many of us would want to say that the experience of a 16-year-old high school student in New York City who is dating a 21-year-old NYC student and eagerly, willingly has sex with him is the same as the experience of a woman who has a man ignore her no and force himself on her. Both, though, are legally considered rape, even though I think it’s clear that the psychological impact would be much different.
And then there is this issue of intoxication. I know this is an unpopular sentiment, but having sex that you wouldn’t have had if you were sober because you were too drunk to make a good decision, usually with a guy who is also quite intoxicated and so also not making very good decisions, is not the same as being forcibly raped. Is it rape? It depends on the state laws and the level of intoxication. I’m not going to argue whether it should or should not be rape. I’m simply going to say that it is different in both degree and kind from having your “no” disregarded.
This matters, because the corollary of “rape is rape” is that “rapists are rapists.” And that’s the line used to decide that the young men who are being charged in these cases are lost causes, should spend as long as possible in prison, deserve to be on a registry for life, are monsters who are fundamentally different from decent people.
Because, “decent people don’t rape,” you see over and over. And, if we’re talking about holding down a woman who is saying no and forcing her to have sex with you, or holding a gun to a woman’s head or a knife to her throat and forcing her to have sex with you, then, yes, no decent person would do that. But that’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about drunk teenage boys thinking that a girl who is really drunk and often going along with things is going along with things because she wants to. You don’t have to be a monster to grope a classmate who is laying there drunk and giggling, with her shirt pulled up. You just have to be a stupid drunk teenager who makes a bad choice.
Again, I’m not saying that no punishment is warranted. But, we are not talking about men who are forcing women who are saying no to them to have sex. We’re talking about drunk teenagers at parties where, I’m guessing, there’s a lot of hooking up going on. It seems like, in these cases, education and counseling would be more useful than long prison terms and decades or life on a registry.
If they do it again, sure. Decide this is a dangerous sexual predator who enjoys humiliating and degrading women. But, if the stats on sex crime reoffense rates are right, the vast majority of these men will never reoffend. They can go on to be responsible citizens, good husbands and fathers, and productive members of our society. We need to allow them the chance to do so, and we will only do that if we understand that everybody who commits an act that is legally defined as rape (or, especially, that is defined by the internet as rape) is not the same.