What am I doing questioning the idea of “rape culture”?
I was afraid to talk about this for a long time. My fear figured that if I talked about this to anybody who knew my husband is a registered sex offender (even though his offense is not rape and was a non-violent, statutory offense), they would think I was just somebody who denies that sexual assault ever happens and just wouldn’t listen. And, if anybody did listen, as soon as they found out about my husband, they’d stop listening. But, I’m putting both out there: my husband pled guilty to a non-violent, statutory sex offense AND I have serious problems with current internet discourse about rape.
I was a women’s studies major in college, and I have a graduate certificate in women’s studies. I am a feminist. I believe that there are hierarchies of power in society and gender is one of those hierarchies. I believe that there is gender-based injustice that women suffer, and I oppose that injustice. And I believe that a better society would be less hierarchical and more just.
I remember reading Katie Roiphe in college (okay, reading *about* her, because I never would have read her) and thinking she was a big jerk. No woman would ever get drunk, have sex, regret it, and then call it rape! That was absurd! No woman would ever lie about rape. I took that as an absolute truism. Much of my thinking about rape was shaped by my absolute certainty that no woman would ever lie about rape.
What shook me up wasn’t my husband’s arrest; I continued to have the same ideas about rape for many years. What shook me up was learning, about five or six years ago, that two women I know did lie about rape. A friend of mine from high school described the time she was raped, and I realized that the experience she was telling me about was an experience that, at the time, she had been (beforehand) very enthusiastic about and (afterwards) very positive about, and continued to date him for months. How could she now be saying it was rape? In the other case, a woman I know had an abortion and her very pro-life mother and grandmother found out. She told them she had been raped. She was dating and continued to date the man she claimed raped her.
Now, I hate to say that these women lied. But, they weren’t telling the truth. Maybe, in the ensuing years, my friend really had begun to believe that a bad sexual choice was an assault. Maybe her husband had made her feel badly about her sexual history, about having lost her virginity at 15, and she needed to save face. I have no idea. But, I do know that, having heard her excitedly talk about having sex with this guy, and then rehash all the details for me after, it was not a rape. And while I can’t speak with 100% certainty to the second circumstance, it seems more likely than not that calling the sex that got her pregnant rape was just a way to justify having an abortion to family members who would have been otherwise opposed.
So that really got me questioning things. The Duke rape case happened. Suddenly, I had to accept what I had assumed could never, ever happen: women could lie about rape. And sometimes they did.
And then came the feminist blogosphere. I am kind of allergic to group think. I’m going to be the contrarian in pretty much any setting I’m in, because hearing everybody agree about anything makes me nervous. So I was a bad fit there from the start. I think I first pissed everybody off when I stated that I didn’t think that a guy striking up a conversation with a woman on public transit was all that bad, or an assault, and that, honestly, when it did bother women, it was usually because they didn’t find the guy hot. I mean, nobody’s going to go online to complain about how violated they feel because Alexander Skarsgard* talked to them on the subway when they just wanted to read a book.
I started seeing women describe things like having a man catcall them or a guy touch them as “sexual assault.” To me, that seemed like it was making a mockery of real sexual assault. There’s this one bus stop by my house where I am guaranteed to get catcalled every time I pass by. I am not a victim of sexual assault each time it happens. It’s perhaps a public nuisance, but I’m not assault or violated. (Honestly, I think it’s kind of funny. And, since I’m usually wearing sweatpants and schlepping along at least two of my three kids, I think they could aim higher. Really, guys, you can probably do better than a fat, married, thirty-something mom of three coming home from a trip to the dollar store where she bought tampons and toilet bowl cleaner.)
Once, when I was a freshman or sophomore in high school, a guy groped my breasts while walking past me. I yelled “Asshole!” at him and went about my day. I was horrified to discover that 95% of the feminist blogosphere would apparently consider this an incident of sexual assault that would get me added into statistics along with women who were raped or molested as children. The idea that I was somehow supposed to be traumatized was both laughable and infuriating. Are women really that fragile? Are our boobs really that sacred? Sure, I don’t want to live in a world where men just go around groping women’s breasts, but I also don’t want to live in a world where it’s considered a very serious crime only a monster would commit or where women are told they are supposed to be traumatized if it happens.
And then I saw women describing as “rape” exactly the kind of scenario that Roiphe described: they were drunk, the guy was drunk, sexual activity happened, and they regretted it. The next week or month or year, they decided it was rape. And, everybody seemed to just accept that. A woman getting drunk and willingly having sex with a drunk guy is the same as a woman saying “No” and having a guy ignore her, hold her down, and forcibly penetrate her. They are the same act, with the same consequences, and anybody who questions that is a rape apologist.
If a woman feels victimized, then she was victimized. If a woman says she was raped, then she was raped. Facts seemed not to matter.
And this really started to bother me. I remember, about a year ago, telling my husband about all of these crazy “enthusiastic consent” people, who understand consent in a way that would make the vast majority of heterosexual encounters rape. (How many times have you given an enthusiastic verbal “Yes!” at each step of a sexual encounter?) They keep talking about “rape culture,” I told him, as if we live in a country where rape is legal and judges think that “She had a short skirt on” is a legally-valid reason to throw out a rape charge. It’s like, I said, those Lifetime movies where the woman is being abused and won’t go to the police because she insists that the police don’t care about domestic violence. It’s like they think it’s legally still 1965. He had never heard of any of these people and thought I was nuts. I figured these were fringe lunatics, the kind of women who in the 1980s would have just come right out and said that all heterosexual sex is rape, and let it be.
And then came the 2012 election, when the Democratic Party decided that Republicans saying stupid things about rape made for a better campaign strategy than, you know, actually proposing any real progressive policies, and the tide turned. “Rape culture” was everywhere. These people who really do believe, when it comes down to it, that maybe not all but MOST heterosexual sex were rape were allowed to define the online discussion about rape. And now we have groups like Anonymous acting as accuser, investigator, judge, and jury when it comes to anything they construe as a sexual assault.
I oppose this. I think it’s time for people to stop being silent about this, for fear of being bullied or harassed or mocked or flamed or told they are rapists or rape apologists. Those things might happen, but it’s no reason to keep silent.
I refuse to teach a generation of young people the lessons the “rape culture” crowd seems to want to teach them: that girls can get as drunk as they want and willingly engage in whatever sexual activity they want and call it rape the next day; that men are responsible for knowing how a woman will feel about a sexual encounter decades into the future and, if they don’t refrain from an act that she might one day regret, they are rapists; that the ideal sexual encounter is one of two strangers enthusiastically, verbally consenting to sex. Some of these beliefs demean women, some demean men, some demean sex, and none will do anything to stop rape.
So I will continue to be a rape culture contrarian. Because more people need to speak out and call out this nonsense for what it is.
Yes, rape is real. Yes, rape happens. Yes, rape is awful. And, let me be very, very clear about this: No woman is “asking for it” because she got drunk or wore a short skirt or walked in a dark alley. If a man ignores a woman’s no because she was drunk or wearing a short skirt or in a dark alley, he has raped her. He has committed a serious crime, and deserves punishment. But, that’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about saying that we should be able to say that a woman who did ask for it–or at least willingly went along with it–really didn’t ask for it. And that’s where I disagree. Ignoring a woman’s no is always a crime. Putting a woman in a situation where she is genuinely unable to say no is always a crime (i.e., getting her to drink until she passes out).
But, having sex with a woman who is drunk-but-functional and willingly going along with it should not be considered rape. Is it wrong? Yes. But it should not be considered a crime, or at least not a very serious crime that is no different than holding a woman down against her will and forcibly penetrating her. And as long as the proponents of “rape culture” refuse to make that distinction, I will be a rape culture contrarian.
* Yes, I always use Alexander Skarsgard as my example of a guy straight women would want to have sex with. I will continue to do so. I’m not a particularly shallow person, but he is a beautiful, beautiful man.