Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Do We Restrict the Definition of Rape by Labeling All Rapists Equally Evil?

Rape is a reprehensible crime. In our culture the rapist is the most reprehensible of criminals. On this point, almost everyone would immediately agree.

Yet, as a culture, we have a hard time defining the act of rape. Ben Roethlisberger is a good example of our culture's difficult confrontation with rape. This article does a great job of recounting the Roethlisberger rape, the events around it, and the ways in which he demonstrates the red flags of a sexual predator.

Yet he will go on in public life. Any attempt at criminal prosecution was sunk by shoddy police work. But, it appears there will be few repercussions for Big Ben in the court of public opinion. Many people are prepared to decide that he did not commit rape.

The topic and discussion of rape is well traveled by greater and more informed minds than mine. There's a lot to cover. So I would like to throw just one small and potentially controversial hypothesis into the conversation. That we make it difficult to label all rapes as rapes in the eye of the public, because the rapist is so thoroughly reviled.

It works like this. When confronted with a 'non-violent' rape* (UPDATE: after reading a bit I found the term I should have used here is 'not an over-force rape') a person might have the following thought process: Rapists are evil and irredeemable predators. I don't think Ben Roethlisberger is evil and irredeemable. Therefore, I don't think he committed rape.

At this point we might hear certain lines trotted out. She never hit him. Why didn't she scream? He would stopped if she had done these things. She let it continue. All bullshit. All not factors in whether or not there was rape.

To call what Big Ben did rape, is to exile him to the darkest of places, the deepest of jail cells, never to return. People who are unwilling to do this to Ben the rapist, turn a trick in their own brains and decide that Ben's actions were not 'real rape.'

But Ben might be a bad example. There is lots of evidence, one might point out, that suggests he is pretty evil and pretty irredeemable. That he acted like a sexual predator. There are other examples where this thought process could take hold.

What about a college student who has sex with a girl who is too drunk to properly form consent? He has committed rape by any reasonable definition of the word. Yet many people would hesitate to call this rape. Saying that if she never said 'no' - never pushed back - it can't be rape. Why would reasonable people cling to this view? I suggest that it is because they don't believe the perpetrator is the most evil incarnation of man. In fact, I would suggest that this could even cause confusion among victims. The victim of an acquaintance rape who expresses a confusion about whether she was actually raped, could really be expressing a confusion based on the fact that she doesn't really believe her attacker is evil. After all, she might tell herself, maybe it was her fault for not being more forceful.

These are all disturbing thought processes that help enforce a rape-culture that only considers the most violent sexual assaults rape. Often these excuse phrases are chalked up to confusion about the nature of rape itself. That people need to be educated about consent and sexual action. But, these pro-rape excuses could also result from an insistence that people who commit rape are all equally unsalvageable as human beings.

The reality is that we all know someone, from some point in our lives, who has committed rape. If you went to college it's virtually guaranteed.

I can illustrate with a story told to me by a friend in college. One night, while he was in bed, someone came into his room. She was a friend of his, and he had had a crush on her for awhile. On that night she showed up without warning and climbed into bed with him to try to make out with him. My friend quickly realized that she was too drunk to form words or sentences. He tried to talk to her, but she was unable to respond in any coherent fashion. My friend assured me that he didn't do anything with her, and that she was gone before he woke up in the morning.

If he had had sex with her that would have been rape. It would have been sex without her consent. In such a case, how many people in our society would be willing to assign my friend the label of 'rapist.' Very few. I contend that a criminal conviction would be virtually impossible, even with uncontested facts. So in our reluctance we instead decide that such an act can't be rape, because he's not a rapist.

The unwillingness of people to label rape as rape is frustrating. If there isn't consent, it's rape. The decibel level of the denial of consent isn't relevant. I suggest that we're going to have a hard time pushing back against this reluctance until we start to approach some rapists as salvageable, as redeemable human beings.

Where this idea goes from here is still a work in progress. It's a problem that jail is so poorly equipped to rehabilitate inmates. It's a problem that people like Big Ben are reprehensible sexual predators. This idea can't be seen as saying that some rapes aren't that bad, just that to get some people to see that rape is rape we might have to consider that some rapists can be fixed.

*I'm far from an expert on the subject. But it is my understanding that most rapes that don't involve physical violence still use the inherent threat of violence to corner and isolate the victim. Big Ben is an example. He's well over 6 feet tall and 240 lbs. If he corners a small woman in the corner of a bathroom, I'm loathe to consider this a 'non-violent' encounter, regardless of whether or not blows were exchanged.

1 comment:

  1. This is such a good point. I'd never really thought about it this way, but I have found myself talking about this post a lot since I read it. Well done.