Can We Talk About Rape? – Part One

February 25th, 2009 by Pelle Billing

Rape is a horrible thing. It is one of the worst boundary violations known to humankind, and the victim is often left with substantial psychological damage that can take months, years or even a lifetime to repair. If you rape someone, you deserve to go to jail for a very long time.

It is precisely because rape is such a serious offense, that we need to discuss it in a calm way, while bringing in a multitude of perspectives. And it is because we recognize the horror that is rape, that we need to have as exact a definition as possible, and not let that definition slide for ideological reasons.

Defining Rape

If you look up the word rape in various dictionaries, you’ll see that the definitions vary quite a bit. Different countries also have different legal criteria for defining what is and isn’t rape. I believe that the following criteria represent a fairly neutral and reasonable definition of rape:

  • Person A acts intentionally
  • Person B does not consent or is incapable of giving consent or is beneath a certain age 
  • Person A does not reasonably believe that person B consents

Some people believe that all sex that is not prefaced by explicit verbal consent should be considered rape. However, legislating that all sexual consent must be explicit would basically turn the whole adult population into a bunch of rapists, men and women alike. 

Most people simply don’t have this kind of conversation before having sex:

“Would you like to have sex with me?”
“Yes, I would like to have sex with you. Would you like to have sex with me?”
“Yes, I would, so let’s get started”

What Constitutes Consent?

Most of you have probably heard the expression “a no is always a no”, or some variant of the same. Such a phrase may be useful when teaching young women and men to connect to their own will, and learn how to turn down an offer of sex in no uncertain terms. However, when discussing what constitutes rape that kind of phrase may prevent us from seeing how complicated sexual scenarios can be.

Sexual consent is far from always given using your voice. As we all know sex is usually initiated through body language, and a gradual increase in physical intimacy. Therefore, any discussion of consent must deal not only with what was and wasn’t said, but body language too.

There are at least three different categories of body language:

  1. Actively participating, e.g. removing your partner’s pants or putting on a condom. Your body language is then saying that you consent.
  2. Actively resisting, for example pushing the other person away or blocking your own genitals. Your body language is turning down the offer to have sex.
  3. Tensing up or freezing also indicates that the person does not want to have sex.

What is being said is very easy to classify:

  1. Saying no is a good indication that a person refuses to have sex
  2. Saying “oh yes” or “more” very likely indicates consent and active participation

As long as the body language and what is being said are congruent, it’s usually easy to pass judgment on whether a person consented or not. For example, if you say no and also push the other person a way, you are clearly turning down the proposal to have sex, while if you spread your legs and say “take me” you are giving consent in no uncertain terms.

The tricky scenarios arise when body language and what a person says contradict each other. If you are pulling down your partner’s pants, while simultaneously saying “no, we shouldn’t be doing this, no, we can’t have sex” then what message are you really transmitting? In my opinion your body language is saying yes in such a strong way that you have consented to have sex. This simple example indicates that a no is not always a no, far from it.

Date Rape

A special category of rape that is interesting because of the media attention it has received, is date rape.

The original definition of date rape, as stated by Wikipedia, is the following:

Date rape is non-consensual sexual activity between people who are known to each other platonically or sexually.

So far so good; this is a very reasonable definition of a social phenomenon that has been shown to exist.

However, the definition of date rape has begun to slide significantly in many modern countries, and the tendency to allow any drunk woman to claim rape the next morning – even if the sex was consensual – is downright scary. Here is a quote from About.com, a well known and well respected resource, where the author of the article is addressing teenage guys:

Another area of confusion on the date rape topic is intoxication. Bottom line, if a girl is intoxicated she cannot consent to sex and you could be charged with rape. It does not matter whether you knew she was intoxicated, it doesn’t matter if you were intoxicated too, all that matters is that she was not in a state of mind to consent and therefore it is rape. If you get a girl drunk or high and then “get together” with her you have committed a sexual assault. Again, it doesn’t matter if you are drunk or high as well. Your diminished abilities do not negate your responsibilities.

In other words, men are expected to be responsible and aware at all times, even if they are wasted, while women have no responsibilities whatsoever the moment they start drinking alcohol. In my mind this kind of reasoning is very problematic, since it treats men as adults and assumes that women are like irresponsible children. In my opinion “man-as-adult” and “woman-as-child” are neither useful nor accurate lenses for describing interactions between the sexes.

If we agree with this kind of reasoning around drinking alcohol and having sex (a sexual behavior that is considered normal in many countries), then we criminalize a large portion of all men, but none of the women! Giving women the power to label any sexual activity when they are drunk as rape, means that any guy who has consensual sex with his girlfriend after sharing a bottle of wine can go to jail for years. If that’s not insane I don’t know what is.

(More about the difficult subject of rape in my next post.)

Tags: , ,

36 Responses to “Can We Talk About Rape? – Part One”

  1. unomi Says:

    I think it would be more useful to quote actual legal precedents and not About.com, which is really just a tin pot Wikipedia for intellectually challenged Americans.

    Meanwhile:

    “If you are pulling down your partner’s pants, while simultaneously saying ‘no, we shouldn’t be doing this, no, we can’t have sex’ then what message are you really transmitting?”

    “No”? The person could be threatening you physically and if not pointing a gun at your head, then simply bigger and stronger. A no is always a no, remember?

  2. Danny Says:

    Finally a chance to talk about rape in an atmosphere that is not dominated by people that are playing on people’s emotions in a bid to leave the definition of rape as a blank check.

    Intellectually challenged, well respected, or whatever that quote from About.com does correctly point out how by some feat of magic women are supposed to be allowed to do literally whatever they want without being held to anything resembling responsibility while men are held responsible for their own actions and the actions of irresponsible women.

    “No”? The person could be threatening you physically and if not pointing a gun at your head, then simply bigger and stronger. A no is always a no, remember?
    And its just as possible that the person pulling down their partner’s pants while saying they shouldn’t be that is a sober adult committing adultery. Having the foresight to recognize future regret does not equal rape.

  3. unomi Says:

    I’m sorry, but when did some confused freelancer on About.com become proof that governments around the world are convicting innocent men of rape and throwing them in jail?! The post specifically refers to “new legal precedents”. If you are trying to make a point, at least do some research that stretches beyond a teenage agony aunt.

    Also, rape is notoriously difficult to prove, which is why convictions are few and far between. Has the unfaithful lover’s no-I-shouldn’t-really-do-this scenario ever gotten someone convicted of rape? If not, why are you even talking about it?

  4. Danny Says:

    The post specifically refers to “new legal precedents”. If you are trying to make a point, at least do some research that stretches beyond a teenage agony aunt.
    This must be the angsty blind anger that feminists and MRAs have pointed out to me before.

    Has the unfaithful lover’s no-I-shouldn’t-really-do-this scenario ever gotten someone convicted of rape? If not, why are you even talking about it?
    Well because as the title of the post implies the discussion is about rape. I didn’t realize you were the arbiter of what is okay and not okay to talk about on the subject.

  5. Pelle Billing Says:

    @unomi

    I don’t think you get my point about body language consent vs verbal consent. What does that have to do with physical threats? I’m talking about how consent is established, and if a person is actually participating in initiating sex while saying ‘no, no, we shouldn’t', then I believe it’s fair to say that the person has consented. I’m not talking about coercion here, I’m talking about how consent is established in the absence of coercion.

    Regarding research or quotes about legal precedents… Here’s a quick link, and I can find more for you tomorrow when I have time to do some googling.

    The About.com article simply refers to the fact that alcohol is now considered a date rape drug in all (US) states, so any drunk woman who has sex can potentially claim rape.

  6. Pelle Billing Says:

    unomi,

    Do you not find it appalling that About.com, a well respected internet resource, is writing the stuff it is writing?

    Here’s a link to where the legal precedent has already been changed, and feminists around the world want to make similar legal changes in their countries.

  7. unomi Says:

    @Danny

    You are, of course, free to say whatever you like, though it would help it it were actually relevant to what’s being discussed. And your theory is far fetched to say the least.

    @Pelle

    These are are heavily biased newspaper reports about what could one day happen (fear mongering), both by papers that are owned by Rupert Murdoch, a famously anti progressive newspaper proprietor. There is a very different account of what happened in the UK on http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2007/nov/28/immigrationpolicy.ukcrime Interesting to see that conviction rates for rape cases have plummeted over the last 30 years in the UK, is that something you also plan to bring up on this blog?

    Yes, I think what the writer on About.com is saying is terrible, but I think it is reflective of US opinion, and not the rest of the world. America is not the world, and Americans frequently do things that the rest of the developed world (to which I belong) fails to understand. This includes denying poor people healthcare, applying the death penalty (to the mentally disabled), rabid support for the only country that ties citizenship to religion (Israel), etc, etc.

    However, if someone is very, very drunk, to the point where they can barely talk, it is only fair that a court takes this into consideration. This is not a gender issue, since it applies equally to everyone and would include gay couples.

  8. Pelle Billing Says:

    @unomi
    Rape conviction rates have plummeted for a reason. Many more alleged rapes are reported nowadays, many of which are either impossible to prove or are false allegations. 30 years ago it was much less socially acceptable to report a rape, or to even know that rape could be perpetrated by a friend or lover.

    I think it’s a great thing that more women who have been raped know that they have indeed been raped, and that they dare report it. But this does not mean that it’s harder to convict rapists nowadays! In fact, rape conviction rates are similar to murder conviction rates.

    Date rapes are notoriously hard to prove, and they weren’t reported nearly as much 30 years ago, since there was no cultural awareness around the phenomenon of date rape.

    Regarding my sources, it doesn’t matter who owns the newspaper, since they are discussing actual laws. In Australia, the law has already been implemented (at least in NSW), and in the UK there are real discussions about making similar changes.

    What is written on About.com is not only reflective of America, it is an opinion that is common among feminists in many different countries. And this opinion is putting pressure on legislators to change the law, to make life even more dangerous for regular men. If the opinion only existed in the US, how come legal changes are being made in Australia, and possibly in the UK too? And I haven’t even done any research in non-English languages, so there may be stuff going on in other countries too that I’m not aware of.

  9. Can We Talk About Rape? - Part Two Says:

    [...] Pelle Billing . com Gender Liberation Beyond Feminism « Can We Talk About Rape? – Part One [...]

  10. Danny Says:

    And this opinion is putting pressure on legislators to change the law, to make life even more dangerous for regular men.
    Precisely. Its one thing for a group to raise awareness to an issue but its quite another for that group to try to change/add new laws and expect everyone to just accept it.

    You are, of course, free to say whatever you like, though it would help it it were actually relevant to what’s being discussed. And your theory is far fetched to say the least.
    By all means why is it far fetched?

  11. Jane McGillivray Says:

    Pelle, you write: “Female culture tends to glorify man as predator just as much, or even more, than male culture does.”
    It is interesting what you might be defining as ‘female culture’. The Feminists that you are so often referring to would be equally aghast at this depiction (the harlequin rape scene) of ‘female culture’. ‘Romance’ addiction, like pornography addiction, though a lucrative big business, is a pretty limited version of ‘female culture’ if indeed it is a version at all. Really, it is a shadow of something deeper, something we as women are all starving for: real authentic connection first of all with ourselves, and then also with the men in our lives that we are only now learning to love from a place of strength and wholeness…. and this is likely true for the corollary for men as well…..

    Having a rape ‘fantasy’ and actually being raped are two pretty different things. The first is an eroticization of the desire to be desired, and ravished….. The second is a humiliating, disempowering and devastating event. I doubt that many people who have experienced the trauma of the latter continue with the immature and dangerous frivolity of the former.

    We all need to grow up and get real.

    Jane

  12. Pelle Billing Says:

    Good points Jane. Many women don’t want to be part of the Harlequin culture, just like many men don’t want to be part of the corresponding elements in male culture.

    As always, I’m not looking to blame one gender, I’m trying to show how both genders play their part in maintaining negative patterns in society. And since the media focuses on how men are responsible, that usually translates into me demonstrating how men and women are in this “mess” together.

    Pelle

  13. Jane McGillivray Says:

    Well, in this instance, ‘feminism’ is doing its part to demystify ‘ the fantasy rape’, to call attention to the prevalence of rape, and to stand clearly on how to define healthy sexual boundaries. (and granted, as above, this is a work in progress with all sorts of legal ramifications that are still being worked out–with all your above concerns notwithstanding) Still, and to be lauded, Feminism has made a strong call for women to ‘grown up’ out of the Harlequin fantasy and become mature women with clear sexual boundaries and a functioning clear voice.

    What do you think would be the corresponding call to ‘grow up’ for men? Do you think this is happening anywhere? Where are men telling other men that this type of giddy immaturity is ultimately dehumanizing for both sexes and destructive for the fabric of our society?

    Jane

  14. Bj0rnborg Says:

    To be honest, I dont see the problem with fantazising about beeing raped. Or fantasizing about raping. I dont feel it holds any bearing on the subject.

    “Having a rape ‘fantasy’ and actually being raped are two pretty different things. The first is an eroticization of the desire to be desired, and ravished….. The second is a humiliating, disempowering and devastating event.”

    I agree fully with Jane on this.

    “In other words, men are expected to be responsible and aware at all times, even if they are wasted, while women have no responsibilities whatsoever the moment they start drinking alcohol.”

    This is ofcourse not only harmful to men, but demeaning towards women. We can see this principle of men as beeing responsible for a situation/action/genderroll and women victim/adolescent to the same, appear within many areas of the equality discourse. Its hurful towards both men and women, since it creates unrightful guilt for men, and feelings of false powerlessness for women.

  15. Bj0rnborg Says:

    “What do you think would be the corresponding call to ‘grow up’ for men? Do you think this is happening anywhere? Where are men telling other men that this type of giddy immaturity is ultimately dehumanizing for both sexes and destructive for the fabric of our society?”

    It happens in sweden, im sure it happens at other places aswell. Zanyar Adami is a prominet figure here who lectures, among other things, about this. But really, it is common sense that most people understand, nobody wants to be raped. Only in some subcultures with strong socialising effect on its members this basic human respect might be disregarded. Zanyar grew up in/close to some of these groups, so he speaks from his own experience.

    But it would be a misstake to believe that more than a handful men truly believes women would like to be raped. I believe men dont have to tell other men not to rape women, its blatantly obvious you shouldnt, and insulting to suggest you might unless told not too.

  16. Pelle Billing Says:

    Jane:

    “What do you think would be the corresponding call to ‘grow up’ for men? Do you think this is happening anywhere?”

    I think one of the key benefits of healthy feminism is that it teaches women to grow up and have good boundaries (unlike unhealthy feminism that keeps women stuck in a victim mentality and demanding more and more and more rights for themselves).

    I think we will see the same thing happening with men, once a strong masculism movement emerges, or a gender liberation movement that includes both sexes.

    Pelle

  17. Pelle Billing Says:

    Bj0rnborg:

    “To be honest, I dont see the problem with fantazising about beeing raped. Or fantasizing about raping. I dont feel it holds any bearing on the subject.”

    I agree that these kinds of fantasies are fine. People can separate reality from fantasy unless they have a serious psychiatric pathology.

    However, I do believe that the erotic (“romance”) literature that is primarily geared towards women, and the pornographic images that are primarily geared towards men, could evolve and become much more healthy – without either genre losing its appeal. Erotic literature could describe women being seduced by attractive men, without needing to include rape, and pornographic material could be be infused with some more emotion and fantasy to make it less “dead” and predictable.

    Pelle

  18. unomi Says:

    “The About.com article simply refers to the fact that alcohol is now considered a date rape drug in all (US) states”

    I could be missing something here, but what exactly does the deranged man on About.com have to do with the fact that alcohol is considered a date rape drug in the US? Clearly alcohol can be used as a date rape drug if you spike someone’s drink with it. A person will eventually pass out if given enough alcohol.

    And who exactly is it that considers alcohol to be a “date rape drug in all (US) states”? Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about date rape drugs: “The term originated in journalism and has no strict scientific or legal definition, because a wide variety of drugs can be used to incapacitate a person, and all of them have sometimes been taken willingly by people in other situations.”

  19. Bj0rnborg Says:

    “Erotic literature could describe women being seduced by attractive men, without needing to include rape, and pornographic material could be be infused with some more emotion and fantasy to make it less “dead” and predictable.”

    This is ofcourse true, but instead of limiting our reality to fit our political opinion, i suggest to free our minds to expand those opinions to include every aspect of beeing human.

  20. Pelle Billing Says:

    BB:
    “This is ofcourse true, but instead of limiting our reality to fit our political opinion, i suggest to free our minds to expand those opinions to include every aspect of beeing human.”

    Could you expand on this? I think I’m following you but I’m not 100 percent sure.

  21. Pelle Billing Says:

    Unomi:
    “I could be missing something here, but what exactly does the deranged man on About.com have to do with the fact that alcohol is considered a date rape drug in the US? ”

    There is a connection in the sense that in public opinion, there is a tendency to start widening the definition of what “unable to give consent” means. Many people (feminists) now believe that any drunk woman is unable to give consent and that any man who has sex with a drunk woman may be a rapist. This is what the article on About.com symbolizes. About.com is not an extremist site, nor is it a feminist site, so what they say does count for something.

    But you’re right about the fact that alcohol being a date rape drug does not in itself imply that the definition of consent (when intoxicated) is sliding, it’s just that this is what has happened anyhow. Sorry if I was unclear about that.

    Pelle

  22. Schala Says:

    “Clearly alcohol can be used as a date rape drug if you spike someone’s drink with it. A person will eventually pass out if given enough alcohol.”

    Yes, but we’re not talking about non-consensually being drunk or high. We’re talking about situations where a man and a woman are both equally drunk, and elect to have sex. Then the woman can be said not to have consented, while the man can be said to have consented and be responsible for the act.

    It’s the unequality of the thing. Though I don’t think saying all drunken sex is rape is any better.

    I object to many such concepts on the grounds that they are unfair and bring about injustice – even if I may be able to benefit from such (as a trans woman however, I may not benefit from such, since police usually considers trans to be “men with a mental illness”).

  23. unomi Says:

    “We’re talking about situations where a man and a woman are both equally drunk, and elect to have sex.”

    Yes, we’re talking (a lot) about this. So can someone please let us know where and when a man has actually been convicted of rape, based on the above? Real court cases please, and no Orwellian pieces from The Times about what might happen if the feminists get their way.

  24. Bj0rnborg Says:

    Unomi:

    Shouldnt we react BEFORE it happens? Just a thought.

  25. Bj0rnborg Says:

    ““This is ofcourse true, but instead of limiting our reality to fit our political opinion, i suggest to free our minds to expand those opinions to include every aspect of beeing human.”

    Could you expand on this? I think I’m following you but I’m not 100 percent sure.”

    I only meant that gearing erotic media to become more “healthy” feels like a moral opinion. I dont belive in legislation or other artifical limitation based on subjective moral. As for instance the swedish prostitutionlaw.

    Neither do I believe that this holds any bearing on the issue at hand, rape, and I believe that this kind of reasoning is a dead end. But maybe you can change my mind.

  26. unomi Says:

    @Bj0rnborg

    You could, but you’d have to be clairvoyant. A “legal precedent” is the practice of basing a court’s decisions on previous rulings. So for that to have been set, somebody would have had to be convicted.

    So far what we’ve had is a mention of alcohol being “considered a date rape drug in all (US) states”, despite the word “date rape drug” carrying no legal meaning anywhere in the world. Then there was the misinterpretation of a UK government White Paper that simply asked judges not to dismiss a rape case because the victim was drunk, and suggested that having sex with a person who is too drunk to say “yes” or “no” may not always be a good idea. I would imagine the Australian thing is something similar.

  27. Bj0rnborg Says:

    Unomi:

    Yes it is true that one should not react upon media reports only.

    But speaking theoretically, IF the consequence of the law is as feared and men and women will be treated diffrently under the law, this is wrong. Can we agree on that?

  28. Pelle Billing Says:

    Unomi:

    In NSW, Australia we’re dealing with a real law, not only speculation about a coming law.

    And more importantly: if feminists are lobbying heavily for changing the law in many countries (and they are), then why should we not be allowed to lobby against this crazy suggestion? You seem to operate from the perspective that we should let feminists show the way, and then only react if something becomes too crazy. But that’s not how I operate at all; I believe that the opinions I put forth (and others who go beyond feminism) are much more constructive than feminism, hence I will put them forth without waiting for persmission from feminism and without needing crazy feminist proposals to turn into actual legislation or legal precedents.

    Pelle

  29. Pelle Billing Says:

    Bj0rnborg:

    “I only meant that gearing erotic media to become more “healthy” feels like a moral opinion. I dont belive in legislation or other artifical limitation based on subjective moral. As for instance the swedish prostitutionlaw.”

    I agree that we should legislate about pornography, or erotic literature for women. However, I believe that it’s still perfectly possible to talk about high quality and low quality literature, and pornography. Obviously such judgments have a strong subjective component, but they’re not completely subjective. If they were, people wouln’t read book reviews and movie reviews, and no movies or books would be considered to be ‘classics’.

    Does that make sense?

    Pelle

  30. unomi Says:

    In order to have a profitable discussion, there are a few things we need to establish. Who are these “feminists”, what have they said, where and when did they say it, and is there a reasonable chance that what they are saying will be turned into law?

    If any old feminist saying anything slightly outrageous will do, it would seem that you are more interested in having a good rant than actually changing how we think about gender. There is nothing new about macho posturing over the evils of feminism, and it’s helping no one.

    Unfortunately I am unable to find any information on what exactly has happened in New South Wales, Australia.

  31. Pelle Billing Says:

    Unomi,

    If About.com posts something outrageous, then I feel that it’s perfectly fine for me to disagree with the stated opinion. About.com is not “any old feminist”. Since I quoted and linked to the article, I was also being very specific (answering the question: Who said what when?).

  32. unomi Says:

    About.com has nothing to do with feminism and that’s my point. You say that “feminists around the world want to make similar legal changes in their countries” but provide no link between the article and feminism. In fact, the writer (a Mike Hardcastle) sounds more like a character out of a Christian US family drama, than Angry Womyn For America (TM).

  33. Jim Says:

    “In fact, the writer (a Mike Hardcastle) sounds more like a character out of a Christian US family drama, than Angry Womyn For America (TM).”

    Part of the problem is that often there is not much daylight between the positions of a certain kind of man-hating AWA and the backward thugs of “Christian US family drama” (what is that, by the way?). Rape-hysteric lynch mobs were a KKK specialty.

  34. unomi Says:

    @Jim

    That show where the dad is a minister would be a good example. The younger, precocious kid is obviously gay but I think that might be a bit of a no go zone for the script writers.

  35. Jim Says:

    I think I know the show you were talking about. As I remember the minister was Episcopalian, which in US terms makes a label of “Christian US family drama” basically incomprehensible. The Religious Right and the whole Evangelical community consider Anglicans in general and US Episcopalians in particular to be a wing of the Communist Party. I do remember some discussion about the gay son, and his gayness was an intended aspect of his character. The show folded anyway after about three episodes.

    I get the impression form you that the article is a waste of time, so I won’t go check it out for the slant you say it displays, just take your word for it..

  36. E.L.M Says:

    I think another point that must also come into view is that just because a male has an erection, it does not qualify as consent.


Google