The Definition of Rape

(Liya Rechtman)– Language is crucial. The difference between “love” and “loved,” for example, is one that we all understand. The past tense connotates a finite process. If your spouse/girlfriend/boyfriend/gender-unidentified partner told you they loved you, it would mean they no longer love you. You would get that.

The difference between “yes” and “no” seems to be harder for some people in our culture. If someone tells someone else “no, we’re so not going to have sex tonight, buddy,” some people seem not to hear it. Or maybe they just think that because they are that persons’ husband/wife/priest/football coach/rando/date/frat boy, “no” means “yes” (and “yes” means “anal,” right?)

Then there are some words in our culture, which aren’t really defined correctly, or at all. Virginity has no medical definition. (Yeah, actually: No. Biological. Definition.) The concept of virginity didn’t really exist for men until recently. Hymens don’t break, they stretch; cherries aren’t “popped.” But seriously think about it for a sec: Does anal count? Oral? What if the girl doesn’t orgasm – does it still “count” then? What about lesbians? Huh. Are lesbians virgins? Doesn’t seem that way from my point of view… In America, the fetishization of virginity (think of the opening to Kids, and sexy school girl costumes, oh, and, um, promise rings…) is part of a larger puritan Christian push against birth control, abortion, and women’s control over their own bodies. Don’t credit me with this thought though, just read The Purity Myth by Jessica Valenti . PS she spoke at Amherst last year and is amazing.

And then there’s rape. Rape has a definition, it’s just incorrect.

Google says that rape is:

The crime, committed by a man, of forcing another person to have sexual intercourse with him, esp. by the threat or use of violence.

I have two problems with this definition:

A) “by a man” – do I need to get into this? Do I? Because I could, but I would just feel redundant. Let me say, though, unfortunately, that rape can be committed by anyone on anyone. Just because a woman doesn’t have a penis doesn’t mean she can’t rape a man, or another woman . (I’ll get back to the penis thing in a moment.)

B) “sexual intercourse” – this is really the purpose of my post: I am finding, in reading more and more of both mainstream and feminist views on everything from Strauss-Kahn toSandusky, I have come to notice that while the mainstream media reports on “scandals” like “sexual assault” they don’t seem to understand RAPE.

Rape is ANY non-consensual sexual activity between any two partners. It is not defined by a penis.

In the same way that it is problematic to characterize sex and virginity according to where the penis goes, it is problematic to define rape by what the rapist experiences. There is no difference between forcing anal, vaginal, or oral sex on a non-consenting other. All of those acts are equally rape. Period.

About a month ago, after 80 years, the FBI changed their definition of rape to read: “penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.” Awesome. Now the New York Times has to read that. Actually, everyone has to read that.

Rape is not defined by the rapist, but by the survivor.

This is because rape is not just a legal definition. It is an act, or a series of acts, that happen to many, many, women, men and trans people. When someone is raped, all control is taken away from them. Afterwards, the victim of a rape feels that they still have no control, because they are afraid that it could happen again, or because they remember what it felt like to have no control. This is one of the reasons why rape is so emotionally traumatizing for survivors.

I use the terms “victim” and “survivor” to mean different things, different stages in the healing process. A victim is someone who is still in the mindset of seeking to regain the control lost during rape. A survivor is someone who has named their rape.

Naming (defining) is crucial in as an emotional act of regaining agency (power, control). The definition of rape is obviously important on many levels, as it is understood by authorities, by potential perpetrators of rape, etc, but the person who gains the most by understanding a broader definition of rape is someone who has been raped. They are the one who has to acknowledge, “I didn’t want this, but it happened to me against my will.” They have to understand that it doesn’t matter that the perpetrator was their husband/wife/priest/coach/rando/date/frat boy/frat brother/teammate.

Rape is not sex. Sex is a consensual act. Rape is an act of violence done by way of an activity that, if it were consensual, would be defined as sexual.

People don’t seem to understand this. An opinion piece in the times this week quoted a comment about NYT reporting on Sandunsky:

We constantly talk about victims having sex with their perpetrator,” said Claudia J. Bayliff, project attorney for the National Judicial Education Program and a longtime advocate for victims of sex crimes. “We talk about children performing oral sex on their perpetrator, which suggests a consensual act and a volitional act. We use ‘fondled,’ ‘had sex with,’ ‘performed oral sex on’ — all those kinds of terms.

Even the New York Times would rather write glossy euphemisms than have you read about Sandunsky’s rape of 10-year-old boy in a bathroom stall. It’s not fun or cool or sexy. Instead of actually considering what rape means, people create basic assumptions, and then try to never think about it. This becomes a problem when we are faced with rapes that aren’t at gunpoint or by large men in dark alleways 80% of rapes are perpetrated by people the victim knows? It’s easier to understand rape at gunpoint than, date rape, or relationship rape, or one-night-stand, or ex-boyfriend rape. That doesn’t mean that those rapes are any less real, or violent, or traumatic.

I wrote this post because no one LIKES to think about rape. It’s especially hard to talk about in the locker room, or your frat house. Unfortunately, as Penn State has shown us, it pervades those areas of our life. Rape crosses all social boundaries. Maybe it’s expected in a frat house, but not in a football locker room, or a conjugal bed. We don’t look for rape between teenage girls, or religious leaders and their congregants, but that doesn’t mean its not there. We have to acknowledge that rape is a huge part of our culture. So while it’s uncomfortable and difficult to talk about, we need to have these conversations. None of us are exempt from this dialogue.