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Ending Rape Illiteracy

This week, a DC-based feminist group projected the phrase “rape is rape” onto the US Capitol building. The action was meant to highlight survivors’ stories and bring attention to the way rape is often mischaracterized. The sentiment may seem an obvious one—who doesn’t understand what rape is?—but the message, sadly, is much needed. Tuesday evening at the final Indiana Senate debate, Republican Richard Mourdock explained why he opposes abortion with no exceptions by calling pregnancy from rape "something that God intended"- the latest in a long line of "gaffes" by male politicians about sexual assault. It was only this January that the FBI updated its archaic definition of rape, male politicians’ “gaffes” about rape have become par for the course, and victim-blaming in the culture and courts runs rampant.

Feminists have done a lot to change policies, but not enough to change minds. Despite decades of activism on sexual assault—despite common sense, even—there is still widespread ignorance about what rape is, and this absence of a widely understood and culturally accepted definition of sexual assault is one of the biggest hurdles we have in chipping away at rape culture.

When Todd Akin uttered his now-famous line that women rarely get pregnant from “legitimate rape,” he didn’t misspeak. This was something he thought was true—both the bizarre logic about pregnancy and the idea that there is such a thing as a rape that isn’t legitimate. Last year, Wisconsin state representative Roger Rivard told a newspaper reporter that “some girls rape easy.” Now under fire, Rivard attempted to clarify his comments, claiming they were taken out of context. 

What the whole genesis of it was, it was advice to me [from my father], telling me, “If you’re going to go down that road, you may have consensual sex that night and then the next morning it may be rape.” So the way he said it was, “Just remember, Roger, some girls, they rape so easy. It may be rape the next morning.”

Rivard obviously thought this explanation would lessen the damage of his original statement; he assumed his belief that women regularly lie about being raped was a commonly held one. What’s depressing is that he’s probably right.

To too many people, “rape” and “rape victim” are not accurate descriptors but political shorthand—the product of an overblown, politically correct interpretation of sex. As Tennessee Senator Douglas Henry said in 2008, “Rape, ladies and gentlemen, is not today what rape was. Rape, when I was learning these things, was the violation of a chaste woman, against her will, by some party not her spouse.”

If you’re married, you’ve contractually agreed to be available for sex whether or not you want to. If you’re a woman of color, you must be a liar. If you don’t have as much money as your attacker, you’re just looking for a payday. If you’re in college, you shouldn’t want to ruin your poor young rapist’s life. If you’re a sex worker, it wasn’t rape it was just “theft of services.” If you said yes at first but changed your mind, tough luck. If you’ve had sex before, you must say yes to everyone. If you were drinking you should have known better. If you were wearing a short skirt what did you expect?

The definition of who is a rape victim has been whittled down by racism, misogyny, classism and the pervasive wink-wink-nudge-nudge belief that all women really want to be forced anyway. The assumption is that women are, by default, desirous of sex unless they explicitly state otherwise. And women don’t just have to prove that we said no, but that we screamed it.

Recently the Connecticut State Supreme Court overturned a sexual assault conviction for a man who attacked a woman with severe cerebral palsy. The woman cannot communicate verbally, and according to the court’s documents, has the “intellectual functional equivalent of a 3-year-old.” Still, because of how the state defines rape in cases of physical incapacitation, the court decided that the victim was capable of “biting, kicking, scratching, screeching, groaning or gesturing,” and therefore could have communicated a lack of consent and didn’t. Basically, she didn’t fight back hard enough in order for what happened to her to be considered rape.

This is not just a problem of rhetoric or legalese. The lack of an accepted cultural definition of rape leaves room for mischaracterizations that turn back the clock on progress already made.

Five years ago, anti-feminist author Laura Sessions Stepp popularized the term “gray rape” in her book, Unhooked, to explain the confusion women may feel after they’ve been sexually assaulted, and their hesitance to call themselves victims.

The term took off, and Cosmopolitan magazine featured a cover story by Stepp about this “new kind of date rape.” (If you doubt the cultural relevance of Cosmo, consider that it has a circulation of 3 million readers and—sadly—is the best-selling magazine in college bookstores.)

Stepp wrote in Cosmo that “gray rape” is caused by “hookups, mixed signals, and alcohol” and “the idea that women can be just as bold and adventurous about sex as men are.” She also called it a “consequence of today’s hookup culture.”

A generation ago, it was easier for men and women to understand what constituted rape because the social rules were clearer. Men were supposed to be the ones coming on to women, and women were said to be looking for relationships, not casual sex.

But these boundaries and rules have been loosening up for decades, and now lots of women feel it’s perfectly okay to go out looking for a hookup or to be the aggressor, which may turn out fine for them—unless the signals get mixed or misread.

A few months after this article ran, a student at Lewis & Clark College in Portland was sexually assaulted, forced to perform oral sex on her attacker. The young woman called what happened to her “gray rape,” a term she learned from an article in Cosmopolitan.

“It started happening, and then he, like, twisted his fingers around my hair and started pulling it and being just kind of violent. I started choking because he was just, like, pushing my head. I started gagging and choking and I couldn’t really breathe.” She says she started pushing on [her attacker’s] abdomen to tell him to stop. ‘And he was like, “yeah, that’s right, choke on it.”

There is nothing “gray” about this. There is nothing gray about violence, there is nothing gray about “choke on it,” there is nothing gray about rape. But thanks to this made up definition that isn’t recognized by law, medical professionals or sexual assault advocates—and that puts the blame for assault on women’s sexuality —this young woman and countless others think that maybe the sexual assault that was perpetrated against them was something less than a violent crime.

This is not an isolated example. Every day, the severity, violence and criminality of what rape is—its very definition—is distorted in a way that makes it more difficult for survivors to come forward and for anti-violence advocates to do their work, while making the world easier for victim-blaming and for rapists themselves.

In 2006, for example, a Nebraska judge ordered that the victim in a rape trial not be allowed to use the word rape or sexual assault when describing what happened to her because it would be too prejudicial. The words she could use instead? Intercourse or sex. In Maryland, up until 2008 it wasn’t considered rape if a woman withdrew her consent during sex and her partner kept going. (Who else would continue to have sex with an unwilling partner besides a rapist?) And this month in Oregon, a woman who was raped, beaten and choked by a man she went on a date with was ordered to provide her Google search history. The defense team hoped that if she Googled the definition of rape, it would show that she wasn’t sure if she had really been sexually assaulted.

Even the way that the United States compiles rape statistics has been affected by bad language. After the Department of Justice reported that there were 182,000 sexual assaults committed against women in 2008, a study by the National Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center showed that their numbers were wrong—thanks largely to the way they talked to women. Instead of asking questions like “Has anyone ever forced you to have sex?”, they asked women if they had been subject to “rape, attempted or other type of sexual attack.” Thanks to the confusion around the definition of rape, and the hesitance of many women to label themselves victims, the actual number of women raped was much higher—the center put it around 1 million.

What feminists should do in response to bad policy and legislation has been clear cut—and successful. When the GOP tried to pass an anti-abortion measure last year that would redefine rape only as an assault that was “forcible,” feminists groups immediately took action. Thanks to national organizations, online activism and a clever Twitter campaign, the language was taken out of the bill. Feminists also won a campaign to push the FBI to change their outdated definition of rape, language dating from 1929 that said sexual assault was “the carnal knowledge of a female, forcibly and against her will.”

But how we change the culture is a hurdle we haven’t properly tackled. Feminism’s major cultural successes around rape have occurred on a micro level—taking on individual television shows or products. And, for the most part, our cultural work has been reactionary—we’re constantly on the defensive, whether it’s trying to fight back against victim-blaming headlines or offensive rape jokes.

This is work is important, but what’s crucial is that we make a shift from targeting pieces of the culture in a reactive way to proactively changing the broader culture in a more lasting way. We need to spend less time worrying about ultraconservative misogynists and extremist politicians and focus on shifting the way we all think about sexual assault and consent. We need to think and act much, much bigger.

Instead of pressuring Facebook to take down offensive groups like “It’s not rape if you yell ‘surprise’ ” (yes, that group really exists), feminist leaders should be petitioning to get in a room with Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg to brainstorm ways that the company can actively push an anti-rape message. In addition to creating our own alternative media, we need to be working with and within existing mainstream media. I want to see a show do for sexual consent and sexual autonomy what Glee has done for LGBT issues. I want to see a “yes means yes” model in our sexual health textbooks, but I also want to see it on the cover of Glamour magazine. We need a multi-faceted, nationwide campaign so widespread that every person who opens a newspaper, watches television, goes online or just walks down the street knows about it.

The time is ripe for going big. The American public, young women especially, are ready for a new message about sexuality and for a definition of rape that is accurate, strong, progressive and indisputable.

When Vice President Joe Biden gave a press conference last year about the administration’s efforts to curb sexual violence in schools, he laid some groundwork, saying, “No means no. No means no if you’re drunk or sober. No means no if you’re in bed in the dorm or on the street. No means no even if you said yes first and changed your mind. No means no—and it’s a crime…”

This particular section of his speech—a strong message against rape, that called out victim-blaming, and put the blame squarely on the perpetrator—was tweeted and sent around Tumblr and blogs tens of thousands of times. No offense to the Vice President—but can you imagine the impact if wasn’t Joe Biden but Taylor Swift giving this message? Our politicians should be making bold feminist statements about sexual assault, but our pop culture icons need to be talking about it too.

Of course, the most important question to ask is: Is it possible to do all this with a definition of sexual assault that is not only widely understood and culturally accepted—but that is also comprehensive, intersectional and forward thinking? Can we get broad agreement around a definition of rape that shifts the focus away from the victim and onto the perpetrator, advocates for enthusiastic consent, and recognizes and centers structural inequities?

Clearly, this is just one piece of a tremendous battle. A widely accepted definition of rape—even a progressive, feminist one—will not change everything, and it won’t eradicate rape. But it is a necessary step to shift the culture.

The reason we have qualifiers—legitimate, forcible, date, gray—is because at the end of the day it’s not enough to say ‘rape’. We don’t believe it on its own and we want to know what “kind” of assault it was in order to make a value judgment about what really happened—and to believe that it couldn’t happen to us. It’s not because most people are bad, or want to blame rape victims. Americans are simply too mired in misogyny, and without feminist influence, to think any differently.

Thanks to widespread online activism and women’s issues dominating election discourse, feminism is enjoying a moment of real cultural power. Now is the time to use it.

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