“You’re Not a Rapist if it’s Not Rape”

“One has to learn to trust one’s own cognitive powers, to develop one’s own concepts, insights, modes of explanation, overarching theories, and to oppose the epistemic hegemony of conceptual frameworks designed in part to thwart and suppress the exploration of such matters; one has to think against the grain.”
-Charles Mills, The Racial Contract

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According to a broadcast on NPR this morning, rape is the most under-reported violent crime. But this is not news.

“Rape,” as something that is culturally defined and understood in a myriad of ways, becomes a rather muddled, abstract concept. Unfortunately, its conceptual abstraction is perhaps one of the most important features about “rape” that makes it so difficult to report and challenge at personal, communal, institutional, and cultural levels.

What is rape? What is a reportable rape?  In North Carolina, ‘rape’ is still defined as something to which only women can be subjected under the force of men. Implicit in this problematic legal definition are loaded assumptions that are not uncommon in other “everyday” notions of rape. For instance, a very basic and far too simplistic notion of rape is that it necessarily involves the forcible insertion of a man’s penis into a woman’s vagina. More specific, or at least more inclusive, legal definitions acknowledge that someone, anyone, can be “raped” via the insertion of nearly any body part or foreign object—penis, hand, foot, bottle, broomstick—into any orifice—vagina, mouth, anus. With this, then, comes the implicit recognition that individuals can be raped—men, women, and children—by nearly anyone else—men, women, even other children. One’s identity as gay or straight, young or old, male or female, able-bodied or with disability does not prevent one from being a possible victim, survivor, or perpetrator of sexual violence.

Nevertheless, we (typically young, straight women and girls) are told from our friends, concerned family members, and media portrayals that we are at the greatest risk of being raped. While this may be true in some capacities, the story is just as incomplete as the message is clear: “You should be very careful to not be raped…by a strange man lurking in the bushes.”

These warnings refer back to stories of lone joggers who are abducted from public places, brutally attacked, and left in ditches. In response, women are told to take a series of precautions: don’t walk alone at night, park your car under street lights, when you get into your car be sure to check the back seat, carry pepper spray in your purse, or take a self-defense class. Make sure someone knows where you are going and when you expect to be back. In fact, be aware that wearing your long hair in a ponytail makes you an easier target to grab hold of.

The constant threat of rape requires hyper-vigilance and self-defense on your part in terms of where you go, how you carry yourself, what you carry with you, and a constant suspicion of the strangers who surround you. If you’re not careful, you might get raped. Worst of all, you might be held accountable for your attack. (Never mind the more pressing imperative that should be addressed to the rapist, “Do not rape.”)

Unfortunately, this is not a myth; there are instances when a woman is brutally raped by an anonymous attacker. In fact, because of the type of physical violence that is frequently a part of such attacks—which, at times, can require emergency medical treatment or hospitalization—these tend to the be the instances of sexual violence that have a greater likelihood of being reported to the police and making the evening news. (Although, as just noted on NPR, even the way that these cases are treated—or not—by authorities is rife with problems.)

We hear about the victims and survivors through murmurs within our communities, we read about the violence, and hence, we know about the risks and dangers of some strangers. But this sort of violent rape from an anonymous attacker is not the most common threat, and so we give a disproportionate amount of attention to identifying and avoiding the threat of a form of sexual violence that is, in actuality, not the greatest threat after all. This misplacement of attention and energy is one aspect of what I refer to as an epistemology of ignorance about rape and sexual violence.

In describing the systematic production of White ignorance about racial domination, Charles Mills established the concept of an epistemology of ignorance as “a particular pattern of localized and global cognitive dysfunctions (which are psychologically and socially functional), producing the ironic outcome that whites will in general be unable to understand the world they themselves have made” (18).

In other words, an epistemology of ignorance results in a distorted, inverted way of seeing and understanding the world that actually prevents those who are in dominating positions of power from having a genuine understanding of the social realities that they have created. One can imagine someone saying, “Racism is no longer an issue. Look, we have a black President!” Or, “Sure, racism may still exist but it’s not my problem because I’m not a racist!” With respect to race and racism, producing and reinforcing an entire system of knowledge based on ignorance allows White people to avoid confronting their role in the perpetuation of racism because they fail to adequately identify the problem of racism in the first place. As Mills argues, an epistemology of ignorance can be both psychologically and socially functional insofar as it enables the continuation of domination by thwarting the likelihood that the problem, or one’s role in perpetuating it, will be accurately understood and acknowledged. (Click here to see a video I made on epistemologies of ignorance.)

The notion of an epistemology of ignorance can be easily applied to rape. For instance, one can imagine someone saying, “Sure, rape is a terrible thing, but it’s not like it happens that often. I don’t even know anyone who’s been raped.” Or, with respect to the cognitive disfunction of the perpetrators, “She didn’t seem all that into it (or conscious for that matter), but I eventually got a piece. I didn’t violently attack her on the street or anything, so I’m not a rapist!” How such comments reflect a systematic ignorance about rape that enables its continuation is remarkable and warrants further elaboration.

An important aspect of an epistemology of ignorance is that it can also affect the knowledge of those who are most harmed by a problematic social reality. In the case of rape, misperception, misunderstanding, and misidentification are obviously at work on cultural levels (as seen in limited legal definitions about what rape is) but it is also present in the minds of those who believe and act as if the greatest threat of rape comes from a strange man who plans a surprise attack.

Even if we don’t personally know someone who has been violently attacked in the way that we are told to fear, what we hear from our close friends and family members, or what we know for ourselves from our own experiences, is that sexual assault is, more often than not, perpetrated by someone who is known to the survivor. Rather than a masked attacker who charges out of the darkness from behind bushes in a park, the more likely rapist is an acquaintance, friend, or family member whose face one recognizes and with whom one may have spent time before, perhaps at a party, over a few dates, or even over the course of many years. This type of assault is not so much a ferocious act of so-called passion but more often a calculated act of power, domination, and coercion.

As a result, the concept ‘date rape’ has become much more familiar in order to give a name to the experience that is highly familiar, especially to young women on college campuses. How familiar is it? Well, in November of 2009, Voices, an independent newspaper in State College, Pennsylvania, published an article that highlighted the rates of rape, sexual assault, and domestic violence in this small university town. One of the most shocking facts within the article was the note that “[b]etween 10 and 12 percent of women students experienced a sexual assault while at Penn State…On a campus of 40,000 students, approximately half of whom are women, that would put the estimated number of sexual assaults at 2,000, or 100 times what is being reported to police.”

With the acknowledgement of “date rape” as another real threat come different calls for self-protection: don’t leave your drink unattended lest you be “roofied.” In fact, don’t consume substances that would compromise your ability to defend against being “taken advantage of.” And while we’re at it, don’t wear any clothing that would suggest you are “asking for it.” The obvious intention behind these protective measures is to keep a young woman safe on a fun night out. However, because they are directed to the “potential victim,” they implicitly echo the same sentiment from the previous warnings. “You, young lady, must take care and protect yourself.” (Again, never mind addressing the perpetrators: “Do not drug unsuspecting party-goers. Do not “take advantage” of someone simply because she cannot physically or verbally say, “No.” By the way, “No” means “No,” not “Yes,” or “Maybe,” or “Perhaps, so please keep trying to convince…err, coerce me.” Furthermore, and on a related note, know that one “asks” for sex in clear and explicit ways, such as “can we have sex now?” – i.e., not by simply wearing high heels and a short skirt.)

Even with greater awareness about the prevalence of date rape, there remains little appreciation for the difficulty it presents for survivors when it comes to reporting sexual assault. For instance, if there is no “physical evidence” that one fought off an attacker—no bruises, scratches, or bloodied wounds—one might fear that others won’t believe that a rape occurred. If one did, perhaps, drink a bit too much one night, does that mean that she actually is responsible for being raped? And what if the survivor and perpetrator share mutual friends and/or she cannot avoid seeing him on a regular basis? Does “reporting” the person one knows present a “greater” risk of social backlash by making a “big deal” out of something, thereby seriously disrupting the social cohesion within a group of “friends?”(If one needs a recent example, think no further than the late Lizzy Seeberg’s experience with some Notre Dame football players. After she went to the police, Seebeerg received a series of texts that “frightened her as much as anything that had happened in the player’s dorm room. ‘Don’t do anything you would regret,’ one of them said. ‘Messing with Notre Dame football is a bad idea.’”)

Or, in other situations where one knows her (or his) attacker, what if one is financially, professionally, or personally dependent on him (or her)? Not only is the legitimacy of one’s experience suddenly called into question in bizarre ways that lead to shame, self-doubt, or perhaps even an undue burden of responsibility, but the survivor is now also led to weigh the “costs” of being raped against the “costs” of reporting the rape.

Talk about cycles of trauma.

That last question above about the possible dependence one has on her or his attacker gestures to how the vulnerability of one’s social location in various types of relationships can make it exceptionally difficult to report rape and sexual assault.

This, as it turns out, is another important aspect of the epistemology of ignorance that enables the continuation of rape and sexual assault by, as part of the definition, allowing us to frequently misidentify and overlook the most vulnerable populations. Barring questions about what “counts” as legitimate rape, the movement from “You might be raped in dangerous public spaces” to “You might be raped in familiar social situations” still does not sufficiently bring to light the issue that those who are most vulnerable to sexual abuse and sexual assault are children and people with disabilities.

A study in 2000 concluded that persons under 18 years of age account for 67% of all sexual assault victimizations reported to law enforcement agencies with 48% involving children under twelve years old. That means that well over half of reported cases of sexual assault involve minors and close to half involve young children. Unfortunately, as shocking as these statistics may be, it’s hard to know if they present a full picture of the issue since these statistics are only based on cases that were officially reported.

The magnitude of these violations is further confounded by the fact that children and minors have even less of an opportunity to speak about their experiences than, say, most young women who can at least seek help from campus resources or community services. This is not only an issue about the perceived status of minors and children as potentially discredited speakers; at the level of social assumptions about rape scripts, we have culturally turned a blind eye to the reality that children and minors are a vulnerable population that need to be able to speak out about sexual assault.

By now it should be apparent that speaking out, let alone reporting, can be exceptionally difficult. To whom does one turn if one is being violated by a parent, a caretaker, a teacher, family friend, or, in the case of the Sandusky scandal at Penn State, a mentor and a coach? We, as members of our families and communities, obviously need to do more to protect our children. This doesn’t necessarily mean that we scare them into thinking that everyone will abuse and violate them. Instead, it requires that we more aggressively address the perpetrators—who we may also know very well.

My aim here has not been to suggest that the threat of rape is even more ubiquitous than we typically think and, thus, that we must now all be very, very afraid of everyone.

Instead, my hope is to draw attention to the fact that sexual violence in general is a cultural phenomenon that occurs on multiple of levels and in a myriad of ways but that often is not really understood or fully acknowledged – and this misunderstanding is part of what enables its continuation.

In fact, my discussion so far has still not done enough to note how racist politics and prejudices operate in the context of rape, especially in terms of how reported rapes are treated and criminally investigated. Nor have I mentioned how sexual violence can be experienced within the LGBT community, or how rape is used as a form of militaristic violence.

Despite my lack of space to unpack these issues here, I hope that a couple of things are clear: First, in our attempts to eliminate rape and sexual assault, we often address the wrong people—the victims rather than the perpetrators (who might even be so comfortably wrapped up in their own ignorance about rape that they don’t consider themselves rapists or what they do as rape). Secondly, due to the hostility, doubt, and shame that is directed at survivors, often before extending compassion, care, concern, or even benefit of the doubt, the fact that most rapes go unreported is less often an indication of weak or cowardly survivors and more likely an indication that we, as a culture, are doing something terribly wrong that prevents the full realities of rape from ever having to be brought to light and confronted head on.

Of course, survivors can be increasingly supported to report a rape, and the process of reporting should be made as safe, confidential, and empowering as possible. However, above, below, before, and in the backdrop of any discussion about how to report a rape there must be more critical efforts to dismantle the epistemology of ignorance that enables and maintains our culture of rape.

(I published a video on this topic a few year ago. Unfortunately, it is still pertinent material.)

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3 thoughts on ““You’re Not a Rapist if it’s Not Rape”

  1. Pingback: Teaching Against Evolution | Cori Wong

  2. “Frankly, when the “he said, she said” dilemma already helps make it all but impossible to legally prosecute and convict rape cases, “disparaging” perpetrators is really one of the only ways available to fight back. Taking even that power away by claiming that talking about your rape violates your rapist’s “right” to not be called a rapist is a pretty neat way of ensuring that rape culture is perpetuated. He said and she…shut up.”

    http://feministing.com/2013/02/26/university-of-north-carolina-student-could-be-expelled-for-intimidatingher-rapist-by-talking-about-the-assault/

  3. This was posted on Feministing.com on January 23, 2013.
    “Like Stassa, when I watched that horrible video leaked by Anonymous of former Steubenville athlete Michael Nodianos joking about the assault, I was struck by the lone voice of a guy off-screen who repeatedly tries to make his peers recognize that they are talking about rape, and that rape is wrong. It is heartbreaking to hear him keep naming the action, emphasizing the word each time, expecting that will be enough to end the laughter. It is very telling that it isn’t. Nodianos doesn’t deny that it was rape; that’s the punchline of every joke–a dozen minutes worth of them.”

    http://feministing.com/2013/01/23/gender-and-empathy-men-shouldnt-need-to-imagine-if-it-were-your-wifedaughtermother/

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