This post is inspired by notawhisper’s post pointing out that medical rape is wrong even if the doctor committing it isn’t getting off on it or thinking “now I’m going to rape her.” Great comment in there about what mens rea really means as opposed to how some interpret it. Regarding medical rape, does anyone know the status of the giving knocked-out women pelvic exams without their consent thing? I’d be all for a campaign to ask hospitals if they do that and publicize the results to put pressure on them to make official rules (or hey, an actual law) against it.
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Sometimes, when people are raped, they are also physically hurt. That’s wrong. But it’s not why rape is wrong. Even if there are no physical injuries, even if there’s no physical pain, rape is still wrong.
Sometimes, when someone rapes, he or she wants to hurt and traumatize the victim. That’s wrong. But it’s not why rape is wrong. Even when the rapist doesn’t mean any harm, rape is still wrong.
Most times, when someone is raped, they are emotionally traumatized. They have a hard time trusting people, they’re scared, they’re ashamed, sex becomes even more complex, they have flashbacks. It’s wrong to do this to a person. But even that isn’t why rape is wrong. Even if the survivor gets up the next day and never thinks about it again, rape is still wrong.
Sometimes, when someone is raped, they “lose” their “virginity.” That’s not why rape is wrong. Even if the person has had sex a million times, rape is still wrong.
Rape is wrong because it violates the right of a person to control what others do to his or her body. People compare rape to theft a lot, but I don’t like that comparison. Rape is more like breaking and entering, except into your body (or onto your body – I personally think the line between rape and sexual assault is not that important, but that’s another topic) instead of into your house. Since your body is even more personal, this is even more of a violation. Even if your house has been broken into before, even if the person breaking in didn’t actually mess anything up or steal anything, even if the person turns out to be kind of nice and you have a little chat, they still broke the law, they still violated your rights, they still don’t have the right to break and enter. (No, not even if your house has really sexy shutters and you can see all the expensive stuff through the windows. No, not even if your house is alone at night in a bad neighborhood. No, not even if the alarm is off so your house doesn’t yell at the person to go away when they break in. Funny how no one ever says “well they didn’t set their alarm, so obviously they were asking for it.”)
Feminists and anti-feminists start arguing past each other when we talk about the importance of intent and issues of consent. Here’s how I see it. Let’s use names for simplicity, I’ll pick gender neutral ones. Imagine Alex and Taylor. Alex starts doing something sexual with Taylor without checking for consent first, because Alex doesn’t know that affirmative consent matters. Is it rape? Yes. Alex starts a sex act with Taylor after getting consent, and then Taylor says stop and Alex doesn’t stop. Is it rape? Yes. Taylor gives Alex consent one day but not the next day, and Alex has sex with Taylor again anyway. Rape? Yes. Alex starts a sex act and Taylor doesn’t say anything but tries to stop Alex, and Alex doesn’t stop. Rape? Yes. If you apply these situations to houses, it’s pretty clear that Alex is always in the wrong. Poor little Alex may not realize this, but that doesn’t change the wrongness. That just means we have to make sure everybody knows what consent means. Alex doesn’t have to mean any harm to violate Taylor’s right to bodily autonomy. He/she just has to violate the right, that’s all. Alex’s guilt-the-emotion is Alex’s issue, but Alex’s guilt-the-state is society’s issue, because it affects Taylor and potentially others.
Meanwhile, a similar principle applies to Taylor. Here’s where people misunderstand each other a lot. Let’s say Alex asks for consent, Taylor gives consent, but secretly doesn’t want to. They have sex. Is it rape? No. If Alex can tell Taylor doesn’t want to, Alex would be an asshole to keep going, and this is an area where I think there can be legitimate debate. On one hand, we could say maybe Taylor wanted to do it even though he/she didn’t appear to be enjoying it, we can’t read Taylor’s mind and as long as Taylor gave affirmative consent without any force and never attempted, verbally or non-verbally, to withdraw consent, then it’s ok. On the other hand, we could say that consent should be enthusiastic because people too often feel that they have to have sex because of sexist or otherwise bad cultural expectations, so settling for less than enthusiasm is taking advantage. There’s a similar argument regarding sex work: is consenting out of want of money enough, or does consent have to come from a genuine desire to have sex for the sake of sex? It’s complicated, and real feminists debate these things in good faith. So that’s another post. But if you’d like to be a decent human being, I suggest you ask your partner how they feel if they seem unenthusiastic. Sometimes sex isn’t quite working but you want to keep going so it’ll get better; other times you just feel like you’re supposed to, and you shouldn’t feel like you’re supposed to. Sometimes people have different standards for what they consider affirmative consent, and it’s incredibly important that you be sure you have received what your partner considers real consent before you continue. That’s why we’re for affirmative consent rather than a lack of no, because silence can mean totally different things to different people.
So, see, I’m not requiring people to read any minds, neither of rapists nor of rape victims. Rape is a sexual act without consent. Consent is something real. It’s more complicated than some think – it’s not just the absence “AHHHHH NOOOOOO!” But it’s not so complex that it’s beyond comprehension by a reasonable person: It’s the absence of coercion + the presence of verbal and/or nonverbal yes + the absence of verbal and nonverbal no/stop. (Yes, you have to figure out what counts as “coercion”, “yes” and “no”, which is why I said a reasonable person.) Sex acts committed under conditions that do not fit this definition are sexual assault or rape. They are rape because they are committed without consent. They are wrong because they are committed without consent. Rape is wrong because it is committed without consent. This isn’t rocket science.
Alexes, people who rape without meaning to do anything wrong, exist. They get their twisted ideas of sex and consent from their cultures, and they’ve just never stopped to think about how they respect one’s right to one’s house more than certain people’s rights to their bodies. I personally would be less likely to press charges against an Alex, and I imagine I’m not the only one, not because I’d think it wasn’t rape, but because I’d have a hard time trying to get an Alex thrown in prison for years while I knew that he didn’t want to hurt me. But we can’t let them rape any more people (no, not even if their victims are related to politicians we don’t like). Then again, throwing them in prison isn’t at all guaranteed to stop rape, either. We should have a way to deal with rapists that will keep them from doing it again and will address the root causes of rape, which, for these Alexes, is the parts of our cultures that make people think that some instances of rape aren’t really rape or aren’t really wrong. Neither prison nor doing nothing are likely to accomplish those goals. We need another option, one based on results rather than on the appearance of results, one that targets guilt-the-state rather than having a field day with guilt-the-emotion. But any solution has to be firmly grounded in an understanding of what the problem really is, why rape is wrong in the first place.
Apologies to people with the name Alex ; ). It was really just the first gender-neutral name that came to mind.