Rape statistics are extremely difficult to untangle, and a wide variety of numbers get thrown around, but it’s hard to pin down which one is accurate. Statistics for cis women are more widely discussed and reported, while statistics for cis men are harder to access and are probably even less reliable. Coverage of the trans population is even more sketchy. Thus, it’s hard to say exactly how many people are likely to be raped in their lifetimes, although it is definitely safe to say that even one rape is too many.
Someone, though, needs to be doing all of this raping, because rape requires at least two people. There is a common perception of the rapist as a murky figure who jumps out of the bushes, and a great deal of work has gone into breaking down that perception. Acquaintance rape is much more common, involving a rapist the victim knows and may be familiar with—could even be in an intimate relationship with, in fact. While the popular media may continue to maintain outdated ideas about who rapes and why, progressive circles have really changed the way they talk about rape, rapists, and victims.
Rape is rarely neat, tidy, and easy to define. It very rarely stays within the boundaries defined by traditional media, of a victim fighting and struggling and screaming ‘no’ while an attacker rapes. Sometimes it is within the boundaries of a relationship, where a ‘soft no[1. I use scare quotes here because no means no, period, but this term is very commonly used to describe situations where people feel immense pressure that makes it hard to say no.]’ isn’t taken seriously. It does not necessarily involve penetration. It is not necessarily perpetrated by men against women. There is not necessarily physical violence, and emotional coercion can take many forms. Many progressives recognise this in conversations about rape and how to address it in society, noting that narrow definitions can really harm victims/survivors and make it hard to seriously tackle the subject, to get people to stop committing rape.
These circles, though, have trouble talking about specific instances of rape that occur within them[2. Please note: This post is not a discussion about specific people or incidents.]. Progressives widely believe that they, themselves, cannot be rapists, because they are progressive and they care about social issues and they think about rape, consent, and gender equality on a regular basis. When someone they know, trust, and respect is accused of rape, or even when there are suggestions that rape may be occurring in progressive spaces, the first reaction is often a denial, a backlash, and it can become very ugly.
Suddenly, progressives are using the same words they’ve always condemned. ‘Not the man I know.’ ‘That’s totally not like her.’ ‘There must have been extenuating circumstances.’ ‘I don’t think we’re hearing the whole story.’ They are so very eager to deny that rape, this terrible thing, has happened in their own space, that people they know have been involved not as victims, but specifically as perpetrators. They are horrified to think that rape can touch their communities in this way.
And the end result is further isolation for the victim. Reporting rape and talking about it openly is a terrifying thing, even when you are in a community where you know you are likely to be supported and helped through the process, where other victims/survivors may be willing to talk with you and help you through the process. Reporting rape when your rapist is someone in that community is extremely difficult, just as it is in any other intra-community rape. Because there are people who are going to defend your rapist by ejecting you from the community and isolating you from the resources you need, as well as your friends.
Dealing with rape in any community is hard, but progressive spaces attempting to cultivate an environment where victims/survivors are safe have a special responsibility to make sure it is taken seriously and handled appropriately, by whatever means the victim/survivor is comfortable with. That might mean taking a matter to court, and providing support through the trial, which is likely to be emotionally grueling and extremely difficult. It definitely means having a long, hard conversation about whether a rapist should continue to be welcome in the community. The answer to that should be ‘no,’ but it can take a long time to get there, and sometimes people don’t get there at all.
People have a hard time with this because they have a hard time understanding that anyone can be a rapist. All of us human beings have the capacity to commit rape, and have an obligation to make sure we do not. Need to solicit consent before engaging in any sexual activity with anyone, need to play an active role in doing so; this is not about ‘negotiating consent,’ which comes dangerously close to coercion at times, but obtaining consent. Because sexual activity against someone’s will is never okay, no matter what the circumstances and who is doing it.
It is difficult to come to the realisation that someone you know, someone you trust, perhaps someone you admire, someone who shares your politics and is passionate about the same causes, can commit rape. But it happens. Good people can do terrible things. People who fight for social justice and inclusion can do terrible things. People who are very aware of the complex issues surrounding rape and how it is treated in society can still commit rape. Understanding this, recognising it, confronting it, is key for progressive communities that want to combat rape in their ranks and cultivate safer spaces.
They owe it to the victims and survivors among them, including those who are too terrified to speak, and they owe it to each other. Stopping rape within our own communities is just as important as stopping rape everywhere else.