Over a year ago, I wrote about the problem of rape in progressive communities, and the harsh fact that anyone can be a rapist, even someone you like and respect, someone you look up to, someone you don’t think could possibly be ‘that kind of person.’ This post is sort of the logical extension of that post, although it cuts closer to home, because the point needs to be articulated: when I say that anyone can be a rapist, I include you (and me) in that statement.
In the myriad of discussions this year about rape and sexuality, there have been constant reminders that the problem with rape lies not with victims, but with rapists. If we want to stop rape, we need to focus on the people who are doing it, not the people who are being raped; which means that we need to understand why it is that so many people are so poorly educated about rape, and so unwilling to put any checks on their own behaviour when it comes to, you know, not raping.
Statistically, men are much more likely to be rapists, and culturally, that reflects a larger culture of misogyny. In a community where women are viewed as objects of power and subjugation, rape becomes another way of exerting authority and reminding women of who is in charge. In a culture where women are deemed without value, sex crimes are barely worthy of investigation and comment, let alone serious prosecution; we live in a society where girls can be gangraped and adults cover it up, where long-term molestation of children is known about and never discussed, where women who dare to report their rapes are promptly blamed for being raped in the first place, and then ruining the lives of the accused by having the audacity to talk about it.
Many have argued that in order to stop rape, we need to be raising boys not to rape (and, I would argue, teaching children of other genders not to rape as well—though a statistical minority, they are still a presence). I wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment, but I also wonder how many adults could use some anti-rape education as well, including, dare I say it, ‘progressives’ who assure each other that they would never do that kind of thing, that they are always respectful and loving with partners, that they would never force themselves on someone.
Some progressives at least mostly understand what many people do not, which is that most rapes involve people known to the victim, and then many of these involve intimate relationships. I don’t fear a rapist in a dark alley; statistically, I’m highly unlikely to be assaulted in that setting. I fear the people I know, and while it may make the people I know uncomfortable to hear that, it’s a simple fact. I certainly am not perturbed when the people I know share my fear, knowing full well that close relationships can result in rape, and that these rapes are not as neatly tied up in a bow as the rape of the popular imagination, not as sharp and clearly defined.
When we talk about teaching people not to rape, there’s a focus in many progressive communities on what’s known as ‘enthusiastic consent,’ the idea that people engaged in sexual activity should both be enthusiastic about it, should both be having a good time, should both be comfortable with what is going on. Critics seem to envision this as a checklist that must be gone through at every stage of a sexual encounter, or some sort of carefully negotiated contract that happens before anyone takes anything off, when the reality of enthusiastic consent is much more complicated; it involves an intimate knowledge of a partner, a read for body language, sensitivity, and awareness. It is something individually defined and negotiated.
Much like rape, enthusiastic consent is complicated, and it does not always adhere to hard boundaries. When pushes across boundaries occur they are not always easy to identify, or to put a stop to; something that was okay one day might not be the next, someone might feel obliged to please a partner but not that engaged, someone might be reluctant to protest but could still appear enthusiastic, and the markers of these things can be extremely subtle. Pushing enthusiastic consent alone, in other words, is not enough to prevent rape, though obviously clear, open communication is key and should be an important part of sexuality and relationships.
Recognising that each of us has a capacity to push too far, and probing that ability within yourself, is important if you’re going to be sexually active. Because if you truly do want to be respectful of your partners, not raping them is rather key to that, and ‘not raping’ is not always a simple, clear, easy act; you have to start by acknowledging that you have the capacity to override another person’s consent, and that your intentions in the encounter don’t matter when it comes to the outcome. If your desire was to have a mutually enjoyable fun time and your partner did not have fun, perhaps felt pressured or uncomfortable, it may not necessarily have been rape, depending on how your partner felt, but it definitely wasn’t what you set out to accomplish.
The idea that anyone can be a rapist seems terrifying enough to many people when it’s applied to the world at large and they come to understand that sexuality is not as simple as they want it to be. To take that to a logical extension, that you yourself can be a rapist, can be even more traumatic: but that doesn’t mean this is a conversation that shouldn’t be had.