If there’s one thing you encounter right quick when you talk about rape, it’s the attitude that only certain kinds of rapes ‘count’ and that there’s a specific scenario you can identify as ‘rape,’ while anything else isn’t, really. It’s one of the things I push back on over and over, and it seems like every time I turn around, it’s back. The rape committed by a stranger who physically assaults the victim as well as sexually assaulting her is like a dandelion; you can tear it up as much as you want, you can stomp on it, you can spray it with caustic chemicals, and it will cheerfully spring back as soon as you’re done, sometimes, seemingly, more resilient than ever before.
I was really struck by this during the rape storyline we saw on Private Practice during sweeps week. For those who don’t watch the show, it went with the classic stranger rape scenario (featuring a mentally ill stranger, at that), played for ratings, big time. The storyline involved consultation with RAINN and it was a Big Deal. Everyone talked about it, at length. It certainly accomplished the goal, which was to get people talking about the show (Grey’s Anatomy seems to overshadow it in pretty much every category you care to name).
I wasn’t impressed with the rape episode. While I thought they explored some things well and realistically, my overarching response was rage. For two reasons. The first was that I feel like rape storylines on TV usually play out this way, reinforcing the idea that the only rapes that are ‘real’ are those involving strangers and broken noses. Shows rarely play rape in more complex and ambiguous ways, I guess because they want to make sure the audience is 100% sympathetic. Here Charlotte King was, minding her own business, and she is the victim of a violent rape anyway, because the world is a horrible place and rapists are bad people. Introducing notes of complexity; making the rapist known to the victim, having the victim be drunk or drugged, these would cloud the storyline and force viewers to think about rape, and rapists, and victims, differently. We wouldn’t want that.
The other reason I was enraged was because Private Practice had already had a rape episode, the week before. The episode featured a comatose patient who gets pregnant because she was raped while in an institution, and it turns out she was being raped by her spouse. Except the show didn’t call it that. Instead, Addison, the only person who even seemed to think this was a problem, was repeatedly told she was just overreacting. Indeed, the show presented the situation as one where Addison was being silly and unreasonable, you know, thinking it was ‘rape’ when it was clearly just an expression of the husband’s love! I really wish I was exaggerating here, but that was very much my read on the episode.
In one fell swoop, Private Practice not only reiterated the stereotype about what a ‘real rape’ is, but also provided ample backup to reinforce it. Raping a woman in a coma is ‘having sex with,’ apparently. It’s not cool, mind, but it’s not rape, either, according to this show. When a woman gets pregnant because she has been raped while in a coma, she’s just ‘impregnated.’ Not for nothing do I harp about the devaluation of disabled bodies and the skyrocketing rape rates experienced by people with disabilities, women in particular, women in institutions especially. Many people do not believe that raping women in comas is wrong, or consider it to be a kind of ‘lesser crime,’ or, honestly, I don’t even know. All I know is that many people are very resistant to defining rape of women who cannot consent because of disability as what it is. Which is rape.
And people are also very reluctant to identify rapes committed by people known to the victim as rapes. This comes up repeatedly in pop culture, where such incidents are just ‘bad sex.’ This has real world consequences. We take lessons from pop culture. Pop culture influences the way we view the world. Pop culture determines how we respond to the situations we encounter. When pop culture says that if you go out with a friend to a bar and the friend forces you to have sex, it’s your fault and it’s not rape, well, when that actually happens to you, you decide it can’t have been rape. Because the television told you so. The television also tells us that people in relationships evidently have some sort of sex contract, and thus it’s not possible for people to commit rape in the context of a marriage or a romantic relationship. The other partner really wanted it and just didn’t know it, you see.
And if you do identify these things as rape when they happen to you, pushback will come from all sides, thanks to the people around you who have been trained to reject the definition of ‘rape’ for these situations. That leaves you in a bit of a dark wood wandering; you have no one to turn to, you do not know who is safe, you are alone. People who are alone have trouble pursuing rape cases, pressing for justice. People who are alone also tend to be more likely to experience depression and suicidal ideation; enough people telling you what happened wasn’t rape, what happened didn’t matter, tends to have a pretty brutal effect.
Pop culture needs to stop differentiating between ‘real’ rape and any other kind of rape it thinks there is. Because its depictions of rape and sexual assault are having very real and very harmful impacts on people and society in general. Rapists learn what they can get away with, and rape victims learn, again, that they don’t matter.