“Rape isn’t about sex; it’s about power”… except for when it really is just about sex

[TRIGGER WARNING: discussion of rape, both in abstract generalities and of my own specific experiences]

I was amazed recently to see the responses to this article about rape, and the idea that for many rapists, the fact that they know their victim doesn’t want to have sex is the turn-on. Which, this just seems obvious to me.

But, on facebook where I saw it shared, comment after comment poured in to correct the author on their understanding, because obviously “Rape is NOT about sex it’s about power and control.” Some people couched this in somewhat more nuanced ways, such as claiming that “It’s a sexual crime that is not sexual in nature,” or that “It is very much sexual. But it has nothing to do with sexual pleasure.”

The message here is: rapists don’t rape because they enjoy it sexually, or because doing so turns them on. They do it to feel powerful and/or to enact the power that they already have in society. And the thing is, sometimes this is exactly what rape is: when it is used as a tool of violence in war, very often when it occurs in prison, and also very often in abusive interpersonal relationships, rape is a symbolic way of claiming ownership and control over another human being, and often a way of communicating that that the rapist doesn’t consider them to be human, and sometimes that is the primary motivation for rape. And it is important to acknowledge this aspect of sexual/sexualized violence.

But that doesn’t even begin to cover the full range of non-consensual sexual activities. It completely elides the fact that we live in a society that does actively sexualize violence against women, and that generations of men have grown being taught to be turned on by sexual violence, just as the Ms. Magazine article describes.

In fact, the description of rape as always about power doesn’t even remotely apply to my own experience of rape.

There are some things that I’ve only just recently put together in my head, that explain my own experience of rape and how it happened in a much more solid way than I have ever before been able to articulate.

The thing about my abusive ex? One of the main things that I led to things going the way they did with us? His primary sexual fantasy was for one person to start off not wanting to have sex, but to change their mind once things started and wind up enjoying it.

Like, he told me this at one point. And I’ve only just now realized just how strong a thing this was and how much it coloured so many of our sexual interactions.

Because the thing that this did, in our relationship? It meant that if he wanted to have sex and my initial position was a no, not just that he didn’t accept that answer (which is the first and most obvious problem), but that he was actually *more* turned on once I’d said no, because this was now a chance for him to enact his fantasy. From his perspective, when I said no, the stakes actually got higher.

I didn’t realize this at all at the time, but it makes his behaviour make way more sense to me now. Not in a way that makes it somehow less reprehensible, for the record; just in a way that makes it easier for me to remember things more clearly, because the motivation tying together his actions has made the narrative easier to hold in my head.

This also explains some other things that for years left me confused and unable to name my experiences as rape. The thing about it all is that my rapist isn’t a person who got off specifically on non-consent – he doesn’t quite fit the model described in the Ms. article that started me down the road to figuring this out. What he was looking for wasn’t violent all the way through. It was slightly murkier than that.

And so there are facts like, I learned how and when to vocalize fake enjoyment to make things go faster, and to get him to finish more quickly. Because, of course, his fantasy wouldn’t be complete without it.

Though, I also have to admit that it’s not as if me never coming around to vocal enjoyment ever stopped him, either. It just made things take longer, and often involved him tapping into his other major turn-ons, which were just generally more physically demanding for me – though I also knew to pull them out when I didn’t have the energy for play-acting (you see how I gave myself the illusion of choice and control, there?)

The truth is, my abuser was a deeply, overwhelmingly selfish person. He was entitled, in ways that pervaded all of his interactions with other people, and the ways he would push to get his way in all things. But his impulses were never intended to be violent. He didn’t really understand what he was doing to me, but that doesn’t make it any better for me that I went through it.

For him, it was definitely, unquestioningly, and always about sex. About his sexual fantasies, and turn-ons, and pleasure. And he failed to see the implications of his actions, and he failed to really care about my boundaries, ever. It wasn’t ever really about dehumanizing me, or anything remotely like that.

But it was definitely rape.

So, to the people who insist that rape is never about sex: you are allowing your political position and perhaps your personal experience to override and delegitimize the lived experiences of many rape survivors. Your shitty hard line stance made it harder for me to identify my experience as rape and has made my healing process unnecessarily difficult. Stop it.

11 comments

      1. The person that came up with it is extremely incendiary and problematic (to the point of being a total hypocrite), so don’t go looking into them. But I’ve found CAFS to be really useful. Hope you get something out if it!

  1. Okay, first and most importantly: what happened to you was deeply, deeply shitty, and I’m really sorry it did. And I’m also really pleased for you that you are finding ways to conceptualize and talk about it that make it more solid. Easier to hold in your mind.

    (I’m going to say more now — because this subject is important to me personally too, because you’re talking about an issue that’s bothered me for a long time too — but really, all that really matters is what I said in those first 3 sentences.)

    The “rape is about power not sex” idea was a HUGE sea change when second-wave feminists began articulating it. Massively important. Without it, we don’t get rape crisis centers; “marital rape” still doesn’t exist as a concept, let alone a crime; ditto for “date rape”; and a victim’s sexual past is priority one for prosecutors and judges as well as defense counsel. Without that idea, we don’t see as a problem even a fraction of the sexual violence that we recognize today (itself only a fraction of the sexual violence that occurs).

    That said, it’s an idea I believe we now desperately need to move beyond. 1) Power is massively eroticized in our culture, as you point to. 2) It elevates the rapist’s intent far too much: “was this about Asserting Power?? Or just about getting off?” Plllbt. Irrelevant to the issue of whether or not a violation occurred. (And I dislike scenarios in which the assailant needs to *agree* that they committed a crime or an abuse, before the rest of us can agree an abuse occurred.) 3) It relies on everybody having an agreed idea of what exactly constitutes “sex”. Not gonna happen in my lifetime — nor do I think it should. 4) Consent. It HAS be about consent — which has the added benefit of demystifying sex, seems to me. Or at least removes it from some domain we seem to find too difficult to discuss coherently and brings it back into the fold of ” this is how all human interactions work.”

    Everybody has to want to play…or the game has to change or stop.

    (Much love and support to you…)

    1. Oh yes for sure! I didn’t mean to imply that the idea that rape is about power isn’t important – it definitely is. And sexual violations in the form of harassment are, I think, just about always about power, for instance.

      It’s just, yeah. We are definitely ready to move beyond that, as you say.

      (Thank you!)

      1. I know you and I are on the same page :) but some folks who don’t think on these issues much have gotten as far as that slogan and no farther. (I’ll be honest, didn’t even look at the article or –gods save me! — the comments you began by responding to.) So I was more talking myself through my position than anything.

        Here’s another wrinkle, your idea on harassment = power just made me think of! All the ways that gender and power get conflated, too. “Masculinity as power-over” is perhaps the most obvious trope at play in harassment, but WHEW… Hardly the only one.

  2. At one point in a sociology class, when we were discussing rape, including prison rape, someone said something implying that men raping men in prison indicates something about their sexual orientations. I corrected them by saying that I have heard that rape is often (usually? don’t remember the wording) about power, and hence gender may not always matter in rape. But I find it despicable that people are insisting that rape is always about power in direct contradiction to the lived experiences of those whose rape was not about power.

    I’m glad you posted this, as I’ve learned more about the ways that rape can happen outside of the normalized narratives, and so I will know enough to speak up if I see something like this happening. I will definitely have to read that article you’ve linked. Also, Alice, I found your comments highly informative.

  3. Thank you so much, Kasey, for writing about this! It’s really important that people realize this.

    Rape isn’t *always* about sex HAS to be more of the sentiment people were trying to get across, like prison and army rapists who rape men do so because they’re the only potential victims around, not because they’re all secretly harboring gay or bisexual desires. Some of them might be, but not all of them, because rape is sometimes really more about power than anything else. But most people understand that a pedophile who rapes a child does so BECAUSE they are sexually attracted to children.

    I mean some people also go too far with “Rape is not sex” as a line, which means “no rape can be about sex” *because* rape is never sex. People get themselves all confused over this point, I think. A man who sexually assaults a child isn’t “having sex with” the child because that’d be incorrectly defining what happened, it’s rape, it’s not sex. I prefer to NOT think of “consensual sex” as a redundant phrase though, and I prefer to NOT think of “non-consensual sex” as an oxymoron. I like to think of sex as a broad category that includes rape as well as consensual sex. I think various things I’ve read from survivors have influenced me away from the sex-positive rhetoric that seemed good at first but said sex is only sex if it includes enthusiastic consent.

    And back to this issue, I also didn’t click through and look at the awful comments you described. I hate even just the thought that people were (and are) pushing so hard the false idea that sexual preferences and fantasies don’t play into rape.

    This issue reminds me of a broader issue in terms of how people talk about abuse and free will. Some people go around spouting about the intentions of abusers, and make generalizations that don’t really apply. It’s true that the “they can’t help it” or “they didn’t mean to hurt me” idea isn’t always really correct, but to push so far back in the other direction and say “they always are intentional about hurting you” doesn’t really resonate with everyone’s lived experiences either. A lot of things can count as abuse, really, and a lot of these things are not okay.

    1. I thought a bunch about how this rhetoric is connected to the idea that rape isn’t sex, and shouldn’t be talked about as sex as I was writing this, as well, though it didn’t make it into the final post. Maybe I will do a follow-up, because I definitely think that’s an important angle, and I kind of agree with you that treating them as totally different things just isn’t terribly useful and causes unnecessary confusion, which can easily derail things.

  4. “It meant that if he wanted to have sex and my initial position was a no, not just that he didn’t accept that answer (which is the first and most obvious problem), but that he was actually *more* turned on once I’d said no, because this was now a chance for him to enact his fantasy”

    That is utterly horrific and it’s so awful that you had that experience. I don’t have any words of wisdom on the topic. I just couldn’t pass through here only clicking the Like button without saying something because what you described such a serious and terrible thing to have been put through by another person. I’m so glad he is now an ex.

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