rape is about power

“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.

Guest Post! Sex vs. Rape vs. Power

[Today’s guest post brought to you by Problematic Shit (some) Feminists Say That Actually Make It Harder For Rape Survivors to Process Their Experiences, and For Us Even To Have Productive Conversation About Rape! Everybody welcome Frances Rae (@LetsHearItForMe), who was kind enough to write down some stuff when I asked them to because of a conversation we were having.]

There are a couple of phrases I’ve heard used in conversations about consent and rape, often by well-meaning people who usually identify as feminists and who are usually trying to examine and challenge rape culture:

“Rape is not sex,”
and,
“Rape is about power, not sex.”

It's unclear to me how "Rape is about power" follows from "It's never the victim's fault." I understand how, if it were true that rape is about power, the rape conversation would be simpler. But I fail to see evidence that it's true.

It’s unclear to me how “Rape is about power” follows from “It’s never the victim’s fault.” I understand how, if it were true that rape is about power, the rape conversation would be simpler. But I fail to see evidence that it’s true.

They are concise, tidy mantras whose political function I understand as wanting to completely, absolutely distinguish between consensual and non-consensual sex acts and emphasize the (not necessarily physical) violence involved in removing someone’s choice. Those can be important things to differentiate, and the motivation behind saying these things is aptly based in promoting consent as critical. But these phrases can feel like they’re doing more than that, and I think they are actually damaging to the ideas they’re ostensibly trying to support. They also assume that there is no need to investigate the motivations or perceptions behind how rape occurs because they assume that the only possible reason for rape is a conscious intent of malice by A Bad Person.

“Rape is not sex.”

To begin with, “Rape is not sex” can be easily construed as “Rape never looks like sex.” If this were true, then it would follow that we would always immediately recognize rape and be able to differentiate it from consensual sex. But if rape and sex are so radically different as to always be obvious, it puts more responsibility on survivors to both identify and halt activities that are nonconsensual, which in turn leads to placing blame on them after it occurs. This also opens the door to let rapists off the (ethical and, often, legal) hook both by discrediting survivors’ accounts and attributing guilt to both parties.

Imagine, for example, that you’re in a long-term relationship. Often you do want to have sex with your partner, and you fully consent and enjoy yourself. Other times, you feel pressured, or aren’t in the mood, or change your mind partway through, and maybe aren’t comfortable saying so, but your partner proceeds. For the most part it otherwise looks like the rest of the sex you have anyway. Imagine this happens once, or a few times, or every time. You know you didn’t want to, but it didn’t occur to you until much later that what happened was not okay. Is it your fault for not knowing, then, since you should always be able to tell the difference between rape and sex? What if the times you consent and the times you don’t look so similar as to be almost indistinguishable?

The idea that rape never looks like sex can be detrimental to many people’s experiences of how both consensual sex and rape occur. It also follows from this that there are plenty of people out there who are completely oblivious to the fact that they’ve raped someone. From a young age, we are taught that one person will be the gatekeeper while the other will be the pursuer of sex: that if someone is pursuing you, you are supposed to say no (because if you don’t, it carries a heavy character judgement) whether you want sex or not, and that if you are the one doing the pursuing, it is your job to turn that inevitable “no” into a “yes”- or, at least, an opportunity. Usually these roles are assigned to women and men respectively, but that dynamic can certainly apply to relationships or interactions of any gender. As a result, coercion can end up seeming like an inevitable part of any sexual relationship. If you believe that someone is going to say no whether they mean it or not, what impact does that have on how seriously you will take a “no”? If you believe that you’re supposed to say “no” whether you mean it or not, how do you know whether you’ve been raped? What if both parties just plain don’t know of any other way for sex to happen?

“Rape is about power, not sex.”

The idea that rape is about power and not sex erases this very problem of how to communicate about consent in a variety of contexts. In the first place, we have to decide whether we even care what rape is “about” for the rapist, which I know is a contentious issue for a lot of people. It’s easy to say we shouldn’t care what rapists are thinking, and it is understandable, even, to not want to care. But I think if we want to reject all notions of victim-blaming and truly believe that the only person responsible for rape is the rapist, it is probably a good idea to look at how this can occur from that perspective. I’ve often heard (and agree) that we should be teaching “don’t rape” rather than “don’t get raped”, and I think that in order to do that, it is valuable to examine how sex and consent are understood by the pursuers. If someone just wants sex and doesn’t know how to go about that in ways that are respectful and consensual, it doesn’t necessarily mean their desire is about power. I’m not saying this makes them any less culpable- but how can you tell someone not to rape if they don’t know that what they’re doing is rape?

Now, this isn’t to say I think we should sympathize with rapists. When I say this is something “we” need to investigate, I am talking about the pursuers. There are campaigns like Men Can Stop Rape that do a lot of good and important work to broaden our awareness of what constitutes consent and illustrate some situations that are beyond the stereotypical stranger-in-an-alley depiction of rape. I do think it is problematic, however, to dichotomize and attribute segregated statuses to particular bodies or identities. While there are statistical differences in vulnerability, at the individual level no one is exempt from either side of sexual coercion.

Basically, all I want to acknowledge here is the following:

  • It can be difficult to differentiate between rape and sex, and saying they’re different things is not really constructive.
  • Sometimes rape is about not having an understanding of consent, even despite wanting to or believing they do.
  • Everyone should be mindful of the ways they go about pursuing sex in any context.
  • There needs to be more discussion (generally, everywhere, all the time, for everybody) about what consent entails.

So, those are my controversial opinions of the day on how the things we say about rape are wrong and why we should stop saying them. Please feel free to leave a comment telling me what a doofus I am. Goodbye, internet!

Frances Rae is a queer gender-bored non-monogamous parent to a hilarious four-year-old and partner to a handful of generally amazing humans. They are passionate about queerness, mental illness, and talking about poop. Frances spends their time doing crafts, walking into door frames, and accidentally covering Toronto in glitter. They have a degree in psychology & sexuality studies, and their favourite colour is everything. Follow them on twitter @LetsHearItForMe