rape myths

“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.

PSA of the Day

Things that, when they occur, can be considered natural consequences of choosing to get drunk, for which the person who chose to drink is responsible:

  • Having a hangover
  • Getting alcohol poisoning

Things that are *not* natural consequences of choosing to drink:

  • Getting roofied
  • Getting raped
  • Being robbed
  • Getting taken advantage of in any way

Please note that the items in that second list all involve the active and autonomous actions and choices of another person other than the person who drank “too much”. The person who was over-indulging did not choose to have these things happen to them; the person who did them chose to do so, and that choice is *their* responsibility, and a natural consequence of them being a terrible person.

In other words, the first list is things that alcohol (which we sometimes actively invite into our bodies) does to people; the second list is things that other people do to people, without permission. Understood?

That is all.

Righteous rage of the day

[Content note: rape, pedophilia, rape apology]
Currently reading

This makes me so fucking angry:

“I always wanted to protect kids,” he said during one of two interviews at the Miami County Jail. “Somewhere along the line, things went wrong.”

Orly? So, in you story, you were just going along, minding your own business, adopting children out of the goodness of your heart, and then one day you just totally accidentally started raping them? I mean, you never meant for it to happen or anything. And then, once that had happened, there wasn’t really anything else you could do but get other men to also rape them. There just simply weren’t any other options, obviously.

I mean, it totally could’ve just happened to anyone, right? Rape is like a force of nature and no one involved really has any responsibility for it.

Gods. Fucking. Dammit.

…On a lighter note, I do really, really appreciate that the author of the article also included the following:

Child abuse by adoptive fathers is much rarer than by biological fathers, or by other male relatives and non-relatives, federal studies have indicated.

“This isn’t a typical situation. It certainly isn’t typical of people seeking adoption,” said David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. “Most abusers of this sort have an interest in a child during a certain period of their development. They are looking for opportunities where they can get access to the kids. They don’t want to have custodial responsibility.”

Fostering and adopting children meant passing background checks and other scrutiny, with home studies and follow-up visits by social workers.

Working against rape myths, and trying to prevent people from using this particular case to shore up their confirmation bias about adoptive parents? Awesome, Ms. Farrar. Pure awesome.

PSA of the day

Women in short skirts don’t get raped because they were wearing short skirts.

Women who are drunk don’t get raped because they are drunk.

People doing [thing that rape culture says gets people raped] don’t get raped because they did that thing.

Rapists rape people in short skirts/drunk people/people doing whatever thing the culture has decided they’re not supposed to do because you made it clear to them that if they targeted someone doing one of those things, their victim would not be believed and they would get away with it.

Stop teaching rapists how to get away with rape.

Models of consent, Part 1 – No Means No

This is the first in what will be a series of posts critically examining some of the ways consent has been framed in feminist and other circles.

“No means no”

I think it’s fair to say that the “no means no” model of consent has the most mainstream traction in North America today. And it seems simple enough – when someone objects to you doing something to them, you don’t do that thing to them, right? As a rule, it works in every possible life context, not just sexual ones.

Of course, you still get people saying things like “sometimes a no is just a yes that needs more convincing” (this is actually a sadly common answer to the OKCupid multiple-choice match question asking people whether they believe that no means no). I would like to just completely write these people off ass assholes, except for two things. First, it’s too prevalent a belief to completely write off. And second, as much I would like it to be untrue, there’s still an mount of stigma attached to being a woman who gives in “too easily” to sexual advances.

To some extent, as fucked up as it is, (some) men expect to have to “work” for the privilege of having sex with a woman. Because women don’t ever have sex ’cause they like sex, they just do it to keep around a fellow who buys them nice things and takes care of them, am I right? And for reasons I will never understand, apparently in some straight men’s minds, a woman who uses sex as a gambit is actually preferable to a woman who really wants to have sex with them, and enjoys it.

Um… because they can’t be trusted not to have sex with other men, I guess? Yeah, that’s just a gross attitude, but it does seem like some people still carry it around.

But yeah, it is because our culture has set up the mainstream narrative of sexual politics this way that “no means no” meets so much resistance despite it’s obvious correctness.

That said, though, there are also some legitimate criticisms to be made of the “no means no” model. After all, it does set the onus on the person who doesn’t want sex to clearly express themselves on that point. And it’s been well documented that women, particularly, have been socialized against clearly rejecting romantic/sexual advances, lest they anger their “admirer” and “provoke” them to violence. Thus, many women simply aren’t comfortable expressing a clear “no”. And while it’s clear that women’s sometimes round-about ways of rejecting men are not actually as confusing as they are sometimes made out to be (and ‘softened’ forms of “no” are understood in many non-sexual contexts), the way in which rejections often omit the word “no” is a huge problem if your model of consent is “no means no”.

To put it simply: “no means no” implies that all you need to ensure consent is a lack of a no. And that makes this model easy to abuse. It means that everyone is walking around all the time in a default state of implied consent to sexual activity. And thus, if you never explicitly ask permission, you can get away with an awful lot.

And I want to perfectly clear here; the fault is not with people who have been socialized not to say “no”, it’s with people who refuse to accept rejection, and with the cultural narrative that makes it ok to keep going since she didn’t say no, after all. And the “no means no” doesn’t tell us what “maybe” means, so what’s a poor guy to do?

It’s all about plausible deniability, and unfortunately, the “no means no” model leaves a lot of room for selfish assholes to pretend they didn’t know what was going on.


Part 2 looks at some of the ways in which “no means no” has been expanded and improved upon over the years.

The “asking for it” narrative

No one ever asks to raped. No one ever asks to be abused. Physical violence is not an appropriate response to anything other than someone else initiating physical violence (or threatening to do so). The person who initiates it is in the wrong, always.

There. Done. Nothing more needs to be said on the topic, right?

That would be nice.

I’m not going to get into the bullshit ideas that if a woman has the audacity to be attractive to someone, that somehow constitutes consent to any and all activities with any and all people who find her attractive. It’s not even worth addressing. It’s just wrong. And I really think that even most of the people who say it know it’s wrong.

I want to talk here about one of the kinds of interactions that can arise in long-term abusive situations (whether abusive “romantic” relationships, parent-child relationships, or any other form of bullying over the long term) that may legitimately confuse some otherwise well-meaning people.

I know that for myself, when I relationships I have been in have fallen into abusive patterns (i.e. when I have been abused), I have been known to play in to those patterns. Because I knew my father’s hot buttons, and what would result irrationally angry reactions from him, I could choose to “set him off”. And sometimes I did.

Because the thing is that it was much easier to take whatever he had to throw at me if I was prepared for it. Setting him off unintentionally was far more painful and left deeper and more lasting emotional scars. I was living with him; it was always inevitable that another outburst would occur at some point – the only thing I had any chance of controlling was when it happened.

With my abusive partner, it was slightly different. It was the tired old story of not taking no for an answer, but not in a physically forceful way. Any time I did not want to have sex would trigger a wave of emotional blackmail, whining and begging. Early on, this could go on for hours before I could “convince” him to accept my initial no. But I could only do this so many times, and eventually I lacked the energy to fight for that long, and instead I inevitably give in from pure emotional exhaustion. I saw no other choice – I just couldn’t argue any more.

As time went on, my energy for trying to stand up for myself waned, until eventually I reached a point where I wouldn’t bother to say no in the first place. I agreed to whatever he wanted, because having things done to my body that I didn’t want was preferable to being emotionally shredded for hours, or being emotionally shredded for a while and *then* having things done to my body that I didn’t want. And when I was in it, in that horrible gaslighty mindspace that emotional abusers can back their victims into, I didn’t seem to have any other options.

But I never, ever “asked for it”. And it wasn’t my fault.

So, when someone tells you about an abusive situation they were in that seems like they “should have known what would happen” if they did the thing they did the “provoked” the abuse, please remember the following things before opening your fool mouth:

1) whatever they did, it did not call for violence, or any other kind of abuse, nor did it force their abusers hand. The abuser is responsible for their own actions. Always.

2) Even if it doesn’t seem like it to you, in the abused person’s mind, what would have happened if they had not “incited” the abuse would have been worse and more painful than what happened. This doesn’t discount the horrific-ness of what did happen, but remember that an abused person spends a good amount of their time feeling stuck between a rock and a hard place, and sometimes the only thing they feel like they can control is when the abuse will escalate, since they cannot choose whether it will happen again – it will happen again and again as long as they are in that abusive situation. And none of it is their fault.


More on the psychology of people in abusive situations, and the kinds of considerations that colour their decisions:

“Why Does She Stay With That Jerk?”

One of Cliff’s answers is particularly pertinent to what I’m talking about here:

6. “I reached out once, and was rebuffed.”
In a rare moment of courage, he–with shaking hands, summoning all his strength–told someone he thought he could trust what his wife was doing to him. They told him to think about her point of view for once, to not use big drastic words like “abuse,” and to take care of his own damn problems without airing his dirty laundry. He just knows that if he reaches out again, it’s going to be the same thing. He’s lucky she didn’t find out about that time and doubts if it’s worth taking the risk again.

Seriously, don’t be the person who makes people feel this way.

Why I didn’t call the cops

Things I have trouble reconciling

(CW: rape, rape apology)

Credit: Winged Wolf on flickr

In light of the Good Men Project’s most recent controversy, and the alleged gang-rape in Steubenville, there’s been a lot written lately pushing back against the idea that consent is complicated, and who can ever really know whether they’re committing a rape? It’s not their fault; they just misread signals, am I right?

Well, no, obviously not. And better writers than me can explain why. People are responsible for their actions, and our culture has handed men (and, to a different extent, women) who genuinely don’t care about consent an extremely convenient alibi that normalizes rape.

And yes, we have many, many people pointing to the fact that the perpetuation of rape myths actually encourages and fosters a culture in which more rapes happen, and in which rapists can pretend that they’re not rapists, or at least, that it really wasn’t their fault, anyway. The thing is, though, that the facts outlined in these studies and writing are somewhat at odds with the points made by the people that say that misread signals aren’t a real thing. If educating people about affirmative, enthusiastic consent (and generally fighting back against rape myths) actually does reduce the incidence of rape, is it unreasonable to assume that there were some people who genuinely misunderstood what constituted consent?

I’m inclined to believe that, no, people should know better. I’m inclined to side strongly with people like Cliff, who put the responsibility strongly with the rapist. But the suggestion that the effectiveness of anti-rape campaigns targeting men (like Vancouver’s Don’t Be That Guy campaign) should be chalked up entirely to the fact that the added rape myth push-back that these campaigns create serves as a deterrent to men who were deliberately capitalizing on rape culture to get away with rape, and that none of it has to do with people actually believing rape myths, and thus perpetrating rape without realizing it isn’t clearly correct.

My anecdotal evidence: I was in an emotionally and sexually abusive relationship for a number of years when I was younger. While there were clear instances of boundary violation that occurred during that relationship, cases in which my ex would do things to my body without warning (i.e. without even giving me an opportunity to object until it was too late), the aspect of our relationship that was most confusing, and in some ways, most damaging to me for years after I got out was the fact that (with one notable exception) any time sexual activity was occurred, I at least gave general consent (“yes, we can have sex now”). Ignoring the handful of times that he misused that consent to apply to activities I never intended it to, on a large number of occasions, those “yes”es were the results of emotional blackmail and just general bullying/refusal to take my initial “no” as the last word. But the thing is, (and we actually talked about this in a sideways way shortly after breaking up) he genuinely believed that when I said “yes” it meant not simply that I was giving him permission to use my body, but that I was actually turned on and that I wanted sex. How he thought that I his whinging got me all hot and bothered, I can’t tell you, but I actually do believe that that is how he perceived the situation.

So, is he an unbelievably selfish and self-involved douchebag who may have been genuinely unable to tell the difference between turned-on me and emotionally-exhausted me? Absolutely. Is he a rapist? Yes. Did he know that he didn’t have meaningful consent in those cases I’ve just described? I’m not so sure.

And to be very, very clear, I am not suggesting that this is somehow my fault. It’s entirely on him, and the fact that he bought in to the myths perpetuated by rape culture. The point I’m trying to make is that some people seem to genuinely misunderstand the concept of consent. Ozy Frantz recently wrote a post describing how this misunderstanding plays out in conversations around alcohol and consent. And this post actually gives me a frame from which to figure out where my logic might be going wrong.

It’s very important to note that in Ozy’s post, zie isn’t talking about how people’s misunderstanding of that idea that a drunk person cannot give meaningful consent causes them to commit rape; it’s actually about how the misunderstanding of what constitutes “drunk” causes people to reject the whole notion that drinking removes the possibility of consent, since tipsy people can and do consent. It’s about how unclear communication on the part of anti-rape activists is preventing people from letting go of rape myths around alcohol. Thus, I think it’s about the ways in which regular people (the ones who manage not to rape people) allow actual rapists plausible deniability around whether they knew what they were doing.

The way I understand it, then, is that the theory espoused by all of the writers to whom I have linked here (all people I respect and have been reading for years) puts people in a taxonomy as follows:

1) People who see through rape myths. These people have the power to bring more people over to their side through the power of education (Yay!)
2) People who do not (yet) question the rape myths that our culture perpetuates. These people are not themselves rapists, but do espouse and communicate views that enable rapists, and will often defend rapists by spouting rape apology, but are not actually at risk of committing rape themselves, because they actually care about other people, or something(?)
3) Rapists (and potential rapists who haven’t had a good opportunity to rape). These people deliberately take advantage of rape culture to get away with rape. They are aware, on some level, that what they are doing is not on the level, even if they do not define it as rape.

The theory suggests both that people can move from group 2 to group 1 through education, and that people from group 3 can be prevented from acting on their desires if the loopholes that they are taking advantage of are removed (i.e. if the group of people defending them and implicitly approving of their actions through rape jokes and the like). In this theory rapists are still just would-be rapists who haven’t been given the opportunity to rape, which is a little too deterministic for my liking. I think the lines (between these groups) are actually a little blurrier than we’re making them out to be.

I also realize that my entire theory is hinging on my own experiences, as out-lined above. And the thing is, if I simply stopped counting the times I was bullied into “consenting” as rape, all of this confusion falls away. Because the other instances I hint at are clear examples of sexual assault and rape. And either way, the ex is a rapist. But if those instances wherein I genuinely believe that he misunderstood my “consent” are also rape, then what does this do to the idea that this kind of misunderstanding doesn’t really happen, or is always deliberately constructed?

I suppose that you could say that the moment he continued to badger me after I said I wasn’t in the mood, he revealed himself as belonging solidly in group 3. He certainly failed to respect/acknowledge my feelings and needs as a general thing in all aspects of our relationship. But I still hold that this stemmed not from a genuine lack of concern for my well-being, but rather from a genuine inability to understand that not everyone felt the same way he did about everything. (Or is it an unwillingness? This is the crux of it, isn’t it? And I can’t answer that question, even though I would honestly prefer to define it as an unwillingness, since that would simplify things. Maybe I’m just not ready to go there yet.)

Maybe this whole exercise has just convinced me that the hole I perceived before I started writing isn’t actually there. I don’t know though. The idea that there is just a group of people out there who will commit rape if given an opening, and that’s just how it is, doesn’t sit well with me. The idea that these people can’t be educated out of that, that we have to rely on educating their enablers so that the openings disappear, just can’t be correct, can it? Is there something I’m still missing? Honestly, I’d appreciate input on this one. What do you think?

Edited to add: on further consideration, maybe the thing I was missing isn’t all that complex. The thing is that people who deliberately behave in the ways that rapists do probably can’t just be educated out of it with information – they probably need some kind of mental health intervention. And anti-rape activists can’t provide them with that. many feminists are, however, working toward reducing and eliminating the stigma around mental illness, and the barriers to accessing mental health assessment/care, which actually means that this portion of the problem is being worked on to some extent. (Also, in this model, the question of whether my ex was unable or unwilling to understand what he was doing to me becomes somewhat moot; whichever word is more accurate, he is not doomed to remain unable/unwilling – he just needs (needed? I don’t really know what his life’s been like in the meantime) to work on himself.)