Sexual Assault Awareness Month: Why rape is different

There are two criticisms that I hear frequently when I talk to people outside the feminist community about my activist work against sexual violence–first, that violence against women is a specific, rather than a general, socially supported problem of misogyny. We’ve talked about that quite a lot over at the main site. The second, however, raises questions about why rape and sexual violence are a “bigger deal” than violence in general. Men are more likely to be the victims of a (reported) assault, and more likely by a long shot to be the victims of a random act of stranger violence. So why do I–why do those monolithic feminists–pay so much attention to sexual assault? Why is that different/more important in society, and why do I think it has a bigger impact on people who experience it?

First, let me make it clear that I think any act of violence sucks, and I’m not trying to minimize the impact of having a knife held to your throat by some guy on the street. Second, I’m going to try to leave statistical probabilities more or less out of the equation from here on, because issues of reporting vs. not reporting, methods of data collection, and definitions of assault make it difficult to really get a sense on what is happening. And third, I’m using female pronouns when referring to survivors of sexual violence for statistically convenient shorthard, not to deny that men experience sexual assault and childhood abuse or to minimize that experience. The issues involved in those cases include many of those listed below, as well as additional aspects based on cultural attitudes towards masculinity. This post is a response to a specific criticism, however, and as such is focused on the implications of that criticism.

So yes, I do think sexual assault is different, and part of the reason it’s different is because we have to explain why it affects us so much. We have to explain this even if we’re not arguing that it’s “worse” than other forms of assault. Most sexual assault involves very little physical damage, relying instead on coercion, manipulation, threats and intimidation. Many women will choose not to fight back much physically out of a desire to protect themselves from the possibility of serious physical injury, because they know it’s a fight they can’t ultimately win against a larger and stronger assailant. It’s really, really easy to imagine why someone holding a knife to one’s throat might be traumatic, and the damage caused by getting beat up is entirely visible. The sense that we have to justify why we’re upset therefore means that not only are our reactions being called into question by other people, we’re very likely to minimize what happened to us in the first place, not understanding why we would feel hurt, angry, not over it yet, or even immediately. Many blog posts and comments I’ve been reading during SAAM have mentioned that a big part of recovery for the writers came when they could recognize that it was okay to have all these emotions and allowing themselves to experience and go through them rather than trying to suppress them and constantly questioning whether they were crazy for feeling the way they did. I think a lot of non-feminists feel that rape is getting too much attention, overriding other forms of violence, which is leading to a backlash of sorts, and it’s way too early for a backlash, since the pendulum is far from swinging to the point where survivors feel validated; now they’re facing not just the original questioning, but also the backlash level of additional questioning.

In addition, most sexual assault, childhood and adult, is perpetrated by individuals known to, and trusted by, the victim. The majority of assaults take place in a private home, usually the victim’s, meaning that the perpetrator was probably invited in. This is an additional level of violation–she no longer knows how to tell if she can trust someone, she can’t feel safe in her own home, she questions her own judgment and she blames herself. I’ve never heard of a guy who gets attacked on the street wondering if he was dressed in a way that pissed someone off. I’ve never heard of a guy who got into a bar fight feeling ashamed of the fact that he was insulting to the other guy beforehand, or questioning whether that meant he had been giving the guy permission to beat him up. If an assault case goes to trial, whether the victim was being a jerk beforehand is essentially irrelevant, because the guy who did the hitting is the one who crossed the legality line. In the unlikely event that a sexual assault case actually gets to trial, questions will inevitably come up about all the ways in which the victim could have sent the message that she was willing to have sex by flirting or by consenting to other sexual activity. There are laws in place in most North American jurisdictions that say past sexual behaviour is inadmissible in court, but exceptions are often made, and the “court of public opinion” may have an impact on the jury regardless of how many times the judge says it’s irrelevant, not to mention the fact that the victim will inevitably have to face this judgment among her peers.

The sexual nature of the crime is also a part of it. Sex is a very complex way of relating to and sharing with another human being, and it involves making yourself very vulnerable and open to that person. I’ve heard people suggest that if our society weren’t so puritanical about sex, if we treated is as a purely physical act, then rape wouldn’t be so damaging. They’re essentially saying that there’s nothing intrinsically worse about sexual violence than other forms. My response to that is pretty much: who cares? This is basically a nature/nurture question, and in this case, it’s a completely irrelevant point. With the world as it is, with the constant debate about what sex is about, whether there has to be love involved, whether virginity before marriage matters, how many people one can have sex with before being labeled too promiscuous, whether pornography corrupts innocent minds or objectifies women, and on and on ad infinitum, sex has a unique role, and everyone has to make both theoretical and personal decisions about how they feel about it. An act of sexual violence damages that thinking in a way that a purely physical assault can’t touch. No matter what, both kinds of assault involve fear, and they involve a sense of helplessness. But we as human beings are expected, at some point, to have consensual sex as part of a healthy life (some may choose not to, but the expectation and questioning as to why will still be there, and even aside from expectation, many people will want to have an active sex life post-assault). Nobody is expected to have a knife held to his or her throat or get punched in the face consensually, which means they never have to figure out how to do it without getting freaked out and relating it to the fear and helplessness they felt during the original assault.

I really could go on and on about why rape and sexual assault are different from other forms of violence. I generally don’t like to quantify trauma or get involved in what a friend of mine calls “the suffering Olympics”, but I have to answer this question a lot, and a big part of it comes down to answering why rape matters at all. I’m pretty much a pacifist, so I’d love to see an end to all the other kinds of assault out there as well, and don’t doubt that they cause a lot of damage in many cases. The fact that this question comes up so often displays a wide range of anti-feminist myths, many of which I’m leaving untouched here (including the question of why sexual violence is a feminist issue at all and whether rape is an act of misogyny), but the most blatant one is that feminists either don’t care about men who are assaulted and that if we’re going to spend any time talking about rape, it’s our responsibility to give equal time to the kind of violence men face. That’s far from true or fair, and while I know this post does just the opposite of giving equal time, I have to justify this position so frequently that I felt the need to write it anyway.

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