Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Rape. There's No Funny Way to Say That.

WARNING: MATERIAL IN THIS POST COULD BE A TRIGGER. (Of course, if you’re easily triggered and still reading after the title, this one’s on you.)

I had a whole topic lined up for tonight: inter-generational female relationships and all that good stuff. We were going to talk about Tara and Gemma from Sons of Anarchy, and while we’ll touch on that a little, and I’ll hopefully do another whole post on it later, today we have to talk about something a lot more serious. We need to talk about rape.

Sorry guys. It’s a depressing one today.

This is coming up today is because of the recent news story covering Todd Akin’s incredibly offensive comments on the subject. To quote directly, Mr. Akin said, “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”


This man is a Republican Senate nominee for Missouri. He’s running for office. And he said those words in front of an audience and television cameras. He knew what he was saying, and he said it anyway. I think this means we can assume he meant it. (You can read a more in depth article on this here.)

The reason we’re talking about this today, though, is not just because it makes me so mad I want to punch my computer. It does, but that’s not the point. Instead, I think what this does is highlight a problem our society has with recognizing rape as a serious offense.

For all that we as a society like to talk a big game about punishing wrongdoers and getting evil off the street, we are incredibly lax about prosecuting reported rapes. Of the rape kits that are taken each year, usually only a handful (statistically) are actually sent to the lab, and of those even fewer are actually investigated. You can read this if you don’t believe me.

Just so that we’re all on the same page here, rape is a big deal. It’s a forceful violation of a woman’s body. One in six women will encounter sexual assault in their lives (and that’s lowballing it: some put the number as high as one in four), and the concept of rape as a thing that happens to women is so ingrained in our culture that we use the term indiscriminately. “They’re raping me on my cable bill, dude!” and the like.

But more than just bringing up again the issue rape culture as a whole, Mr. Akin’s comment touches on something equally troublesome: the notion of a “legitimate” rape. This implies that there are illegitimate rapes, or, rapes that are not rapes.


I’m not going to get into the “some women lie” aspect of this argument, because that is so statistically insignificant as to not count at all. What I want to get into here is the fact that we as a culture seem to believe that sometimes the woman really is just asking for it. Which, in case you haven’t been paying attention, she isn’t. Ever. Promise.

So let’s talk about Sons of Anarchy (told you we’d get there). In the first episode of the second season of that show, Gemma, the kickass First Lady of the club, is driving down the road, sees an abandoned car and pulls over. There’s a carseat in there, and she reaches in to help the kid, only to find it’s a doll. Then she’s knocked out and dragged into another car.

She wakes up in an empty warehouse, trussed up and surrounded by three skinheads. They proceed to tell her that this is a message for her husband and for the motorcycle club he runs, that they’re going to take over the town. Then they rape her. All three of them.

It’s incredibly gruesome.

Gemma eventually is let go and comes home, but instead of going directly home, she stops at her daughter-in-law’s for medical care. And she swears Tara to secrecy. No one can know what happened.

And then in season two a lot of interesting stuff happens and Gemma and Tara become closer because of the secret and Gemma doesn’t tell anyone until like episode ten, but that’s not the point. The point is, Gemma was ashamed.

Gemma had nothing to be ashamed of.

If you look at this from the perspective of an outsider, Gemma could have been considered to be “asking for it”. She dresses provocatively. Low cut shirts, incredibly tight jeans, and habit of flirting with just about everyone could “make her an easy target.” And then there’s how she hangs out with a bunch of outlaws. Surely if she’s willing to pollute her company that way, she should be okay with being seen as a lowlife too. Gemma’s loud, brash, skimpily clothed, and vocal about her love of sex. That is pretty much the definition of the “asking for it” defense.

But having heard the story, would you ever think that?

Gemma did not ask to be raped. She did not “secretly want it”. What she wanted to was to help a child and go home to her husband. The rape wasn’t about her, it was about power.

And here’s the important thing. Rape is always about power.

Mr. Akin would be hard pressed to say if Gemma’s rape was “legitimate” or not. If he knew the whole story, the way that we witnessed it or I just told you, he’d probably have to agree that Gemma did nothing wrong here. But if he was just hearing it second hand? If he read a report and made a judgment by looking at her? Who knows what he would say. That’s the problem.

There is no such thing as legitimate/illegitimate rape. The way we were taught to define sexual assault in college was simple: if you think it was sexual assault, it was sexual assault. As easy as that. If something happened that you didn’t like, that you didn’t consent to, and that you wish had not happened, it counts. There are no loopholes here. No cases where it really was okay and everything’s fine now. Rape is rape.

It’s our constant questioning of rape survivors that creates this culture of disbelief. We are so used to the idea that she “might just have not liked it” or “didn’t understand what she was asking for” that we hesitate to make the harsh call. To call it rape. But it is.

Gemma was ashamed because she knew that if she admitted to the rape then she was saying that she was vulnerable. That she’d been debased on the most intimate level. She didn’t tell her husband or her son, the people closest to her in the world, until she absolutely had to. She didn’t want them to know.

It’s time to shame the perpetrators. Not the victims.

I guess my point is this: in our culture we put a lot of stock in the idea that everything has two sides. We believe in fairness and in equal coverage. But there are some cases where that simply isn’t useful. It is not useful to examine the rapist’s side of the argument. If a woman says that a rape occurred, and she is willing to incur our societal judgment, the scrutiny of her sex life and a harsh investigation, she’s probably telling the truth.

There is no such thing as “legitimate rape”. And believing that rape is a part of human nature is the most pessimistic thing I’ve ever heard.

Included because Gemma really is an awesome character. You should watch this show.


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