Trigger Warning for discussions of sexual violence
Last week, Thomas wrote a post at Yes Means Yes, called Meet The Predators, about recent studies which found that many rapists will admit to rape so long as the word “rape” is not actually used. It’s a great post, and important information to have — I’m particularly interested because I’ve seen similar statistics from the ’80s quoted numerous times, and was literally thinking a day or two prior to Thomas’ post that someone should do a new study and provide anti-rape activists with updated and reliable data. I’m also far from the only one who is interested, as I’ve read at least half a dozen posts about it all over the feminist blogosphere.
But in all those posts, I’ve noticed a concerning silence. Admittedly, it’s entirely possible that I’ve missed the post(s) where someone else said what I’ve been thinking, but I also feel that I’ve read a fairly good sample. And not once have I personally seen anyone explicitly mention that we’re only talking about a certain kind of rapist here.
What kind of rapist is that? Primarily, the kind of rapist that uses physical force. In the first study Thomas quotes, 6% of respondents answered yes to the following questions:
(1) Have you ever been in a situation where you tried, but for various reasons did not succeed, in having sexual intercourse with an adult by using or threatening to use physical force (twisting their arm, holding them down, etc.) if they did not cooperate?
(2) Have you ever had sexual intercourse with someone, even though they did not want to, because they were too intoxicated (on alcohol or drugs) to resist your sexual advances (e.g., removing their clothes)?
(3) Have you ever had sexual intercourse with an adult when they didn’t want to because you used or threatened to use physical force (twisting their arm; holding them down, etc.) if they didn’t cooperate?
(4) Have you ever had oral sex with an adult when they didn’t want to because you used or threatened to use physical force (twisting their arm; holding them down, etc.) if they didn’t cooperate?
In the other study, 13% of respondents admitted to rape or attempted rape, and “61% of the reported attacks were intoxication-based, 23% were overt force alone, and 16% were both.”
And what I notice is that we’re talking about a very limited view of rape. We’re not talking about rape based in coercion. We’re not talking about rape where the victim was unconscious, but not intoxicated. We’re not talking about rape based in power difference, where the victim never had the real choice to say no. We’re not talking about rape where the victim said no — or simply didn’t say yes — and the rapist did whatever the fuck he wanted anyway. We’re also not talking about rapes completed with objects, or fingers, or even, it would seem, about anal rape.
I will admit that a big part of the reason why this concerns me is because I feel rather ignored by these studies and the response to them, as a rape victim whose rapist did not use force, an overt threat of force, or alcohol or drugs to gain my compliance. Even though I don’t at all believe that it has been intentional or malicious, I feel as though I, and the many, many survivors like me, have been discounted, pushed aside, and told, when it’s quoted that 6% to 13% of men who participated in these studies are rapists, that our rapists aren’t real rapists. And that’s an extremely hurtful and damaging message that we tend to get an awful lot as is.
But putting my own personal feelings aside, I’m also generally concerned about the narrow definition of consent, and about the fact that we’re still so regularly seeing people define rape as only committed through force, threats or incapacitation. I spend an awful lot of time trying to get people to step outside this misogynistic frame of reference — the idea that our bodies have not been infringed upon unless we have been physically injured somehow, that our words and our autonomy alone do not mean much. And so I really, really hate seeing it reinforced.
And I’m concerned most of all because of what this means for the numbers. Yes, 6% and 13% of men who took part in the respective studies admitted to rape. But that doesn’t mean that only 6% to 13% of the participants were rapists, not only because some men may have lied, but because they could only answer the questions they were asked. While I’m in no way suggesting that these numbers aren’t useful or important, I am suggesting that we need to be clear on what exactly they are.
What this study gives us is not an estimate of how many men are rapists, but an estimate of how many men are rapists who employ force or intoxication as tools. Had these men been asked a wider range of questions, we have no idea what the numbers would be. But I’d bet my life that if 6% of men answered yes to the four questions listed above, the number would go up at least a couple of percentage points if you asked them if they had ever used force to sexually penetrate an adult with any body part or object, if they had ever performed a sex act on an adult after they had been told to stop, or if they had ever performed a sex act on a person who was not awake at the time, to only name a few examples.
And that is a terrifying thing to think of indeed. The kind of thing that will keep me up at night, tossing and turning. With 6%-13% being an already extremely chilling figure, it’s in fact the kind of thing so scary that I can easily forgive others for not even wanting to consider it long enough bring it up in their own blog posts. But I still think that it needs to be brought up.