The subject of rape seems to be having a long overdue moment that it very much deserves. From the problem of sexual assault on college campuses and in the military, to rapes by trusted priests, sports mentors, and teachers, to recent celebrity sexual assault scandals (Bill Cosby and CBC radio host, Jian Ghomeshi), and as of this past weekend in New Delhi, India, rapes by hail-a-ride Uber drivers—there is a growing national (and global) awareness of rape. However, despite its horrors, rape easily gets normalized, as if it were just part of life, a distant fact coexisting with other not-so-pleasant facts, like unemployment rates and faraway natural disasters. The question is: How can we transform the historical cultural sanctioning of rape so as not to trivialize it, and prevent it from becoming a background hum to which we’re all but numb?
One of the biggest problems with rape is that throughout its devastating history it has been sanctioned in numerous and widespread contexts. Over time, this institutionalization of rape has sadly numbed too many segments of contemporary society to its tragic reality, at worst legitimizing its continued practice and at best enabling a culture of noninterference with sexual violence.As obvious as it may sound, we need to know what we actually are speaking of when we use the word rape. Using the word rape to describe activities other than actual rape lessens the impact that such violation should have on us, and strays dangerously close to normalizing it.
Rape is a crossing of another’s sexual boundaries without their permission—or with their coerced permission. It is a sexualized trespassing and violation of their being. Its tools are various combinations of physical force, threat, coercion, abuse of authority, manipulation, and a capacity to shut off empathy and override conscience. Rape features aggression and lust in a darkly compelling embrace, being allowed to possess and run one, in contexts ranging from the mundane to the evil.
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Consider, for starters, the reputed practice of jus primae noctis (Latin for “right of the first night”) by which a member of the nobility could take a woman on her wedding night and bed her, no matter how opposed she was to this, while the groom could do nothing to stop this. (The earliest mention of this practice is found in the epic of Gilgamesh.) Also consider that, up until not so long ago, a married man had the right to have sex when he wanted it from his wife, no matter how opposed she was to this; marital rape was not called rape for a very long time, regardless of its severity. And consider wartime rape, which has a history as long as that of war itself, and still happens to this day, getting headlines but little countering action. In war, the raping of enemy women has been viewed — and often still is — as a male right.
Military rape is not just something that happens to enemy women; it is also a common in-house practice — targeting both women and men — in military contexts. The Pentagon recently released a report indicating a 35 percent increase in sexual assaults against women in the
US military; there were about 26,000 cases (14,000 men and 12,000 women) of reported sexual assaults in 2012, compared to 19,300 in 2010. Of the 26,000 only 4 percent filed for an investigation, and only 9 percent of the cases processed actually went to court-martial. The Pentagon’s estimated percentage of sexual assaults not reported is between eighty and ninety.
It’s estimated that almost one in five women (and just under 2 percent of men) in the US have been raped or otherwise sexually assaulted. Fewer than half the victims report this, and only 3 percent of the perpetrators are convicted. In more than half of the US states, rapists who have impregnated their victims can sue for custody and visitation rights. In the US, 15 percent of sexual assault and rape victims are under the age twelve. These are appalling numbers, and need more than just a skimming over. This is not some kind of anomaly, but simply reflects our culture’s way of addressing rape: halfheartedly, as not much more than an unpleasant statistic, as if it were not all that serious a matter.
Most men are appalled by rape, but why are the remaining men — the majority of whom have probably never directly engaged in rape — not similarly disturbed? Perhaps because, at some level, it carries an appeal for them, a darkly engrossing charge, reinforced in part by history’s cultural sanctioning of rape.
Cutting through this not only means weaning ourselves from alignment with any “rape is okay” mentality (including any “boys will be boys” rationale), but also facing and going to the very core of any sexual arousal we might feel through the actual or imaginary violent overpowering of another — and stripping that arousal of its eroticism so that we can clearly see its fundamental underpinnings.
Essential to a man’s work on himself is cutting any ties to rape and the sanctioning of it — and not just intellectually. This may be quite a challenge for many, since it requires that a man face and work through whatever draws him toward rape’s continuum. It’s not enough to be on good behavior, to repress any urges in which sex and violence operate together. Something deeper is needed, namely to work so sincerely and so deeply with his aggression and wounding that he becomes incapable of rape, for the sake of one and all.