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Jan 02 2011

Assange and Real Rape

This post continues my examination of the general wrongness that is some of the arguments being made by Assange supporters wishing to dismiss the rape allegations against him. Before commenting here, you should read the rest of these:

Assange and the Victim Conspiracy
Assange and the Presumption of Innocence
How Must She Behave to Have Been Raped?

Onward.

Part 3: These charges are an insult to real rape victims!!!1!
Naomi Wolf may have been one of the first people to make a version of this argument.

I increasingly believe that only those of us who have spent years working with rape and sexual assault survivors worldwide, and know the standard legal response to sex crime accusations, fully understand what a travesty this situation is against those who have to live through how sex crime charges are ordinarily handled — and what a deep, even nauseating insult this situation is to survivors of rape and sexual assault worldwide.

Here is what I mean: men are pretty much never treated the way Assange is being treated in the face of sex crime charges.

She is right and she is wrong. Very wrong. Rape charges are rarely handled well by authorities, yes. However, that is the travesty in and of itself. Handling one situation well, whether for political reasons or just because everyone’s watching, is not a travesty. It’s an aspirational model for dealing with other rape charges.

Wolf’s argument is just another version of “Your attempts to help this minority group are invalid because you’re not helping that minority group at the same time.” It’s a classic anti-activism wedge, and I’m saddened to see it being used by activists here.

However, there’s a different argument that needs addressing. Sometimes it comes from men. Sometimes from women. It has slightly different shapes, but in its quintessential form, it goes like this:

I’ve seen a few feminists up in arms about the general lack of sympathy for Assange’s accusers among opponents of Big Brother. Well to those women all I have to say is this: Don’t try to play the ‘rape card’ on me, honey, cause I’ll trump you five times over. I have been raped, several times, and I can assure you I wasn’t laughing and socializing with my rapists the next day, nor did it take me several days to ‘realize’ I had been violated.

Before I get into more substantive matters, I do have to take a moment to note that I personally can’t conceive of a better way to trivialize rape and its victims than to turn the whole thing into some kind of contest. Right. Onward.

This version of the “real” rape argument requires two things. (1) There is no confusion about what rape is. (2) All rape is the one thing or it isn’t rape.

I’d like to think this whole discussion would be evidence for the widespread confusion over rape and leave it at that, but I believe it’s important to understand the ongoing change in legal and societal definitions of rape that has happened within the lifetime of many people discussing this situation.

Not so very long ago, rape was generally considered a property crime in the West, with a long, biblical history. The punishment recommended for rape in Deuteronomy (22:25–29) depends on whether an unmarried woman is betrothed or not; i.e., whether she is the property of her future husband or of her birth family. This translated into a legal landscape in which those deemed to have some claim on a woman were broadly exempt from rape charges. It codified stranger rape as the gold standard for rapes.

Then the women’s movement hit the topic of rape hard in the 1960s and 1970s, and things started to change in this respect. (Read Mary E. Odem’s Delinquent Daughters for a glimpse at how laws had changed earlier in regard to statutory rape and the concept of sexual agency in women.) Women demanded recognition of the fact that they own their own bodies and are the people principally injured by rape. With that, legal definitions of rape started to change.

I do mean started. It took until 1993 for the last U.S. state to make marital rape an illegal act, and at the turn of the last century, spousal rape was still not classified as rape in 33 states, but as some lesser offense. Germany had just criminalized spousal rape two years earlier. And none of that means that individual police officers or even judges were taking the legal changes seriously.

Over the same period of time, the question of force has evolved as well. We have moved from legal and societal norms that required a woman to fight or attempt to fight a potential rapist in order to have her rape recognized as a crime to one in which we acknowledge that assuming consent is not an excuse. While some people, mostly men, shake their heads in confusion over what this all means (one question, and my exasperated answer), this simply brings the treatment of a woman’s sexual autonomy in line with the treatment of any other property, no matter how it’s looked after. Short form: it’s still hers. But it’s a new concept, and one that involves surrendering privileges and talking about sex like grown-ups, so there is resistance.

As an aside, some of this resistance appears, in the current situation, to be taking the form of a blind spot to the ideas of contingent consent and withdrawing consent. I can’t tell you whether those who ignore the claims that consent was contingent on use of condoms and that one woman was unconscious and thus incapable of giving consent are being deliberately obtuse or honestly don’t get the distinction, so let’s take this back to property crime again.

When you lend Uncle Joe your lawnmower to mow his lawn, you expect him to mow his lawn. If you drive by and see him using your lawnmower to try to take down the small trees at the back of his property, and you ask him to stop that and stick to his lawn, you expect him to do it. If he doesn’t, you are well within your legal rights to get your lawnmower back. And if he comes by and takes your lawnmower while you’re sleeping, without any prior arrangement that he do so, you are within your legal rights to have him charged with theft.

See? Simple. But despite the fact that people don’t have a problem with these things when they involve anything else, the rapid changes of the last couple of generations cause confusion when discussing rape. As does the fact that as of 2004, only seven states recognized withdrawal of consent via court decision and only one recognized it via state law. To bring it back to the argument that women should all be immediately, absolutely certain when the treatment they’ve received constitutes rape, that just isn’t so.

Now, on to the idea that “real” rape is just one thing. Actually, I think the history that I’ve provided of vari
ous definitions shows that legally, there are plenty of varieties of rape. However, I’d also like to address the idea that rape that falls outside classic definitions is somehow less valid or less damaging.

I’ll do this by looking at victim outcomes. Why? Rape is a crime because it comes with consequences to a victim. If you want to argue that different classes of rape are less validly called crimes, then they should differ in how they affect victims, yes?

From what we know of different types of rape, that isn’t the case. Stranger rape and acquaintance rape don’t differ in the severity of the rape trauma experienced by the victims. Neither does the dating relationship affect the severity. The degree to which a victim blames herself, however, is a predictor of poor victim outcomes following rape and may be mediated by the social support provided to the victim.

(Pointless disclosure: I haven’t met Dr. Frazier, but I did replicate one of her experiments in college, just before a major legal decision made the original study more or less moot.)

That means that the ambiguous nature of the law and the tendency to level rape myths like RPGs at victims create an atmosphere in which situations like the alleged one here–rapes in which the victim is not grossly in danger–may be even more traumatic than some rapes achieved by threat of violence. Where trust is involved, where consent is even provisionally given, a very high potential for self-blame exists. Where a legal strategy must be built on competing narratives, there is very little support for the victim, particularly if that victim is in any way fallible or human.

In short, situations like these are, in fact, very dangerous for rape victims. And those who go around suggesting these rapes are trivial are only adding to the problem. It’s time for that to stop.

4 comments

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  1. 1
    Greg

    But see, Julian Assange is so hot and famous that we know these women would not have withdrawn consent unless they were tricked into that by the CIA.

  2. 2
    Stephanie Zvan

    Oh, how I wish that were still funny.

  3. 3
    Heather M. Rosa

    Wait! Julian Assange is hot? What have I been missing that I've not noticed?Oh, I know: charges of rape just don't indicate "hot" to me. It's got to be more than a pretty package (What's the male version of "bimbo"?) with mass marketing to be hot for me. There's got to be some personal connection as well, and really, who wants to start down that road with this creep?

  4. 4
    Ben Zvan

    The male version of 'bimbo' is 'bimbo.' We're all equal opportunity here.

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