Stop telling me how horrible rape is

[cn: non-graphic discussion of rape, rape apology]

I and most people I know oppose rape and rape culture. One way for people to express this is by saying “Rape is a horrible crime.” While this is true enough, telling me how horrible rape is fails to actually reassure me. In fact, in some cases I find it to be a red flag, something that makes me less inclined to trust you. I do not know if other activists and survivors have similar reactions, but I will provide my own reasons.

Let us first consider a similar statement: “I am not a racist.” While this statement superficially expresses opposition to racism, it is not very convincing for the following reasons:

  • Even people who are unambiguously racist can and will say the same thing.
  • Rather than expressing dislike of racism, the statement instead expresses anxiety that someone (themselves) would be falsely accused of racism. Rather than doing something to address racism, they are instead creating barriers to other people who might try to address racism.
  • The statement shows a misunderstanding of racism as something that is primarily located in a few bad individuals. It makes more sense to talk about racism on a societal level, rather than sorting individuals into the racist or non-racist box.

Each of these three points has an analogue when it comes to saying “Rape is a horrible crime.”

First of all, instigators of rape culture will also say that rape is a horrible crime, and they believe it too. With some exceptions, rape culture does not come in the form of downplaying how bad rape is. Rather, it comes in the form of disbelief that any particular incident constitutes rape. To supporters of rape culture, somehow it never counts. It doesn’t count when there’s alcohol involved. It doesn’t count if they didn’t fight back. It doesn’t count if there was never an explicit “no”. So on and so forth.

Second of all, emphasizing the horrible nature of rape may create barriers to fighting rape culture. It suggests a particular narrative of rape, where it has to be extremely violent, and the victim needs to be fighting back the whole time, and the perpetrator is just made of pure evil. When confronted with an actual incident of rape, people think, that’s not quite as dramatic as imagined, and the accused person seems likable enough, therefore it wasn’t rape. It’s a problem when people think rape is so horrible that it becomes outlandish, and they aren’t prepared to confront it.

See also, when people think trauma from rape is so outlandish, that they aren’t prepared to make serious accommodations for it. People imagine that trauma only affects a few people, and those few people can just go to the doctor until they recover. People have a hard time imagining that trauma is quite common, and can last for years or for life. They have trouble seeing that people with trauma are all around them, living the same lives as anyone else.

Finally, telling me how horrible rape is shows a misunderstanding of the problems with rape culture. Rape is a horrible crime, but I think it would not be any less horrible in absence of a culture to support it. Rape culture includes: not believing it when it’s in front of you, blaming victims, defending perpetrators, misunderstanding or devaluing consent, misunderstanding human responses to trauma, and insisting that victims report immediately while making it difficult for them to do exactly that. In general, the problem with rape culture isn’t that it makes rape horrible, but that it enables rape, forgives rapists, and treats victims poorly after the fact.

If you believe that the problem with rape culture is that rape is really horrible, then you might believe that the best way to address it is to punish it more harshly.  My own views are anti-punitive, and I far prefer solutions that teach people not to rape in the first place, and which improve attitudes towards victims/survivors.

So for the record, here are things you could say about rape instead:

“Rape is horrifyingly common.”
“It is too easy for people to get away with rape.”
“People don’t treat victims right.”


  1. says

    I favor a two-pronged approach. Teach people not to rape via age-appropriate lessons about consent and boundaries starting in Pre-K AND a harsher legal approach w/ vigorous investigation and prosecution of rape complaints.

  2. says

    To supporters of rape culture, somehow it never counts. It doesn’t count when there’s alcohol involved. It doesn’t count if they didn’t fight back. It doesn’t count if there was never an explicit “no”. So on and so forth.

    I would ask them: “Is it not armed robbery if the person being robbed doesn’t fight back? If the person doesn’t say ‘No’ to a thief pointing a gun in their face?”

    No doubt the clowns would completely miss the point and say, “But that’s not the same thing….” Or more likely, they do understand and want to rationalize one and criminalize the other.

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