Friday, June 24, 2011

In favour of "rape"

I'm not really a feminist, but only because I think that a belief in equality (of all kinds) is so fundamental that you shouldn't need a special label to denote the fact that you believe in it. I also believe in eating regular meals, and no one has devised an -ism for that belief, because anyone who doesn't believe in it is clearly crazy. That's how I think about equality of gender, race and sexual orientation.

Yes, I know it's not as simple as that. In truth, we're coming from an era of inequality, and any movement that seeks to create the equality that should always have been there needs a name. Bear with me.

I don't believe in "unwanted sex" either, but not on feminist grounds. I disapprove of it as a term because it's one of the more poisonous euphemisms I've read recently (and I'm grateful to Heather Corinna for bringing it to my attention. Follow her on Twitter here and her site here. The fact that I cite her shows that I agree with her, but she's not duty-bound to agree with me).

The researchers in a much-quoted study this week made many references to "unwanted sex" in their investigation into the correlation between early sex and divorce rates. In so doing, they were pursuing the possibly respectable aim of stressing that girls who have sex in their mid-teens are not really making informed or mature choices and are under a degree of social or emotional pressure. In other words, just because a 15-year old agrees to sleep with her boyfriend, that doesn't mean she's a slut. (I have two teenage daughters myself, so of course I have nightmares about this.)

There are many problems here from a political and sociological point of view, but other people are far more qualified than me to discuss that. From the point of view of the reporter, however, I'm deeply unhappy about the term "unwanted sex". Such a term allows "engagements [that were] not completely wanted" to be lumped in with rape.

"Rape" is a short, suitably brutal word to describe one of the vilest things one human being can do to another short of murder. By accepting a wider definition of "unwanted sex", the journalist allows the rapist to hide among the larger group of men – and boys – who persuade their partners to have sex but would never dream of going ahead if they thought that consent was in any way withheld, and yet aren't sensitive enough to realise that she doesn't really want to. To use a 'shoe on the other foot' example, I recall (with some affection, I have to say), being woken from a light doze at 3am and thinking, "I've got work in the morning. Wasn't twice enough for you?" I wasn't keen at first. I was persuaded. I certainly wasn't raped.

None of this is meant to excuse the men who put undue pressure on their partners to have sex. But journalists have a duty to tell the truth, and allowing rape to sneak through under a euphemistic term such as "unwanted sex" risks making it seem less repulsive than it is. Apart from school days, when boys competed to say the most shocking things regardless of whether they believed in them, I have never met a man who said that rape was anything but vile and contemptible.

In calling it by its right name, we preserve the ugliness of rape. So, when I use the title "In favour or rape", I mean I am in favour of the word because it inspires the appropriate level of disgust.

Moral: Don't hide the truth. Don't hide from the truth. Call it like it is.


  1. If you are 'in favour of the word because it inspires the appropriate level of disgust.' does this have any practical aim, or are you just in favour of people being disgusted by sexual violence and non-consensual sex?

    Because I don't see how our 'disgust' has done anything to reduce the amount of rapes in society. And when people have disgust, for say, homosexuals or sex workers, that too does not reduce the incidences of those types of activities and people.

    I find Freud useful when thinking about disgust. I am interested in your points of reference.

  2. Elly, thank you for your comment.
    I certainly do approve of inspiring disgust at rape because I believe the perpetrator should be despised and never the victim.

    However, I'm not a sociologist, criminologist or psychologist. My expertise, such as it is, is in the language we use. In calling rape by its proper name, we force people to confront the reality of it. What impression they take from it is up to them.

    Your comment about homosexuality is interesting, especially in the context of Freud (sorry, I have almost zero experience of sex workers). I suspect I have much to learn on this matter, but I have noticed over the past 30 years that tolerance of rape has decreased while tolerance of homosexuality has increased. In both cases, I think it's because people have had to face the reality of it rather than their private imaginings.

    "Practical aim"? I don't think the truth ever needs a practical aim. Untruth is never justified without one, and often not even then.

    Anyway, it's a fascinating comment. You've given me much to think about.