I have written in the past about the tremendous influence Nirvana has had on my life. From an early age, the music just struck me. But maybe even more striking was Kurt Cobain. The man had more than his fair share of problems, but it is undeniable how striking his mind was. As much as I ate up the band’s albums, I was eating up the thoughts and musings of the front man. From a quick rejection of macho attitudes to the embracing of equal rights for gays, he had a big impact on me.

But one of the biggest areas where he got me thinking was the act of rape. He wrote a number of songs on the subject, including Polly and Rape Me, and his detestation of the act manifested itself within me. Not that I needed a cultural icon to make me aware that rape was a terrible thing, but I grew up in a middle-class environment, fortunately free from sexual abuse. It was never anything more than an abstract concept to me; Cobain helped drive home just how disgusting it was.

One of the things, though, I think when I hear “rape” is a very specific act. I define it as forced penetration. This generally means the entering of a penis into an orifice, but it could be hands or any object. Whatever the specifics, if something is entering another person’s body against that person’s will – perhaps some semantic quibbles aside – it is rape.

What this means, though, is that there are some awful things I don’t define as rape. Fondling, exposure, unwanted physical contact of a sexual nature, they’re all awful, but they aren’t rape. Call them sexual molestation, sexual assault, or some other term, but I simply don’t define them as rape. Part is simply the connotations which come to mind for me, but most of this has to do with the fact that penetration is one of the biggest violations of a person I can imagine. It’s on a level all its own.

So that brings me to a recent CDC report. This is how news organizations are portraying it:

About 20% of women are raped at some point in their lifetime and in most cases the attacker is someone the woman knows, according to a new survey on sexual violence from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

That is accurate to how the report is written. Here is one excerpt:

Nearly 1 in 5 women (18.3%) and 1 in 71 men (1.4%) in the United States have been raped at some time in their lives, including completed forced penetration, attempted forced penetration, or alcohol/drug facilitated completed penetration.

The issue here – and I don’t think I’m alone – is that included in these numbers is “attempted forced penetration” and “alcohol/drug facilitated completed penetration”. The latter is something I would likely almost always define as rape, but the former is not. That doesn’t mean it isn’t awful, or that it doesn’t point to the exact same awful problem. It is and it does. But it isn’t rape. Calling it so is for the sake of bringing attention to the issue. Of course, that in and of itself is a good thing, but I fear it is not without consequences.

I know a lot of people reading this will be tempted to draw accusations of rape-apology and other untrue things, but I think my objection here is well-grounded: If we start using “rape” in a way which does not reflect what people think when they hear the term, we begin to undermine its impact. That seems like the worst thing in the world to me.

If we’re talking 15% or 10% or 5%, we still have some pretty terrible figures. And if we condense the numbers as the CDC as done, that’s fine. Let’s just be specific: “Nearly 20% of women have been raped or had rape attempted against them in their lives.” I think the figure is just as powerful, but also accurate. That’s important. I don’t want to give people any reason to question such a horrific experience on the grounds that the numbers have been misrepresented.

Semi-update: I have seen other figures which have included molestation and other forms of sexual abuse. I wanted to include those in this post, but they aren’t the easiest thing to find, especially when I don’t know the specific report in which they appeared.

4 Responses

  1. So what you’re saying is, you endorse rape because you’re an amoral atheist?

    Nah I hear what you’re saying. It’s important that rape statistics should be reserved for actual rape, otherwise we dilute its meaning and impact. Any way you slice it though, the numbers are pretty sobering. Although I have yet to read Steven Pinker’s new book, so maybe there’s something to be optimistic about.

  2. Remember some of those alcohol/drug facilitated completed penetration are not cases were the woman knew she was drinking or taking something that could compromise her safety.

    It can be easy for someone you trust give you something, especially if you are not normally a drinker. My cousins decided to see what their goodie two shoes cousin was like drunk. They found out that I don’t react well to alcohol, and that my mother had more sense than their mother. (My mom not only figured out we were all hung over from 50Kg way – I got in trouble for not having more sense than to let my cousins order and pick up a drink for me – without me telling her one thing).

    Had it been someone with worst intentions I would have been in serious danger. I had just a few sips of the drink – less than 1/2 and had to be carried out to the car and into the house.

    Also don’t discount the effects of repeated touching and threats on a child. I’m a teacher and I’ve seen some children who were seriously disturbed – but had the system discount what happened to them because they weren’t actually raped.

    One of those students is probably going to grow up and rape someone. He has been threatening other students with “I’m going to beak into your house and make you watch me rape your mother” since at least 2nd grade. (except he uses graphic and accurate descriptions of the act.)

    He was never raped – his Dad “just” touched him and made him watch while the Dad had sex with hookers/girlfriends. Dad lost custody and saw some jail time. The boy was not given help till after he was 10 – and then only because the other option was going to jail for the threats. Parents of the kids he threatened had filed complaints with the police.

  3. I generally agree that the drug/alcohol facilitated rapes are, indeed, rapes. I imagine there are times when I might say they aren’t (if both parties are equally intoxicated and have sex whereas one party would not have done it had he/she been sober), but the vast majority of the time, I think they are. For that reason I don’t think the CDC needs to make the distinction the way they did. If it’s rape, call it rape. (In other words, this is the opposite of the issue I’m addressing in the opening post.) At some point in the report say how often alcohol and/or drugs were involved, sure, but it doesn’t seem like that’s the most pressing matter, especially in the report summary they give.

    On children, certainly the younger they are, the more easily any form of sexual abuse will have a major impact. Inappropriate touching and groping can be as devastating to a 7 year old as rape may be to a 30 year old. I don’t think making a distinction between rape and other forms of sexual assault is necessarily as useful for children as it is for adults.

  4. “If we start using “rape” in a way which does not reflect what people think when they hear the term, we begin to undermine its impact.”

    The problem here is that most people only think of rape in terms of some stranger waiting in an alley for an unsuspecting woman to walk by, or a woman wearing slutty clothes who is ‘just asking for it’ at a party. That is a VERY narrow definition of rape.

    It completely leaves out rape by friends and/or family (when most rape occurs), spousal rape (just because you marry the person doesn’t mean their body belongs to you!), men being raped (more common than you think, and doubly stigmatized), and several other forms of rape. Rape by strangers is the least likely scenario; most women are raped by their own family members first as children (very unlikely to be reported accurately), or by friends who sometimes become spouses (also unlikely to be accurately reported). Spousal rape apparently doesn’t count, even to most rape victims. They brush it off because of the patriarchal messages fed to women (and men) for their entire lives; surely, if they are involved with the person, they ‘owe’ the other gratification upon demand.

    Then there’s the issue of ‘corrective rape’, which also tends to go completely unreported for fear of societal retaliation- that would be instances where a person perceived or actually homosexual is raped to ‘fix’ them. It can also be when an asexual person is raped because they’re ‘frigid’ and ‘just need a real man’ to turn them on.

    The secondary issue here is a question of consent. The rule of thumb should be that if you have to question it, you probably don’t have it. If the person is on drugs, drunk, or is physically or mentally altered in any way that prevents them or MIGHT prevent them from making sound decisions, don’t have sex with that person, even if they ask you to. If the person is unconscious, don’t have sex with that person (unless, of course, you are in an established position with that person where there is an understanding about the consensual nature of this arrangement; eg, when one partner is a somnophiliac or somesuch.) This is another caveat that most people don’t think of when they think of rape. They think of some chick screaming and fighting back; they don’t think of someone being drugged, causing them to beg for a good shag whilst having no idea what’s actually going on, or locking up and just doing what they are told out of fear. They tend to argue “well, she didn’t argue, she just did it, so she must have wanted it!” Not necessarily true.

    Want a really scary statistic? Approx. 1 in 60 men are rapists. As many as 1 in 20 admit to performing acts of rape so long as the ‘r’ word isn’t actually used. And even more scary? Less than 1 in 4 rapists will be investigated. Fewer than 2 in 100 rapists will actually serve jail time. Most get community service, often in places where they can scout for more victims, like the douchebag New York crisis counselor who raped two girls, 15 and 13… and got away with it. The victims, by the way, got 6 months for making a ‘false report’- they were afraid to name their rapist until they weren’t under his care anymore.

    If you are worried about the statistics becoming inflated with non-rape inclusions, don’t. If anything, they don’t include enough* definitions and reports of rape. Frankly, I don’t think the CDCs statistics can be diluted any more so than they already are.

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