Defining Rape


You would think that of all the things out there that are easy to define, rape would be one of them. Clearly when some man ties up a little girl and fucks her while she screams for him to stop, that’s rape. But beyond that? Is it rape when a drunk person has sex with a sober one? What if they’re in a relationship and the drunk person is initiating it? What if the drunk person gave permission, while sober, for them to have sex after drinking? What if both people are drunk?

It’s kind of unsettling to think that there might be such a thing as degrees of rape. I have heard over the years, and just the other day actually read something on the subject, about people who contend that all heterosexual intercourse is always rape because women are culturally unable to truly give consent. Clearly that’s total bullshit, but if we have that on one end of the discussion and have the “tied down and forced” scenario on the other end, well, what about all the stuff in the middle?

A good working definition is that anytime someone/several someones have sex (however we define that), with someone/someones who isn’t/aren’t giving informed consent, even if they are married/dressed like that/a slut, that’s rape. But that’s a really awkward definition, and there’re so many other things that might meet that definition but aren’t quite rape. Take, for example, something that happened to me once. I was sleeping, and it was about three in the morning. The person next to me decided to start getting frisky, which woke me up. Things went from there.

Now arguably I was a rape (or at least molestation) victim, right? Clearly when I was sleeping I couldn’t give consent. Sure, my body responded, but I’m one of those people where a gentle breeze will cause that sort of response. The fact that I woke up and gave permission, quite happily, because there are far worse ways to wake up, for things to continue certainly means that, at least in my mind, it wasn’t rape.

But what if I hadn’t woken up? Or what if I were a woman, and my boyfriend had essentially rolled me onto my side and started in? And then out? And then in? And then out? If I woke up and let him continue, ok, not rape. But did it start as rape? If I didn’t wake up, and he continued until he finished, would that be rape? If a man has sex with a drunk woman, is that rape? What if it’s a drunk man with a sober woman? Can women actually rape men? The law, and simple logic, suggests yes, but what’s the reality?

Then we get into other things, like ages of consent. Clearly if a 50 year old has sex with a 5 year old, that’s rape, since I would say it is almost completely impossible for a five-year-old to give informed consent. But what about closer ages? What about someone who is 15 with someone who is 20? I know someone who, at the age of 20, had a one night stand with a fifteen-year-old. Was that rape? Does it matter that the older person was female, and the fifteen-year-old was a boy?

My impetus to write this is caused first in part by that article I read where the writer contended that all heterosexual intercourse is always rape, but it’s also caused by a thread on the Dish discussing Chris Brown, who claimed to have lost his virginity at eight to a fourteen-year-old babysitter. Did he give truly informed consent on that? Probably not. But he clearly doesn’t consider himself a rape victim. Does that make the difference?

As I write this article, I realize that I have no real solutions here, no tidy definition beyond the purely legal. Perhaps it really is, to borrow that old definition about, unfortunately, porn, something that can’t be defined, but you know it when it happens to you.

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