I didn’t have time to blog about this discussion when it first happened but I figure that it’s better to do it late than never.
A debate – an actual long and intense debate – raged at Feministe website aimed at answering the question “Is it rape if you don’t mean for it to be rape?”
I was quite surprised that anybody still needed to argue about this issue, especially on a feminist website. I thought we all knew that the concept of statutory rape arose precisely in response to the oft-repeated claims by pedophiles that a child consented to a sex act of his or her own free will. Try telling a pedophile that s/he rapes children and see the outrage of an offended innocence.
And then there is the concept of spousal rape. Which also came to existence as a result of people believing that sexual violence within a marriage does not constitute rape and is generally not a big deal. I personally know two men who raped their wives. One did it once and the other one did it repeatedly over the course of twenty years. Do you think either of them intended to commit rape or sees himself as a rapist? Of course, not. I told one of them he was a rapist to his face and he had this look of complete confusion on his face. I think the guy’s shock at being called a rapist was completely genuine. He really had no idea that there was anything even remotely wrong about what he did to his wife. He actually hates rapists passionately and thinks they should all be castrated.
And, of course, there are all these situation where a victim of rape is coerced, threatened, and badgered into having sex. Do you think perpetrators of those rapes actually see themselves as rapists? Obviously not. They are convinced they are simply being persuasive and helping their victims to make up their minds.
All of these varieties of rape have been discussed by feminists ad nauseam. The idea that you need to seek enthusiastic consent before engaging in sex arose precisely as a response to situations where rapists sincerely and passionately argued that they had no idea they were raping anybody. This is why I was stunned when I read Feministe’s answer to the question “Is it rape if you don’t mean for it to be rape?”:
Obviously the word “rape” has a lot of baggage and by definition requires a level of guilty-mindedness (“mens rea” or intention to harm or knowledge that you might be causing harm or whatever you want to call it).
We can now let all of the child rapists, date rapists, spousal rapists, etc. get out of jails and go rape some more. They will all claim that they had no idea they were causing harm. Many will claim they were doing the exact opposite and trying to give pleasure to the victim. Many will be completely sincere.
The human psyche has many mechanisms of protecting itself from harm. One of the most harmful things for the psyche is a belief that one is bad. A bad, horrible, nasty human being. In order to remain mentally healthy, we need to believe in our essential goodness. The myth of one’s essential goodness is one of the organizing principles of our existence. This is why when we do anything that is likely to shatter this belief, our subconscious comes to the rescue and creates a series of convenient fictions aimed at convincing us that, deep inside, we are good people who are not to blame for what happened.
According to numerous accounts of people who knew him in person, even Stalin was completely convinced that he was a good, kind human being who never did any harm to anybody.
It’s been a while since this debate on Feministe took place but I’m still completely stunned that people discuss rape as if we were still living in the 1950s. I’m especially shocked that these people call themselves feminists.