Trivializing Rape
Feb 20, 2011

Trivializing Rape

Two recent political events have influenced the narrative regarding rape: Julian Assange's rape allegations and Republican efforts to curb government funding of abortion.  The unfortunate direction has been towards a monochromatic, extreme, and one sided view of rape.

When we think of rape, we often envision violent, forced, physical rape. However this word should more accurately be viewed as an umbrella term that incorporates a wide spectrum of deplorable acts. Coercion, intimidation, sex that begins consensual but becomes not so later, statutory rape, and, significantly, domestic rape where domestic partners use any of the above to have sex against the desires of the other. These may not necessarily involve the worst case scenario images we may not care to imagine, but they are nonetheless significant and deplorable. Often the legal situation while sufficient in the extreme cases is severely lacking in protections for these latter cases. At the very least, we should attempt to keep the conversation open to this wider umbrella description.

Recently in the House a bill was introduced called the No Tax Payer Funding For Abortion Act which initially (after criticism it was removed) included a tightening of exceptions from "rape" to "forceable rape" where women could get funding for abortions. The language had difficulties at the legal level of not representing a clear and existing distinction, but the larger issue is the following: it implies a certain class, if you will, of rape is more important than others. It is intrinsically redefining or at least reemphasizing what rape is, and shifting it away from a multifaceted umbrella term to the physical stereotype. Now, unlike some critics on the left, I don't think this was intended to redefine rape in any way. Its goal was to restrict abortion in any way possible as a first principle and this tilted emphasis is merely collateral damage - but it does indicate the priorities. Regardless, this shift in rhetoric is telling and unfortunate.

The rape trial of Julian Assange has had the negative consequence of belittling the Swedish legal system and recognition of rape in the umbrella sense. The Swedish system has an excellent system that acknowledges the many different aspects and had a spectrum of tiers corresponding to these lesser crimes. For instance, if sex begins consensually but the condom breaks and the man continues despite protests from the woman that is absolutely rape and deplorable. It may not be as bad as some worst case scenario and belongs in a tier with much shorter sentences, but it is still bad. Many Julian Assange supporters (and ironically also the right, who typically criticized Assange) seemed to trivialize the rape, deny it was indeed rape or could be an issue and even criticized the Swedish system.

The message to take away from this is that we must be careful not to trivialize the wider sense of rape for these other political goals as is happening in these two cases. Rape is not a singular black and white action but a broader spectrum of actions under this umbrella term. In an attempt to avoid a false equivalence between, say, non violent coercive rape and violent physical rape the former seems to get thrown under the bus as a triviality not worthy of protections such as abortion funding. 

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