Discussion: Re-framing Rape

In observance of Sexual Assault Awareness month, I wanted to shareA friend of mine sent me a link to a very interesting talk by Susan Brison.  She is a Philosophy Professor for the Study of Ethics and Human Values at Dartmouth College.  I encourage to watch the talk for the full breadth of her argument (and also to hear her excellent singing voice) but if you are short on time I will summarize her main points.

Her principle argument is that rape, while important in a legal sense, is perhaps an unhelpful way of addressing the problem in general.  Dr. Brison suggests that rape be re-framed as gender-based violence.  She argues that outside of the prison system, rape is a crime that is almost entirely committed by men.  She makes an excellent analogy to racism at one point.  Which is a word that we talk about bigotry against people of certain races at a societal level.  She argues that we have no similar word for sexual violence perpetrated by men, even though it is just as prevalent (if not more prevalent) than racism.

In relation to this she also talks about how we define rape, which is “sex without consent” and that this is a harmful definition. While again she admits the value of consent especially from a legal point of view, she also argues that this might not be the best way of addressing rape as a gender-based societal problem.  She makes a number of compelling arguments, but there were 3 that really caught me:

1.  We don’t view consent as relevant when it comes to murder.
2. Having sex in the definition of rape individualizes the act and implies a connection.  And the act of rape isn’t just an individual harm, but instills fears among women or males that might be victims of rape.
3. In surveys of middle school and high school women, they sometimes report that they will consent to sex because they are afraid of being raped.

For me, the last point really muddied the waters of consent for me.

I can’t do her entire argument justice here, but I will transcribe a bit of what she said which I think is really important:

“If we lived in a world without pervasive sexism, where women and men were genuinely held to be of equal worth a victim would be able to perceive a gender-based crime against her as an anomaly…something truly random.  But in the actual world, in which because of pervasive sexism, victims of gender-based violence are often viewed as lacking credibility and perpetrators are rarely brought to justice, a sex crime, for a victim can be a brutal confirmation of an already unjust status quo.” 
-Susan Brison

Thoughts?

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16 thoughts on “Discussion: Re-framing Rape

  1. From my observations I think another sub category could be added here. How many girls (or boys) submit to sex before they want to, based on social or immediate personal pressure, behind the feelings that they might be considered prude or a tease? Giving in to peer pressure is not consent. It is acquiescence. That was actually my first experience in reverse. She pressed me, and though I wasn’t ready at that age and had intentionally stayed clear of girls, a thousand things went through my head in a few confusing moments.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Thank you for sharing your perspective and experience. I agree that norms where losing your virginity equates to some sort of right of passage as a man or a woman are likely harmful. Peer pressure can certainly cause harm in a number of ways not just in regards to sex. But I can certainly imagine a situation where a teen is too aggressive and end ups raping a girl for fear of being harrassed by his friends as “not having the guts” or “not being a man”.

      And to be clear I don’t think Dr. Brison was necessarily advocating that all such cases of this kind of acquiescence result in criminal charges, but that by looking that broader picture of what’s going on here we can better address this issue which is pervasive in society. And certainly, the point that you’ve brought up would need to be part of that discussion.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. Hi Swarn,

    “3. In surveys of middle school and high school women, they sometimes report that they will consent to sex because they are afraid of being raped.

    “For me, the last point really muddied the waters of consent for me.”

    I imagine it would muddy the waters as the boundaries you set as an individual, because of your sex, are respected.

    Women’s boundaries are always under attack, always questioned, and always open for discussion.

    More clarity can be found when it is acknowledged that basic female human being status, while granted formally by law, has yet to be obtained in actuality. And because living second class comes with a different set of rules – that don’t even occur to those with actual human being status – that statements, like those quoted, that cause confusion happen.

    Is it really surprising that the women mentioned didn’t want the oppressive social stigma of associated with being a victim of rape? Rather than confusion there should be anger regarding the situation as to why in our society today (2018) that consenting to your rapist is a better alternative that seeing him brought into the justice system?

    Liked by 4 people

    1. You make good points. And it’s true that there was some privilege associated with my not giving consent some deep thought. I would disagree that a man’s boundaries are always respected as men can be victims of sexual assault and rape, but for a good majority of men you are correct, and at the very least even if the line of consent is crossed push back doesn’t usually end in violent aggression in return. This is clearly what women have to worry about, and not necessarily because the guy they are with is that type of guy, but when you know it happens in society, frequently, it’s always on your mind. This is part of why viewing talks like this, or reading, or whatever about experiences and views from people of other races, religions, or genders are so important.

      And no, I didn’t find it surprising that women didn’t want the social stigma of being a victim of rape.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi Swarn.

        “And no, I didn’t find it surprising that women didn’t want the social stigma of being a victim of rape.”

        I’m pretty sure you were aware, that was directed more toward those at the back of the hall then you.

        ” I would disagree that a man’s boundaries are always respected as men can be victims of sexual assault and rape, but for a good majority of men you are correct, and at the very least even if the line of consent is crossed push back doesn’t usually end in violent aggression in return. “

        Perhaps it is more important to see the different statuses in society of how women and men define their boundaries and those boundaries are treated in society.

        Of course men’s boundaries are ignored and they are victimized – but as the default human setting in society their boundaries exist out of the box, so to speak. It isn’t the case for women – which makes their experiences in society radically different from men.

        “This is part of why viewing talks like this, or reading, or whatever about experiences and views from people of other races, religions, or genders are so important.”

        I’m glad you are using your space to tackle some of the problematic systemic features of society. We need more, not less discussion of the challenges that we all face. Thank you.

        I’m sorry if I was a bit brusque in my previous reply. There is so much work to be done in advancing the status of females in our society, and sometimes my impatience shows through.

        Liked by 3 people

  3. Swarn,

    Ugh, this is certainly a disturbing subject to discuss, debate, get active on it, and tackle legally. But it MUST BE DONE, huh? :/ I remember quite some time ago you, Ruth, VictoriaNeuroNotes, and several other bloggers along with myself getting into these gender-topics, sexist-topics, and sorting out “language” much like Dr. Brison is tackling here… and it is needed, but not easy. I’ve had my head ripped-off many times when I get involved in these sorts of discussions. 😦

    I haven’t watched the entire Brison video yet, but I did read your entire post, your summary, and those 3 main points, and I understand YOUR concern and “muddied” confusion. As I’ve stated to you a few different times in a few various ways — it’s a very touchy subject socially, then its epidemic levels culturally and legally — I and any of us in the SSC BDSM lifestyle, and in certain cases in the Open-Swinger lifestyle, deal with these clear black-n-white points/cases and the precise definition of “consent” verbally and non-verbally. These are CRITICAL aspects of our lifestyles that must be addressed and understood and in some cases, signed as a legal contract, if we expect our organized communities to be successful, fulfilling, and growing.

    BUT… our educating discussions/agreements on this subject — which are proactive, preemptive BEFORE any actions take place — sadly are mostly found within the Adult Alternative Lifestyles only and not in the normal mainstream society and family homes! To me, that is messed up. These topics should NOT be taboo and underground or in the ‘black market,’ so to speak! And I’ll throw out a theory here on that social-home-school dysfunction…

    Dr. Brison’s work and this current (and historical for that matter!) social-legal-political epidemic is a result of Conservative Puritan institutions and viewpoints and their fear/ignorance. 🙂

    Another big reason it continues (and has been for many centuries) is this…

    When Rapists know that they will likely go unarrested and unpunished, they continue. Anyway, these are my initial thoughts Swarn. I’m very glad you posted this! ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your comments Professor. I agree that conversations about consent aren’t happening enough. Of course I think there is a definite reason why in your community this topic would be of primary importance and more formal, but I think part of the problem in the more mainstream sexual sphere, there is this idea that perhaps something is lost when people don’t sort of naturally decide to become physical with each other. But maybe that is the wrong way to think, maybe there should be some formality to it, because it’s important obviously. But I think the more important point is to have discussions with your children as you raise them. Talk about consent in school, and also talk about appropriateness. I mean maybe there isn’t anything wrong on a date in moving in for a kiss, and then being told no. Maybe you read the situation wrong, maybe they just aren’t ready for that type of contact. And that’s okay…the issue need not be pressed. But men often do press and that’s a problem. But even in that circumstance it wouldn’t be appropriate for a boss to try that on an employee in the office setting, or even at a business lunch or whatever. There can still be romance and spontaneity while also having respect for boundaries. Too many men just have it in their head that boundaries for women just don’t exist, and that any boundary they throw up just makes it a more exciting game to play. I’d say it’s better to think about those boundaries like borders to a country. Well you see if you can get permission to enter and get your visa stamped. Or you go try to find another country that is more willing to let you in. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

      1. But maybe that is the wrong way to think, maybe there should be some formality to it, because it’s important obviously.

        You are SO RIGHT about that Swarn! I have had many women and couples label me as “Old School” for that formality, but if you don’t at least have some clear etiquette, well, we know what happens down the road. :/

        And raising your children in an age-appropriate open discussion about sexuality, hormones, responsibility, acute listening, communication, etc, etc, is absolutely a “no brainer” for me. Don’t get me started about how my ex-wife (mother of my now 24-yr old married daughter) raised her in this regard — remember she went thru that whole Purity-Virgin Movement within charismatic churches? — despite my approach and family upbringing.

        But men often do press and that’s a problem.

        OH MY! I can’t tell you how many times in high school, in social settings, in athletic locker rooms that I was listening to or a part of a discussion about ‘How aggressive a boy/man must be with a woman to “get some!”‘ And they talked about “rejection”… that you just get over it, try again and again, or move on to the next woman. It wasn’t until I got into my mid-20’s that I realized (and was told by girls/women) back then that I was too timid, at least verbally. HAH! But that passiveness was flat-out due to my father’s background in his own family. Hence, our family dynamics — especially how the father treats the mother and daughters! — play a HUGE PART in how men treat women.

        Hahahaha! “Get your VISA stamped.” Great analogy Swarn! 😉

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Discussion: Re-framing Rape — Cloak Unfurled – SHOWERS OF BLESSINGS COVENANT HOUSE

  5. Hi Swarn,

    I finally had time to watch the video. I think Dr. Brison should have emphasized more that a useful definition for rape depends on the context. In the context of addressing rape as a societal problem, her definition of gender-based violence is useful. In the context of university students negotiating sexual encounters, focusing on consent seems more useful as it sends the message that without consent, what you might think is sex, is actually rape. Of course, there is much more than consent that separates sex and rape, which was one of the points, if not the main point that Dr. Brison was trying to make. I might argue, though, that the problem lies more with our definition of sex than our definition of rape.

    I was also surprised with her statement that many people object to the idea that rape is gender-based violence. It seems self-evident that it is and wondered what argument someone would use to say otherwise.

    Lastly, like you, I found the statement that some girls and women consent in order to avoid being raped disturbing. It reinforces my plan to teach my daughter to punch anyone in the face that tries to kiss her without asking.

    Thanks for sharing. This is not a comfortable topic to discuss.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good points Chris. I don’t think she was necessarily arguing that context doesn’t matter, in fact that seemed to be part of the point that because the context varies so much that if we are looking for any sort of commonality here, gender might be the place to start. I think both definitions of sex and rape perhaps need clarification, but I think it’s reasonable to, for instance, define rape as digital penetration (which is a recent addition to the definition of rape) without necessarily deciding whether that counts as sex or not. I don’t know…but I can see cases where a broader definition of sex would help determine cases of rape better.

      Thanks for watching the video, I thought it was well argued for, as you say, an uncomfortable topic.

      Like

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