It seems that we need to have yet another discussion about rape. In the wake of final clubs saying that sexual assault happens when men find themselves in the same room as women and requesting details on allegations of sexual assault that happened on their property but only allegations that have been “deemed credible,” and in the wake of a state court's ruling that it’s not rape when you put your penis in an unconscious person’s mouth, it seems like it’s time to talk about rape again.
We’ve already talked about victim-blaming. We’ve already talked about the societal pressures that make it hard for women to report, or even admit to themselves that what happened to them was “rape.” We’ve already heard the brave stories from sexual assault survivors. But people still don’t get it, apparently.
One of the major reasons why women don’t report, and why women who do report are stigmatized, is because of the idea that she’s “ruining his life.” This is an idea that’s thrown around a fair bit in media reporting of rape trials. This is when reporters say things like, it’s “incredibly difficult” to “watch what happened as these two young men that had such promising futures, star football players, very good students, literally watched as they believed their lives fell apart” and they were labeled sex offenders, a label that would “haunt them for the rest of their lives.”
But I think it’s “incredibly difficult” to hear about how many young women are sexually assaulted, about how their “no’s” fell upon deaf ears, about how they were forced to engage in sexual acts against their will, about how they were penetrated and physically violated while unconscious. I think it’s “incredibly difficult” to watch as my female friend cries because of what someone did to her the night before, to watch as she blames herself and refuses to report, to watch as she relives her pain every time she sees him walk across the dining hall, to watch as the memory of her trauma “haunts her for the rest of her life.”
And I think it is “incredibly difficult” to hear people wax sympathetic about the rape perpetrators and talk about how they had friends, they had family, they had such a promising career. Because I’m pretty sure the person who got raped had friends, too, and a family, and great grades, and passions, and maybe she was a star athlete or the president of the debate society, and maybe she was going to go to law school, but we never hear about that, do we? We never talk about how she is a person too, whose life has been irrevocably changed for the worse.
We sympathize with perpetrators, and we imagine how hard it must be to have your life ruined at the age of nineteen, when you’re just a college sophomore, labeled “sex offender” for the rest of your life. And instead of facing the ugly truth—that a young man can knowingly choose to rape someone—we question whether the victim was clear about giving consent. Perhaps she should have said “no” louder or a few more times. Perhaps she shouldn’t have drunk so much. Perhaps she should've just stayed home. It's easy for us to laugh at trigger warnings, deriding "political correctness" and saying she ought to toughen up and not feel victimized all the goddamn time. We tell her that her trauma and her pain wasn't real. We tell her that her interests, her passions, her grades, her future aren’t important. We tell her that she doesn't matter.
We rarely sympathize with shoplifters, child molesters, murderers, or other people who break the law and must be disciplined. We think they get what they deserved. We think jail is a suitable punishment for someone who has stolen, abused, or murdered.
So why do we sympathize so often with rapists? Is it because a small part of us—men and women alike—sees ourselves in him? Is it because we suddenly remember all the times we ignored someone's consent, and we feel a twinge of guilt?
It’s easy to unknowingly violate another person’s consent, when we forget to check in to make sure that the other person wants to keep going, or when we ignore signs that the other person might want to stop. And it's not just in sexual encounters. It's also in our everyday lives. When we force our children to kiss or hug their relatives, even when they say they don’t want to. When we touch pregnant women on the stomach without asking.
We have been raised in a world that didn't learn what the word consent meant until fairly recently. We have been raised in a world where marital rape was legal up until very recently. We have been raised in a world where raping an unconscious person is, apparently, still okay.
Our world is flawed, and it has imparted its flaws onto us. But we can do better. And we can change this world to reflect these changing norms and definitions, and maybe by the time we have children and grandchildren, they will have the opportunity to grow up in a safer, more inclusive world—a world where we respect each other's right to consent: a world without rape.
Nian Hu ’18, a Crimson editorial executive, is a government concentrator in Mather House. Her column usually appears on alternate Thursdays.
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