We Can't Stop Talking About Rape

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We’re talking a lot about rape at the moment. What is and what isn’t rape. Real and fabricated allegations of rape. And where rape falls in our understanding of serious crime. We’re watching what happens with Assange, we’re watching the US Republican Party and we’re watching Puberty Blues. What does our current focus on sexual assault say about our understanding of consent? Are we finding answers to the questions we’re asking?

A client’s 16-year-old daughter had sex with her boyfriend last night. The week before, he broke up with her, because apparently their relationship had been suffering from a lack of sex. Presumably the problem is now sorted. He withdrew his affection, and in order to regain it, she offered sex, without a condom, because he prefers it that way. This act was for all intents and purposes consensual. But what was it in fact, that she consented to?

Another client works with young men to raise their awareness about sexual assault. In a room full of year ten boys, he finds less than one in 10 of them see having sex with a girl who is passed out or asleep as rape. At the end of his class, the number may have moved to six out of 10. He sees each shift in the understanding of sexual assault as a win. I can’t help wondering about the fate of the partners of the other four.

We’re talking a lot about rape at the moment. We’re being asked to see some rapes as legitimate or forcible, thanks to Todd Akin, and we’re hearing about politically exploitable allegations of rape in the case of Julian Assange. There is of course nothing new about the use of sexual violence as a political tool. What is new is that the current media focus on sexual assault is beginning to expose in greater detail the pervasiveness of a culture of sexual exploitation.

I imagine that part of our current fascination for finding a meaningful definition of rape comes from our daily exposure to violence. Our lives are so permeated with sexual violence, that our search for what constitutes "real" rape can lead us to re-examine the entire fabric of our relational lives. Like fish trying to see the water we’re swimming in, we are forced to question almost everything we see. We can barely imagine a sexual life totally outside a culture of violent appropriation.

Some commentators are trying, with good heart and even better intentions, to make our understanding of rape simple. The problem is that in doing so, they risk falling into Akin territory. They risk defining rape in a way that ignores the long and detailed training most of us have had in the dynamics of power. There are rapes that are simple to define. Where power and intent are obvious. A sleeping woman is not a consenting human being. Enter her at her own risk. This is simple. But most of us know that there are also times when we have allowed ourselves to be overpowered because the cost of saying no appears to be too high. These are the situations where a thread of sexual violence running through our cultural fabric is pulled. And where we threaten to undo the whole thing if we pull too hard.

It’s no accident that both the situation highlighted in the Assange case and the furore over Aken’s comments focus at least in part on contraception and abortion. This is just one of the arenas where the culture of sexual violence has found a legitimated loophole. For heterosexual women, sexual autonomy is inseparable from access to abortion and contraceptive choice. I think part of our current fascination with both these stories is our understanding that sexual violence is also part of the experience of the lack of control so many women face in the realm of their fertility.

My own profession is of course not immune to pandering to a culture of sexual domination loosely disguising it as mutual obligation. It’s not just Bettina Arndt urging women to have sex when they don’t feel like it in order to save marriages of questionable value. Many couples’ therapists will also follow a compromise path that allows sex to be seen as one of the activities negotiable in a troubled partnership. More head for more housework? What language do we use for this kind of consensual sexual activity? What name can we give to the act of offering our bodies for the pleasure of another while denying our own?

Most therapists I know spend a lot of time, particularly with the women who make up the bulk of our clientele, helping people to say "no". No to violence, no to exploitation, no to impossible demands and oppressive behaviour. For so many of us no is not something that comes easily. We are taught as children to obey and we continue to exist in authoritarian settings as we progress through school. Is it any wonder that when it comes to sex we can find ourselves so easily coerced? Is it any wonder that those who exercise their power see so much around them to justify their assaults?

We’re endlessly trying to unravel what is and isn’t ok here. Where is the line between consensual sex and rape? The answer is on one hand simple and on the other deeply complex. Consent is always contextual. We are none of us really free if we are not all free as someone (Herbert Spencer?) once said. As we try to pin down the meaning of rape, whether in Assange’s extradition saga or the US election, I think we are acutely aware that no is a word many of us still struggle to say and to hear. Consent is only possible in a relationship of knowledge and respect. Of ourselves, of our desired ones and of those we do not desire. So as we watch and wonder we are also, hopefully, examining ourselves.

ABOUT THERAPY FOR NEWS JUNKIES: Why does the news make the news? Why do certain stories gain such traction? Therapy For News Junkies is a regular NM column which looks at why audiences react so vehemently to particular issues. Zoe Krupka is a psychotherapist who uses her knowledge about how we react as individuals to better understand collective responses to the events of the day.  

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