Does rape require penetration?
[Trigger Warning for *mention* of rape, sexual assault and other forms of assault. I have attempted to not make this post inaccessible to those who can’t read depictions of sexual assault without being triggered by putting depictions as a footnote at the end of the post.]
This post is in response to both a post arguing that penetration was a necessary component of the definition of rape and the ensuing Shitstorm across comment threads and social media both calling out and attacking Mhairi as a “rape apologist” and “homophobe”. I am working through ideas and have no clear position at time of writing. Aforementioned Shitstorm meant I did not participate in the discussion until now.
Figuring out what we want to do with a word helps in semantic debates. With this one, defining rape, these are a small number of possible reasons: (a) provide support for the survivor/victim; (b) label/convict and assign punishment / exclusion / rehabilitation routes to the perpetrator; (c) epidemiology / crime statistics / progress indicators. For (a) we might want a broad, loose definition to enable a survivor led process and give power back to them by respecting their definition of what happened to them, whereas (c) requires a clear, unambiguous definition. MRAs are focused on (b) wanting a definition that Mhairi fears they would use to try to claim that rape is not overwhelmingly committed by male perpetrators on female victims/survivors because males could claim that they were nonconsensually “enveloped” during PIV (penis in vagina). In the Shitstorm I think that there was no attempt to even figure out why the word as to be defined, and people were coming at it from very different perspectives.
Mhairi’s position seemed overly rooted in theory and reacting to MRAs (“men’s rights activists” – in reality predominant activity and focus of MRAs is being anti feminist rather than looking at the many ways men are genuinely oppressed). I also remain unclear whether damage to the survivor/victim is a key requirement.
If the exact same assault is carried out by two different perpetrators with the same motivation/means, but in one case a paramedic happens to be nearby and save the life, whereas in the other case the victim dies, is it right that the label/punishment/social exclusion/rehabilitation are different, as they are under current UK law? I’m undecided but wavering on the side of that it is what the perpetrator did that should be the measure, rather than the effect. The assault was the same and how the perpetrator is dealt with should not be differentiated according to whether the victim survives as this is not pertinent UNLESS we have decided that justice is about “an eye for an eye” vengence. Justice could also be attempting to a) make safer spaces by removing known dangers from society b) reduce crime by making potential perpetrators fear the punishment c) rehabilitate perpetrators so that they are less likely to commit crime in the future. This is predominantly a judgement based on values – I’m a liberal/lefty and prefer a society where (a) and (c) are important but this is based on my broader ethics, worldview, experiences and how I want society to be. I could bring in “objectivity” – for example by pointing out that (b) has obvious flaws such as high murder rates in USA where punishment is death penalty – and it is right that empiricism should guide our decisions, but we should not pretend that science can provide the values led decision on what we do with this information, or even on what information should be sought and how.
So, my perspective on whether rape requires penetration, being as everyone else has laid out their’s – I am undecided. And that is because I am neither sure why the definition is being sought, nor about the issues themselves. But here are some of my thoughts anyway.
Does calling an assault rape have a special connotation? I’m not one for words – they are merely pointers to concepts and to me (I am visual and think in processes, concepts, maps, diagrams and so learn how to translate between words and thoughts rather than words having any weight in themselves) and so to me “rape” has no intrinsic value. I’d probably prefer the term “sexual assault” as that is clearer and than talk, if necessary, about “levels” (eg was it brief or prolonged? was it repeated? how much violence was used?) *if* there was a need to grade sexual assaults eg to decide for vengence based justice. I’m aware other people think differently, and that for them the word rape might hold an intrinsic weight, I’m just stating that to me this is just a semantic discussion and I start with no particular attachment to that, or any other, 4 letter word.
My relevant personal experiences/perspective is that I have had multiple sexual assaults, some more frightening than others, and two involved PIV. I’m female bodied and queer and have had to deal with the heterosexism of some of the sex that I have being discounted as not “real” as it does not involve penetration.
An argument for why penetration is necessary is that penetration potentially causes more harm and therefore justifies and requires inclusion in rape definitions. As I said above I’m not convinced that the harm actually done is relevant EXCEPT for those supporting the survivor/victim. I think what was done and motivations for it are much more important. However if a perpetrator knows that what they are doing could cause harm – eg hitting someone who has brittle bones – then what was done was serious. Does penetration cause specific harm in sexual assault? Depending on what is penetrated/penetrating and condom use, the survivor might be harmed by pregnancy, STDs, physical injury at the penetration site such as tearing or prolapse or internal organ damage. Is there any other harm – having carefully reflected on my experience yes there was specific psychological harm done to me* but that might not be generalised. (I’ve put my thoughts on that harm as a footnote at the bottom to minimise triggering those who find it distressing to read about sexual assaults) Are we trying to define a specific assault that has both a gender dynamic and carries particular harm?
Is there a need for a word that means “non consensual penetration” because that is something in particular that we want to be able to talk about, work on, address? If we have decided that this is something we want, then I think rape being defined as Mhairi and others do is fair enough. Some reasons for we might want to do this are so that we can deal with particular fallout eg having pregnancy services ready for the rape victim. However in that case, as the fallout is so different depending on whether the anus or vagina or mouth were penetrated, it seems strange to lump these together rather than having a “physical assault” service who would specialise in all of what an assault survivor/victim might require, and is probably more generalised than just sexual assaults eg PTSD counselling. I think non consensual PIV sexual assault within a war zone is an exception and is common enough and has a narrative and outcome that possibly do justify needing a particular word. However I do not think that in this case its a non specific penetration that requires the word, so the definition would again be different, narrower, than Mhairi’s.
However I think rape is, in 21st Century Scotland, commonly understood and used to mean “non consensual sex”. And this is where the Shitstorm has a very fair point – to define something that means “non consensual sex” with the subtitle of “penetrative” does add to a general societal heterosexist narrative that non penetrative sex is not real. As most sexual assault happens between people who know each other and probably were at a level of trust and familiarity where they were alone together in a private space there is a particular violation.
Anyway, I need to finish this now. Just wanted to work through my own thoughts on the apparent issue before I write something about the Shitstorm.
* The twice that I was sexually assaulted and penetration (both times piv) was involved it did feel specifically bad that the inside of me violated by something I didn’t want. However both incidents also lasted longer than the non penetrative sexual assaults so a prolonged non penetrative may have grown to feel the same. The second penetrating sexual assault however was much more traumatising, despite being less brutal and shorter; once is an incident to get through, twice in less than a year (different perps) felt like a pattern and therefore something likely to happen again. This helps illustrate that harm done does not necessarily reflect the act, but that the context is key. However I want to restate – part of the trauma for me was that I had something forced inside of me that I did not want. There was other trauma caused by being physically overpowered, feeling scared and having people that I had trusted doing something to me that I clearly did not want. I imagine that the specifics of the trauma is very individual to each person and that a non penetrative sexual assault is definitely not intrinsically less harmful due to the many different ways an act might be.