The Happy Feminist, Feministe, and The Debate Link have been discussing (seemingly) clear-cut rape cases in which the victim herself doesn’t agree she was raped. Here’s one of the examples from The Happy Feminist’s time as a prosecutor:
After finally escaping, she went to the police. She expected that he would prosecuted for kidnapping, assault and threatening. She was, however, shocked when I brought a rape charge against him. She didn’t feel that she had been raped because she had “gone along” with the sex. When I questioned her, however, she said that she had “gone along” with it because she thought (quite reasonably under the circumstances) that he would blow her brains out otherwise. But, to my shock, in her mind, she herself felt that it was not a rape because she had not resisted in any way.
In another of Happy Feminist’s examples, a woman is forced to have sex by her boyfriend, but doesn’t believe it’s rape because she’s had consensual sex with him on other occasions.
Why do some women not believe it’s rape unless she resisted – or not believe it’s rape when their husbands or boyfriends force them to have sex? There are lots of possible reasons, but let’s not forget the simple fact that women are part of our society. There are a lot of myths about rape which have currency in our society – all of society, not men exclusively. Neither being a woman nor being a rape victim will automatically prevent belief in those rape myths. As Happy writes:
Does saying that women can be raped, without labeling the event as “rape,” contradict the feminist belief that women must be believed, in all circumstances? Well, insofar as such a belief exists, it contradicts it. But I doubt that belief exists among many feminists today. I doubt any feminists believe that women are incapable of being mistaken about what the law says rape is, for example.
The idea of privileging women’s view is called “standpoint theory.” But as Elisabeth Anderson points out, standpoint theory has virtually always been contested within feminism:
It’s also important to understand that when feminists have spoken of “believing women” regarding rape, that’s said in the context of how society has habitually refused to believe women. On another thread, Cheryl Lindsey Seelhoff wrote something that is extremely applicable to this question (although Cheryl was writing in a different context).
The point is, when feminists say women who have been raped must be believed, that’s in a specific context of counteracting the traditional belief that women habitually falsely accuse men of rape (in the words of Sir Matthew Hale, rape “is an accusation easy to be made, hard to be proved, but harder to be defended by the party accused, though innocent”). But nothing in that context applies to women who – due to loyalty to the rapist, or acceptance of rape myths, or ignorance of the law, or any other reason – don’t recognize their own rapes as rapes. It’s ridiculous to believe, as some anti-feminists have suggested, that “believing women” means feminists are obligated to give men who have in fact committed rape a pass whenever the victim isn’t sure it’s rape.
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David at The Debate Link points to State v Rusk, a case discussed in one of his law school classes. From the victim’s testimony in that case:
In David’s class, all of the male students agreed this was unambiguously rape.
This pattern flies in the face of most recent feminist scholarship. They tell us that letting women tell their stories and privileging their perspectives will provide insights into criminal law that currently are missing. Classically, feminism posits that it is men that generally “don’t get” rape, or minimize it, or restrict applying it to only the most extreme cases. I don’t dispute that as a general matter, but these recent observations do seem to throw a wrench into the equation.
First of all, I think we need to be careful about assuming a pattern exists based on a single anecdote. As David acknowledges, this may have more to do with the environment of law school than with how men in general view rape.
Secondly, I think David’s argument about what “most recent feminist scholarship” says is a misunderstanding on David’s part. For example, feminist researcher Mary Koss has published a study which found that many women who are raped, do not identify what happened to them as rape (or at least, not as “definitely” rape). Koss’ findings were popularized in the book I Never Called It Rape; the title of the book is a reference to women who do not identify their own rape experiences as rape.
Among feminist researchers who study rape, Koss’s research is widely accepted. It is primarily anti-feminists, such as Christina Hoff Sommers and Katie Roiphe, who have argued that Koss’ findings in this regard contradict feminist beliefs. The anti-feminist arguments radically oversimplify what feminist standpoint theory says, and also ignore the ways that standpoint theory itself is contested within feminism.
David – who certainly isn’t an anti-feminist – acknowledges that standpoint theory has been heavily contested within feminism (although I think he’s mistaken when he says criticism of standpoint theory is mainly a third-wave thing). But David still sees harms in the privileging of women’s views over men’s within feminism. I do think there’s a serious discussion to be had there (David could certainly find some support for his view in the writings of bell hooks); many feminists believe that a feminist transformation of society will have to include a feminist transformation of how men think and act, and it’s hard to see how that can happen if men’s views are unwelcome in feminism.
But although that may be a legitimate discussion, it’s also a different discussion. The strongest case for including male views within feminism comes not from looking at how women have absorbed rape myths, but from issues relating to how the “cult of masculinity” harms and warps men (which leads in turn to some men harming women). I don’t think that framing the discussion of men’s place in feminism within a discussion of rape, as David has, is likely to be productive, or to reassure women who are skeptical of what, if anything, men can offer feminism.
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There is one piece of news from the research on rape which I think is worth pointing out. In Mary Koss’ study of college women’s experiences, about three-fourths of the women who had been raped, did not identify their experience as “definitely” rape. That study took place in the mid-eighties, about two decades ago. A more recent study of college women’s experiences, conducted by the Federal government, found that about half of the women who had been raped, identified their experience as rape. If these results are comparable, that suggests that rape myths – such as “it’s not rape if I didn’t resist enough” or “it’s not rape if it’s my boyfriend” – may be less likely to be believed by women today, compared to 20 years ago. Let’s hope that trend continues.
[Edited to add the quote from Cheryl.]