Partner rape, cryptids, and other crazy myths
Stranger rape is kind of like a shark attack. Most people are alert to the dangers of sharks. They’re something that we learn and agree to fear (Jaws, news articles, Shark week), and sometimes we avoid places and activities just to better our chances. Swim in the ocean? Walk down a dark alley? Are you mad? On the other hand, sharks can’t get to me if I’m in Albuquerque. If I stay in tonight with my Mastiff I’ll be safe from scary rapists. Well, safer. I hope.
Can you always maneuver around these things? No. Albuquerque has an aquarium, and when an evil psycho wants to hurt someone he usually finds someone, and sometimes there’s not a lot you can do can make sure it’s not you.
When you get attacked by a shark, there may be a few people who say that you weren’t observing proper shark safety, or that you must’ve been dressed to look like a seal or something, but most people are correctly going to blame the shark.
Date/acquaintance rape is like a dog attack. There’s an adorable puppy in the park who looks perfectly friendly, and his owner says it’s okay to pet him. Everything seems okay, so you approach him and give him a friendly pat. Then, he tears your face off.
People will have a lot more opinions about a situation like this. You might hear a well-meaning “Did you let him see your hand before you touched him?” or a rueful “You should’ve known better than to try to pet a dog you didn’t know!”, even “You must’ve scared him!” It suddenly gets so much more complicated. Most people will be sympathetic, but a part of their minds may just work overtime to figure out how you were responsible because it’s scary to think that it could happen to them. And hell, they can’t imagine their dogs doing such a thing! Must’ve been something you did wrong. That makes it easier. But they’ll usually agree that you no longer have a face, that things went awry.
To be clear, I’m not saying that stranger rape is worse than date rape, although shark bites might tend to be more damaging than dog bites. I’m also not saying that rapists are like sharks and dogs. They’re actually like people…horrible, horrible people, and they’re completely responsible for their actions in a way that animals aren’t. I’m talking about attitudes here: the similes are about peoples’ beliefs and reactions to these events. Got it? Cool. We’ve got one more…
To some people, partner rape is like a Bigfoot sighting. It’s a ridiculous myth, a concoction beloved of the media and hyped beyond all reason. No harm was done, nothing out of the ordinary actually happened, and only lunatics and members of weird fringe groups believe in it.
But in reality, partner rape is more like a bite from a disease-carrying mosquito, spreading something really nasty, like the ugliest kinds of malaria or West Nile Virus. It is very real, and it’s a global problem. It can be invisible to the casual observer. The victim may have reasons to minimize the event or even think it’s commonplace, but the fallout is devastating. It is also, like a mosquito bite, not the victim’s fault.
People often dismiss partner rape. They’ll call it a gray area, or say that it’s “crossing a line” or “not cool” rather than saying it’s “illegal and disgusting”. It’s hard for many to grasp that a person can be raped by someone they’ve already consented to sex with in the past. It’s hard for victims to grasp that (see: my reluctance to call this rape); it’s hard for many experts-of-everything on the internet to grasp it. It’s obviously especially hard for the rapists to grasp it.
But when consent is absent and sex is happening, that’s rape. Consent must be clear before sexual activity starts. Assume a lack of consent until you have a clear positive indication that something’s okay. That’s the way human beings are supposed to treat other human beings. If you have to wonder whether your partner consents to a sexual activity, you should ask rather than assume. Nonverbal agreement is very possible (e.g. enthusiastic involvement, affirming grins, decisive nods), but if it isn’t obvious, you ask. And for the non-initiator, if you’re the kind of person who thinks consent questions “ruin the mood” and you prefer aggression from a partner, please become an emphatic nonverbal consenter or confirm what you agree to before things start, because an occasional “is this okay?” is a good, sexy habit that I’d prefer you not go around squashing. Consent doesn’t kill the mood. I promise.
After you get to know someone, consent cues can and do get subtler. You can relax a little when you trust each other. But if there’s hint of a “no” signal– verbal or nonverbal– everything stops. It’s your responsibility as a sexually active adult to ensure that you have consent. Every time.
That’s why the old tropes of “wifely duty” and “frigidity” and “compromise” are red herrings in the partner rape debate. There are lots of reasons someone might consent to sex when he or she doesn’t necessarily feel like it. A relationship is sometimes about compromise, and part of that might be agreeing to fuck your husband when you’re exhausted or to bone your girlfriend when you feel too fat. Sometimes it means that the partner with the lower sex drive tries to meet the partner with the higher sex drive halfway. All these things are okay. When you’re part of a loving couple, you often want to take care of your partner’s sexual needs even when you’re not precisely in the mood for it. But consent still needs to happen to get to that point. Compromise never means that the person who wants to have sex gets to force or pressure the one who doesn’t. If the pro-sex person wants to enact a compromise, it’s called “masturbating in the bathroom”. Only the anti-sex person gets to decide that sex is on the compromise menu.
Another thing people tend to say is that false rape reports are common, especially when a woman wants to hurt or punish a lover or gain the upper hand in child custody battles. It never fails. If you talk about rape, someone will probably eventually bring this up. About 2-3% of all reports of sexual assault are false, which is similar to percentages of false reports of burglary and grand theft auto. Lying about being raped is never okay, but this is not exactly an epidemic.
Those who are anxious for the continued safety of partner rapists can rest assured that victims are still reluctant to bring justified charges against their rapists, especially in cases of partner rape. It’s obviously hard to tell how underreported partner rape really is, but very, very, very is a good estimate. Women who are raped by their boyfriends, husbands and exes have a lot of shit to wade through, and sometimes pressing charges is just one thing too many. In addition to all the physical, emotional, financial, and sexual legacies the rape can leave, the victim may be dissuaded from prosecuting even if the police believe her. And if she gets that far, what are the odds that she’ll get a conviction against a man with whom she’s had consensual sex countless times before? Unfortunately, while the myths of gray areas, compromise, and rampant false rape reports persist, the convicted partner rapist is sort of like, well, Bigfoot. Or at least the Barbary Lion.