English Chief Justice, Sir Matthew Hale, 1776
Rape is “a most detestable crime,” that ought to be “severely and impartially…punished with death.” But, he cautioned “it is an accusation easily to be made and hard to be proved, and harder to be defended by the party accused.” (quoted here)
American biologist and sex researcher, Alfred Kinsey
“The difference between a good time and rape often depends largely upon whether the girl’s parentshappened to be awake when she returned home.” (same source)
So that imaginary rapist, the guy wearing the trench coat, hanging out in the park or dark alleyways, waiting to rape unknown women at knife-point, roughing them up or maybe killing them, before scuttling away to hide in his solo house full of pornography until he needs to rape again.
You know the one. He’s been in movies, books, tv shows. He’s easily recognised.
Well, feminists knew he was largely imaginary, have known that’s not how rape usually happens for a long time, because we listen to women who have been raped. Much of the second-wave feminist anti-rape activism focused on proving that. And we have.
Except have we, or are our imaginations still stunted?
Recent sexual violence cases splashed all over our front pages illustrate the fraughtness. We have George Gwaze, acquitted because of the possibility – not the probability, or even proven likelihood mind, the possibility – that his semen had ended up in his niece’s underwear, skirt and bedding in the wash. Or was he aquitted because, as his lawyer said in summing up:
Mr Gwaze was a good, kind, loving family man and it would have been utterly inconceivable he would enter the girl’s room and commit the “vicious, violent and heinous assault”.
We have the schoolteacher in Kataia, charged with sexually abusing 49 boys, with hints there may be more. He was able to keep offending despite suspicions as early as 2009, because he was seen as a “pillar in the community.” We have the “beast of Blenheim,” ostracised by the people of Whanganui, who don’t want any rapists living there.
People of Whanganui – you already have rapists living there. I’m sorry, but you do. It’s just that they don’t look like our imaginary rapist, they are not quite “beastly” enough, they are “good, kind loving family men” and/or “pillars of the community.”
Every time we pathologise someone who commits sexual violence, we make it harder to imagine how most rape and sexual violence happen. We know, in New Zealand, that 29% of women and 9% of men will experience unwanted and distressing sexual contact during their lifetimes. Most of those crimes will be perpetrated by people known to the person targetted. Not beasts, not men in trenchcoats in dark alleys with knives, but men in families, men in relationships, men in our communities.
Every time we pathologise someone who commits sexual violence, we make it harder to identify how most people offend. We miss clear indications – like semen in underwear – because we are desperate not to believe loving family men would behave like that. We miss warning signs – like teachers inviting their students over to stay the night – because pillars of the community do good, not harm. We rename what women say happened to them as “just sex” – because how can you be both a left-wing hero and a rapist?
Part of the disgusting left wing defence of the rape allegations against Julian Assange is about this in my opinion. This can’t be “real” rape or “legitimate rape” or “cut and dried rape,” because he stands up for democracy and freedom of information against powerful state forces. I’m not denying the (other) wider political context – I’m saying holding the view that Julian Assange’s work with WikiLeaks is important does not mean he cannot possibly be a rapist.
Pathologising rapists doesn’t stop men like Stuart Wilson or Julian Assange. We need to stop imagining that trenchcoated man in the alley, and start dreaming about consent – so we can identify when it’s not being sought or considered fundamental to sexual activity, and call that what it is.