Between the Steubenville verdict, the CNN coverage, and the eerily accurate Onion video from 2011, we have been talking a lot about rape and sexual assault. And with the various articles which called for a changing of the discourse from “how women can protect themselves from the inevitable sexual assaults which will befall them if they step out of line” to “how we can teach men that sexual assault is unacceptable and consent is always necessary,” there came the inevitable comments which attempted to poke holes in that train of logic.
The comparisons were often made between “telling murderers not to murder,” or “telling thieves not to steal” (perceived as ludicrous and ineffective) and “telling rapists not to rape.” The idea is that sexual assault, like any crime, is one that happens as a result of bad people who are just going to do bad things. They know that what they are doing is wrong, and against the law, and harmful to another human being — they just don’t care. One person mentioned how they always buckle their seatbelt because, though they are personally a very safe driver, they know that there will be other people on the road who do not respect driving regulations or choose to drive under the influence. The idea is that we are all reinforcing our windows before a storm, one that we cannot control, one that is determined to hit us and leaves us only the choice of preparing for the blow.
The thing is, I used to think this way, too. I used to believe that there were two groups of people: criminals, and regular human beings who were not interested in committing crimes. For me, the best course of action was always to take as many precautions as possible. I felt that it was a woman’s responsibility to not get too drunk and to dress in a more conservative way, much as I felt that it was everyone’s job to lock their car doors and don’t leave any valuables out if they don’t want to get it broken into. And while this clearly makes sense for things like car theft or even muggings — there are precautions we can all take that will drastically reduce our chances of being victims of certain kinds of crimes — the analogy falls profoundly short when it comes to sexual assault.
For most crimes, we are fairly clear as a society about what they consist of and how to define them. We know what theft is, we know what murder is, we know what carjacking is. While there will always be differences in judicial interpretation or how severely a given jurisdiction believes they should be punished, we generally know what they look like and not to engage in them ourselves. For most crimes, it would be fair to say that there are often “bad people” who are actively choosing to commit a crime and are doing it in full knowledge of the illegality and the danger it presents to others. For rape and sexual assault, though, the terms in which we’ve chosen to define it are so narrow as to exclude a huge amount of the actual crimes which take place.
We raise people (most often men, to be sure, but people of all genders can be both the victim and the aggressor) to believe that rape is a very specific crime which happens when a stranger forces himself on a woman in a dark alley against her will. It is repeatedly framed in this way, and rarely are the myriad other ways in which we can violate another person sexually discussed. This leads to countless “normal, good” people who will engage in a sex act with someone who cannot or has not provided consent, who is perhaps even moderately resisting, and think that it is a perfectly healthy example of what sex can look like. Because we don’t often enforce the idea that rape can happen between friends, at a party, within a marriage, or in any combination of genders, we leave many people believing that what happened to them (or what they enacted on another person) is not at all a crime.
Part of my unlearning of this idea that we should be teaching people to avoid rape involved realizing how little of it we ever really acknowledge. We are so quick to analyze the victim in these cases and look for any reason to discount her experience that we are only prepared to hold on a pedestal those few cases which follow the “stranger-in-the-bushes” narrative. But the reality is that treating a crime as serious as this in such limited terms only means that, unlike other crimes, we are not “teaching” the criminals not to engage in it. We are not putting the stigma and clear definitions on it that we do with murder or drunk driving — we are allowing only a sliver of its manifestations to be acknowledged and condemned. And because of this, the “teach rapists not to rape” concept is an attempt to start that comprehensive education where there previously was confusion and exemption.
All victims deserve to know that their pain was real and will be met with justice. All young people deserve to grow up in a world which encourages healthy, consensual pleasure and does not allow them to be criminals and attackers without even understanding what they are doing. This kind of discourse around rape and sexual assault is essential, and needs to start with enforcing the same kind of clear, bold stigma on all forms of this crime that we do on so many others. Because it is simply too easy to pretend, when presented with what rape culture means, that rape is “just like any other crime,” even when we know that society has always refused to treat it as such.