Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Is it so bad to redefine rape? HR3, #DearJohn, and Women’s Sexuality

Despite promising to focus on jobs and the economy, Republicans have introduced HR3, “The No Taxpayer Funding For Abortion Act," which would make it virtually impossible for any woman anywhere to use insurance to pay for an abortion. Many excellent pieces have been written by the feminist community about the monstrosity that is this bill, and I don’t disagree with them. However, the idea of ‘redefining rape’, as the Republican efforts have been labeled, did get me thinking.  Our society lacks sufficient or appropriate language to define women’s sexuality, and therefore has difficulty as well in defining rape.

As anyone who has been involved in the conversation about reproductive health (from either side) knows, this issue is far more complex than whether or not abortion is murder, and when is abortion justified?  The trouble with defining rape (and therefore when some feel abortion is acceptable) is that it is not just an experience that a person goes through – it’s an experience that Flickr/Steve Rhodes (Creative Commons).involves another human being (or several), and one that has specific legal consequences (you know, supposedly). But I know too many women who have said, “I think I might have been raped – I’m just not sure.” And not because they were passed out and don’t remember anything, but because our society does not like to talk about women’s sexuality, and therefore cannot figure out how to talk about women’s choices when it comes to their own sexuality.

Jessica Valenti’s latest book, “The Purity Myth,” is what first got me thinking about this concept. Support hotlines where young people can go for information about health issues frequently get the question, “I did xyz, am I still a virgin?” Despite there being no medical definition for virginity, this is what women are thinking about constantly and struggling with constantly – the questions surrounding our sexuality. Except that nobody wants to talk about it and we don’t have language as a culture or as a society to address women’s sexuality.

Where does this play into the concept of rape? Congressman Chris Smith and his buddies want you to prove you were raped – I imagine this includes you being rushed via ambulance to an ER because you almost died from injuries sustained holding off attackers on your way back from Bible study. But as feminists rightly point out, what about the child who is forced into sexual acts? What about the fact that women are trained by society to be docile and passive and agreeable, and are even taught NOT to fight back sometimes because it could put their lives in further danger? All of these are reasons why Chris Smith’s bill is, in itself, a violent act against women.

However. A friend of mine told me in confidence that he had been accused of rape a long time ago. Mostly, it had hurt him deeply. According to him, the woman had never said no, she never hesitated or indicated that she didn’t want them to keep moving forward, and she had exhibited no inhibition during the act. Anti-choicers call this “buyer’s remorse." Let’s be clear – that’s crap. But the truth is a little more complicated. Perhaps she felt pressured into having sex; perhaps it happened so quickly that (because women aren’t taught to be aggressive) it was over before she could even formulate a thought about it. These sides aren’t mutually exclusive. But are we really expecting men to stop every three seconds and ask, “Are you ok?”  And then how do they know for sure that you are, and that you aren’t just responding to what you perceive as pressure? Also, do women ask such questions?

The point is, sexuality is complicated, and the question of rape simply can’t be subjective. It’s a crime against another human being and is (supposedly) punishable. But women aren’t given the opportunity to talk about the difference between being pressured into having sex, and being forced. Or the difference between doing something they didn’t want to do, and a man forcing them to do it. The only way to truly reconcile these issues is for A) everyone to recognize the difficulties and try to communicate as much as possible when the question arises, and B) to start talking more openly about women’s sexuality.

I was concerned when I started writing this post that some feminists would skim it quickly and then start a rampage against me for supporting HR3 and setting women’s rights back. So let me close by being 100% clear. The Republican supporters of this bill, also, do not recognize the complex issues surrounding rape, and instead are using this bill as an outright attack on women.  When Republicans redefine rape, as they do in this bill, they basically are saying that you were not raped unless you came within inches of your life fighting, and then were lucky enough to be kept alive.

So the way they have redefined rape is unacceptable, and anyone who views women as human beings should be up in arms about it. But the idea of redefining rape, and encouraging women to talk about their sexuality and sexual experiences, is one that is worth exploring in our communities and schools. Not yet in our legal system, because, for now, that would inevitably let more rapists off the hook; but for the time being, let’s at least start talking about it.