We like to pretend that we hate rape. The word is a repository for a powerful sense of collective horror. It evokes a uniquely awful violation; one buttressed by a long history of fictional rape victims who believed suicide was the only honourable response to their assault. Decent people signal their decency with a proper aversion to it. To be named as a rapist is almost, for those of us lucky or privileged enough to be able to keep its reality at a distance, worse than being a victim of rape.
This horror, however, distracts us from acknowledging the everyday ways in which we trivialise, deny and normalise sexual violence. Even as we say—and probably believe—that we hate rape, we overlook how we have made the word virtually unusable. Most rape victims—that is, rape victims in the legally defined sense of the word—don’t use the word to describe their experiences. Journalists shrink from using it in even the least ambiguous of cases. Even many rapists will admit to forcing someone to have sex with them, but not to rape.
This stripping of meaning is achieved by defining “rape” in the narrowest way possible. We collectively hate rape—we do—when it involves chaste, white women who are attacked by strangers with weapons, who resist fiercely, who suffer injuries, who publically display an appropriate degree of grief, who report promptly and perfectly accurately, and above all, who do not do a single thing that could possibly be interpreted as putting themselves in danger. In other words, we hate rape when it is the least likely kind imaginable. All other instances of sexual assault—which is to say, the vast majority—are denied and trivialised. In this way, with a smug assurance that we all agree rape is very terrible, we are free to trivialise and justify sexual violence.
Striking acts of self-delusion result. People say, with straight faces, that there is no such thing as rape culture because everybody agrees rape is very bad, even though there are plenty of people who still believe in the innocence of one man after he has been accused by fifty women. Even though a victim of rape has almost no chance of getting justice if she reports to police. Even though people are capable of recording the rape of an unconscious girl and turning it into a joke on social media. Even though, in a country where prisons are packed with men serving hefty sentences for possessing or selling drugs, a man who repeatedly drugged and raped his wife isn’t sentenced to a single day in prison. Even though one judge implies that a 14 year old child who was raped by 47 year old teacher shares responsibility for her victimisation, while another worries about the impact of the rape of an unconscious woman on not the victim, but on her rapist. I could go on, and on.
These acts of aggression against rape victims are numbing in their frequency, but our denial strategies are effective. We are rarely forced to scrutinise how we really feel about sexual assault. We hate rape and rapists—as long as they don’t involve real victims. When they do, though, an uglier truth is visible for those who choose to see it. Because, perhaps, what we really hate are rape victims. But who has the stomach to admit that?