There is usually a group of people on both sides of the abortion issue that makes an exception for women who have been raped. Usually the argument is that when a rape has occurred, a woman has not made the choice to get pregnant and should not be held accountable for someone else’s criminal action.
But, what is rape exactly?
This is a very serious question and I plan to address it seriously. Humor might get a little involved, though, and I hope I don’t offend anyone.
Where I went to college, there was a part of campus that was poorly lighted and included a steep-hilled walkway that was known as “rape hill.” Students were cautioned not to go there after dark. There was even a big sign that said exactly that. During my sophomore year, students received “rape whistles” we could carry around as a necklace or in backpacks that could be used to alert others that you were being raped.
So my earliest idea of rape was a guy hiding in the bushes who came out and attacked you. Unless you had your rape whistle handy to alert someone or to maybe scare the guy away, you were stuck. I took advantage of a few free self-defense classes, geared toward women, where I learned to stop wearing ponytails (apparently that’s an effective handle for rapists) and to carry my keys interlaced between my fingers as a ready weapon. I think they did more to make me extra jumpy and suspicious of everybody.
As I mentioned in a previous post, I was also under the impression that women were expected to dress modestly so that guys wouldn’t get too aroused. Modest dress was, therefore, another precaution that could protect me from an assault. Subconsciously I also concluded that to dress immodestly would be asking for it.
Along with all of these very helpful preventative tips, I learned to avoid situations that could lead to rape. Going to a wild party and getting drunk, for example, might leave you vulnerable to someone taking advantage of you. It was therefore my responsibility to protect myself and my virtue by avoid places like that.
To sum up: rape happens in dark, scary, and/or bad places where modest clothing and ninja moves can protect you. That was the extent of my understanding, until I joined the Peace Corps.
As Peace Corps volunteers we received extensive training on various subjects, including rape prevention. The trainers showed a video that reinforced a lot of the things I had come to understand about rape. Victims were interviewed and provided details about when they were raped and the circumstances surrounding it. I sat there watching it, feeling like it all made perfect sense.
Then another volunteer pointed out that by presenting a narrative that highlights the victim’s poor choices, it implies that the victim has really brought it upon herself. My colleague showed me that this reasoning is wrong. No matter what choices we make, it does not excuse rape. Rape is wrong no matter what. The details do not change the legal or moral elements of the issue. And if we’re not careful we down-play the responsibility of the criminal and provide a permissive environment for future rape. This new perspective planted the seed that has led to many more opportunities for better understanding.
When politicians take on abortion, there are many who begin to argue whether a claim to permit abortion due to rape is “legitimate” or not. Many have destroyed their own careers by trying to define rape too narrowly. Some of us may still feel like women should be more responsible and only go to certain places and wear (or not wear) certain clothes. Whatever you believe, let’s talk about how the law views rape.
According to law, consent must be given before engaging in sexual intercourse. Even in marriage, a husband and wife must have each other’s consent before being intimate. Consent does not always have to be explicit (“Is that a ‘yes’, Dear?”), but it does have to be affirmative. Consent can also be withdrawn, at any time. As soon as one person signals either verbally or nonverbally that the other person should slow down, it must be respected. Any pushing or persisting that occurs after that and leads to intercourse is considered rape.
Let me share a true story of a very good friend of mine. She was also in college, though at a different school, and held a lot of my same values. She dressed modestly and didn’t drink. She didn’t go to wild parties or walk around late at night. She was at a basketball game and caught the eye of some guy who later asked her to help him with a class. Being exceptionally bright and eager to help, she agreed to meet with him at his apartment later in the week. She arrived on time with her books and study materials and noticed that he didn’t have anything with him. Instead of studying, he started making advances and she responded awkwardly. Similar to my first kiss, she didn’t know how far he would go and she wasn’t sure how to make him stop. She verbally told him to stop. It felt uncomfortable to fight with him and so she simply continued making verbal and occasional physical protests. Things progressed until he finally left her alone to get dressed. As she left his apartment, one of his roommates offered to walk her home, making an implication of similar advances. Feeling a little more empowered, and a lot less naive, she said no. Soon, however, the word got around and she had several more similar experiences where guys forced themselves on her. There was no one to really talk to about how to defend herself. There was no one to help her feel valued and empowered. There was just a growing line of men ready to take advantage of her.
Here’s another true story. A friend had been raised in a good Christian family that taught intimacy was for marriage. After high school she started dating a guy and they had sex once. She felt so guilty and horrible about it. She figured that now that she wasn’t a virgin, her value had decreased. When her boyfriend would later push her to have sex again, she felt like she had to. Who else would want her now?
For anyone still thinking that rape only occurs when a woman makes poor choices, think again. For anyone still thinking rape is only done by strangers and is a result of force, think again. Self-worth, empowerment, affirmation and so much more play a huge part in whether a woman feels she can give or withdraw her consent. Have we adequately advocated for women to understand and feel just how powerful they are? Are men taught about consent? Do men understand that no matter how far things progress, they are never entitled to go all the way if consent is withdrawn?
Are we clear and open about what rape really is?
Because if you’re going to make rape an exception for abortion, you had better understand just how far that goes….