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Matthiesen GS: Rape vs. rape-rape: confronting ambivalence about sexual violence

By now, many of us are familiar with the recent attempts by the House to legislate degrees of rape — "forcible" and otherwise — in order to further restrict the already narrow circumstances under which abortions can be federally funded. In late January, lawmakers proposed to change the term "rape" under the longstanding Hyde Amendment to "forcible rape." While the immediate public outcry forced the House Republicans to withdraw the phrase within a matter of weeks, the "forcible rape" distinction has yet to be dropped from the so-called No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act. Meanwhile, public opposition to the bill continues, with disbelief, rage, fear and, of course, satire.

The Daily Show's recent "rapish" segment with Kristen Schaal poked fun at the bill, revealing the concept's inherent contradiction. Jon Stewart feigns incredulity at Schaal's enthusiastic support of the change in terminology as she explains the difference between rape, rape-rape, rapish and rape-esque. Stewart implores her, "Kristen, rape — all rape — is by definition forcible." Surely Schaal should know better. Indeed, those of us watching laugh as the witty exchange unfolds precisely because we know better. But do we know, know-know or just sort of know?

That is what I found myself wondering when I came across Sam Rosenfeld's '12 editorial comic that mocks the GOP's illogical rape distinction in the Feb. 16 issue of The Herald. Much like the rapish skit, the humor of Rosenfeld's comic depends upon a general consensus among readers — that the GOP's politics are so absurd they are in and of themselves laughable. But the satire employed by Rosenfeld also depends upon a more implicit consensus­ — that the Brown community agrees on what constitutes rape. And while the Daily Show and Rosenfeld encourage us to see the definition of rape as self-evident, it is my sense that when faced with certain scenarios our general consensus would quickly unravel.

While Schaal jokes about the "gray areas of rape," the truth of the matter is that there is still widespread ambivalence about where, and on whom, to place blame for instances of sexual violence, particularly when such instances are colored gray. Acquaintance rape, especially when alcohol is involved, is one such instance that often elicits ambivalent responses ranging from, "well they were both equally drunk" to "we weren't there, so we can't really know" to "I know him, and he would never do that."

Importantly, Brown's literature on sexual assault and rape directly rejects the logic behind such responses — that stranger rape is the most common form of rape and that alcohol, not people, rape. And I would bet that, when asked, many students — undergraduate and graduate alike — could list these and other harmful rape myths. But beneath what has become the expected level of awareness on victim blaming dos and don'ts among those of us who supposedly know better persist responses like the ones mentioned above. How many of us have heard accounts of acquaintance rape and refused to take sides for lack of enough information or out of fear of disrupting friendships? When is the last time you stayed silent as peers expressed doubt about an assault that you knew to be true? How many of us police one another, taking into account how many drinks someone had or if they had been leading on the perpetrator when evaluating a friend's story of assault? How many people on this campus felt it was easier to blame themselves than confront their perpetrator because of any number of these factors?

The persistence of this rationale on a university campus that engages often in conversations, programming and artistic productions about the politics and pleasures of sexuality and sex is not surprising. While we have been schooled in the various societal factors that make possible a culture where sexual violence is seen as inevitable and normal, there has been less discussion about how to deal with the specific difficulties that accompany acquaintance rape. We don't talk about how to maintain important social relationships during the reporting of an assault by a friend. We rarely consider ways to ensure victim support while also pursuing less punitive approaches to perpetrator accountability. We don't treat acquaintance rape as what it is — a community, not individual, issue. These are just some of the challenges that keep acquaintance rape in the so-called gray area.

In light of these challenges, it is readily apparent why attacking the GOP's outrageous legislation with satire is a much easier task. Still, if most of our energy and attention is spent laughing at the Right, it becomes too easy to forget that it poses a serious threat to sexual and reproductive health and freedoms. More importantly, it makes it seem as if there is no work left to do, when in fact there is a lot to be done about how communities here respond to all forms of sexual violence that too often elicit ambivalent responses. I'll be the first to admit that this is no easy task. But until we start seriously engaging these issues, we will continue to think we know better without really getting anywhere.


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