The media this week is trumpeting a study that makes a shocking claim: One in every 16 women say their first sexual experience was rape. As NPR notes, this is just “the tip of the iceberg.” The one-in-16 figure — over 6% of all women between the ages of 18 and 44 — could even be an “underestimate,” we’re assured.
News reports on this study have, of course, tied these revelations to the #MeToo movement. We are meant to come away with the impression that America is chock-full of rapists, and millions upon millions of women have fallen victim to the millions upon millions of predators lurking behind every corner. A closer look at the data, however, reveals a drastically different picture. There is no reason to artificially inflate rape statistics — rape is horrible enough, and far too common already — but this study does just that.
Here’s the key portion of the NPR report (emphasis mine):
About 6.5% women — an estimated 3.3 million nationwide — said that their first sexual experience was rape.
The average age of most victims was about 15 when they were assaulted. The average age of their partner, or the assailant, was 27, Hawks notes. This suggests a “major power discrepancy” and, possibly, a difference in physical size as well, she says.
More than 26% said they were physically threatened during the encounter, 46% said they were physically held down. Over half (56%) of them said they were verbally pressured into having sex, and 16% said that their partner threatened to end the relationship if they didn’t have sex. These forms of coercion were not mutually exclusive.
“The definition of rape is any sexual encounter that’s unwanted or nonconsensual,” Hawks says. “And when a [woman or girl] is coerced into having sex that she doesn’t want to have, that is still considered a rape.”
There is quite a lot going on in these few paragraphs. First, NPR misquotes the study’s findings. The average age of most “victims” was actually 15.6 and the average age of the “assailant” was six years older, which would make him 21 rather than 27. More to the point, “verbal pressure” has been lumped together with physical force. Dr. Laura Hawks, the primary author of the study, broadens rape to include “any sexual encounter that’s unwanted.” The “or” in the phrase “unwanted or nonconsensual” makes it clear that a sexual act could be in every sense consensual — meaning, both partners actively and affirmatively agree to participate in it — and yet rape still may have occurred.
This is madness.
Traditionally, rape hinges entirely on consent. The Department of Justice defines it with precise detail: “The penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.”
Now, it is understood that verbal consent is not always legitimate consent. A child is not capable of consenting, no matter what they say, because they lack the psychological and emotional faculties to make that sort of decision. For a similar reason, you cannot get consent by drugging someone. That’s one of the reasons why “unwanted” does not and cannot enter into the definition of rape. A rapist cannot be excused by arguing that the victim really “wanted it.” The only question we need to ask is this: Did you have sex with someone who did not or could not consent? If so, you’re a rapist. If not, you aren’t.
A man who pressures a woman to have sex by threatening to end the relationship might be a jerk, but he’s not a rapist. The woman, if she is a mentally competent adult, can still make her own choice. She is not being forced to do anything. She can decline the man’s advances and she can terminate the sexual act at any time. Her situation, however unpleasant, cannot be compared to a woman who is physically held down against her will and violated. If she decides to go through with it, the sex may be unloving and transactional, but it is still consensual. She may regret it afterwards. She may feel used (she was). She may want to leave him (she should). But none of this, in itself, makes it rape.
And this new definition of rape wouldn’t just make everyday jerks and bad boyfriends into rapists; it would turn any man who has ever used any form of persuasion — flattery, sweet talk, and so forth — into a sex criminal. In all of those cases, it could be argued that the woman didn’t really want to, wasn’t really into it, and thus was raped. Any wife that has ever had slightly begrudging or unenthusiastic sex with her husband is now a sexual assault survivor. Dr. Hawks is right: By this definition, the actual percentage of “rape victims” is way, way higher than 6%.
To make matters worse, the standard is inconsistently applied. If a man who convinces a woman to have sex is a rapist, isn’t a woman who seduces a man also a rapist? Aren’t strippers coaxing money out of men’s pockets now rapists? Aren’t prostitutes strutting on the street corner rapists? Isn’t any woman who uses emotional pressure of any kind to extract any concession or compromise out of a man now guilty of assault? It’s true that men can be manipulative in getting what they want out of a relationship — and it’s true that what they often want is sex — but women have been known to employ their own forms of manipulation to achieve their own ends. If the man is a rapist, so is she. Coercion, pressure, and manipulation is far from a one-way street, as anyone familiar with male-female relationships well knows.
And this is all to say nothing of pressure and coercion in other contexts. By this standard, isn’t an effective salesman who convinces people to buy things they don’t want now a thief? Isn’t the homeless beggar guilt-tripping quarters out of people’s pockets now guilty of emotional robbery? Isn’t persuasion of all kinds, in all contexts, problematic at best — and violent assault, at worst?
This is what happens when coherent definitions are broadened into ambiguous, incoherent, all-encompassing concepts. Before long, everyone is a rapist and everyone is a rape victim. The word no longer means anything. And the real victims — of which there are many — are left high and dry.