On Redefining Rape

by | January 9, 2012
filed under Can-Con, Feminism

Welcome to guest contributor Jasmine Peterson!  Jasmine is currently a graduate student in Clinical Psychology at Lakehead University (Ontario), and a feminist activist.

I don’t want to negate the hard work that US feminist advocates and activists have done in pushing for the redefining of rape by the FBI, and I certainly don’t wish to undermine the progress that this step represents. However, when I read the newly formed definition, I didn’t find it overly progressive.

It certainly is a step in the right direction. It is important to acknowledge that it isn’t only women who are victims of sexual assault, and that men can be victimized, too. But the problem lies in how the definition has been framed. It still seems to negate men as victims except in certain circumstances.

The new definition reads:  “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”.

This in contrast to the historical definition established in 1927: “the carnal knowledge of a female, forcibly and against her will” which was certainly more overtly exclusionary than the newer. This meant that rape was only recognized as such if a man penetrated a woman’s vagina; it entirely excluded oral and anal penetration (which in doing so, also excluded the rape of males), rape that was non-consensual but not “forcible”, penetration with any object or body part other than the penis, and rape of females by females.

In looking at these definitions, the meaning has certainly expanded how rape is legally understood. However, this new definition seems to preclude sexual assault of males by women via vaginal sex. Sexual assault is overwhelmingly committed by men (no, I am not saying that all men are rapists; most men are good, non-raping members of society, but that doesn’t change the fact that the majority of rape is committed by men), but women can be aggressors, too. Therefore, there’s still room for more inclusivity.

Sure, now the definition includes non-consenting penetration of males as well, which recognizes boys and men as victims where the previous definition would not have. What it also does, though, is imply that if a man is forced into vaginal sex with a woman, it’s not rape. It may not be nearly as common, but that doesn’t mean that those boys or men should not also be recognized as victims. Boys are expected to want sex, and especially to want sex with older women or women in positions of power, so it’s more difficult for people to recognize them as victims in situations in which they are victimized. The recent story about a male student and teacher Alexandra McLean is a perfect example. In reading the story at Huffington Post, you need go no further than the comment section to see how we, as a culture, regard males who are victimized by women: [Trigger warning – victim blaming]

“That was heaven on earth for that young man, not assault, lol”

“Why do they call him a victim, as if she raped him. The sex was consensual and he did enjoy it. Makes you wish you had been “victimize­d” at 17 by one of your hot teachers.”

“”Victim”? When I was 17, I only wished something like that would have happened to me.”

This redefinition, then, seems to me to be much in the same way as culturally dominant notions of male sexuality – there’s this pervasive belief that men cannot really be victimized by women because men always want sex, no matter the situation. According to the new definition, has this boy been raped if he’s not been penetrated by this woman? The definition, “penetration of the vagina or anus with any body part or object,” seems to imply that it is the penetration of the victim that constitutes rape. The language, then, inherently excludes males victimized by females.

How can we expect male victims to be taken seriously at the cultural level if even the legal definitions seem to preclude them as victims (specifically in the circumstance of having been victimized by a woman)? It is little wonder that males are often reticent to come forth as victims of sexual assault, in a culture that won’t acknowledge them as victims and suggests they ought to have enjoyed the experience.

This definition is a step in the right direction, but there is certainly much work to do in eradicating sexual violence against males and females.


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  • jarrahpenguin

    The new definition is a step in the right direction for sure but I think you’re right to point out there is more work to do. The main thing I appreciate about the new definition is its inclusion of non-vaginal rape of women and its acknowledgment that rape can be through coercion or taking advantage of someone who’s incapacitated by alcohol or something else (not just “physical force”).

    But I prefer the way the Canadian definition of sexual assault includes more of a continuum of different kinds of assault – I think it does a better job of showing how behaviours like a teacher or therapist groping or kissing a student or patient are linked to more “aggravated” sexual offenses in terms of social causes.

    It also struck me reading your piece how the way we treat men (especially these cases of boys being assaulted by women in positions of power) who have been victimized is part of the problem of violence against women. The idea that men can’t be victimized is part of the idea that “boys will be boys” and that all men want to have sex with women, even if it’s violent. That’s part of the argument that we get as feminists from misogynists (like Scott Adams) who argue that we can basically expect to be raped if we’re wearing short skirts/drinking/out late.

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  • Jasmine

    That’s an excellent point. I agree that it’s related to the overall rape culture and victim blaming. What’s really interesting is to see the reciprocity between cultural and legal discourses embedded in the definition.

    I think that, in general terms, this new definition is a good thing for both male and female victims. Like you, I appreciate that it now includes penetration not just vaginal and that it addresses the issue of consent in the definition. Hopefully this will be a step in changing how we talk about and understand rape at the cultural level, as well.

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