It may seem counterintuitive to describe a 259-page book about rape as funny, uplifting, enlightening, gender-inclusive, and sex-positive. But those who have followed Kate Harding over her decade-long career — first as the founder of her own blog, Shapely Prose, then through her work at Jezebel and Salon.com’s Broadsheet — know her for her fierce wit and her ability to dive into complex social issues and emerge with simple, sane, humane truths. Asking for It, Harding’s second book, surveys American rape culture over the past few decades and makes a plea for wisdom, moral clarity, love, and cooperation between men and women, and great sex between sane, consenting people of all ages.
Back in 2009, when a bewildering number of Hollywood and film insiders came to the defense of director Roman Polanski, arrested on a thirty-year-old rape charge, Harding dug into decades-old court transcripts and shot off a devastating retort, which began: “Reminder: Roman Polanski raped a child.” That post gained international attention and provided the moral conviction to shift the conversation to the rights of Polanski’s victim, thirteen years old at the time of the crime.
The title of Harding’s new book comes from one of the persistent victim-blaming statements used to take rape — a crime second only to murder, according to federal statute — and downgrade it to a matter of miscommunication or misunderstanding, a myth she eviscerates in a single statement: “It is literally impossible to ask for rape. Rape, by definition, is sex you did not ask for.”
The attempt to define rape this succinctly — as a cultural, judicial, and civil rights issue — has taken the better part of a century. In part, it has been waged by defining the language we use to talk about rape. So-called stranger rape — committed by a knife-wielding stranger jumping out of the bushes — is by far the least common form. But it was not until the late ’70s and early ’80s that the terms “date rape” and “acquaintance rape” gave women the language to describe rape in its most common form — an attack committed by a friend, family member, classmate, clergy member, or other person known to the victim.
In response, we’ve seen a raft of new, mostly nonsensical terms that seek to redefine stranger rape as the only “real” kind of rape: “rape-rape” (used by Whoopi Goldberg to justify Roman Polanski’s admitted act), “legitimate rape” (Senator Todd Akin), and “gray rape” (Laura Sessions Stepp). In what can only be considered a hopeful turn of events, this provoked a response from President Barack Obama on The Tonight Show, who said: “Rape is rape. It is a crime. And so these various distinctions about rape don’t make a whole lot of sense to me — don’t make any sense to me.”
“Rape culture,” Harding points out, is a term coined in feminist academic circles during the ’70s. But over the past five years, it has gained new currency, first on feminist blogs, then more broadly. “In rape culture,” Harding writes, “girls are supposed to be the pure ones, the responsible ones, the ones putting the brakes on all adolescent sexual overtures, regardless of their own desires. Boys and men have a natural, biological sex drive, you see, but when girls and women express sexuality, it’s because they’ve been led astray by music videos or vampire movies or something.” This is a situation she calls “both demonstrably false and inimical to good sex.”
Fighting against rape culture, she writes, has nothing to do with opposing healthy sexual relationships and will lead to better sex for both men and women. “All the feminists I know want your sons to have great sex, when they decide they are ready. We want them to have happy, healthy sex lives with consenting partners who care about their pleasure.” But she adds, “We also want that for your daughters, though. A lot of people can’t quite handle that part.” I spoke with Harding recently about her new book and where she thinks the conversation about rape needs to go next. — Amy Benfer
The Barnes & Noble Review: I mentioned that I was writing about “rape culture” to a young woman the other day, and she said, “Oh you mean the thing that is happening on college campuses?” Do working-class women, high school grads, and factory workers get raped less than college women? Or is it just that college women feel empowered and have the language to stand up for themselves?
Kate Harding: Rape happens to girls and women of every class, race, and age. It has nothing to do with colleges. But there’s two things: College is a closed environment, so a serial rapist can access lots of victims, and one woman has a much better chance of finding out that the same thing happened to others. Also, alcohol is the number one date rape drug, and at college, you have a binge-drinking culture where it’s easy to get people drunk or just choose a victim from those who are already wasted. Rapists do both of those things.
But that’s what people love to report on. Just like when a beautiful white woman disappears, it becomes a major news story, people love to write about young, college-age women. And they can also link it to stories about this “dangerous hook-up culture,” so everyone can say, “Hey lock up your daughters,” and it becomes a purity issue. When of course, the consensual sex young people are having has nothing to do with rape.
BNR: “Rape culture” has gone from being a thing no one talks about to the subject of daily news coverage. Is culture getting more rapey? Or is it just that younger women have more confidence, and the language, to call their rapes what they are?
KH: I think it’s the latter. Even if you resist the term “rape culture” at first, and I did, it describes something that never had a name before. There are lots of phrases that come out of the academy — “privilege” is another one — that make people bristle until they understand what’s really being described. “Rape culture” actually comes out of second-wave feminism, so it’s older than we think. But reading about rape culture on blogs and the Internet makes it more physically accessible — not something that has to be explained to you in a women’s studies class.
I don’t think things are worse, necessarily — we’re just covering rape more in mainstream sources. I think it’s fair to say that’s hopeful. Increasingly in the media, we are seeing it handled better and better. But then you have something like the news that Jared Fogle (the Subway commercial guy) was arrested for child porn and some sort of sexual activity with underage girls. The New York Post, ever tasteless, put on its cover, “You’re gonna get a foot-long in prison.”
BNR: Basically threatening rapists with rape.
KH: Yes! We may not all weep for what happens to rapists, but no one deserves to be raped. Prison rape falls into same category. It affects people in there for all kinds of things, including nonviolent drug charges. But no one ever deserves it. Prisoners deserve civil rights, too.
BNR: We’ve recently seen a proliferation of terms — “forcible rape,” “rape-rape,” legitimate rape,” which seems to be defined by the following: a virgin of unimpeachable character; rapist unknown to victim; visible weapon; clear physical damage to victim.
KH: “Forcible rape” used to be the language in FBI files. Everyone is looking for any evidence besides the victim’s testimony. Which is understandable from a legal standpoint, and everyone deserves strong defense. But the idea that in in “real” rape, a woman is battered, not just raped, rests on the presumption that any woman who reports a rape is lying. But we know false rape reports only happen 2−8 percent of the time.
It also plays into the rape culture idea that rape is a stranger jumping out of bushes. But most rape is neither extreme nor rare. It’s usually someone known to the victim, and afterward there’s often no indication of a violent attack. That doesn’t elicit the same kind of passion for justice.
The problem with that is, people who like to rape can keep getting away with it, as long as there are no witnesses besides the victims. And even when there are multiple victims, a lot of people still think it’s more likely that they’re conspiring to ruin a man’s life than that he actually did what they said.
It’s now looking like Bill Cosby assaulted forty or more women. Most people do seem to believe that he did it now, which is a sign that we, as a culture, are becoming better about believing women. But when it was just thirteen victims, ten years ago, it was a blip on the radar. It took about twenty-five coming forward before some people started to say, Well, he probably did it.
BNR: Along with this, we have all the minimizing terms for not-rape: “Bad sex,” “regret sex,” “bad date,” and my favorite, “sex by surprise” (the widely held translation of the charges against Julian Assange in Sweden, though as you point out, a Swedish blogger wrote that in Sweden the term is used as slang for rape). Almost all of these include the word sex, which, by definition is not the same as rape. Do you think some of this cultural anxiety can come from men retroactively having to reclassify acts that they, or their friends or acquaintances may have committed as rape?
KH: Last week during the St. Paul boarding school rape trial, this Fox News lawyer on TV coined the term “regret sex.” He basically revived the hoary old idea that young women who feel guilty or dirty about consensual sex will “cry rape.” To which I say, if the women you are having sex with so regret having sex with you that they are willing to accuse you of a violent crime, be personally exposed through a public trial, and risk being prosecuted for perjury, what the hell kind of sex are you having? Also, not for nothing, if we all stopped trying to make girls feel dirty and guilty for having consensual sex, that hypothetical justification for a false accusation would disappear.
BNR: You write: “The idea that confirming consent is an automatic boner-killer needs to die. If it comes down to lack of experience, why are we letting virgins dictate the terms of a healthy sexual encounter? And if it’s not that, then why are we letting rapists?” Some argue that focusing on enthusiastic consent leads to bad sex: But what is sexier than saying, “Yes, I absolutely want you!” Is this just a holdover from the belief that “good” girls do not say yes to sex?
KH: In a purity culture, people are raised in repressive ways. There is the old line, “Well, if you left it up to women, they would never say yes to sex,” which is how you can come to believe that no means yes, and thus men are entitled to any sex they can get, by any means possible. If you really believe in that, you are not listening to women. Women are allowed to say yes — and when they want sex, they do.
For someone without a lot of sexual experience, it may seem like, well, if this opportunity passes, I’ll never have sex. But we’re not all entitled to sex like food and water. Yes, sex is a basic human desire, and in order to replenish the population, sex typically has to happen. But why do we think every boner is sacred? Just because some guy thinks he can trick or coerce a woman into having sex with him, it doesn’t mean that if this opportunity passes, there will be devastating consequences. There will be other boners, there will be other partners. Why not wait for someone who truly wants it?
Not every instance of sex is thrilling. People do have mediocre sex. But rape is not the same as, say, mismatched partners: If I want sex all time and he doesn’t, that’s a relationship problem. But if a woman doesn’t want to have sex, and someone feels entitled to have sex with her anyway, that’s a rape problem.
BNR: Men can be victims of rape, and it’s serious when they are. False accusations happen, and they, too, are serious. But why do so many discussions about rape begin by invoking the least common scenarios — strangers, false accusations — instead of the most common one?
KH: Yes: The single most likely reason for someone to report a rape is that she was raped. But a lot of people want to make it much more complicated than that.
Male victims do face a different kind of stigma, and it’s terrible. They often face the hurdle of people’s disbelief that men can be raped, for starters, and if their rapists were men, all sorts of homophobic garbage can go along with it. Adolescent boys raped by older women aren’t regarded as victims of serious trauma the way girls raped by older men are, because the presumption is that once a boy hits puberty, he wants to have sex all the time, with everyone. In that way, we don’t really allow young men to be in touch with their own desires any more than we allow girls to be. But “What about the men?” is also something a lot of guys bring up when they just want to shout women down. They don’t care about male victims of rape. They don’t care about people who are falsely accused of crimes, or they’d care just as much about women who end up prosecuted for making false reports after they were actually raped.
Let me be clear: I believe in a vigorous criminal defense for everyone. There should be a strong legal threshold at which we will put a man in prison. But it’s a problem when discussions about rape trials begin with constant talk about how any individual victim could be lying. The victim’s character becomes the whole focus of the case.
People often bring up the idea that every defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty. This is why newspapers refer to the “alleged” rapist and no one goes to jail until proven guilty in a court of law. As they should! It’s important to be circumspect when you’re writing about an ongoing case on the record. But cultural discussions about whether or not an individual rape seems likely to have happened should not be held to the same standard as a trial. Your conversation over brunch about a celebrity accused of rape is not a jury deliberation. If someone says, “How can you believe that such-and-such is guilty, when there hasn’t been a trial?” they’re not trying to keep you honest, they’re trying to shut you down.
Most rapes are never reported, let alone prosecuted. That doesn’t mean they never happened.
BNR: Many studies have shown that rapes, particularly in closed environments like college campuses, are often not committed by a large number of men but by a small number of serial rapists who have many victims. Why is it so common for many women, yourself included, to not report their rape until after they hear that the same man raped others? Is it because we think it’s not worth it merely to protect ourselves? We all know us women are so community-minded.
KH: Because that’s the extra testimony that you need to bolster your case. Rape usually doesn’t happen in a public place: You hear people say all the time, “Well, how do we know what happened? We were not there.” But having another person say it happened to her is the closest thing to having an eyewitness. My rape happened the first week in my freshman year, and I spotted the guy the next day in the dining hall. But one of my so-called friends, said, “Oh no that’s not the guy. He would never do that.” So I dropped it. I didn’t know his name. When I heard that guy had raped other women, it was like, “Wait a minute! I’m not crazy!”
BNR: As you point out, it’s not censorship to say, “No, you can say what you want, and I can also use my own damn voice to call you a jerk.” But hate speech and threats of physical violence are a chronic issue for many women writers on the Internet, most explosively in the case of Gamergate, in which women were receiving rape and death threats — credible death threats, because they were coming from people who had published their home addresses on the Internet — to punish them for the “crime” of writing critiques of misogyny in gaming culture. How ironic is it that men are using threats of physical violence to punish women for the crime of speaking in public?
KH: People are allowed to hold opinions that may actually be wrong. You hear this all the time with complaints about free speech. A guy who says, “This feminist is saying I shouldn’t make prison rape jokes, that’s censorship!” That’s not censorship. That’s a conversation.
“Free speech” is like “innocent until proven guilty.” The government and its representatives need to be strict about those very important standards. The rest of us, shooting the breeze in the real world, are allowed to tell each other to shut up, to walk away, to block people on Twitter, and to disagree about whether we think someone is guilty of a crime, regardless of what’s been proven in court.