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Rape is assault

John, social sciences are not in the same realm as physical sciences, such as physics or chemistry. And even in the physical sciences, much of what is ‘known’ to be true today will be ‘known’ to be false in fifty years’ time. The social sciences are to a large extent a reflection of our society and, as our society changes, so do the tenets of the various social sciences.

In Australia, rape is not defined as being exclusively a male forcing himself sexually on (or into) a woman — rape can be by a woman on a woman or a woman on a man. However, must instances of rape are the actions of a man forcing himself on a woman.

The scenario of a woman flirting with a man and then going to his home with him and then making it clear that she does not want sex, but the man forcing himself on her sexually, is not an argument that mitigates the rape that takes place. The woman did not make the man have sex with her or encourage him to do so — she said “no, I have changed my mind.”

Imagine the scenario of this same woman flirting with the same man and agreeing to have dinner with him. They order but, when the food arrives, she says she doesn’t want to eat, she has changed her mind. The man then restrains her and forces food into her mouth and forces her to swallow it. Would you say that she led him on and is, therefore, not a true victim and he is not a true perpetrator? What if, using social science, we look into his childhood and find that he was unloved and food was often taken away from him, or he was force-fed food he hated? Would that mitigate the offence (of assault) he should be charged with? Is the woman less of a victim?

Consider this scenario: you (a man) go into a tattoo shop and agree to have a tattoo applied to you arm by a ‘friend’ (male or female) you met in a bar earlier in the evening — you got on well and the ‘friend’ offered to do the tattoo (as a non-commercial transaction). You’re in the shop, the design has been chosen, the tattoo gun has been set up with its sterile needle, the ‘friend’ has applied the transfer to your arm and is just about to start tattooing. You say “No, I’ve decided I don’t want to do this.” Your ‘friend’ won’t accept this, saying you’ve both come this far and you’re going to have the tattoo whether you like it or not. He holds you down and tattoos your arm. Is this not a black-and-white situation of withdrawal of consent? Is your ‘friend’ incapable of stepping back, taking a deep breath and telling you it’s okay? Maybe another time?

I think people treat rape differently because of the accepted nature of our (especially men’s) sexual urges. This, firstly, puts down women as being mere vessels and denies their own sexuality and often strong sexual urges. Secondly, it allows the excuse for men who say they have reached a point at which they can no longer control themselves. This is also the argument used by angry men who murder — that they were so angry that they could no longer control themselves.

The idea of determinism in relation to human behaviour needs to be dismissed as a pathetic excuse for ones behaviour. It can be used to excuse rape, murder, genocide, theft, arson … Executing a sexual act is the result of a deliberate decision and the decision can equally be made to not execute the act. Not necessarily easy to do so but possible.

One of the attitudes that still allows men to perpetrate rape on women (and, yes, on men too, but that is a slightly different argument) has to do with agency. In many societies in the past (and some societies in the present), women had little or no agency when it came to sex. A woman was in many ways the property of her father, until he married and became the property of her husband (still given lip service in the practice of a woman being ‘given away’ by her father at her wedding). Until recently, a husband could not be charged with rape for having non-consensual sex with his wife. There is still an attitude in some jurisdictions that the rape of a prostitute is not as ‘bad’ as the rape of a teenage virgin, as the prostitute has all that sexual experience.

As for the argument that regarding rape as a black-an-white issue prevents us moving to a society in which the issue is properly addressed, is going at this from the wrong end. We can be black and white about non-consensual sex being rape and still do something about reducing it (and not be asking women to dress more conservatively). It largely comes down to education of boys, which means education of parents bringing up boys to socialise them to treat women with respect and as having full agency and to regard forcing one’s will on another person as being wrong, period. Also, men can have a big influence on other men, by calling them on sexist remarks and, especially, on statements/jokes that perpetuate the attitudes that forcing a woman to have sex is okay. We have a long way to go with this, but I see this as the only way to move on this.

As for how we treat rapists? That again is a societal decision. I’m not convinced that ‘punishment’ is more effective than re-education. Yes, there is a role for punitive action, but that alone is unlikely to make any difference as a deterrent (even capital punishment has been shown to not be much of a deterrent). Although there will be men who rape because of a pathology which may not be addressable, it is likely that a change in how we deal with rapist (as with other criminals) may make a difference to outcomes.

Women, and men, need to be able to feel that they have agency over their bodies. They need to be able to safely give permission to share activities and to safely withdraw if they choose.

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