Rape and Sex: Two Sides of the Same Coin

[Trigger Warning: frank discussion of rape]
[also Trigger Warning: me being inflammatory for no reason, as per usual]

If there’s one feminist catch phrase that pisses me off a little bit more than all the other feminist catch phrases, it’s this one: “Rape is about power, not sex!”

To be fair, I am aware that this quote came from Susan Brownmiller and that she built an entire thesis around it — one that now serves as the foundation of many schools of feminist thought. But I won’t be responding to her or her book. Instead, in this small (well, Medium) rant of mine, I’ll be critiquing the uncritical version of this slogan that is haphazardly thrown around in feminist discourse today, not necessarily in the way Brownmiller intended:

There are many reasons why some feminists attempt to make this particular distinction between sex and rape. They want to make it so that women won’t be “slut shamed” (*cringe*) for being raped. They want to challenge the prevailing notion that victims “asked for it” or “secretly liked it.” They want rape to be recognized and validated as the act of violence that it is. And understandably, the word “sexual” itself has the connotation of sexy, so maybe when these feminists say ‘rape is not sexual,’ what they mean is ‘rape is not sexy’. All of these reasons are well-intentioned.

But despite these good intentions, I think we’re missing a golden opportunity to challenge rape culture —and I mean, REALLY challenge it — when we pretend that sex and rape are two cut-and-dry different things. Because rape is about sex. It absolutely is.

How so, you ask?

First, there’s the plain fact that most rape entails one person’s orifice being nonconsensually penetrated by the rapist’s body, or by a foreign object controlled by the rapist. Had this same activity been consensual, you would call that sex. In other words: the blueprint of rape, is sex. (Or is the blueprint of sex, rape? Think about it. Think about it.)

Second, there’s the plain fact that many rape victims (or survivors, if you’d prefer) experience drastic changes to their sexuality post-assault, and sometimes this impact is irreversible. Some victims downright dread sexual activity after being assaulted, while some seek even more of it. It can alter what they’re aroused by, who they’re attracted to, their ability to orgasm, how much sex they have, what kind of sex they have, etc. 
Now, knowing this, are we supposed to pretend there’s nothing sexual about an act that directly targets, exploits and permanently influences a victim’s sex organs and sexuality?

Thirdly, while we know rape is not-sex to the victim, rape is sex to the rapist. That arousal that rapists experience when raping? Yeah, that’s sexual arousal. You know, lust. Not just some out-of-context, sadistic power-trip with no sexual undertones whatsoever. And rapists orgasm from raping someone, the same way they orgasm from fucking someone. Let’s look at that again: the same act can be experienced as rape and sex simultaneously, depending on whose position you’re in while it’s happening — the victim’s, or the perpetrator’s. Is this not compelling enough reason to stop denying the inherently and obviously sexual aspect of rape?

Finally, the catch-phrase “Rape is not about sex, it’s about power” manufactures a false dichotomy in which there is sex, and there is rape/domination, and it’s that simple. It also wrongly implies that sex cannot be about power — though we know damn well that it often is (*side-eyes the BDSM community*). 
First of all: “rape OR sex” is just not how That Whole Thing works. And such false dichotomies are hurtful to people who’ve experienced coercive sex — or “grey rape” as it is sometimes called. Grey rape includes those experiences that aren’t easily categorized: drunk “sex,” “sex” between a minor and an adult, “sex” between an impoverished “sex worker” and a rich “client,” etc. Then there’s just the daunting question of whether heterosexuality itself is coercive. (Think. About. It.)

And in those grey areas lies the truth: the reason rhetoric around rape in relation to sex can be so confusing is because they may not be so different after all. They are two sides of the same coin. Attempting to erase the obviously sexual aspects of rape (or the rapey aspects of sex, for that matter) by simply denying that one has anything to do with the other, doesn’t do anything to challenge rape culture. Likewise, the black-and-white approach to this topic is unfair to survivors who didn’t have black-and-white experiences — which is far more people than we may want to admit.

To the assertion that rape must be about either sex or power, I have this to say: Why not both? Can we at least entertain the idea that rape is about both sex and power? Merely acknowledging this possibility isn’t the same as shaming rape victims or eroticizing rape. Nor does it mean I’m advocating for a lazy, careless use of the words “rape” and “sex” interchangeably.

Yes, I know that by writing “rape is sexual,” some 4chan-dweller types are going to think I’m agreeing with them (“SEE? THE FEMINAZI SAID RAPE IS JUST SURPRISE SEX! I KNEW IT!”) And I know that this kind of “gotcha!” response from pro-rape creeps is yet another reason why feminists avoid framing rape discourse in sexual terms. I know: we so often find ourselves on the defensive, reassuring them that we don’t hate men, we’re not frigid bitches, we looooove sex, blah blah. 
But why? Those types of people are not truly listening to us anyway. They already have their minds made up. (I mean, for fuck’s sake, they still think Andrea Dworkin said ‘all heterosexual sex is rape.’ Which she didn’t.) So why bother hedging our words about what rape is? For whom are we walking on eggshells? For rapists and their apologists? For anti-feminists? For the sake of political correctness? Hell no.

If we are to challenge rape culture in any meaningful and significant way, we must start by being honest with ourselves that no, rape is not an accident, and yes, rape is sexual — in a literal sense of the word, not in the “sexy” sense. We must start with candid conversations and uncomfortable honesty. Because only when we can talk bravely about the issue, can we act bravely to change it.