When is non-consensual sex rape?

>> Tuesday, December 01, 2009

One of the keys to interpreting reactions to the arrest of Roman Polanski is understanding that, culturally speaking, a lot of sexual assaults aren't considered crimes by the men or boys who commit them, and to a lesser extent by the women and girls who are assaulted. Consider this letter to a nationally syndicated advice columnist, and especially the columnist's response.

The writer is confused about whether she was raped, because even though she told a man "many times" that she didn't want to have sex with him, and he went ahead and had sex with her anyway, she wasn't "kicking and fighting him off." In the formal legal sense, the facts as described are unambiguous. Practically, of course, things are a lot more complicated, as the columnist's response reveals.

The columnist seems to be drawing a distinction between rape and "sex that shouldn't happen," with the latter category including sexual assaults between acquaintences when one or both parties are intoxicated. How else are we to understand her otherwise bizarre advice that the raped woman talk to the man who raped her "in order to determine what happened?" The woman's letter indicates no uncertainty at all about the fact that she was forced to have sex against her will despite making it very clear that she didn't want to have sex. She just wants to know if this constitutes rape.

The answer, again culturally rather than formally legally speaking, is that this type of rape isn't "really" rape, because the victim is to blame for putting herself in a compromised situation, i.e., being intoxicated in the presence of a man while having a vagina (the second factor was apparently supefluous in the case of the versatile Mr. Polanski).

These kinds of factors are what makes Polanski's sodomizing of a 13-year-old girl something Anne Applebaum etc. consider a "far from straightforward" situation. It would be nice to think this is a generational thing, and that young people today are getting a clear message that rape is rape, but given both columns of this sort and the response to Polanski's arrest the evidence seems mixed.

UPDATE [by SL]: See also Amanda Hess.


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