Citing unreported rape cases and honoring women’s experiences

(A note: while I recognize that sexual assaults happen to both women and men, I use the gender pronouns I do because rape is, indeed, a gendered epidemic that affects an overwhelming majority of women. If you disagree, all you have to do is look at the statistics; if you want to discuss pronouns regarding rape survivors, we can do it at another time, but not here and not now.)

Those of you who have known me for any extended period of time know one of the central tenets of my feminism – and one of my life’s passions, is to end rape culture. This is because of the women in my life who have been affected, and because of the many others in my life who could could be affected. I’ve sat and cried with a date as she told her story; I’ve seen first-hand when friends go through flashbacks, and I continue to be touched by the impact of sexual assaults everyday.

This, then, may seem a bit different coming from me. While I do not deny rape statistics nor do I doubt that there are survivors of sexual assaults who have chosen not to report the incidences, what I do take issue with is whether it is appropriate for the feminist movement to label rape what many women might consider bad sexual experiences.

With an understanding of rape culture and survivors’ reluctance to report incidences for fear they might not be believed, as well as a lack of support for survivors in many communities and the stigma that often comes with being a victim of sexual assault, my question is: are we silencing women and using their lived experiences for our cause when we cite statistics of unreported rape cases? Do we have the right to decide whether a woman’s personal experiences is rape when she does not consider it such?

Sexual intimacy and consent, despite of what we might believe with every fiber of our beings as feminist, isn’t a black-and-white issue; these issues are often complicated, based on personal and sexual experiences, as well as desire and other factors. Yet, we’ll continue to go by the hard definition of rape, citing unreported statistics, using the experiences of many women for our cause, while they themselves might not consider themselves such. In short, we victimize many with non-positive sexual experiences rather than giving them the agency to decide for themselves whether their experiences is considered rape.

From a perspective of activism and theoretical framework, I understand the allure of doing such – it helps our cause, and given the especially multiple layers of cultural practices and social norms that define what we call “rape culture,” our definition of “rape” most definitely fits into these experiences. I liken this to something else I see all the time: the military’s definition of “progress” as seen in our two theaters of operation. But what we see as “progress” might not be such, and it is up to the individual local nationals to decide whether their lives have progressed.

The same thing applies here: women’s lived and sexual experiences are not ours to define, nor are they ours to use to our political advantage. Yet, time and again, we use these definitions without giving them a second thought – thereby denying women of the voices they deserve. Not every sexual experience will be a positive one; yet, not every non-positive experience is rape either. In the end, our focus should be on ending rape culture, and focusing more on attending to survivors, to ensure they get the justice and emotional closure they deserve.

Fudging numbers and casting wide definitions of what constitutes rape won’t help us end rape culture — what will help us, though, is actually listening to women and honoring all their choices, to include not labeling negative sexual experiences as rape

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One Comment

  1. Posted June 4, 2011 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    Statistics are important. Without them, none of our claims would have any sort of ground. They are the only possibility of getting people to listen, as most people are so naive and think that this sort of thing only happens occasionally and when it does, it’s easy to report and handled correctly. Of course, that is not the case. I recently made a documentary about this here: http://vimeo.com/23925562

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