The Myth that Rape is About Power

Myth: Rape is caused by lust or uncontrollable sexual urges and the need for sexual gratification.
Fact: Rape is an act of physical violence and domination that is not motivated by sexual gratification.
(Counseling Center at Roger Williams University)

The idea that rape is about power, and not about sex, is one of those facts that everyone knows. Sort of like everyone knows that humans only use 10% of their brain capacity. In other words: it’s totally and completely wrong but people keep saying it anyway.

The urban legend about folks using only 10% of their brain may be annoying1, but as a general rule it doesn’t get anyone hurt. Misdiagnosing the cause of rape can lead to bad policies, confusion, and more rape, however. It’s not just an annoyance. It’s serious and worth getting right. Unfortunately, as is so often the case, politics gets in the way.

The original source of the idea that sexual assault is about violence and power instead of sex or lust doesn’t come from a scientist or an academic study.2 It comes from a feminist writer named Susan Brownmiller who invented the theory pretty much from scratch for her 1975 book Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape.

According to Brownmiller, rape is “a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear.” There is some validity to the idea that the consequence of widespread rape and sexual assault is a ubiquitous power imbalance between men and women in society, and that in that sense even men who never sexually assault women might be said to benefit from rape, but the contention that men consciously engage in rape for the purpose of control (to the exclusion of sexual gratification) never made much sense at all.

In a sane world, Brownmiller’s theory would have been very short lived. This is because an actual scientist stepped in with a direct rebuttal just four years later, in 1979. The book was called The Evolution of Human Sexuality and it was written by the anthropologist Donald Symons. It is no coincidence that Symons wrote from a scientific rather than a political perspective, and his book was widely heralded by some of the greatest social scientists of the 20th century, including Richard Posner, Paul R. Ehrlich, and Steven Pinker.3Symons’ thesis was very simple and aligned with common sense: he saw rape as being primarily about the satisfaction of sexual lust.4 In particular, he used evidence to document that:

Victims, as a class, were most likely to be young physically attractive women (as opposed to older, more successful career women). On the other hand, convicted rapists were disproportionately young disadvantaged men whose low social status made them undesirable as dating partners, or husbands. (Summary from Psychology Today)

The nature of sex and sexual violence in society has changed significantly since the 1970s, but continuing research cements Symons’ central claim that rape is a way for men to get access to sex that they can’t get in other ways.

For example, I recently came across another stark confirmation of this in the paper Decriminalizing Indoor Prostitution: Implications for Sexual Violence and Public Health. In it, researchers Scott Cunningham and Manisha Shah found a simple and direct correlation between legalized prostitution and rape in Rhode Island. The state unintentionally legalized prostitution in 2003 an then recriminalized it in 2009.5 After prostitution was legalized, the sex market increased in size and rape (overall, across the entire state) declined by 31%. When prostitution was criminalized again in 2009, the incidence of rape went back up. As Jason Kerwin summarizes:

Cunningham and Shah are very careful to say that they cannot conclude exactly why decriminalizing prostitution reduces cases of rape. They consider a number of potential mechanisms, and conclude that the most likely one is that, for some men, rape and prostitution are substitutes. That is, men commit rape in part due to sexual desire, which can be satisfied in other ways.

Kerwin goes on to point out that:

While Cunningham and Shah’s paper cannot demonstrate this for sure, their finding is consistent with other research by Todd Kendall that finds that the rollout of the internet, and the attendant increase in the accessibility or pornography, appears to have driven a decrease in cases of rape.

I’m well aware of the difference between causation and correlation, but taken together the research of Symons, Cunningham & Shah, and Kendall paint a stark picture in which men—driven by a more powerful sex drive—see rape as one among a series of competing sources of sexual gratification, the others being consensual sex, pornography, and prostitution.

Women have always born more of the risks and costs of sexual activity because it is women who get pregnant. In the 1960s and 1970s, this created incentives for women to wait until marriage to have sex or, more realistically, to at least keep sex within the confines of social courtship rituals. Men with high social capital, because they made good potential mates, therefore had reasonably high access to sex both through marriage and through the courtship that led to marriage. Men with low social capital who had much worse prospects in courtship committed the majority of rapes for that reason: they had less access to sex through courtship and marriage.

Since that time, society has changed dramatically, and the costs of sex—in terms of risks of unwanted children or sexually transmitted infections—have gone down dramatically. However, this has primarily benefitted men rather than women. This is because the prevalence of elective abortion has changed societal attitudes about pregnancy to make it basically a woman’s problem. Since a woman can get an abortion, if she does not society is more likely to see it as her choice alone. This diminishes the social responsibility men feel towards their own offspring and means that women are guaranteed to bear the costs of unplanned pregnancy—whether it’s the aftermath of an abortion or single parenthood—alone. So the costs of sex outside of marriage or courtship rituals have gone down, but the inequality between men and women has actually increased.

For men with low social capital this means that the need to rely on rape may be somewhat diminished because casual sex might be more accessible to them then expensive courtship rituals. The old idea that a man had to have a stable job and be ready to provide for a family before marrying and having sex is dead. It’s possible that men with low social capital are still seen as less desirable mates, but even in that case the ready availability of cheap and abundant porn is a safer outlet (from their perspective) than violent rape.

Men with high social capital have the same considerations, but more so. The kind of man with high social capital is likely to be the kind of man who goes to college. Not only does this create a ready abundance of opportunities for casual sex and porn consumption, but the hookup culture also creates the perfect opportunity for date rape. Date rape is much, much lower risk (for men) than violent rape because there is often no physical evidence and so it becomes a matter of he-said, she-said that our justice system cannot hope to successfully prosecute as a general rule.

Because the political theory that rape is a systematic form of oppression completely misapprehends the actual motivating factors behind rape, it cannot offer reliable policy guidance to address rape. It persists only because the alternative, seeing rape as a about sexual gratification, requires a politically unpalatable recognition of fundamental differences between the sexes.6 Denial of these unpalatable realities blinds us to the reality that sexual liberalization is virtually always beneficial for men at the expense of women and children.

Another big blind spot that comes from the theory of rape-as-power is the tendency to underestimate the connection between rape, pornography (which often includes depictions of violence, and so is basically simulated rape) and prostitution (which often involves sex slavery and coercion of minors7, and so is basically outsourced rape). Consequently, the idea that prostitution and pornography can ease sexual violence in society has merit only to the extent that we recognize we’re regulating sexual violence as opposed to avoiding it. Since it’s difficult to see formalized, lethal dueling being proposed as an answer to murder, it’s hard for me to see pornography and prostitution as solutions to sexual violence against women

Acknowledging the real nature of rape does not lead directly to any silver bullets that will eliminate sexual violence from our world. It is a deep and disastrous dysfunction, much like murder, that will never be entirely eliminated from society. There is hope, however, that correctly recognizing the causes can lead to better policies to make sexual violence less prevalent.

UPDATE: I knew this would be a controversial post, but some of the push back was more than I expected. This is an important issue, both to me personally and also for society at large, and so I want to say thank to the folks who contributed and brought in new perspectives and resources, especially Cynthia L. and Kevin L. I’ll be giving the issue more thought–and more research–and will probably return to it again with a follow-up post.

27 thoughts on “The Myth that Rape is About Power”

  1. I am not sure what world you live in, but your analysis or rape is so far off I cannot even imagine how you see the world. I have worked for years in international development, and your assessments are just abhorrent.

  2. Jessica F-

    It would be helpful if you could provide some reasoning or explanation of the judgments that you’ve reached. It would be even more helpful if you could do it in a way that facilitates a good conversation.

  3. I’ll be upfront and say I’m not a fan. Mostly, though, I’m left really curious why you wanted to write this. It’s not your area of expertise, and yet you take a bold stand that, basically, everyone whose area of expertise this is is wrong. That’s certainly not always wrong, but it’s invariably (by definition really) bold and very upstream. You don’t say a lot about the meta–the genesis of the piece in your mind–that’s why I was curious about it. What literature you were reading that you found provoked your thoughts on it? What practical problem you think your approach solves? That kind of thing.

  4. Cynthia L-

    I’ll be upfront and say I’m not a fan. Mostly, though, I’m left really curious why you wanted to write this.

    The primary motivator for writing about this is because it’s something I care about. “It” meaning sexual violence against women. I have witnessed the effects of sexual violence already on the lives of too many people that I know and love. For obvious reasons, I don’t want to delve into that (which is probably why I didn’t get into it more in the post), but I was being completely and honest and serious when I wrote that we can’t address the problem if we don’t understand it.

    I certainly respect that, to an expert, what I’m writing may appear simplistic and wrong. There are two things going on here. First: I’m sure that I am wrong and have a lot to learn. By putting out a strong statement but–I hope–not a completely ignorant one (I read up on the some early feminist theory on rape, e.g. Brownmiller, and compared to evolutionary perspectives, e.g. Symons) the idea is to foster conversation that is smart and well-informed but non-expert. Some part of that may involve me getting stuff wrong, but I’m OK doing that in a place where I have open comments and try hard to have a comment community that fosters respectful input from different views: including those that contradict my own.

    Second, however, I think sometimes expertise can come with its own set of blinders. When you understand an issue very deeply you sometimes lose contact with the way the idea is understood and debated at the popular, non-expert level. My intention is not to contradict experts or pass myself off as one, but to talk about the way I see the issue of rape playing out in the public sphere.

    In that sphere, I see the explanation that “rape is not about sex, it’s about power” bandied about as though it were an article of faith, devoid of any awareness of the origins of the theory, academic research about its pros and cons, etc. It’s a frustrating claim because, in addition to being wrong, it can also be misleading. So it was something I thought worth writing about.

    In particular, I’m hoping that by realizing the extent to which sexual desire plays a role in the commission of rape, we can have more realistic and less ideologically partisan conversations about the important topic of sexual violence at the informed but non-expert level.

  5. Hopefully Jessica will reply more completely. Until then, a comment:
    The fact that victims are typically attractive does not prove rape is about lust not power. It could still be about power in that: Attractive people have the power of abundant choice over who to have sex with. Denying an attractive person that choice takes their power.
    A different test is needed in order to distinguish what rape is “about”: sex or power, or other. (I’m not convinced such metaphors are even useful.)

  6. Questions:

    (1) What do you think of Lisak and related literature, finding that the common thread among rapists (both those in jail and, more crucially, those not in jail–which all of your studies ignore) is the following array of attitudes and behaviors, not inability to find sexual outlet:

    Many of the motivational factors that were identified in incarcerated rapists have been shown to apply equally to undetected rapists. When compared to men who do not rape, these undetected rapists are measurably more angry at women, more motivated by the need to dominate and control women, more impulsive and disinhibited in their behavior, more hyper-masculine in their beliefs and attitudes, less empathic and more antisocial.

    (2) Given that only a tiny fraction of rapes are reported, and an almost insignificant number of rapists end up in jail, do you feel that the studies you cited that exclusively look at crime reporting numbers, conviction statistics, and use as the population of rapists only those rapists in jail, are valid? This concerns not only the size of the sample but whether or not it is representative.

    (3) Do you think that, for other kinds of crime or antisocial or harmful behavior (say, drug use), men with high social capital are equally likely to be convicted and spend time in jail as men with low social capital?

  7. Cynthia-

    (1) What do you think of Lisak and related literature

    I haven’t read the study/studies from Lisak, and so a full answer will have to wait until I do. If you have any exact article cites for me, that would be great.

    In general, however, I think that it’s important to realize that by the time someone commits a rape quite a lot has gone wrong, and that if the only commonality where lustful desire that would be shocking.

    Rape, as I say in the article, is a coercive act. Of course rapists (convicted or otherwise) have deviant and unhealthy attitudes towards women and power, but do those attitudes exclusively motivate the rape, or merely act as facilitation or even post hoc rationalization? Very influential in my thinking here is Grossman’s work on violence which shows just how difficult it is (psychologically) for people to intentionally inflict grievous harm on each other and the kinds of defense mechanisms that are involved to allow violence to take place (Grossman’s context was military conflict). These defense/enabling mechanisms that look a lot like your summary of Lisak’s findings. But no one thinks that the human response to violence (e.g. dehumanizig the enemy) is exclusively causal. The relationship is complex.

    By analogy, I’m sure a survey of murderers (those in prison and those who got away with it) would show deviant attitudes towards the law and lack of respect for other human beings. But I would find it very strange to conclude from that that it is lack of respect for law and other human beings that motivates murders. Rather, murders are committed for a great deal of reasons (e.g. anger, retribution, jealousy, greed, etc.), but whereas lots of people experience the motives for murder it is only the sub-population who are jealous (e.g.) *and* who have little regard for the law and their fellow human beings who commit the murders. I would expect this result to be compounded by further after-the-fact desensitization as murderers deny to themselves the extent of their crimes, thus compounding their already low regard for human beings. Again: none of that reasonably leads to the conclusion that low regard for human beings causes people to murder. It acts as a catalyst that enables murder in the presence of some other, primary motive. So it is with sex: misogyny absolutely makes rape more likely (and rape probably exacerbates misogyny as well), but the fundamental driver is still sexual.

    In other words: I think that the Lisak literature sounds very interesting but doesn’t (from what you’ve told me) go so far as to cast my main thesis in doubt, which is that sexual desire is an important component of rape and power alone cannot explain it.

    Given that only a tiny fraction of rapes are reported,

    The small-sample issue that you raise is definitely interesting, but getting from small sample to biased sample requires more work.

    Do you think that, for other kinds of crime or antisocial or harmful behavior (say, drug use), men with high social capital are equally likely to be convicted and spend time in jail as men with low social capital?

    Of course not. Men with high social capital are much more likely to get away with a crime, conditional on committing that crime. Then again, men with high social capital have more to lose and less to gain from committing crime. I believe that, in general, those with less social capital both commit more crime and are disproportionately likely to be convicted of such crimes if they are charged with them.

    None of that analysis is specific to rape per se, but I believe it holds.

  8. How does the linked DailyMail article link pornography to “prostitution, sex slavery, and coercion of minors”? The (non-minor, well-paid) subject of the article seems very happy and empowered with her choice to appear in porn.

    The claim that pornography “regulates sexual violence as opposed to avoiding it” is problematic. Even if true, there are plenty of ways society chooses to regulate vice rather than ban it outright. Obviously this won’t work for murder, but alcohol, speeding (racetracks), and fighting (boxing, MMA) work much better regulated than banned. If we’re comfortable paying men to give each other traumatic brain injuries for our entertainment, why deny women an analogous choice? (Especially when it’s correlated with reducing rapes?)

  9. Ryan-

    The fact that victims are typically attractive does not prove rape is about lust not power.

    It is not a logical proof, no. When does anything in the social sciences ever reach that level? I do think that it is more compelling than your alternative, however, even though I find that interesting, too.

    A different test is needed in order to distinguish what rape is “about”: sex or power, or other. (I’m not convinced such metaphors are even useful.)

    Well, experiments with rape are going to be tricky to run past the ethics board, but one of the other things that I think matters here is just keeping the context that we’re evolved animals, and central to that evolution is (obviously) the sex drive. The idea that any sexual activity–legal or illegal, moral or immoral–could be completely divorced from our evolutionary heritage is going to strain credulity right out of the gate.

    (This argument might apply less to homosexual acts, as they are not fecund, but let’s just set that aside for the present. I think the topic has enough controversy as it is.)

  10. Ryan-

    How does the linked DailyMail article link pornography to “prostitution, sex slavery, and coercion of minors”? The (non-minor, well-paid) subject of the article seems very happy and empowered with her choice to appear in porn.

    I had the wrong article linked. Thanks for the pointer. I’ve updated with a new link (and noted the change in a sidenote as well.)

    The claim that pornography “regulates sexual violence as opposed to avoiding it” is problematic. Even if true, there are plenty of ways society chooses to regulate vice rather than ban it outright.

    Regulating vice is one thing. Regulating exploitation and abuse is another. The boxing example is very instructive: it’s two men who have volunteered to fight each other in a way that guarantees they are evenly matched by weight (and, practically, by experience.) Now imagine a form of “boxing” where one man pays another man–who weighs significantly less and has no training–to allow the larger man to physically assault him. Do you think we would tolerate such an activity?

    Nope.

    There are some things–like aggravated assault, physical battery, and murder–that we do not regulate as vices even though (arguably) that would improve them.

  11. I think talking about rape in Econ terms is reductive, risking offensive. But since the prostitution article you cited goes there, let me ask: Why do you think masturbation is not a substitutable good for rape? What is missing from masturbation? If it were just a desire to release (allegedly) asymmetric physical sexual desire, masturbation would suffice. Your whole argument is defeated in a single word: masturbation.

    The usual reasons it doesn’t suffice for “normal” people (desire to be desired, make a connection with another person, culmination or strengthening of a relationship) don’t apply in rape.

    Do you think that rapists are unable to achieve release via masturbation? I suppose that’s possible for some, but in your mind is that the explanation? If not, what do you think is the factor of rape that makes masturbation not an adequate substitute? Taking the prostitution study’s conclusion as given, what do you think a prostitute offers that *does* make it a good substitute?

    If sexual release is achieved in both, but power and control of another person–a satisfying of the lust for saying “you didn’t want this but I did it anyway because I can!”–is only available in one, which do you think is a better way of accounting for rape?

    By the way, the latter is also very often present in prostitution encounters–a sense of subjugating, humiliating, and coercion through money (“I know you don’t want this but I made you do it anyway”).

  12. Cynthia-

    I think talking about rape in Econ terms is reductive, risking offensive…

    All paradigms are, by definition, reductive. That’s why I think it can be useful to take a cross-disciplinary approach. I’m not offended at all, by the way. I have one masters in systems engineering and another in economics, but I don’t practice either one in my day job. So I’ve got minimal psychological investment in either discipline.

    Your whole argument is defeated in a single word: masturbation.

    I see that you’re no stranger to sweeping pronouncements yourself! Which is fine, but I don’t think your destruction is nearly as complete as you do.

    For starters, I’m very puzzled that you think you’ve added anything to the list by citing masturbation. What do you think people are doing, exactly, when they watch pornography? That’s sort of implied, isn’t?

    Very well, if you’d like to add it to the list of substitutes, we now have: rape, consensual sex, prostitution, pornography / masturbation and masturbation as its own category (sans porn, I guess?)

    None of these is a perfect substitute for the other. If that were the case, men would just masturbate exclusively and not go to the bother and expense of trying to date or marry women. No, I’m not saying the only reason men marry is for sex, but surely you recognize it is a relevant consideration, right? In other words, masturbation / porn alone does not appear to fully satisfy a person’s sexual needs, although evidence indicates that it can satisfy some of the demand.

    But there’s an even bigger and more obvious problem with your contention. Not to be too blunt or anything, but masturbation (because it’s free) is basically going to be fully utilized already. Diminishing returns and all that says that at a certain point, you’re just not going to get anything out of that particular substitute. As a result–in practice–I don’t think it’s going to be really relevant to the discussion at all. (Note: this is also why porn users tend to require ever more intense stimulation and why the increased availability of porn via the Internet is so relevant. Porn/masturbation was fairly limited prior to the Internet, too, but now there’s much more powerful content available, and so people can spiral into some seriously messed up stuff in order to try and outrun the diminishing returns of auto-stimulation.)

    By the way, the latter is also very often present in prostitution encounters–a sense of subjugating, humiliating, and coercion through money (“I know you don’t want this but I made you do it anyway”).

    I’m sure there is. After all, I described prostitution as basically a regulated form of rape. It’s absolutely no surprise to me that it involves violence, degradation, and dominance. Just as I noted that pornography, as well, is horrifically violent.

    Once again: at no point have I claimed the absurd notion that rape isn’t violent, isn’t coercive, or isn’t about power. I’m merely stating that a power-only explanation of rape–one that marginalizes or excludes sexual desire–is false.

  13. Being attractive is a form of power, but so is being successful, being wealthy, being strong. So if it were a form of power, ceteribus paribus we would expect that old rich and successful ladies would be raped in equal numbers.

  14. “I’m merely stating…”

    So you wrote an entire piece in order to take down (1) a single sentence from an obscure brochure that is perhaps overstating the dichotomy to make an important and on balance correct point, (2) one 30+ year old article that was perhaps overstating the dichotomy to make an important and on balance correct point, (3) your own misunderstanding of what crime experts, women, and feminists have been saying about the issue because you didn’t appreciate that they were perhaps overstating the dichotomy to make an important and on balance correct point.

    Ok then.

  15. Many animals have sex that appears intended to establish social hierarchies, so it’s not much of a stretch to imagine that people do to.

  16. imagine a form of “boxing” where one man pays another man–who weighs significantly less and has no training–to allow the larger man to physically assault him. Do you think we would tolerate such an activity?

    You have described BDSM, which has been tolerated since the ancient Greeks, and probably longer. People have both paid and got paid to get beat up for a long time. Humans are weird.

  17. Cynthia-

    I picked the leading quote just as an example of how the sentiment is accepted at face-value across a broad spectrum of society, but the reality is that I couldn’t count all the times I’ve heard it come up in discussion. It’s a very common, and very prevalent meme.

    If you, as an expert, are immune to it and consider it beneath your dignity to interact with that is totally fine, but also goes to my earlier comment about the blindness of expertise. At the level of popular discussion, it (meaning: the idea that sex is about power instead of about sex as opposed to being about sex and power or any other number of complications) is an idea with currency and that is why I targeted it.

  18. In this case I think we suffer from thin language. The terms “sexual desire,” “sexual gratification,” “lust,” and “sexual needs” are all too vague for the purposes of this conversation. My assumptions about what you mean by those may not actually correspond to what you mean. I believe that, while “Everything” can be a issue of semantics, anything related to sexuality is particularly likely to be under-defined. See Ty Mansfield’s FAIR Mormon presentation.

    So, for example, in this conversation, you talk about rape as an issue of sexual gratification, but then deny that masturbation is an equal substitute. The way I tend to define sexual gratification focuses on the purely physiological. In this case, any of the listed substitutions are in fact equally effective. However, when I consider that sexual desire is not as one-dimensional or categorical as society would lead me to believe, I see that desire may also be accurately defined to include particular tastes, preferences, and emotional longings associated with sexual activity. In this more elaborated sense of sexual desire, I fully agree with you that rape is about sexual desire. But also in a stricter sense, the emotional satisfaction derived from rape (or even consensual sex) is not really sexual.

    The lack of a shared operational definition is evident in the exchange with Cynthia L. She states that the purely sexual aspect (orgasm) is not sufficient for many people, not because it fails to meet the “need” for sexual release, but because their needs are more accurately viewed to consist of emotional and relational needs that cannot be met through masturbation alone. Then you respond with the argument that while it is not the only reason, surely sex is part of what makes men pursue relationships rather than simply masturbate. I see this as the same argument. However, Cynthia would be using a strict definition for sexual gratification, where you appear to be employing a broader definition which includes the interpersonal variables.

    I don’t say this to be critical of you or your writing. Rather, I believe that this societal lack of fully descriptive language contributes to an unnecessary polarization when it comes to sexual issues.

  19. I must be too removed from the popular level of discussion. I can state that in my conversations, both professionally and at a casual level, I have never heard the belief that rape is solely about power. I take that back, in some extreme cases of serial sexual violence, the perpetrator does not appear to gain any level of sexual arousal or gratification. In these cases I have heard that sex has nothing to do with it.

    Granted, I don’t dive into a lot of feminist literature and found the comment by Brownmiller outrageous. So my sample may not be representative. However, I also think that it is reasonable to make the general statement that rape is about power rather than sex. In this case it would be analogous to simplification in algebra.

    If we say that: x+y=0 and x+y+z=0

    We could state that compared to the first, the second equation is differentiated by z. We aren’t denying that the x and y are present. It just makes sense that since they are present in both equations, the real differentiating feature is z.

    While sexual desire is certainly a component of both sexual violence and consensual sexual activity, the differentiating feature is an element of power and control in sexual violence. Thus focusing on the presence of sexual desire in the sexual violence equation, doesn’t seem to make as much sense as focusing on the power control variable.

  20. When people have their heretofore unexamined conceits taken apart, or when an essay violates the political patois of the age, the response is naturally negative. Great post. And a wonderful addition to reasoned, intellectual discourse.

  21. Very interesting article. A lot of it makes sense to me, but a few thoughts:

    (1) I think a lot of people go for the “rape is about power” idea not because they think that all men consciously want to dominate all women (I’ve never heard that theory until you pointed it out) but because they see cases of rape that involve all sorts of people – unattractive people and old people and children and so on, and looking at it only in terms of lust doesn’t seem to make sense. I wouldn’t agree that rape is only about power, but I likewise wouldn’t agree that it’s only about sexual desire, and I suspect that some people emphasize the “rape is about power” idea as a push back against others going too far to suggest that rape is *only* about sexual gratification. There are different kinds of rape, and I think people worry that if we only talk about one kind we make it much more difficult for victims who have gone through a different kind. Society oversimplifies and has a sort of “prototype” for what counts as rape, and when that happens people who have been raped who don’t fit that prototype suffer. This of course cuts both ways (insisting that rape is only about power or only about sex could harm people from whichever category gets left out).

    (2) I think people worry about the effects of underlining that rape is about sexual gratification. I recognize that the effects don’t speak to the truth of the claim, but I also recognize that people rarely only care about the truth of a claim and this might explain the prevalence and resonance of the “rape is about power” idea. I suspect that the “rape is about sexual desire” idea inevitably (though of course unfairly) leads to more victim blaming. What were you wearing? Were you making out with him? Why were you alone with him? Well you were dating. Well you are married, what did you expect? Etc.

    Yes, of course, there are people who ask these questions out of a desire to figure out how to best protect women going forward, but there are more people, I think, who ask these questions out of the general idea that if you weren’t sexually provocative, this wouldn’t have happened to you *and* that makes it your fault or partially your fault. And then there’s the flipside – if you are an unattractive person for whatever reason, people are suspicious that anyone would bother to rape you, so maybe you’re just making it up.

    I think victim blaming (or distrusting) is a much more prevalent and insidious problem even today than a lot of people realize, and so there are many of us genuinely concerned about this problem that see how the “rape is about sex” idea, while true, can exacerbate the problem.

    (3) But all that aside, it makes sense to me that many cases of rape would be about sex, and also I think it’s very interesting that there was an inverse correlation between rape and prostitution (if we don’t count that as rape, like you were saying). I’ve never heard that before either.

    Good post, very thought-provoking.

  22. Sorry, one more thought. The “rape is about sex” idea also doesn’t explain the especially violent rapes – that is the rapes that involve lost of bruising or even broken bones and strangulation and so forth. It doesn’t explain the people who escalate from date rape to much more violent rape to, in some cases, straight up homicide. We’ve talked about that – escalation – in our forensics program before, and I find that the law enforcement people I’ve talked to are familiar with patterns of people first being verbally sexually explicit, then getting bolder physically, and eventually going full sociopath. I don’t thin the “rape is about sex” idea covers that.

    I guess we could say “rape is about sex” and then also say “some people are only sexually gratified when they physically hurt others” but then is there a major difference between “rape is about sex” and “rape is about power”? The line blurs.

  23. Moni-

    Thanks for the comments! I was hoping you’d weigh in, ’cause I wanted to hear what you thought.

    I guess we could say “rape is about sex” and then also say “some people are only sexually gratified when they physically hurt others” but then is there a major difference between “rape is about sex” and “rape is about power”? The line blurs.

    I’m not an expert here at all, but the escalation of rape (which I know very little about) reminds me of the escalation of porn (which I’ve studied a little bit more). In that case, violence is the ends, but sex is still the primary driver. Men turn to increasingly more dehumanizing, degrading, and violent rape because that’s what they need to keep getting aroused. They get bored with the tame stuff that got them started.

    So I’m definitely not saying that power is irrelevant–not at all!–but I do think that the primary driver of rape is sexual. Obviously it has to involve some degree of power, because it’s coercive. It is about overpowering someone. Power is inextricable to the discussion.

    The main thing I’m criticizing is the idea that rape is about power rather than about sex. And it’s something I see all the time. I think a lot of the time it’s out of a well-intentioned effort to avoid victim-blaming, but to the extent that we start to mischaracterize rape just to avoid victim-blaming, we risk creating even more victims down the road.

    I also think that the “rape is about power” meme is a lot like the “violin argument” meme. Very few pro-choice people have read “A Defense of Abortion,” but it seems like a huge proportion will end up relying on the logic from it even if they don’t know where it came from, and sometimes even on the exact same thought experiment. It shows that ideas can sometimes permeate society (which is what the term “meme” originally meant) even when folks don’t know where they came from.

  24. Just an update for anyone subscribed to the comments, I updated the original post as follows:

    I knew this would be a controversial post, but some of the push back was more than I expected. This is an important issue, both to me personally and also for society at large, and so I want to say thank to the folks who contributed and brought in new perspectives and resources, especially Cynthia L. and Kevin L. I’ll be giving the issue more thought–and more research–and will probably return to it again with a follow-up post.

Comments are closed.