She and a Gun

Posted on January 1, 2011 by


Are the terms of sexual assault and rape in the eyes of the beholders, and if so, is it at victims’ expense?

By Meryn Fluker

I don’t know what rape is. I’m not making an ill attempt at facetiousness, or trying to be disingenuous, or even to make a point. I have literally become confused on what the definition of rape is.

Unlike so many people, I’ve never been the victim of sexual assault, an umbrella term that includes but is not limited to rape. I know that I’m incredibly lucky, but I’m also really confused.

Which brings me back to my original point: What is rape? It’s a fight feminists and progressives are having as WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange battles his way through rape charges in Sweden. I’m finding it increasingly hard to understand the issue, and for me it goes back to the cloudiness surrounding our culture and society’s discourse (or dischord) on rape.

Khloe Kardashian seems to be a much better activist when she's not talking (and when someone else is writing the copy). Image courtesy of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

The medical experts at Web MD define rape in part as “when sexual intercourse is non-consensual (not agreed upon), or a person forces another person to have sex against his or her will.” Khloe Kardashian, on the other hand, considers the new Transportation Security Administration’s airport pat-downs a form of rape. While Mrs. Odom can hardly be relied on as an arbiter of all things feminist/sexual assault-related, I do wonder what it does to our cutlure and our perceptions of rape when so many people, both highly visible and not, use the word casually and in reference to things having nothing to do with sex.

I went to high school with girls who used to scream “rape” as a joke, as a means to get attention, when someone would poke them or get too close to them or just be a nuisance. I’m sure I partook in that on many occasions as well. While it’s positive that young women asserted ownership over their bodies and weren’t afraid to vocalize it, someone poking your stomach is a far cry from forced entry, right?

The definition of “rape” has become so diffuse that we’ve divided it into subcategories, such as date/acquaintance rape and gray rape (which has been a controversial term).

I may be confused about what rape is but again, I’m confident I’ve never been a victim (there’s no gray area there). None of my friends, to my knowledge, have ever considered themselves as having been raped. Many of them have confided in me about uncomfortable sexual situations that may have gone too far, but not a single one has used the word “rape,” and none have them have ever reported the incidents (which isn’t to say that one must report a rape in order for it to have occurred).

But my concern is this: Is rape in the eye of the victim? I have a friend who got really drunk at a party and awoke disheveled, certain that the guy in the room had done something sexual in nature with her – but she wasn’t sure what. I have another acquaintance who experienced the same scenario alone in her house, only she came to consciousness as her boyfriend – who invited himself over – was already having intercourse with her. She told me that he was a lot bigger than her and “there wasn’t anything she could really do about it,” or something to that effect.

To me, that’s rape. If you don’t consent, if you can’t consent, if you don’t even know what happened, that to me is the textbook definition of “rape.” But neither of those women I know felt compelled to report the crimes and in our discussions, they never used to words “assualt,” “rape” or “forced entry.”

Then there’s my other friend, who was completely sober and went to visit a guy she’d been sleeping with. He wanted to have sex and she didn’t. He pressured her and made her uncomfortable and eventually she relented; performing oral sex on him basically as some sort of compromise.

My friend doesn’t consider that rape. In fact, she described the incident to me as if it was her fault, saying she should’ve known better than to put herself in that position and that — since she did it to get him to leave her alone — it was her choice. What scares me is that my friend thinks she’s exercising agency by orally pleasuring a guy who tried to physically and emotionally intimidate her into having sex with him. Again, to me, that’s rape.

But it’s not really for me to decide. In two of these cases, I found out months or years after the incidents occurred, so there wasn’t really anything I could do in terms of encouraging my friends to go to the authorities. In the other case, the girl simply didn’t consider the actions as wrongdoings. Was it my place to force her to seek help? Am I a bad friend for not making her file charges? My friend was already undergoing counseling for other issues, and I have no idea if she ever discussed her “situation” with her therapist, so suggesting she talk to a professional would’ve been useless on my part. What could I have done beyond that? In all three cases, I tried to be supportive and attentive without telling these women what to do because I didn’t think it was my place to tell them they’d been raped. Was I wrong?

Benson and Stabler, fighting rape one sensational (or sensationalized) episode at a time. Thanks to for the image.

I’m not at all condemning my friends, who are so brave and strong for surviving these experiences. I’m trying to understand how what they went through, in their minds, isn’t rape. Did I just have to be there? Are all sexual experiences — including rape — different? Do people assume that violence has to be involved in order to “count” as rape? And, if so, are those people wrong?

Have the episodes of “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit,” as other bloggers have pointed out, made us think that rape must have a sadistic or fatal component in order to “count” or be worth reporting?

Between the roofie jokes, the throwaway references so many of us specialize in — often misappropriating the word “rape” for humorous means — and the parsing down of different types and levels of rape, have we lost the fact that someone forcing someone else to have sex, regardless of the circumstances, is still a crime? Or is rape’s definition evolving?

I don’t have an answer. I used to be sure that for all women “no means no,” and to me it still does, but now I just don’t know.

– Meryn Fluker