This weekend I read a book from 1988 called “I Never Called It Rape”. The book itself is an in-depth look at a then new phenomenon they termed ‘date / acquaintance rape’. Date rape now has very different connotations so for the purpose of this blog I will use Robin Warshaw’s term ‘acquaintance rape’ to talk about the issue.
What she means by acquaintance rape is the rape of an adult or dating age teen by someone she knows (the book mainly focuses on females who are raped by men). Be it a date, friend, colleague or someone she met at a party or through a friend. The impression the book gives is that acquaintance rape was a new thing in the 80s, most thought that rape by strangers was the most common and through some research this horrific discovery that rape was happening everywhere was uncovered or as Warshaw put it “to people you know by people you know”.
Surprisingly almost 30 years later we are still perpetuating this myth of stranger rape in our media and in our safety instructions to young women, as this struck me, it led me to re-read the book from a different perspective, with a view to compare America in 1988 to Britain in 2016. How far have we advanced with our understanding, support and prosecution of acquaintance rape? Back then the statistic of female rape remained consistent, 1 in 4, 25% was a common theme through studies in 1957, 1967 and 1977. Today in 2016 our most quotable statistic is 1 in 5, which begs the question have we had a significant shift to the tune of 5% in regards to female rape. In reality 1 in 5 is a conservative statistic and the likelihood is that it is much higher. It is doubtful we have made a move from the 25% mark that seems to be replicated over and over again.
The book ‘I Never Called It Rape’ covers rape by using recent studies and correspondence or interviews of around 150 women who have experienced acquaintance rape. It is an interesting mix of Survivor stories interspersed with studies, social commentary and the male perspective on interactions and sexual aggression with women.
One of the most interesting things about the book is that all the Survivor stories cited cover what I would term now as ‘overt rape’. What I mean by that is the women said ‘no’ repeatedly and in most instances fought or reasoned to try and escape the situation – some of the stories had a lot of aggression, coercion and premeditation from the perpetrator yet the women still failed to see what happened as rape – more staggeringly the men who committed the attack also failed to see the encounter as rape.
The above should be surprising but it isn’t, at least not to me, as it emulates themes I see when out in the community or in universities talking to young people. Quite simply today’s young people still do not understand healthy sexual relationships, they do not understand their rights in a sexual encounter and this apparently hasn’t changed in 30 years. Not too surprisingly really, if you consider that we as a society haven’t successfully changed our sexual education in this time period either. The book calls for better and joint education so that from dating age both boys and girls know that sex is supposed to be pleasurable, as well as being completely consensual from both sides. To educate both genders on what consent is, what healthy sexual relationships look like and the need for effective communication in sexual encounters. Another big point the book makes was to detract from seeing sex as a competition, as a prize to be won by any means necessary and to start seeing it as a joint enjoyable experience that happens organically. I agree whole heartedly with Robin Warshaw, in fact it is a common topic of conversation at the Survive office as well as at sexual violence meetings and conferences. It saddens me to read that we were talking about this 3 decades ago and I and others like me are still talking about it today but yet we as a society have failed to implement this into our educative institutions.
One of the biggest shocks from the book for me is what we now call ‘lad culture’ playing a huge role in 80s acquaintance rape. Lots of the stories happened at university and on campus and the books looks at sports teams and fraternities to explain behaviour that ‘teaches men to rape’. Before I read this book the pandemic with campus rape to me felt new, it felt like something we were just uncovering in Britain over the last few years. The extent to which young women in particular are preyed upon at university I had thought was previously unknown, at least publicly. This book shows me we have had the same problem for 30 years, we have just failed to either recognise or address it.
Other common themes that we are still seeing 30 years on are: victim blaming, reporting, rape myths as well as the extent to which drugs and alcohol play a part in the attack and also the reason why victims don’t report. The problems faced by America 30 years ago are the very same we face today. We still blame victims and tell young women to be safe rather than telling young men not to rape, substances continue to cloud public opinion on rape, the rape myths cited in the book are the same I combat in my talks with the community; reporting remains low and the process remains long and traumatic for Survivors.
Despite the similarities the book is dated and there are some clear differences, for instance there is a whole section on gender differences and the socialisation of women to create a victim while this is still in some ways relevant it is the terms to articulate this that are dated, such as a pride in virginity and a commitment to being a ‘good girl’. Although the terms don’t feel right for today’s society what is being said hasn’t changed – women are still view as subservient and to some degree as a commodity to be had.
Interestingly the book looks at what makes a victim, what makes a perpetrator and if rape – like murder could ever be justifiable. It finds very few common themes between female victims, socially capable, strong women are victims as are quite under confident girls. Virgins or women with sexual experience are almost as likely as each other to be victimised. Victims seem somewhat indefinable and what I took from that is, as in today’s society, it could happen to anyone, it is a question of circumstance not personality. For perpetrators however there are some defining attributes like attitude, drinking habit and even frequency of ejaculations per week. Thankfully the book educates readers that there is never a justifiable reason for rape but unfortunately it did find opposition to this view in a lot of the literature it reviewed as well as the social commentary at the time.
The main combative areas the book identifies is 1) the education of young people, saying that young people due to lack of education and inexperience / insecurity will act out the worst stereotype of their perceived sex role. Usually the women submissive and not willing, the man aggressive and selfish. 2) The miscommunication of young men and women, showing young men and women that they read different things from the same situation and the only way to know what the other person wants is to ask them rather than assuming because they agreed to date you they are willing to sleep with you. This has to be done through education and through positive modelling; positive modelling is particularly important as the book says young people often deal with everyday problems through aggression so when met with an unwilling partner aggression seems like a good solution which positive modelling can effectively combat.
Conclusion: So how far have we come in almost 30 years? In short, not very far. We are combating the same issues that Warshaw was talking about nearly 3 decades ago and it seems to me that although the terms have changed very little else has. Sexual violence has been thrown into the public arena but looking back 30 years that certainly hasn’t changed very much – if anything it has probably pushed the problem even further underground.
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