This week, a DC-based feminist group projected the phrase “rape is rape” onto the US Capitol building. The action was meant to highlight survivors’ stories and bring attention to the way rape is often mischaracterized. The sentiment may seem an obvious one—who doesn’t understand what rape is?—but the message, sadly, is much needed. Tuesday evening at the final Indiana Senate debate, Republican Richard Mourdock explained why he opposes abortion with no exceptions by calling pregnancy from rape "something that God intended"- the latest in a long line of "gaffes" by male politicians about sexual assault. It was only this January that the FBI updated its archaic definition of rape and victim-blaming in the culture and courts runs rampant.
Feminists have done a lot to change policies, but not enough to change minds. Despite decades of activism on sexual assault—despite common sense, even—there is still widespread ignorance about what rape is, and this absence of a widely understood and culturally accepted definition of sexual assault is one of the biggest hurdles we have in chipping away at rape culture.
When Todd Akin uttered his now-famous line that women rarely get pregnant from “legitimate rape,” he didn’t misspeak. This was something he thought was true—both the bizarre logic about pregnancy and the idea that there is such a thing as a rape that isn’t legitimate. Last year, Wisconsin state representative Roger Rivard told a newspaper reporter that “some girls rape easy.” Now under fire, Rivard attempted to clarify his comments, claiming they were taken out of context.
What the whole genesis of it was, it was advice to me [from my father], telling me, “If you’re going to go down that road, you may have consensual sex that night and then the next morning it may be rape.” So the way he said it was, “Just remember, Roger, some girls, they rape so easy. It may be rape the next morning.”
Rivard obviously thought this explanation would lessen the damage of his original statement; he assumed his belief that women regularly lie about being raped was a commonly held one. What’s depressing is that he’s probably right.
To too many people, “rape” and “rape victim” are not accurate descriptors but political shorthand—the product of an overblown, politically correct interpretation of sex. As Tennessee Senator Douglas Henry said in 2008, “Rape, ladies and gentlemen, is not today what rape was. Rape, when I was learning these things, was the violation of a chaste woman, against her will, by some party not her spouse.”