Rape and Power

Rape is in the news again this week with another widely-publicized gang rape in India and a 31-day sentence for an American teacher who raped a 14-year-old student (she later committed suicide). In the Guardian I’m writing about how certain cultures abet rape and keep reporting rates low:

Rape isn’t perpetrated only by members of one religion, race, nation or belief system. But rapists are particularly abetted by cultures in which women are second-class citizens, where women’s bodies are intensely politicized, where social hierarchies outlandishly privilege certain members and where there’s a presumption of male authority and righteousness.

Rape is a particularly difficult crime because it’s about both power and violence. Rapists use sex organs as the locus of their violence, but rape isn’t about sex, at least not in the sense of being motivated by sexual attraction or an uncontrollable sexual urge. Rape is about sex in the sense that rapists not only commit acts of sexual violence, but that the pervasive threat of sexual assault is used to limit women’s sovereignty and justify sexual assault itself. The reality is that men are much more likely than women to be victims of violence outside of their own homes, yet I know far more women than men who internalize certain supposed violence-avoidance methods: qalk with your keys in your hand, take cabs at night, don’t accept drinks from strangers, be careful what you wear, don’t walk alone after dark. When women are the victims of rape, there’s an immediate assessment of what she did wrong and which of her perceived mistakes made her vulnerable to an assailant. An eleven-year-old girl is gang-raped in Texas by a group of grown men and the problem was that she wore make-up and “provocative” clothing. Women in Egypt are stripped and assaulted and their brightly-colored underwear is evidence of immodesty.

Rapists don’t rape because they can’t “get” sex elsewhere. Rapists don’t rape because they’re uncontrollably turned on by the sight of some cleavage, or a midriff, or red lipstick, or an ankle. They rape because they’re misogynist sadists, and they flourish in places where misogyny is justified as tradition and maleness comes with a presumption of violence.

Combating rape and sexual assault goes beyond just criminalizing and prosecuting it. It requires an understanding of how many misogynist puzzle pieces fit together – that a cultural belief that the female body is inherently tempting and dirty cannot be separated from actions that do violence to female bodies; that a conceit of eliteness or purity means perpetrators within special elite or pure groups will get away with committing crimes; that community policing is useless for enforcing gendered crimes when community norms privilege men; that the politicization of female sexuality sends a message that the female body is public property and that women are less deserving of basic rights than men.

Rape happens in every society, and nowhere in the world has perfect gender equality been achieved. But rapes are more likely to be reported in places where men and women are more equal. And rapists are enabled by misogyny, whether it comes in the form of politicians and religious leaders deciding it’s the right of the state to regulate reproduction or modesty warriors declaring the female body itself inappropriate. Political violations of the female body abet physical ones; cultural narratives that women tempt men into bad behavior abet legal ones.

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57 comments for “Rape and Power

  1. August 29, 2013 at 11:30 am

    In India, only recently the culture of ‘victim blaming’ is being challenged. Mainstream media has been relentlessly pushing for change in the mindset of judiciary, police, popular culture and people’s beliefs about sexual violence. I wrote a post on the recent brutal gang-rape in Mumbai.


    The problem is the dismal exposure to sexual violence committed on poor women and women of ‘lower’ castes/ tribes, marital rape, rape by people known to the victims. The popular narrative is that of ‘rape committed by strangers of lower economic strata during dark hours on urbanised women’. The dominance of this narrative in media could potentially lead to perpetuating the myth about rape : that it is ONLY committed by poor men whom the victim doesn’t know, in the night, in secluded places. My worry is also that it would also restrict freedom of movement in cities for women by scaring them off.

    It is a welcome change that in India awareness about sexual harassment and violence has entered mainstream. However, the narratives need to expand if there is to be a true movement for erosion of crimes against women.

  2. amblingalong
    August 29, 2013 at 11:41 am

    Loved 99% of this article. Only exception:

    Rapists don’t rape because they can’t “get” sex elsewhere. Rapists don’t rape because they’re uncontrollably turned on by the sight of some cleavage, or a midriff, or red lipstick, or an ankle. They rape because they’re misogynist sadists, and they flourish in places where misogyny is justified as tradition and maleness comes with a presumption of violence.

    I realize the above is an article of faith in a lot of feminist circles, but it’s not borne out by the evidence. Rapists rape for a hugely diverse set of reasons; the frat boy who has sex with a girl at a party who’s too drunk to consent is a rapist, but isn’t particularly likely to be motivated by sadism as opposed to a desire to get off. Statutory rape isn’t motivated by sadism either, usually.

    Arguing that all rapists are sadists seems to fall into the same trap as believing all rapes are strangers-in-the-bushes. It obscures a huge number of rapes; it focuses on a subset of the problem to the exclusion of the rest. I think it actually damages the anti-rape cause.

    • August 29, 2013 at 12:50 pm

      If you see a woman as merely a life-support system for a fleshlight* and the idea of achieving orgasm that way actually brings you some sort of mental or emotional gratification — and/or if your reputation as a stud means more to you than the real live human being in front of you — than yeah, I don’t know if that’s “sadism,” per se, but it’s damn well close enough. Sadism most often caused by patriarchy, rather than in-born, to be sure. But “getting your rocks” off is eliding the larger truth, here.

      *I wish I knew who’d originally come up with this phrasing so I could credit them.

      • August 29, 2013 at 12:53 pm

        I think Comrade Kevin and you are saying similar things, but I like the way Kevin brings the whole “entitled to access to women’s bodies” thing into it.

      • amblingalong
        August 29, 2013 at 2:22 pm

        If you see a woman as merely a life-support system for a fleshlight* and the idea of achieving orgasm that way actually brings you some sort of mental or emotional gratification — and/or if your reputation as a stud means more to you than the real live human being in front of you — than yeah, I don’t know if that’s “sadism,” per se, but it’s damn well close enough.

        Sure, but I don’t know how much mental/emotional gratification comes into it. Orgasms feel physically good.

        I guess I just see a problematic aspect of the ‘rape is about sadism/getting off on violence/etc’ from an anti-rape perspective, because at least the way I read it, that seems to exclude all the rapes that occur because (for example) someone wants to get off but doesn’t want to wait for their date to sober up (which, at least on my college campus/among the survivors I knew, was one of the most common permutations).That to me is misogyny- entitlement to women’s bodies, seeing women as tools to achieve orgasms and not people, etc.- but not getting off on inflicting pain, which is the definition of sadism.

        I’m NOT arguing rape isn’t inherently violent, misogynistic, etc. I just think it’s not always ABOUT violence from the perspective of the rapist, and saying it is comes close to saying many rapes aren’t really rape.

      • The Mathemagician
        August 29, 2013 at 5:08 pm

        The common framing of rape as being unrelated to sexual gratification really bothers me too. The fact is, many rapes are committed not by people who specifically enjoy hurting women, but by people who want to have sex and simply don’t care whether or not the person they’re with wants to have it or not.

        This matters because as the concept that rape is about violence, not sex has become more widely accepted over the years, I see more and more people, including many women, use this framing to dismiss actual, real-life rapes. Constantly, I hear excuses like “Well, rape is not about sex, it’s about violence and power. In this case he just wanted to have sex with her and it got out of control, he just made a mistake because he was overcome with desire, but it wasn’t about power so it shouldn’t be punished like a real rape.” It’s very upsetting.

      • Tony
        August 29, 2013 at 5:41 pm


        I think that’s conflating the definition vs. the explanation, something that’s happened in this thread already.

        I have no doubt that sexual desire or lust plays a role in a lot of rape, but as an explanation for rape it doesn’t shed much light. Almost everyone has sexual desire, even very intense sexual desire, but most manage not to rape. To put it on sexual desire suggests that rapists are just like you and I except they have more lust? That’s clearly not what’s going on here.

        No matter what their level of sexual desire, if they didn’t exhibit the misogynistic willingness to rape (and that includes the decision to take a calculated risk, or a decision not to think about the consequences), then at some point they had a choice to think: “Stop. There’s another human being involved here who hasn’t consented. I can get consent first/satisfy myself later/elsewhere.”

      • The Mathemagician
        August 29, 2013 at 6:03 pm

        Tony, I think you missed my point. I specifically object to “because someone is a misogynist sadist” being used as an explanation for rape because I witness on a regular basis how this type of framing harms rape victims and leads to actual rapes not being taken seriously, or being considered not “real” rape or rape that deserves punishment, because sexual desire on the part of the rapist was clearly a factor.

        As someone who is well versed in feminist theory, I understand academically what you’re saying. I do not disagree that misogyny and assumed entitlement to women’s bodies are the fundamental issues that lead to most rapes. What I take issue with is erasing the desire for sexual gratification from the equation. Doing so harms rape victims.

      • EG
        August 29, 2013 at 6:16 pm

        I see more and more people, including many women, use this framing to dismiss actual, real-life rapes.

        I doubt that has anything to do with the content of the framing. Plenty of people have dismissed actual, real-life rapes using the framing of desire as well. Rape apologists will use whatever tools come to hand.

      • Tony
        August 29, 2013 at 6:33 pm


        I didn’t miss your point. I agree that lust plays a role in rape. You said many people used the idea that “rape is about power” to argue that some rapes weren’t really rape. My point is that *they* can’t take an assertion explaining something to redefine it. How something is explained has no bearing on whether or not it happened. Its not you that I meant is conflating, but those people who make that argument who are. I agree that it’s unfortunate the argument is being misinterpreted like that.

    • matlun
      August 29, 2013 at 1:13 pm

      Well, if you look at the Groth typologies (which I believe is still the most established categorization (?)), then the sadistic rapist is indeed a very uncommon type. The most common rapist according to Groth is the “power rapist” that rape to feel powerful and often has the fantasy that the victim actually enjoyed it and/or that it was not rape.

      So the statement “they rape because they’re misogynist sadists” is in general false in a literal sense.

      However, I think you could generously read that part as a bit of hyperbole. You could then simply take the main thrust of the argument as being an attack on the rape myth explanation “he just could not control himself”/”he was overcome by lust”. Except for the one word “sadists”, the argument is good.

      • tinfoil hattie
        August 29, 2013 at 11:37 pm

        STFU, really, about your fucking methodologies. Rape is sadistic. I don’t care how dudes add nuance and special classicications and “but using a passed-out woman to get your rocks off is way way way way different than sadism!” to mansplain it.

        Back into “rape-rape” territory we go.

    • Donna L
      August 29, 2013 at 2:36 pm

      Can we please not get hung up on some technical, textbook definition of sadism? This isn’t Krafft-Ebing, and it’s clear to me that Jill didn’t mean the term that way.

      • August 29, 2013 at 2:51 pm

        Yes please, it’s a bit triggering… Thank you Donna, for speaking up.

      • matlun
        August 29, 2013 at 3:02 pm

        I agree.

        The “sadist” part was just one word in a longer article. To get stuck on that one word seems pretty pointless. It seems better to discuss the article’s main points.

      • amblingalong
        August 29, 2013 at 3:04 pm

        I think this matters. I think the way Jill wrote that paragraph unintentionally positions some types of rape as not ‘real’ rape. I’m not trying to start a firefight on semantics, I’m pushing back against an assertion I’ve seen bandied around in feminist circles that I think actively harms survivors.

        I get why YMMV, but I don’t think this is just pointless wordplay.

      • EG
        August 29, 2013 at 3:08 pm

        I think you’re splitting hairs. The difference between a man who gets off on hurting women and a man who gets off while hurting women seems very negligible to me.

      • amblingalong
        August 29, 2013 at 3:15 pm

        But if I say “women are only hurt by men who get off on hurting them,” then I’m implicitly arguing that there’s no such thing as women who are hurt by men who only get off while hurting them.

        And as someone who knows a fairly large number of survivors who’s assaults were very clearly about sexual gratification, that feels wrong.

        I don’t want to sound like a stubborn asshole, but I’m pretty sure I’m not movable on this one.

      • GallingGalla
        August 29, 2013 at 3:29 pm

        I have to say that I agree with Donna, EG, and matlun. This focus on one word is starting to look like a derail, and I wish you’d stop pressing the point, amblingalong, because in the end it doesn’t matter whether rape fits a textbook definition of that word, it’s still rape. You come off as trying to argue the rapist’s intent, and that doesn’t matter; the victim is grievously harmed nonetheless.

      • amblingalong
        August 29, 2013 at 3:45 pm

        in the end it doesn’t matter whether rape fits a textbook definition of that word, it’s still rape.

        You come off as trying to argue the rapist’s intent, and that doesn’t matter; the victim is grievously harmed nonetheless.

        These together actually sum up my point.

      • August 29, 2013 at 3:48 pm

        Agreeing very much with EG and GallingGalla right now…

      • Donna L
        August 29, 2013 at 3:54 pm

        Could you please back off here? Please? It’s not worth it. I promise you.

      • Donna L
        August 29, 2013 at 3:55 pm

        What I mean is: nobody’s saying you have to agree. We note your objection. Let’s move on, OK? Enough.

      • amblingalong
        August 29, 2013 at 3:57 pm

        Sure, OK.

      • Donna L
        August 29, 2013 at 4:05 pm

        Thank you.

      • Marie
        August 29, 2013 at 9:09 pm

        Thank you, Donna. Pedantic, anal-retentive hair splitting and nitpicking over semantics and every single minutiae only serves to cloud the issue – that rape is a weapon used to harm and degrade women.

      • amblingalong
        August 29, 2013 at 9:49 pm


      • theLaplaceDemon
        August 29, 2013 at 9:55 pm

        I don’t think that’s a fair summary of what happened at all.

      • tinfoil hattie
        August 29, 2013 at 11:41 pm

        Marie nails it. Anything to avoid talking about rape.

      • amblingalong
        August 30, 2013 at 12:25 am

        I’m fine having this conversation be over. But if you insist: you’re missing the fucking point (which is, specifically, that framing rape as inherently about sadism is also defining some types of rape as not rape-rape. Which is fucked up).

      • tinfoil hattie
        August 30, 2013 at 12:15 pm

        ALL rape is sadism, ambling. That’s MY point.

      • moviemaedchen
        August 30, 2013 at 12:39 pm

        And ambling’s point, and mine on spillover, is that claiming ALL rape is sadism is erasing my experience, and others’, is denying survivors the right to define their own experiences, and co-opting others’ experiences in order to twist them to fit your idea of them.

        STOP IT.

        You are telling me that either I don’t know my own experience of rape, or I don’t get to call it rape. Fuck no. You do not get to redefine my experience.

        Talk about power and sadism and how they drive a certain category of rape that fits larger patriarchal narratives and structures? Absolutely fine. The majority of rapes even? Perfectly fine by me.

        But you do NOT get to take my experience away from me, and that is exactly what saying “ALL rape is sadism” does. Whether or not you intend to, that is what you are doing to me.

        Please take a moment to listen to the survivors speaking up on spillover before you push this further, hattie. I usually agree with you and you’re a commenter I respect here. But in this you are stepping all over me and other survivors. And it fucking hurts.

      • EG
        August 30, 2013 at 2:21 pm

        I’ve read your comments, movemaedchen, and I want to apologize to you for my part in hurting you. I think that my working definition of sadism is more elastic than I’m finding is the case for other people, and that led me to the generalization that is hurting you. It’s not fair to you and you shouldn’t be excluded from these conversations. I’m very sorry.

      • moviemaedchen
        August 30, 2013 at 2:36 pm

        Thank you, EG – apology accepted.

        I do hear you on having varying definitions – for the record, if that’s how you personally want to define sadism for yourself and your experience of things, that’s totally fine by me. We each interpret words in our own slightly different ways. It’s, yes, the generalization of any one definition over others as valid that is getting to me, and to the others if I understand them rightly. I do want to make sure that those survivors who do experience rape as sadism have space to understand their experiences that way – I’m just asking for space to not have to define mine that way in order to participate in the conversation. And I think you get that – your apology makes me feel heard. Thank you for that.

      • Tony
        August 30, 2013 at 5:11 pm

        I am very sorry for for hurting you as well, moviemaedchen, with my earlier part here. I read your comments in the other thread and now I realize there were a lot of rape scenarios that I just was subconsciously erasing. I will no longer do that in the future. Sorry.

      • moviemaedchen
        August 30, 2013 at 5:29 pm

        Thank you Tony. I appreciate your willingness to listen and reconsider. And it’s not like the scenarios you described aren’t valid – for many women they are. Just not for all.

        (Also, I want shout out thanks to Mathemagician – I ought to have noted your comments on my spillover thread too.)

  3. August 29, 2013 at 12:10 pm

    In college, one of my classmates was raped at a party by a man who was sexually attracted to her, though she had consistently spurned her advances. That is a form of sadism and misogyny, for sure, but it’s more a symptom of men believing that they somehow deserve full access to women’s bodies. If they can’t get it through consenting means, they’ll try different avenues.

    And like many victims of rape, she blamed herself for not being more careful. A former girlfriend talked about her rape in similar terms. They felt that if only they’d built healthy boundaries around themselves that it wouldn’t have happened. I know this takes the blame away from those who rape, but even in our society, I think attitudes like these keep many rapes and sexual assaults from being reported. But then again, my analysis is nothing new.

    • amblingalong
      August 29, 2013 at 2:15 pm

      but it’s more a symptom of men believing that they somehow deserve full access to women’s bodies. If they can’t get it through consenting means, they’ll try different avenues.


      • moviemaedchen
        August 30, 2013 at 4:48 am


        I’ve posted a reply to you over in spillover 8, since I don’t want to derail this discussion further, but I wanted to bring in my own experience in as an assault survivor in response to your argument. I also respond more generally to this thread.

    • ThatOtherOne
      August 29, 2013 at 4:32 pm

      The topic of this poem is the Friend Zone, so as such it’s only tangentially related, but the conclusions that the guy draws about rape and never being entitled to a woman’s body, that you cannot put in hours as a “Nice Guy” and therefore earn her like a salary are wholly relevant to your point. So I’ll just leave this here:

    • tinfoil hattie
      August 29, 2013 at 11:38 pm

      It is a power trip and a form of sadism and control to believe you ahve a right to someone else’s body.

  4. August 29, 2013 at 5:37 pm

    Great article, and much-needed. You’re right that misogynist societies abet rape – I’m sure you heard about the Norwegian woman who reported she had been raped to police in Dubai, where she was living: she was jailed, for having sex outside marriage, for a longer period than her rapist.

    • Donna L
      August 29, 2013 at 6:26 pm

      Let’s please not say things that sound like the category of “misogynist societies” includes only those “benighted” countries that happen to be in places like the Middle East or elsewhere where a particular religion happens to predominate, and don’t include our own Western societies. Where both misogyny and rape exist and occur in ample proportions, the last time I checked.

      • Angie unduplicated
        August 30, 2013 at 9:37 am

        Montana, for instance.

    • Henry
      August 29, 2013 at 11:03 pm


      Gerry, the stats are hampered by under reporting or complete lack of reporting, so you cannot compare countries. In 2009, the US comes in at 29/100K, Iceland at 24.7/100K, Norway at 20/100K, and Sweden at 63.8/100K (argued to be a much more egalitarian society than the USA). If you want to criticize countries, criticize them for the suppression of reporting, not the quantity of occurrences, in 2006 the UAE reported 1.5/100K which if true would make their country one of the safest on the planet. I can’t tell you which society is safer from this data, but anyone can tell roughly how much certain countries are suppressing reports by comparing them to countries with vastly higher numbers. Put it this way: I highly doubt the residents of Sweden are more likely to be sex criminals than the residents of another nation. On the flip side these numbers are also why I doubt stories about “epidemics” in certain countries, perhaps people just lodge police reports there more often? Eventually if reporting becomes more commonplace the news media will run a story about the 1000% increase in sex crimes and bemoan the coming apocalypse as if this shit had not been happening since the dawn of time.

      All of us being humans I would suspect the actual incidences are much closer numbers wise across all countries (absent war zones), but then I tend to scoff at any nation’s argument that “our humans are better than your humans”.

      • amblingalong
        August 30, 2013 at 10:49 am

        I was with you right up to the last sentence. I have a hard time believing that legal frameworks/cultural condition makes no difference in the prevalence of rape. Rape is a problem in every country, but I’d be shocked if it wasn’t much more prevalent in places where it was de facto legal than places with strong feminist movements.

        I mean, arguing that’s not the case sounds a lot like an argument for giving up, right?

      • August 30, 2013 at 6:40 pm

        I don’t hold that “our humans are better than your humans”; that sounds something like the theory of race, and there’s no such thing as race.

        Or, to recycle a once-trendy slogan, the only race is the human race. Differences in humans are entirely due to the culture they were raised in and/or the culture they subscribe to. With that in mind, I think you should do some more digging as regards rape statistics in Sweden.

    • tinfoil hattie
      August 29, 2013 at 11:39 pm

      Every fucking society is misogynist and treats women like second-class citizens. No special calling out of those “other” nations is necessary.

      • August 30, 2013 at 6:42 pm

        yes, all societies are misogynist. I just fail to understand why, for instance in the UK, we should spend decades trying to move on from misogyny and then throw it all away by importing other cultures’ misogyny.

      • PrettyAmiable
        August 30, 2013 at 7:13 pm

        Oh thank God. I thought I had misread your last blog post, but you actually are super Islamophobic. And you used Martin Luther King Jr’s work to support your othering. Nice.

        In light of recent issues on various threads, I feel comfortable saying we need a giraffe here.

        [Thank you for sending a giraffe alert ~ mods]

      • August 30, 2013 at 7:26 pm

        Wow, uh, seconding PA. That blog is really, really Islamophobic. And contains a lot of racist buzzwords as well. We need a giraffe here. Most definitely.

        [Thank you for sending a giraffe alert ~ mods]

      • September 1, 2013 at 9:02 pm

        Apologies for delay in responding to giraffe alert – I was away without internet access over the weekend and missed this (I might need to tweak the giraffe alert configuration again).

        Gerry is definitely not welcome to throw around such bigoted stereotypes here (eta: not even passive-aggressively by just linking to his blog). Welcome to premod, try and do better.

  5. tinfoil hattie
    August 29, 2013 at 11:40 pm

    Excellent article, Jill. Spot on.

    • SaraC
      August 31, 2013 at 12:48 pm

      Agreed. Thanks, Jill!

  6. AMM
    August 31, 2013 at 7:05 pm

    To the topic of rapes being underreported in the English-speaking world, two first-person accounts (I think these were in the USA, but they don’t actually say):

    NOTE: trigger warning for descriptions of rape and of bad treatment of rape vicitims.

    Elyse, from Skepchick, describing reporting one rape and not reporting another, and
    commenter EEB describing being successfully pressured to recant her report of a rape, from Stephanie Zvan’s blog at FreeThoughtBlogs

    [Mods: feel free to delete this if these are considered off-topic.]

  7. ray allen
    September 3, 2013 at 6:08 pm

    I was always taught that both partners should be awake, aware, consenting, and participating. That attitude may be an anachronism,
    but I passed it on to my kids.

    All of this being said, I think that it’s ironic that this British rapist found out what Karma is…


Comments are closed.