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August 10, 2014 4:43 PM   Subscribe

Who's Lying? Who's Self-Justifying?: Origins of the He Said/She Said Gap in Sexual Communications. Carol Tavris, a social psychology researcher, took the stage at The Amaz!ng Meeting 2014 to talk about sexual abuse allegations, feminism and rape culture.
posted by huguini (62 comments total) 38 users marked this as a favorite

 
Sounds interesting. Is there a transcript?
posted by klangklangston at 4:55 PM on August 10 [3 favorites]


It was uploaded by the James Randi Foundation account, which makes it yet more interesting. I really wish they would make some progress on voice-to-text.
posted by jfuller at 5:32 PM on August 10


I attended this event. This was the standout presentation. Very impressive that thoughtful ideas can be openly presented about hot button issues. Carol Tavris is outstanding in her erudition.
posted by Tube at 5:38 PM on August 10 [3 favorites]


No transcript yet. This piece shows some the arguments but the lecture is way better and a lot broader.
posted by huguini at 5:42 PM on August 10


I admit I only got halfway through this video. However, her own personal bias is so naked that I have trouble continuing to listen.

It feels like at this point she is saying that people can have misunderstandings and different interpretations about What Happened. So feel free to be skeptical of any allegations.

If the argument changes beyond minute 24 please let me know.
posted by keeo at 5:45 PM on August 10 [1 favorite]


keeo, it sounds like you're falling into exactly the cognitive bias she's discussing?
posted by Justinian at 6:02 PM on August 10 [7 favorites]


She is saying that people can have misunderstandings and different interpretations of events, but in the sense that people's biases can cause them to misremember or interpret the details differently. And that is true.
posted by ernielundquist at 6:06 PM on August 10 [1 favorite]


Justinian, I considered that before posting. Although, if that is the standard for a discussion of her talk, then no one is allowed to say anything.

The thing is, I think she includes a call to action that goes beyond acknowledging that there are two sides of a story. And it is one that I am not comfortable with.
posted by keeo at 6:20 PM on August 10


This is interesting, and I appreciate the skill and eloquence with which she wades into this particular minefield. I do, however, wish she'd be a little more explicit about how our patriarchal culture tips the ambiguity in favor of predators. She touches on it, with things like concern over being called a "slut" pushing women towards alcohol as a way to evade responsibility, but I feel like she stops short of any sort of consideration that maybe her triangle is lopsided.

keeo, "listen to the entire talk" is substantially different from "no one is allowed to say anything".
posted by kavasa at 6:22 PM on August 10 [7 favorites]


TL;DL - Sex is "guess" culture.

Which explains a lot.
posted by Justinian at 6:23 PM on August 10 [11 favorites]


To be honest, I think she's misunderstanding why people say they'll "believe survivors no matter what." I've really rarely heard anyone say that because they're 100% certain about the facts of what happened - rather, I always hear it as something almost necessary in the context of how women who are open about their experiences of sexual abuse are almost uniformly treated. They're tossed aside by family and friends alike; their testimonies are torn apart and scrutinized to the minutiae; they get harassment and death threats. Essentially, to come open about one's experiences as a survivor is to upturn one's entire life - you never know who's going to stick with you or not, since it's the type of thing that polarizes entire communities.

So, I see the "believe you no matter what" statement as a way to provide folks with a pillar of support during a time of immense social upheaval - it's not a declaration of certainty, but rather a declaration that we're willing to overlook our feelings of uncertainty to support someone who's being unfairly battered and bruised by our cultural context.

I mean, you can argue whether that's "stifling thoughtful inquiry" or "shouting people down" or not, but from my perspective people are going to be picking apart survivors regardless of whether they face opposition or not, so...
posted by Conspire at 6:26 PM on August 10 [30 favorites]


I'm also uncomfortable with her decision to build the talk around particular instances such as the false accusation of the Duke LaCrosse players. She also refers frequently to Farrow's accusation of Allen without addressing the fact that it would be tough for a grown man to honestly deceive himself about the consent of a six year-old.

She makes some good arguments, but she also seems to leave really serious problems un-addressed as well as choosing to build the structure of the talk around some weird edge cases.
posted by kavasa at 6:26 PM on August 10 [13 favorites]


I agree with kavasa. She is making interesting and good arguments but they are weighed down by her choices of examples. I understand why she is using salacious or well-known examples but this whole thing would have benefited from never mentioning Woody Allen or Duke at all.
posted by Justinian at 6:29 PM on August 10


Also yeah, what Conspire said. I've made a conscious decision to default towards believing accusations because the culture-wide default is to disbelieve. This isn't because I'm certain about the facts but because I think that victims need more people in their corner in our culture.
posted by kavasa at 6:29 PM on August 10 [3 favorites]


I mean... just the bit where she talks about how people will use "non-response" as both a signal that a sexual advance is accepted and as a signal that it is unwanted is something very important and interesting. And it has absolutely nothing to do with Allen or Duke or anything of the sort. I feel like she didn't trust her audience to pay attention without the RIPPED FROM THE HEADLINES part.

But it's still well worth listening to.
posted by Justinian at 6:31 PM on August 10 [1 favorite]


I couldn't get through all of it either, but I watched the first ten minutes and the last ten minutes to see where it was going. I get what she's saying, I'm just not sure how it doesn't bring us back to upholding potential abuser privileges over accusers because of uncertainty? Which is really already the status quo other than online where people get all full of grar, but in real life the status quo is that often nothing happens (socially.. at all) to those accused especially if not convicted (and even when they ARE convicted, who REALLY knows so maybe they didn't do it!). Everyone I know is really defensive and protective of potential abusers (and even real abusers in fact) and their presumed innocence, I think people maybe mistake online behavior where it's safe to say you have grar, for how people actually treat abusers and potentially abusers-- which is usually politely and continuing to uphold their privileged and status. In a court of law, I totally get being extremely cautious and the presumption of innocence, I just think telling the public, just remember about uncertainty and how confused and misguided accusers often are! Is .... not all that helpful since it's the default most places I go? Maybe I'm going the wrong places, I guess?

She comes to the end and suggests that affirmative consent is silly and laugh worthy because everyone knows sexual advances should be made without asking first, when, perhaps that is actually a problem with our culture, and her bias leads her to find it unfathomable that it would be better another way? I think her suggestions are great, and that they could also match up to a different legal model of consent as well. A lot of people have a submissive and frightened response to sexual advances- especially when you consider social ranking, size and physical strength differences, and socialization, negative responses to female assertiveness- or even brain difference in female submissivity. All of which makes a 'do first ask later' policy a really toxic and harmful thing to a lot of people.

It also seems an awful lot like she thinks victim testimony is not credible and therefore the default in rape accusations should be upholding the innocence of the accused.
posted by xarnop at 6:36 PM on August 10 [12 favorites]


I'm skeptical out the gate about any claim that there are some rape cases we can all agree are reprehensible. It's the 21st century, and we still regularly have judges, lawyers, and law enforcement officers claiming that ten-year-olds consented to sex with adults by dressing provocatively, or that a man who committed violent rape was a clumsy don juan confused by the fact that his victim wore a tube top and agreed to skinny dip. We have communities claiming that an eleven year old who was gang raped by twenty men was a promiscuous temptress who led the men astray. We have widespread denial that alcohol is used by predators to subdue victims and insistence that all rapes involving alcohol are a case of drunken regrets.

Sweeping all that aside out the gate might have been a necessary narrowing of scope for a short talk like this, but the result was a decent framework and some good suggestions adding up to messy and uneven conclusions.
posted by northernish at 6:39 PM on August 10 [10 favorites]


I really think you guys who didn't watch the whole thing are overselling how much this talk is actually about what the title indicates it is about. 'Cause, honestly, it's more about ambiguity in sexual signalling and things like that. Change the title, cut the (peripheral and irrelevant) inflammatory references to Duke or Woody Allen, and you've got an interesting talk that has little to do with responses to sexual assault allegations.
posted by Justinian at 6:41 PM on August 10 [3 favorites]


Yeah I watched the part about that Justinian-- and I personally know two instances in which lying about rape charges occurred- one of which in a legal court (which she legally recanted and as a child did not face particularly harsh punishment)-- and one of which was simply a situation where her story changes and at least one version was a lie or stretch of the truth (at first it was unwanted and she was too drunk to consent, but once she wanted to date him it switched to, no no I think I gave consent, I don't know.)

So yeah I believe in skepticism and remembering that new facts can and should change your perspective, but most often all we have is one persons word over another, even in court. And from the way this speaker presented that reality, the victims reports are so sketchy who can ever know? It's not very reassuring that she concludes in opposition to making laws that will make consent more clear because laws won't really help reduce rape? I'm just.... I know she's well read, but I know plenty of other mental health workers who disagree with her even having read the same material, and I'm not sure she is the expert we need to create or influence better policies in this area. As a conversation prompt it's certainly a worthy topic so I give her props for bringing it up.
posted by xarnop at 6:44 PM on August 10 [1 favorite]


*I mean, you can argue whether that's "stifling thoughtful inquiry" or "shouting people down" or not, but from my perspective people are going to be picking apart survivors regardless of whether they face opposition or not, so...
posted by Conspire at 6:26 PM on August 10*

Of course serious criminal accusations should always be scrutinized or "picked apart", including accusations of rape and sexual abuse.

Tavris also does not say anything regarding the Woody Allen scandal other than that it's an instance where people are rigidly taking sides, which is certainly true.
posted by knoyers at 6:53 PM on August 10 [3 favorites]


Exactly. Same with Duke, or the alcohol incident she brought up at the other college. None of that was actually relevant to the presentation.
posted by Justinian at 6:56 PM on August 10


She also refers frequently to Farrow's accusation of Allen without addressing the fact that it would be tough for a grown man to honestly deceive himself about the consent of a six year-old.

Tough in the sense that it's impossible for six-year-olds to consent, right?

I haven't always been Tavris' biggest fan, but this conversation, and her choice of rape accusations as the place to talk about unreliable memory/irrational actions particularly, is making me give her the side-eye. She is trying to keep the purely philosophical approach; but will her audience take away pure philosophical ideas about skepticism, or a vague impression that women are being irrational about rape?

On the Duke case, she does not mention the reprehensible online comments by the athletes and supporters that made many believe the accuser.

I have never heard the term "rape cultured" either, that's a new one.

I don't know that I agree with her pyramid; if new evidence came to light in a given set of accusations, I would not disregard it. Maybe the Duke professors were wrong not to publish an apology to the wrongly accused athletes. But does that prove that people who support potential rape victims are in general acting irrationally?

I don't agree that consent is truly ambiguous. Being too drunk to protect yourself means no one should be having sex with you. And I don't believe that a lot of women are actually having drunken sex and then making rape accusations for shits and grins. Also, if you drunkenly rape someone, and get punished, how is that different than punishment for drunkenly punching or running over someone? A consequence that most people are ok with, yes?

Accusations of irrationality, lying, irresponsibility, and biased memories are such common weapons used against rape survivors. I am skeptical; skeptical of Ms. Tavris' understanding of the reality of sexual violence in this country.

"That is not the feminism I signed up for." Well ma'am, things have changed, and your feminism had some blind spots. It's good to insist on the truth; it's irresponsible to believe that in a highly-charged area like rape accusations, you can blithely dismiss/cast doubt on the claims of rape victims without it being a political stance.

Especially, it should be pointed out, given that TAM and other skeptical/atheist communities have had problems with accusations of sexual harassment in the recent past; here's a post by Skepchic from 2012 addressing the issue with TAM specifically and the problem with DJ Grothe, who appears to still be president of the Randi Foundation.
posted by emjaybee at 7:01 PM on August 10 [20 favorites]


Strange and discordant that she chose a strategy of maximizing ambiguity herself.
posted by jamjam at 7:04 PM on August 10


Having witnessed false accusations AND true victims wrongly disbelieved for too long, I would prefer no presumption in the public square, except one in favor of a search for truth (of course, in court, a presumption of innocence for the accused is the best approach). If I hear somebody tell me that they know something without having even investigated for themselves, I usually disregard the rest of their statement.
posted by learnsome at 7:08 PM on August 10 [3 favorites]


I watched the middle and have now watched the entirety and I think ambiguity in sex and consent and the commonality of non-consent (and how problematic that is) is all good to discuss, but remain unimpressed and concerned about her framing of the issues. I think binge drinking is unhealthy and dangerous, but maintaining that having sex with drunk people is ok because they were stupid to get drunk (and it's a learning experience!) is extremely gross and I'm grossed out she thinks that way, despite that I know it's a common social belief.

I also find it hard to believe that there is quality evidence about exactly how much rape victims (or non rape victims); especially who weren't drinking; misremember what they said or didn't say during sex or rape. Were there video tapes or witnesses to measure the quality of the memories? I mean really, who knows whether ANY of us have been raped or had consensual sex at any given time in our past!? Memory is strange and not trustworthy! Looking back, none of us can REALLY know whether we were raped or had sex at any of our past sexual experiences.

I find it strange and concerning that she brings up the ambiguity of guess culture around sex and how it easily leads to sexual abuse/rape, but seems to think increasing social standards to obtaining consent first is not a good idea or is laughable.
posted by xarnop at 7:36 PM on August 10 [8 favorites]


but maintaining that having sex with drunk people is ok because they were stupid to get drunk (and it's a learning experience!)

I think her point was not that sex with drunken people is OK, but that society's assumption (as in the expulsion at Occidental) that the male drunk person is arbitrarily more at fault and deserving of punishment in a sexual encounter between two people both probably too inebriated to legally consent is troubling and unfair. And that explicitly spoken and unambiguous consent can be contrary to typical behavior patterns of humans in general.
posted by knoyers at 8:13 PM on August 10 [8 favorites]


Saw this on my Facebook feed shortly after it happened. A very sane, very timely and much-needed speech, and I am very glad it has been posted here.
posted by Decani at 8:14 PM on August 10 [2 favorites]


Also, it is interesting to see that the "pyramid effect" is visible right here in the comments. :-)
posted by Decani at 8:18 PM on August 10 [3 favorites]


In talking about Woody Allen and the Duke case, I think she's using them just to make a point towards laying a foundation: That whichever side you choose to believe initially, a tendency to avoid cognitive dissonance pushes you deeper and deeper into that belief as time goes by. She never really addresses Farrow's credibility, certainly never implies that it's possible for a six-year-old to consent to sex with an adult, and pretty much says explicitly that at first glance, the alleged Duke "victim" is, going by statistics, the more likely to be telling the truth.
posted by tyllwin at 8:27 PM on August 10 [2 favorites]


I assumed she used Duke and Woody Allen because she wanted to reference cases that her audience was familiar with, and would have their own existing biases about. The point is that it is inflammatory, and you have to be able to discuss even inflammatory topics with some nuance that you don't often find.

That said, I have my own biases. I default to trusting women largely just because there is such a longstanding tendency in the other direction. If a woman tells me she's been raped, I am going to believe her, and if a man tells me he's been falsely accused of rape, I'm going to be very skeptical. And I don't think this is an inexcusable bias. I'm pretty sure that statistics are on my side, and I also believe that those positions are generally the least harmful. So yep, these are my biases, and I stand behind them.

But that's me personally. I know this is going to make me wrong sometimes, but my opinion doesn't matter much, really. If I were on a jury, I'd try to be more critical because my opinion would matter more. And the fact is that there are some things I'm not sure about.

I'm not taking her account of the Occidental case at face value, but as a hypothetical, if a man and a woman are equally drunk, they have sex and their memories are fuzzy or even nonexistent, whose fault really is that if one or both of them wouldn't have consented sober? I generally think it's an unlikely scenario, simply because even cut and dried rape cases go unprosecuted for silly reasons all the time. So I doubt cases like that would ever make it to court or anything.

But as a hypothetical, I don't know. Generally, I'd think, drunk or not, that the person who instigated the sex would be the perpetrator, but if they were both impaired enough that they don't remember how things transpired, I wouldn't be comfortable calling either one a rapist, and maybe something like that would just constitute a mutual mistake.

And I wish that people could talk about things like that, and dissect all the weird assumptions and biases that go into thinking about them. I think that would be a really good thing for everyone.
posted by ernielundquist at 8:31 PM on August 10 [6 favorites]


I do think Tavris's points about the malleability of memory and the ineluctable nature of ambiguity surrounding sex (even among married couples) capture a number of truths about sexuality that we as 21st century North Americans (and increasingly globally) are forgetting given that for thousands of years the default has been to outright dismiss allegations of rape and to persecute survivors of sexual assault.

That is, we are ready to acknowledge that victims of sexual violence have been and continue to be overlooked and discounted.

Tavris's talk is aimed at getting people who want to correct this problem to consider the possibility that not every failure of consent (inherent ambiguity, memory lapse, changing feelings) should have life-altering consequences. On its face, hers is not an unreasonable suggestion.

However, the reality is her suggestions come at a time when too many women are subjected to institutional, systemic, and personal misogyny when they allege they have been raped.
posted by mistersquid at 9:22 PM on August 10 [7 favorites]


I don't see why "Impaired sex is always non-consentual" is such a difficult message to understand. As a culture, we've pretty much got "Don't drink and drive" figured out. Is "Don't drink and sex" really that much harder?
posted by yeolcoatl at 10:38 PM on August 10


It's not really the message, yeolcoatl, it's the context. The message "don't drink and drive" would be way harder for people to deal with if like 40% of driving was done drunk.
posted by insteadofapricots at 10:57 PM on August 10 [3 favorites]


If you were on the road on a Saturday night in the pre-MADD era, it was like 40% of people were drunk. Changing the culture such that having sex for the first time with a woman obviously too drunk to make good decisions is an assumption of legal risk is a completely doable thing. It is a change in the definition of the crime, not a shift in the presumption of innocence or burden of proof, each of which is toxic.
posted by MattD at 4:47 AM on August 11 [9 favorites]


I really wish there was a transcript or synopsis; from the discussion this sounds really interesting but today and most of this week a 41 minute video just isn't happening.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:57 AM on August 11


MattD, I think the proposal that's going around doesn't specify "sex for the first time".
posted by huguini at 6:17 AM on August 11


True. I didn't say "for the first time" or "with a woman," and I still don't.
posted by yeolcoatl at 6:39 AM on August 11 [1 favorite]


Changing the culture such that having sex for the first time with a woman obviously too drunk to make good decisions is an assumption of legal risk is a completely doable thing.

Yes. It definitely is a culture thing. I'm not going to pretend I read the book or anything, but Mary Pipher, the author of Raising Ophelia said “Young men need to be socialized in such a way that rape is as unthinkable to them as cannibalism.”

And that makes a whole bunch of sense to me. Public attitudes matter a lot. Rape culture is a difficult concept to explain to people, but it's key to addressing the issue. As a culture, we not only don't teach consent, but we fetishize non-consent. We normalize it, and we treat it as some kind of game.

I don't know if this is common among other women or anyone but me, but I am just viscerally repulsed by the idea of having sex with someone who doesn't want to, or otherwise nonconsensually sexualizing someone. And not just from a morality perspective, either. I'm just plain grossed out, too.

I wouldn't even entertain the notion of trying to coerce someone who didn't want to. And I think that, even if I didn't care about hurting the other person, I'd still feel like a disgusting piece of shit myself. It's wrong, of course, but it's also just nasty.

There are all kinds of things that, culturally, we're just sort of grossed out by, even if we can't even articulate or agree on why they're wrong.

I mean, we have (fairly) mainstream media reporting on paparazzi 'nip slips' and upskirt photos and leaked celebrity nudes and stuff. AND THAT IS JUST GROSS. That's something a poorly disciplined toddler might do, not a potty-trained grownup who doesn't pick their nose in public. It's just disgusting and pathetic.
posted by ernielundquist at 7:49 AM on August 11 [5 favorites]


> I don't see why "Impaired sex is always non-consentual" is such a difficult message to understand.

Because it is not true. Over the course of a multi-decade marriage my wife and I came home from parties or evenings out "impaired", if you please, any number of times. Sometimes frankly higher than kites so that we decided to call a cab and deal with the car the next day. And then made happy and passionate love in that state, sometimes my instigation, sometimes hers. With never a ghost of a hint the next day that there had been something non-consensual and rapey about it. If it was referred to at all it was by a cheerful grin or a hug with a wiggle and giggle attached.

I will not be criminalized for this nor will I stand by and see her criminalized for it, if the wind should ever blow that way. Say it loud and proud: impaired sex is NOT always non-consensual. For those who claim it is, all their claim amounts to is "In my experience impaired sex has always been non-consensual and it's beyond me to imagine that my experience is not universal."
posted by jfuller at 7:54 AM on August 11 [15 favorites]


I will not be criminalized for this nor will I stand by and see her criminalized for it, if the wind should ever blow that way.

And you won't be. But there is a world of difference between two adults with an existing healthy sexual relationship choosing to continue that sexual relationship when impaired, and a person choosing to initiate a sexual relationship with a person who is impaired specifically because they know the impairment will make them more likely to go along with something they would reject while sober. And yes, some men do exactly that. That's the kind of behavior that should be at the very least socially unacceptable, if not legally, not a married couple having giggly sex after splitting a bottle of wine.
posted by KathrynT at 8:31 AM on August 11 [6 favorites]


I think consent given BEFORE impairment is different than consent with someone who has never indicated consent before suddenly giving consent while drunk. First time sex is definitely a different realm. I think that like drinking and driving (which most definitely was very common before laws and pressure to change it and still is too unfortunately common) the hazards of drinking and sex will need stronger social training and even laws to prevent people from getting harmed. In college and young adulthood many people are still learning their limits and getting more drunk than intended is not always something a person planned or knew would happen with the amount they drank. The idea that misjudging ones limits is license for someone to take advantage of you sexually (at your own fault for misjudging your drinking) is really harmful and mostly applied to women-not men, who misjudge their drinking and permit or are unresponsive to sex in the form of say anal sex they would never agree to sober.

These are tricky subjects to talk about and come up with solutions to, it does take lot of thinking and education to come up with policies, social pressures, and laws that prevent and minimize- rather than facilitate rape and sexual abuse. Sometimes customs that are harmless of beneficial for some people, are putting others at risk, which is why creating opt-in rather than opt-out mentalities about sexual activities will help ensure people having sex actually want to be having sex rather than feeling overpowered, strong armed, pressured, or frightened into sexual activity- and often lot's of power dynamics, including structural misogyny and male entitlement, lead to some people feeling genuinely unsafe saying no to male advances without facing repercussions that are very difficult to contend with. The same standards of opt-in should be required of women as well, and there are often cases where women are given a pass for being sexually aggressive because of the existence of structural inequality or their perceived weakness in comparison to men. Shifting the standard to opt-in also helps prevent sexual abuse of men and allows them to be taken seriously when reporting as well.

Personally, I think in the case of courts, and policies, there should be degrees of penalties for different types of assault- that does not take away from the reality that all assault should be taken seriously-- it just means that kissing someone who didn't give clear consent and felt uncomfortable before pulling away should not be met with the same penalty (or any legal penalty necessarily) as pulling an unresponsive persons clothes off and going forward with sex even though they seem to be visibly pulling away or disengaged or too drunk to even know what is happening.

I agree there needs to be a little bit of room for error in this messy business of determining consent, and we need a LOT more community discussions and education about the difficulties of ensuring consent and how complex it really is. It would also be really nice to create community norms where, as unfortunate as asking first is sometimes more difficult, asking first becomes the norm for initiating sexual activity, because I know for me, especially as a teen, I was used to men trying to touch me and acting like it's "no big deal" and acting offended if I try to pull away or say anything about it and that kind of training makes it very scary to try to get someone making "not really!!!" advances on you that they deny making really hard to address. They can then make fun of you for thinking they even liked you, or act like there's something wrong with you for thinking that or you're arrogant or whatever-- so trying to fend off unstated advances is really freaking hard, especially if the guy is pretending he just wants to be your friend, so how dare you assume otherwise (until you're alone together and SURPRISE you should have known he was going to do that!)
posted by xarnop at 9:00 AM on August 11


I think the assumption that the freeze response is consent leads to a lot of people experiencing unwanted sexual advances, or re-experiencing trauma they learned to freeze and submit to, and disregards the reasons that social pressures actually add to making the freeze response the safer option in dealing with unwanted advances because the penalty for resisting can be pretty high- not to mention many people want to have sex eventually but aren't ready at a particular time (or want to know the partner would be committed to helping them rear children that might happen and is trustworthy to potentially create a child first). It's often not acceptable for a woman to want to wait until after commitment for sex, so if she resists the first advances she's ruined the whole relationship. Also women are often more permitted to have deep relationships with friends they don't have sex with, so the idea that talking and intimacy with a male friend means they must have sex is not how a lot of females I know think about things, whereas a lot of men I've talked to feel like that's the progression of things. And then for some het men who DO think friendship can work between het women, they often put pressure on females to NOT assume it's sexual-- making the conflicting pressures impossible to sort out and do it right. You just literally can't do it right.
posted by xarnop at 9:12 AM on August 11


There is no way to create a clear, legal definition of the circumstances in which something is classified as 'rape.' People and society as a whole are just way too complicated for that.

The problem is that any discussion about those definitions tends to get hijacked by people arguing in bad faith. Basically, rapists looking for excuses and loopholes.

But there really is some gray area if you approach the topic in legal terms. Once you get out of the realm of blitz attack rapes, you get into areas where coercion and impairment and all kinds of sloppy criteria come into play.

Should a stranger in a bar getting someone else drunk to lower their defenses be considered rape? Is that the same thing as an existing couple who have a couple of glasses of wine to get in the mood? What about other threats or coercion? Is blackmailing or threatening a young, vulnerable person into sex rape? What about when your partner isn't in the mood because they're tired, and you offer to make dinner to get them in the mood?

These are wildly different things, but if you were to try to define them legally, they'd probably end up lumped in together. You can't write one clear, easily applied law that universally distinguishes rape from consensual sex in any concrete, observable, and legally applicable way. The real deciding criteria (I guess IMO) is whether both parties are willing and able to consent, and measuring that is nearly impossible as an observer.

The sucky thing is that, if you acknowledge that or try to discuss it, you risk having a bunch of rapists and wannabe rapists coopting your arguments as a wedge to perpetuate rape culture.

And that is horrible. It's horrible that people trying to discuss complicated, nuanced topics can't do so without being conflated with those who coopt those arguments in bad faith. And it's completely understandable that even saying something as vague as "gray area" automatically associates you with rapists and their apologists. Understandable, but counterproductive.
posted by ernielundquist at 9:27 AM on August 11 [3 favorites]


Should a stranger in a bar getting someone else drunk to lower their defenses be considered rape?

Getting someone intoxicated so they won't resist your efforts to overpower them? If you are not a rapist, you are walking that line so closely that you are skeevy and frankly, I would not trust you not to just go ahead and cross that line even if the drunk person says "no."

Is that the same thing as an existing couple who have a couple of glasses of wine to get in the mood?

Presumably both parties want to have sex and are drinking for that purpose, so no.

What about other threats or coercion? Is blackmailing or threatening a young, vulnerable person into sex rape?

Yes it is. Threats are a clear indication that someone is attempting rape.

What about when your partner isn't in the mood because they're tired, and you offer to make dinner to get them in the mood?

If they know that's what you are doing, then no; "make me dinner so I'll be in the mood" is maybe a weird dynamic, but not rape. However, if you whine and say "but I made you dinner, come on. Reward me with sex." even after your partner has said no, it makes you kind of icky, yes.

In general, if you find yourself only doing nice things for your partner in order to pressure them into sex...because otherwise they don't want to have it with you...you are avoiding a real issue that needs communication or maybe therapy by using passive-aggression, coercion, and whining. Which may not make you a rapist, but does make you a less-than-admirable human being.

You can't make someone want to have sex with you; using various forms of pressure, disabling someone with intoxicants, or threatening them so that they will is ignoring their right to tell you "no" and have it be respected. It is not treating them as a person but as a thing for you to acquire and use. After all, if you care about someone, and they don't want to have sex, is it more respectful to whine and manipulate (or worse, threaten) or to talk to them and work on the problem together? Or end the relationship since it isn't working?

The view of sex as something that must be wheedled, deceived, or coerced from women is part of rape culture, because in all of that, the actual desires of the woman are completely disregarded.
posted by emjaybee at 9:55 AM on August 11 [5 favorites]


That's my point, emjaybee. I think most reasonable people agree where those specific lines would be drawn. But how do you codify that? How do you write it into law or teach it to middle school kids?

The answer is ideally going to be something like requiring explicit, enthusiastic, uncoerced consent from all parties who are capable of consenting. (That wording is sketchy. I need an editor. All parties have to be capable of consent first, obviously.)

But most people I think know that there are some exceptions to those guidelines. Some existing couples consensually play seduction games. Some even do rape play and BDSM and stuff like that, and they do that consensually too. Some couples have transactional approaches to various sex acts. And those do not technically fulfill the concrete and explict requirements that you'd have to outline to legally define consent.

Of course the goal is for everyone to treat other people as thinking, feeling human beings with agency and bodily autonomy. But there is no way to universally codify that intent in terms of concrete actions and behaviors.

Which isn't to say that consent doesn't need to be strictly codified into law or that kids shouldn't be taught that in sex ed classes. But it'd be great if somehow reasonable adults could just acknowledge and talk about the nuance of consent and how it manifests in real life situations.
posted by ernielundquist at 10:28 AM on August 11


Honestly, can someone point out when did "rape culture" start? I'm not talking about the use of the specific expression. I'm talking about the proposed phenomenon.
posted by huguini at 10:34 AM on August 11


Well, I am pretty old, and I distinctly remember seeing cartoons of cavemen dragging cavewomen by their hair from the time I was a little kid, so rape culture has been around since either at the dawn of human evolution or at least since the 60s.
posted by ernielundquist at 10:45 AM on August 11 [3 favorites]


And what would be the rape rate that would signal we're not living in a rape culture?
posted by huguini at 10:56 AM on August 11


huguini, this may not be your intent, but these questions feel kind of gotcha-y. What are the answers you're looking for here?
posted by KathrynT at 11:12 AM on August 11 [3 favorites]


Are you serious, huguini? Do you actually not know what rape culture is and the readily available Wikipedia article doesn't describe it sufficiently for you to understand?

Because rape culture is not measured by the rate of reported rapes in a culture. In fact, rape culture itself results in serious underreporting of rape, because it causes rape to be normalized and excused.

A genuine cultural shift away from rape apologetics would probably at least initially result in a spike in reported rapes.
posted by ernielundquist at 11:12 AM on August 11 [3 favorites]


I don't think we live in a rape culture. At least, no more than we live in a killing culture or a stealing culture. All of these are behaviors that we condone as a society. We don't have a "biggest robber/killer/rapists of the year" event. We teach children that raping, stealing and killing are bad. And, for each of these examples, statistics show that they're getting rarer by the year.

What I was trying to know is if rape culture is defined by rape statistics and when did it start. The answer I got was "rape culture exists since forever" and "there's no rape related statistic that could show rape culture doesn't exist".
posted by huguini at 11:36 AM on August 11


You have a poor understanding of rape culture. It's not defined by number of rapes per year. I'm happy to give you a 101-style quick explanation of what is actually meant by the term if you're interested in gaining understanding, but I'm wary because of previous experiences. Let me know.
posted by KathrynT at 11:50 AM on August 11


We teach children that raping, stealing and killing are bad.

And yet, only one of those regularly involves groups or or even entire communities (including law enforcement, political and judicial institutions, and "respectable leading citizens") defending the accused based entirely on the alleged motive or status of the accuser. When someone breaks into a house and steals a TV, it's almost never said that the owner deserved it because the TV was expensive, or that they had bought a TV every month, or that they lived in a bad area. When someone is murdered, there usually isn't a rush to wonder what the victim was wearing or how much they had to drink or how many people were upset with them. Rape culture is largely based on people accepting that sexual violence was either earned or fabricated outright out of proportion to what actually happens. That this is a widespread phenomenon in many cultures and countries, including the US, isn't a myth.
posted by zombieflanders at 12:00 PM on August 11 [2 favorites]


Truth is, if you've been robbed, police will ask you if you had your door locked or if you forgot to close any window. If you're attacked, police will ask you if you provoked the attacker and what happened before the attack. Victim blaming this is not.
posted by huguini at 12:05 PM on August 11


Yeah, you're not doing yourself any favors with that analogy. It should be extremely obvious that what the police ask you when discussing a crime and what large sections of society blame you for are not remotely the same thing.
posted by zombieflanders at 12:12 PM on August 11


And I will shut up and stop harping on this soon, but that kind of illustrates the problem.

I believe that there really are people who are confused about some of the finer points of things like this. Rape culture, the spectrum of consenting adult relationships, things like that. They're not easy concepts to grasp, and they can't always be understood in the concrete grade school terms that many people want. They are often contextual, and to really fully understand them,

But when someone questions something or tries to discuss it in good faith, they run a very strong risk of being associated with people who coopt those discussions in bad faith.

So in terms of consent, most of us know that getting a squishy no to a request for sex is a very different thing in the context of a longterm, respectful, adult relationship vs. between strangers in a bar. If you're in a relationship where both parties are safe and comfortable saying no, saying you're not in the mood for that might be negotiable if the other person does something to change that mood. In a bar, with a stranger, an answer like that is frequently motivated by fear of how the other person might respond to rejection. But if you quantify that in concrete, legalistic terms, those two very different cases might sound identical. And most of the time, it's a good idea to keep those discussions concrete and quantifiable, but I think most adults who've been in real life relationships know that consenting adults don't always explicitly do the enthusiastic consent thing. But maintaining that polite fiction is important when you're talking to someone who is either extremely naive or who is approaching it from a hostile perspective.

In terms of rape culture, too, most of the time, people who ask for explanations are doing so in bad faith, because they've already made up their minds and are just looking for someone to argue with about it.

But those questions can also arise in good faith. Some people really are fuzzy on what constitutes rape culture. It is a pretty grown-up concept. I've talked to a few people who were genuinely confused and didn't understand that saying something was a part of rape culture didn't mean that thing itself constitutes rape. (I'm 90% sure that the strawman of 'feminists crying rape when you look at them sideways' at least initially arises from this misunderstanding.)

So here is a good faith example of rape culture that I think should be pretty easy to understand. The internet is full of porn of all stripes, much of it at no cost. Whatever your kink, you can probably find porn of it.

And yet, not all that long ago, on Reddit, one of the most trafficked forums on the internet, one of the highest trafficked subreddits was dedicated to nonconsensually sexualizing women. It was covertly taken photos of women's (and girls') bodies. Shots of their butts, upskirts, downshirts, things like that. I looked at that subreddit back when it was in the news just to see for myself, and right in the sidebar were rules prohibiting staged shots. That subreddit, and a large part of reddit as a whole, actually actively and intentionally fetishized non-consent. If the subject of the photo was OK with them looking, they didn't want to see it.

That's rape culture right there. Does it make more sense to you now?
posted by ernielundquist at 12:19 PM on August 11 [8 favorites]


But most people I think know that there are some exceptions to those guidelines. Some existing couples consensually play seduction games. Some even do rape play and BDSM and stuff like that, and they do that consensually too. Some couples have transactional approaches to various sex acts. And those do not technically fulfill the concrete and explict requirements that you'd have to outline to legally define consent.

I think that people who actually do play transactional games, BDSM, etc. will tell you that there are, in fact, rules for consent. There are safewords. There is discussion beforehand about what a person likes or doesn't like, along with the ability at any point to say "I don't want to continue."

That is not an "exception" that is actually following the guidelines for consent quite explicitly. But there are many folks on the Blue who know more about that community than I do, so I will defer to them.
posted by emjaybee at 12:58 PM on August 11 [1 favorite]


And yet, only one of those regularly involves groups or or even entire communities (including law enforcement, political and judicial institutions, and "respectable leading citizens") defending the accused based entirely on the alleged motive or status of the accuser

Unless of course the accuser/murder victim is a young black male, but otherwise I agree with you.
posted by jeather at 1:01 PM on August 11


It's completely different to talk about a sub-reddit and to say that society as a whole is ok with rape. There are a lot of fucked up guys with sexual perversions and there are also a lot of guys who catcall women on the street. These two groups probably even have some overlap. But going from the actions of a small part of society and arguing that the majority validates or stands for the actions of those groups is, IMO, dishonest.
posted by huguini at 1:19 PM on August 11


The point about rape culture is that in our culture, behavior like that is normal. It is normalized, it is considered OK. I got grabbed on the street by a stranger in full daylight because I wouldn't smile at him, and nobody around me raised a fuss, because that is normal, it's OK. It is normal for women to be treated like their bodies are a public resource, it is normal for a woman's appearance to be available for public critique, it's perfectly normal for women to have to worry about their safety when they leave the house alone. That's part of our culture. That's what makes this a rape culture.
posted by KathrynT at 1:45 PM on August 11 [3 favorites]


[The "does rape culture really exist?" derail can stop now, thanks.]
posted by restless_nomad at 1:58 PM on August 11 [2 favorites]


That is not an "exception" that is actually following the guidelines for consent quite explicitly. But there are many folks on the Blue who know more about that community than I do, so I will defer to them.

Right. And those explicit instructions are very clearly defined at the beginning. Some aren't, though. There are consenting adult couples who are less explicit about the rules of their sexual play, too, where "no" might not mean no unless accompanied by some further elaboration, or where some degree of transactional sex is mutually OK. I might think it's weird for someone to trade a sex act for chores, or to negotiate a sex schedule if they have different drives, but I'm pretty sure some people do that sort of thing in the context of a healthy, mutually respectful relationship, and that's none of my business. I would never say "Aww, come on!" to a sexual partner who said he didn't feel like having sex, but I know that some other couples seem to be mutually OK with that sort of thing. As long as they have a firm foundation in being comfortable with saying no to each other without repercussions, if they want to negotiate, no big deal. The reason that begging and negotiating aren't OK in other contexts is because that foundational trust and respect aren't there.

I fully understand that just by using the term 'gray area' or broaching the nuances of consent in real life adult relationships, I'm using some of the terminology that's been coopted by rape apologists. I just think it sucks that we are all so used to rape apologetics that it's become nearly impossible to answer people's honest questions about it.

And that's the reason I think it's important to be able to acknowledge those nuances. There are some people out there who really do get confused by out of context prescriptivist views of relationships. They see people advocating explicit and enthusiastic consent every time, but they know they've been in consensual relationships where consent was clear, but not always explicit. That can be confusing to them if you don't acknowledge that these are guidelines that might not be applicable in every context. That, yeah, strict, explicit, enthusiastic consent might not be totally relevant to you and your sexual partner, but it is very important to teach those rules to your children.

Ultimately, I understand that some people seem to require a very bright line in understanding consent, and that much (most) of the time, when someone starts talking about nuance and gray areas surrounding consent, they're being disingenuous. They're trying to drive a wedge in to excuse inexcusable things. But I think it is important not to allow a hostile audience to control what we talk about. They're not going to change their minds. We need to be able to address the people who are trying to understand these things in good faith.
posted by ernielundquist at 2:41 PM on August 11


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