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Rape is about power and not sex, or is it?

by Marc

(Disclaimer: as a heterosexual male who has never been sexually assaulted, I write this piece not to take away the voices of women and some men who have been sexually assaulted. I can never truly testify on the mentalities of those who have been sexually assaulted, but from my academic backgrounds, along with my work, and the many women in my life who are survivors of sexual assault, this piece attempts to start a conversation I feel needs engagement, for the sake of our movement. I write as neither an authority nor a mouthpiece – but rather, a conversation starter. What are your thoughts?)

It’s a cliché I’ve heard way too many times – in women’s studies classrooms, in the feminist movement, and more than ever, from the mouths of allies who might not have had the feminist education the majority of my friends and readers have had.

“Rape is about power and not sex,” someone would say, without following up with any explanation. While I am grateful for all types of allies, such rhetoric, and such phrases that so easily roll of the tongue, prevents the feminist movement from doing two things – one, acknowledge the sources of rape and sexual assaults, and more importantly, find new ways in which to end rape and sexual assaults.

Time and time again, sexual assaults, whether used against a child, in cases of date rape or as a way to wage warfare, the issue isn’t about the perpetrator doing so to achieve power. Such perpetrators, in these various cases, which are most common in instances of rape, already have the power. Rape, then, is about using said power to achieve sexual satisfaction or political and military objectives.
Whether it’s an adult assaulting a child in cases of molestations or statutory rape, the power of age, experience and maturity are most certainly involved, but in the end, it is about the adult using such power to achieve sex.

This, too, applies in cases of people in powerful positions – whether bosses, clergy members or teachers, using their positions of power to achieve sex; in cases of date rape, it is the perpetrator’s use of male power, as dictated by patriarchy, or physical power, or the power of being sober over someone who is not, to achieve sex; in cases of sexual assaults of trafficked sex workers, economic autonomies and national identities, both used as power over someone with less, are used to achieve sex. So, yes, rape in all these cases, involve the discrepancies of power between the parties involve, but power itself isn’t the driving forces for sexual assaults – but rather, used as a means for sexual assaults.

Rape, then, involves misplaced and wrongly used power, rather than about power itself. Further, to say that rape is about power and not sex means that the use of all power is bad – when, in fact, it is power that has given rape survivors the voice to fight for justice. At the same time, it is also male power – given as a birthright to men – that can be used by male allies to change rape culture.
More than anything else, to say that rape is about power and that sex has absolutely nothing to do with it, ignores the nightmares of the millions of rape survivors who, because of sexual assaults and rape, have been sentenced to a life of fear of sexually intimate situations – a beautiful and satisfying experience that, if anyone chooses to, should have full access without being deterred because of having been raped. Yet, this happens every day with many rape survivors – both those in my life and those whose stories have been told and re-told.

Many survivors, and especially survivors of sexual assaults in Global South nations – both through sex trafficking and “traditional” means of assault – suffer not only from the emotional trauma of rape, but also carry with them the physical burdens of rape, through AIDS and other physical ailments that sometimes not only affect their sex lives and sexuality, but also their reproductive capabilities and choices. How, then, can we say rape and sexual assaults aren’t about sex – at the very – least for the survivors?

While I readily admit that in many cases, sexual assaults – at least from the survivors’ perspectives, is about having power taken away from them – but such power is the power to decide on one’s sexuality – the power to deny or allow sexual access by someone else. The issue of power is most certainly there – but to ignore sexuality is to equate rape and sexual assaults to other forms of assaults is to, and while other types of assaults ought to get just as much attention – soften the impact of sexual assaults and rape.

Lastly, making sexual assaults and rape about power, rather than sexuality, takes away from the all-important piece of many sexual assault cases and a conversation feminists have, for many decades, have tried to engage in. That sexual assaults is an epidemic that, for the most part, a men-on-women – and in many cases – men-on-men crime, is a fact no serious feminist denies. To make such crimes to be merely about power, then, is to ignore social constructions of male sexuality and hypermasculinity cultures that often contribute to rape. In the end, if rape and sexual assaults are truly about power, then it stands to reason that as women gain power within a society, rape is less likely to occur. Yet, study after study show that, in fact, the opposite is true – that as women gain freedom and power, the backlash of having the freedom to make decisions is men being unhappy with those decisions, and ignoring the power given to women. The construction of sexual assaults as a matter of power and not sex ignores the an undeniable fact that sexual assaults and rape happen across all social classes and barriers – that women of the Global North are just as likely to be raped and sexually assaulted as women of the Global South, though the methods and nature of those rapes and assaults might be different.

In the end, while I am glad and appreciative that many groups of progressives are coming together to fight the sexual assaults epidemic, it is time we start focusing on the constructions of sexuality – rather than power, as the key to ending rape. It is time to end the cheap rhetoric of bumper stickers and one-liners of “Rape Is About Power and Not Sex,” and truly talk about and work out and deconstruct the reasons rape and sexual assaults take place.

Until we do so, until we call out our allies and partners for harboring views that are both untrue and do not move forward the movement to end sexual assaults, the progress we make will be very little, and in the end, ignores the many, many women whose lives have been hurt not by power, but the constructions of sexuality.

editor note: Marc is a soldier in the United States Army.

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