Rape is Not (Only) About Power; It’s (Also) About Sex

The dominant cultural narrative about rape is at odds with the facts.

Posted Feb 01, 2016

Felice Ficherelli [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Source: Felice Ficherelli [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

One of the most important achievements of the feminist movement since the 1960s has been the change in how America views, and treats, rape. Feminist consciousness raising, insightful theorizing, and dogged advocacy have led to vast improvements in how rape survivors are treated by police, the courts, and the media. The movement has helped put the lie to the notion that rape victims are somehow to blame for the crime. The problem of rape is no longer laughed off, ignored, or denied by the institutions of culture.

Feminist scholarship has also changed the way rape is explained. Prior to the movement’s rise in the 60s and 70s rape was considered to be largely about sex. Feminist scholarship proposed instead that rape was about the assertion of male power over women. The event that ushered in this paradigm shift was the publication, in 1975, of Susan Brownmiller’s ‘Against Our Will,’ in which Brownmiller sought to reframe rape as a political issue: the embodiment, and enforcement tool, of patriarchal misogyny. “Rape,” Brownmiller wrote, “is not a crime of irrational, impulsive, uncontrollable lust, but is a deliberate, hostile, violent act of degradation and possession on the part of a would-be conqueror, designed to intimidate and inspire fear…” She wanted rape to be eliminated through socio-political change in the same way lynching, a once thriving practice, has been thus eliminated.

At the time, positioning rape as systemic cultural subjugation rather than mere individual violation was in line with the feminist credo that ‘the personal is political’ and served to highlight the profound social implications of rape and the pressing cultural problems of gender inequality and gender aggression. 

It did not take long for Brownmiller’s scholarly claim to morph into a galvanizing political battle cry (‘rape is about power, not sex’), which would over time calcify into popular dogma, finding frequent unquestioning expression in the media, becoming a staple of University assault prevention and education efforts and applied liberally to other kinds of sexual misbehavior, such as sexual harassment.

What this notion did well was to promote the causes of social justice and gender equality. What it did poorly was to explain rape.

Advocacy, of course, need not rely on science so long as it’s solely focused on values. I may value gender equality and champion it without needing scientific approval of my stance. One’s values are subjective, requiring no proof in evidence, and are beholden to no empirical facts.

But advocacy does run into trouble when it tries to claim the mettle of truth. If, for example, I advocate a position that ‘rape is not about sex,’ I am making a claim of truth, not of values (even if I’m doing so in service of my values). Discerning truth requires us to referee competing claims based on evidence, and for that we have only science.

Alas, unlike political advocacy—which seeks to influence people and institutions, hence preferring simple messages and strong, focused forward movement—science, seeking facts and a full understanding, tends to meander its way cautiously through the jagged and slippery terrain of nuance, caveat, complexity, and doubt. It moves slowly, often in multiple directions at once, and wanders up many dead-end alleys. Thus, advocacy will often lose its patience with science and end up misrepresenting, selectively using, or altogether ignoring and dismissing it. This, it now appears, is what happened to the ‘rape is not about sex’ notion.

Viewed dispassionately, the ‘rape is about power, not sex’ claim appears problematic on its face. First, human behavior is multiply determined. Meaningful human events have more than one reason, and are shaped by more than a single motive or force. Rape is a human event. It is motivated by more than one thing. Second, to claim that sex—one of our most powerful motives (our species’ existence depends on it, after all)—is somehow absent from an act that routinely involves erection, vaginal penetration, and ejaculation defies reason. Arguing that rape is not about sex is akin to asserting that gun violence is not about guns. Both claims betray an incomplete, and politicized, view.

Moreover, even if we frame rape as an assertion of patriarchal power, the question remains: asserting power to what end? As some feminist scholars have noted, the origins of the patriarchy itself may quite reasonably be traced to the male motivation to control female sexuality. If rape is a symbol of patriarchal ambition, than it symbolizes a sexual motive.

Current scholarship on rape further undermines the ‘rape is about power’ narrative.

For example, Richard Felson, professor of sociology and criminology at Penn State, and Richard Moran of Mount Holyoke College provided statistics showing that most rape victims are young women. Youth, of course, is strongly linked in the scientific literature to sexual attractiveness. One could counter that young women are targeted because they are vulnerable, naïve, or easier targets. But elderly women, and children, make even easier targets, yet they are not raped at the same high rates. Moreover, when cases of robbery (where control and power goals have already been satisfied) end in rape, the victims are mostly young women. “The evidence is substantial and it leads to a simple conclusion: most rapists force victims to have sex because they want sex,” the researchers assert.

In a recent, related study (2014), Felson and his colleague Patrick Cundiff (of Western Michigan University) looked at evidence based on almost 300,000 sexual assaults from the FBI’s National Incident-Based Reporting System. They found that, “the modal age of victims was 15 years, regardless of the age of the offender, the gender of the offender, or the gender of the victim.” Sexual assault, they conclude, “is as much an offense against young people as it is against women.” 

Is American patriarchy at war with young people? Not likely. Youth in this context is, in all likelihood, a proxy for sexual attractiveness. Young people are more often raped because they are more attractive. Sexually.

The researcher Rachel Jewkes of the University of the Witwatersrand and her colleagues (2010) have looked at some of the motives of rapists. A random sample of men (ages 18–49) from the general population of the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal were asked anonymously about their rape perpetration practices, motivations, and consequences. “Asked about motivations, men indicated that rape most commonly stemmed from a sense of sexual entitlement, and it was often an act of bored men… seeking entertainment. Rape was often also a punishment directed against girlfriends and other women, and alcohol was often part of the context.” 

In addition, laboratory research has consistently shown that rapists differ from nonrapists in their patterns of sexual arousal. Rapists show higher erectile response to hearing scenarios of nonconsenting sex. This fact does not exclude the possibility that the rapists are responding to the implied violence in the nonconsent scenario, rather than to the sex. However, research has shown that rapists do not differ from nonrapists in response to scenarios of non-sexual violence. For example, in 2012, Canadian researcher Grant Harris and colleagues summarized the research on rapists’ sexual responses thus: “Violence and injury without sexual activity do not usually produce much erectile responding among rapists.”

In other words, rapists have a unique taste for nonconsensual sex rather than for nonconsensual violence per se.

Contemporary feminist scholars, alert to the limitations of the ‘rape is about power’ dogma, have also risen to the challenge of providing a more nuanced, empirically based and hence useful understanding of rape. For example, a recent paper by Beverly McPhail of the University of Houston seeks to knit together several feminist theories of rape into a new comprehensive model. In a useful and poignant reminder that the political is personal, she notes that rape is both “a political, aggregate act whereby men as a group dominate and control women as a group,” and “a very personal, intimate act in which the body of a singular person is violated by another person(s).” Rape, she asserts further, “occurs due to multiple motives rather than the single motivation... The multiple motivations include, but are not limited to, sexual gratification, revenge, recreation, power/control, and attempts to achieve or perform masculinity.” 

Not a catchy political slogan, one concedes, but much closer to the truth.