The Sheltered Middle Class and Upper Class View of Acquaintance Rape   8 comments

So British Justice Secretary Ken Clarke has gotten himself immersed in some hot water by suggesting that “date rape” is different from “serious rape.” The truth, of course, is that he was merely saying out loud what many people continue to believe: Serious rapes are stranger rapes; when the victim knows the perpetrator in some capacity, that automatically makes the rape less serious.

Even feminists are not always immune to the misconception that stranger rapes and acquaintance rapes are fundamentally different. I’ve seen feminist bloggers conflate date rape and non-forcible rape and claim that acquaintance rapists lack “any obvious malicious intent.” And then there was the argument I got into with a couple of self-identified feminists on another blog who felt very strongly that a rapist’s relationship to the victim provides meaningful information about how dangerous he is and the “severity” of the rape, by which they meant the level of violence used, the injuries inflicted on the victim, and the likelihood of the victim being tortured (aside from the rape itself) or killed. They argued that stranger rapists are more dangerous and stranger rapes more serious and that feminists who insist on treating stranger rapes no different from acquaintance rapes are doing women a disservice. Because, you see, the reason the “most dangerous rapists” aren’t getting longer prison sentences is that misguided feminists have convinced the public that all rapes are the same and stranger rapes are no more serious than acquaintance rapes. And that’s obviously very bad because everyone knows that acquaintance rape isn’t very serious at all.

Of course there can be aggravating factors in rape just like in other felonies. What that usually means in the context of rape is the commission of other crimes, so it’s not so much that one act of rape is “worse” than another, but that some rape victims suffer additional violations such as kidnapping, imprisonment, drugging, battery, torture, mutilation, death threats, and death. Multiple rapes and multiple assailants obviously also count as aggravating factors.

Where people routinely go wrong is in assuming that:

  1. The presence of aggravating factors–particularly severe violence–is limited to or found largely in stranger rapes.
  2. The absence of aggravating factors–particularly severe violence–automatically makes rape less traumatic for the victim.


Most rapes aren’t stranger rapes. Yet four out of five rape victims suffer from “chronic physical or psychological conditions” following the assault, and I’ve seen no evidence to suggest that less violent rapes are necessarily less traumatic. What I really want to discuss though is the widespread assumption that the “most dangerous rapists” (usually defined as assailants with “obvious malicious intent” who may gang rape, kill, torture, beat, or otherwise inflict grievous bodily harm on their victims) are almost always stranger rapists, because there’s usually a fair amount of class privilege wrapped up in that belief.

The reason most people think of acquaintance rapes as less serious than stranger rapes is that they can’t imagine themselves (or anyone like them) being acquainted with the type of person who would commit an act of severe violence with malice aforethought and no regard for the victim. That guy may be lurking OUT THERE somewhere, perhaps waiting in a parking garage or hiding in the bushes, ready to jump on the totally random woman unfortunate enough to cross his path, but he’s certainly not to be found in their circle of friends or acquaintances. Often, they’re very wrong about that. But the veneer of middle class (or upper class) respectability allows them to pretend that “decent people” simply wouldn’t be acquainted with someone like that. Therefore acquaintance rape is probably just based on a misunderstanding, or maybe someone was too intoxicated to comprehend what they were doing.

Poor and working class women forced to live in dangerous neighborhoods because that’s all we can afford often know damn well that there are violent criminals among our acquaintances and there’s little we can do about that. This is particularly true for girls who grow up in gang territory; it’s not unusual to be casually acquainted with a dozen or more extremely violent dudes even if you’re not involved with gangs yourself. And it’s important to point out here that while over two-thirds of all rapes are acquaintance rapes, nearly half of those acquaintance rapes are committed by a casual acquaintance, not someone the victim knows well. That dude covered in prison tattoos may not be my BFF, but yeah, we’re acquainted.

Whether prison tattoo dude is actually more likely to commit rape than the average frat boy is debatable. According to official rape recidivism statistics, the answer is a likely “yes.” The website of the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) states that “(r)apists are more likely to be a serial criminal than a serial rapist,” citing the fact that 46% of rapists released from prison were re-arrested within three years for a crime other than sexual assault. Then again, as I told a friend who is a federal prosecutor when he maintained that the guys committing rape are the same guys committing all the other crimes: “No, those are just the ones you manage to put away.”

My point here isn’t that guys committing other crimes, particularly violent ones, aren’t also committing rape. Based on my not inextensive experience with “criminal elements,” they absolutely are, especially the dudes involved in organized crime, which includes drug gangs and street gangs. Brutal gang rapes are a group bonding ritual for these guys and women are routinely treated like pieces of property. Doesn’t mean that every one of them is a rapist–I used to know a drug gang enforcer who was totally down with the enthusiastic consent thing–but the ones who aren’t are exceptions, and they don’t stand up to their rapey buddies. Of course that’s not so different from many college fraternities and other hyper masculine environments. Which is kinda the point: Gang members and other criminals are totally committing violent rapes and they frequently rape female acquaintances, but they’re not the only ones. There are plenty of “respectable” dudes who can be just as depraved and brutal.

The difference is that middle class and upper class folks have the luxury of pretending otherwise. Women who count numerous dudes with prison records among their neighbors and acquaintances and live in an environment of blatant in-your-face violence have no such illusions. We know, often based on experience, that being raped by an acquaintance is frequently no less violent–or potentially deadly–than being raped by a stranger. So it’s frustrating as hell when people act as if acquaintance rapes are somehow a less serious category of rape. Attempting to categorize rape is generally a bad idea, but it would be difficult to come up with categories more meaningless than the victim’s relationship–or lack thereof–with the perpetrator.

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8 responses to “The Sheltered Middle Class and Upper Class View of Acquaintance Rape

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  1. I’ve been sexually assaulted (not penetration type stuff) by strangers, and sexually assaulted (digital penetration) by my then-fiance, and I’m far more traumatised by the fact that someone I thought I was going to *marry* decided that my “no, not right now” just meant he wasn’t trying hard enough than I am by the guy who kept dry-humping me in a swimming pool (a wet dry-hump, ha!), or the guy who tried to reach into my crotch from behind on a subway platform, or or or…

    Does nobody who dismisses the severity of acquaintance rape ever think about the betrayal (of trust and other things) aspect? Or is it just about the assumption that physical violence is all that matters?

  2. To some degree, I think the problem is lodged in the whole “acquaintance” wording. There *is* a category of rapes that aren’t directly about in-your-face violence. But that isn’t the same category as “acquaintance rape”, which only categorizes by whether or not you know the person.

    (I’m no longer sure what “date rape” is even supposed to cover, actually.)

    But, likely for the very reasons you lay out, people have somehow moved “acquaintance rape” over into the “not by force” category.

  3. Interrobang, that’s a major point, too.

  4. Interrobang,

    Agree completely. I have a friend who has been raped twice in her life. The first time was a “classic” stranger rape: She was walking the three blocks from a neighborhood bar where she had met friends for drinks to her apartment like she’d done many times before, only this time she was attacked by a rapist. The second rape occurred several years later when she was attacked by her live-in boyfriend after they had an argument. She is not prepared to say that one rape was worse than the other. With the stranger rape, she was afraid for her life and that’s not a small thing, but being raped by her boyfriend shattered her ability to trust men–and herself–in a way the stranger rape didn’t. How could she have been so wrong about someone? And if a guy she loved and trusted could do such a thing, what reason did she have to believe that the next guy she hooked up with wouldn’t do the same?

    Then there were the reactions from friends. While there was victim blaming with the stranger rape as well (Why hadn’t she accepted a male friend’s offer to walk her home? How much did she have to drink?), at least no one made excuses for her rapist. When she was raped by her boyfriend, on the other hand, several people were ready to excuse what he’d done because he’d recently lost his job and “wasn’t himself.” One “friend” even felt she needed to take some responsibility for “what happened” because she had been “nagging” him about doing more cooking and cleaning while he was unemployed and she worked all day. Poor guy felt emasculated and “fought back” the only way he knew how!

    Like I said, people routinely do wrong in assuming that a not particularly violent rape committed by someone the victim knows is necessarily any less traumatic than a violent rape.

  5. LC,

    Exactly; some people attach a meaning to the term “acquaintance rape” that it simply doesn’t have. That became very clear to me when one of the women who was arguing that acquaintance rapes are a less serious type of rape insisted that my last rape hadn’t been an acquaintance rape after she heard the details. My rapist was a six-and-a-half foot psychopath with a prison record who liked to brag that he was born without a conscience and maintained that he didn’t care for guns because it “felt better” to kill someone with your bare hands. Nobody who knew him, myself included, was the least bit surprised about the rape, just like they wouldn’t have been surprised to hear that he had killed someone. The physical injuries I sustained during the attack took nearly six weeks to heal. BUT it most definitely was an acquaintance rape. We weren’t strangers and he raped me and that’s ALL the term means.

  6. [Trigger Warning]

    I always feel a certain shame when I talk about my experiences being raped. I am made to feel like I am “attention-seeking.” I tell myself that my experiences were not all that bad or that I was lucky that they weren’t worse because I knew the people or because they didn’t injure me or simply because I was sheltered somewhat by where I was raped. I have been raped four times. My first time was in middle school when a girl tricked me into being alone with her and tried to seduce and expose herself to me for hours upon hours. When I was in high school a boy in the locker room would expose himself to me and rub his penis in my face, taunting me to suck him off, while the other boys in the isle watched and laughed at me almost every day for a semester. When I was in junior college the first person I ever dated threatened me verbally while holding a knife and then forced me down against the mattress while she described to me, as I struggled, how much I “enjoyed” the experience. When I got to college I was emotionally and psychologically tortured by a psychopath who would seduce me and then twist it to cause me harm and tears for laughs.

    How do you explain this to people? How do you say “this is rape” when all people tell you are tales of back-alley predators and bloodied victims?

    How do you explain what it means to be raped by someone you trusted and *cared about*?! How do you explain the sexual torture that leaves you in tears but always makes you feel like it’s somehow your fault in the end? How do you explain to someone that you felt relieved when they told you that you didn’t have a right to say no because at least it was something you could put in your head to make it all REAL and make SENSE!?!

    How do you explain what it felt like being trapped alone in a house while a girl threw condoms at you and exposed herself? No, people like me are supposed to ENJOY seeing a girl’s tits.

    How do you explain being a seventeen year old on the floor of a locker room? I could have gotten up. There were witnesses. Nothing would have happened to me if I had just gone to the teacher no less than 20ft away. How do you convey the humiliation and the shame? How do you make people understand that what happened was still real?

    How do you talk about being threatened and pinned down? What will people think when they find out she ONLY pinned you down? How do you forgive yourself when you gave her head willingly after-the-fact? It couldn’t have hurt if I had been able to do that.

    How do you make sense of it all when you tell your friends about your rape–when you bring a witness who was there–only to have them tell you you’re being hysterical from a “nasty breakup” and that it’s all in your head. How do you make sense when they protect your rapist and nothing you say seems to make a difference?

    Anyway, I’m sorry about the length and the cathartic nature of my comment. I got a bit triggered and sometimes you have to talk about these things to work them out a bit and I can’t exactly post this on my own blog because, you know, how DO you communicate these things and not sound petty when everyone seems to think they know what “real rape” looks like?

    Thank you for writing this post, though.

  7. There’s absolutely no need to apologize, and I’m truly sorry you were triggered. There’s also no need to explain or justify what you did or didn’t do when someone else made the decision to sexually assault you. That said, given how people routinely respond to learning that someone they know was raped, it’s not surprising that so many victims spend years second-guessing their actions and beating themselves up over what they might have done differently instead of putting the focus where it belongs–on the choices and actions of the rapist.

    But that’s how it works in a rape culture: The rapist is just a fact of life, almost like a force of nature. As with a tornado, there’s nothing to be done except get out of the way. So instead of telling people not to rape, we tell people to avoid getting raped. Which–shock!–isn’t real effective as long as there are people out there committing rape.

    Unfortunately the reactions of your friends sound all too familiar. Most people have a very narrow view of what constitutes rape, particularly “serious” rape. And don’t even get me started on people’s ideas of what a “real” rape victim acts like.

  8. Great article. Very validating to what I am going through at the moment. Thanks!

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