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:
- The presence of aggravating factors–particularly severe violence–is limited to or found largely in stranger rapes.
- 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.