When I write about sexual assault on this site, particularly when I talk about the difficulty in combatting sexual assault, one comment recurs over and over:
“Nobody supports rape.”
Sometimes it’s phrased more delicately than that, sometimes not. But the basic idea is the same — that the ideas of rape culture and rape apologism are ridiculous. Everyone’s against rape. Everyone agrees that rape is bad.
But of course it’s not true.
For starters, of course, there’s the fact that rapists exist in society, most of them unpunished. They’re not against rape. And while estimates of how many rapists are out there vary, it’s clear that they’re not all that rare. We know them. We may not know we know them, but we know them. If you’re talking about rape in public — in a classroom, at a speech, in a crowd, at a rally — there’s a strong chance that some of the people you’re talking to are rapists, and that others are survivors of rape. (This is something worth thinking about when we’re talking about rape jokes — the rapists in the audience. Are they laughing?)
Rapists aren’t the people I wanted to talk about today, though. I wanted to talk about the people who aren’t rapists who are pro-rape.
Because these comments threads that are full of people saying that nobody supports rape? Are also full of people supporting rape. They never say that’s what they’re doing, because in principle, yes, we all agree that rape is wrong. But there’s no other way to describe it.
Take Dr. Ruth Westheimer, the sex-advice icon. Just moments ago she tweeted that she’s “100% against rape.” Why did she feel the need to say that? Because in an interview yesterday she criticized campuses for saying that after two people are in bed together naked, a woman can still say “I changed my mind.”
This wasn’t a slip of the tongue. That’s a direct quote, and she followed it by saying that “no such thing is possible … I don’t agree with that.” She even went back and said it again later in the show.
Today on Twitter she’s saying that it’s “risky behavior” to be naked in bed with someone you don’t want to have sex with, and that’s bad enough. But what she said yesterday was far worse — that if you are naked in bed with someone, and you wanted to have sex but now you don’t, you’re not entitled to change your mind. Why? Because “when he is very aroused, strong erection, when she’s very aroused, either he or she cannot change their mind.”
To say that a man with an erection can’t stop himself is a lie, obviously. It’s an insult, clearly. But it’s also an explicit and direct defense of rape.
Update | Perhaps the clearest, strongest rebuttal to what Dr. Ruth said yesterday and today comes from Dr. Ruth herself. Here’s an excerpt from the “Consent” entry in her Family Encyclopedia of Sex, published in 1994:
“You have the right to refuse any type of sexual contact at any time or place and at any stage in a relationship, regardless of the level of arousal that may exist in a would-be partner. There is no such thing as a point of no return, a point at which one no longer has the right to decide what will be done to one’s body. ‘No’ means No.”
“This may be a difficult concept for some to accept when a woman voluntarily places herself in a situation in which she fears she can be seen to be “asking for it.” In such a situation it may be helpful to acknowledge that a partner is entitled to some frustration or even anger at being told “no.” One’s partner has a right to his or her own feelings. But their rights stop where their partner’s personal space begins. While we all have the right to express disappointment, we do not always have a right to impose our will, and sexual intercourse is one of those situations. ‘No’ means No.”
No means no. Period. It’s not complicated.
June 4 Update | Asked for comment on the recent controversy in an interview with the Washington Post, Westheimer gave a clear, unambiguous defense of her anti-choice position.