I’m tired of news stories about rape. I am. But I hope we keep reporting on these assaults whenever they happen.
As we do, though, can we stop talking about how we need to teach our boys about consent? Of course, we do. We need to teach both boys and girls those lessons. Discussions of consent are healthy in sex education and self-respect. But rape isn't about consent.
And can we stop – as a local news station did yesterday – using headlines about “sex with children” to describe child rape? Because rape isn't about sex.
Rape isn’t simply sex minus consent. It isn’t.
The first time I was raped, I was confused. I couldn’t figure out what was happening. I just knew that I didn’t want what was happening.
Then I realized I knew the word for this: rape. By the time that clicked, it was over. I thought, “That was rape. That was sex. Things like this don’t happen to nice girls.”
I was right about one thing: it was rape.
I was wrong about others: Rape happens to nice girls all the time. And rape is not sex.
Sex isn’t just the logistical act of one person entering another’s body. Sex involves two parties. When a child is assaulted, we don’t say she had sex. No, we recognize that a child can’t be a willing party to that. By legal definition, consent isn’t possible from a minor or from someone with diminished mental functioning, due to disability, injury, or the influence of alcohol or drugs.
There is no such thing as non-consensual sex. Let me say that again. There is no. such. thing. as non-consensual sex. That, my friends, is rape. It is not sex.
The first time I had sex was on my honeymoon, the first time I chose and consented to that activity. No, Lee wasn’t the first man to enter my body. But before him, I hadn’t experienced sex; I had been raped.
Sex is about giving yourself to someone else. Rape is about taking. Sex is about intimacy. Rape is about violence. Sex is about two people sharing their bodies. Rape is about one person violating another.
We should teach children and youth about consent, but that’s just part of teaching them about their bodies. We tell them that no one gets to touch you without your permission. We say that to show respect to others, we don’t act entitled to anyone else’s body. If someone says you have to hug them, you can say no, even if it’s grandma. You control your body. If someone asks you to stop wrestling – even if you were both just roughhousing moments before – you stop. When the doctor checks out my kids’ privates during their annual physicals, she says each time, “Can I look under this sheet to take a look?” and waits for an answer, teaching this lesson in yet another way. We don’t access anyone else’s body without consent, and no one else gets to access ours without consent.
Consent is about respect. Consent is an important lesson. Consent matters.
But consent is separate from rape. Rape, by definition, involves a lack of consent. Rape rarely involves confusion about consent. The rapist either doesn’t care enough to confirm consent, or – more often – the rapist is exercising control over the other person’s body with the lack of consent being the whole point of the act.
For example, after the Stanford rape case, many spoke out about consent. I found that confusing. I don’t believe for a moment that this rapist thought that what he did in darkness behind a dumpster involved a willing party. The testimony of her rescuers on bicycles made that clear. In so many other cases, we talk about consent as if the sexual offender was simply confused. But rape isn’t a misunderstanding. It’s a crime.
When we turn discussions of rape into teachable moments about consent, we miss the point. Rape isn’t about consent. Rape isn’t a simple misunderstanding. Rape isn’t sex.
I haven’t always understood this. For a long time, I didn’t talk about my rapes. I first started processing them with others when I was engaged. Two women were among the first I told; I’ll call them A and B. A said, “I hate what he did to you. He took something special that was supposed to be sacred between you and Lee.” I told B about what A said, and she said no with firm tone to her voice. “No, Shannon. No. Don’t believe that. I hate what he did to you too, but what he did was rape. Loving sex between husband and wife is special and sacred and, well, awesome.” We were on the phone, but I could hear the blush in her voice. Sex wasn’t something she talked about often. I didn’t say anything, surprised by her pushback and candidness. B continued, “What he did wasn’t sex, Shannon. It was rape. What you’ll have with Lee can be different.”
And she was right, though it took a lot of therapy and healing for that to be possible. What happened on my honeymoon was so different than what happened so many years before that. Rape isn’t sex.
Stealing isn’t simply borrowing something without consent. No, it’s stealing. Murder isn’t simply taking a life without consent. No, it’s murder. Assault isn’t simply hurting someone without consent. No, it’s assault. When someone vandalizes someone else’s property, we don’t say they were breaking things or spray painting without consent. No, we call it vandalism. Even though each of these crimes involves lack of consent from the victim, we understand that consent isn’t the primary problem. The crime is.
Likewise, rape isn’t simply sex without consent. No, it’s rape.
I’m still tired of news stories about rape. But I’m hopeful that as we keep shining a light on the problem, we’ll learn to use more care with our words. Let’s frame rape as the problem here, not consent. And let’s call rape rape instead of wrongly framing it as sex.