Richard Dawkins, rape being rape, and missing the point

Recently I was reading a piece on recent controversies surrounding Richard Dawkins, including the recent tweet on rape that got him into a bit of hot water, and it finally clicked for me just why I was so bothered by the comment.

For those who aren’t familiar, the tweet:

And a quote from the SoJo post, from philosopher Daniel Dennett expanding on why he agreed with the tweet and Dawkins’s subsequent defense of it:

“I thought Richard’s responses were right on target. If some radical feminists (and others) think that all rape is equally bad, do they think it is not quite as bad as murder? If so, are they condoning rape? And if they think rape and murder are equally bad, they really have lost their bearings and do not deserve our attention. Richard has been immensely important.

Now, I’m not against the idea that some rape is worse than other rapes, much less that murder is worse than rape. In principle, at least. We need to sort out what we mean by worse. Whether it’s some kind of harm done or the objective value of the thing destroyed or taken, or what exactly. I’m not convinced stranger-rape is more harmful than acquaintance-rape, because the second involves a sense of betrayal the first doesn’t which seems like it would be horrific. (Consider the psychological effects of domestic violence to, e.g., being mugged on the street.) And I can certainly imagine situations where a rape victim suffers more than a murder victim, perhaps even loses more potential for future happiness. But I’m not against saying some crimes and assaults are worse than others, either under the category of rape or more generally.

The thing is, that’s not really the point is it? Because I’m hard-pressed to think of anyone who would disagree with that. “Radical feminists (and others)” don’t say that all rapes are equally bad; they say that all rapes are equally rape. And while I’ve not always been overly impressed with Dawkins’s ability for clear and concise thought, Dennett is a philosopher. I’ve read his work, and I know he’s not prone to charging after strawmen. He can do better.

Imagine two people. Mary is a college student who has rufanol slipped into her drink at a party and wakes up with the world’s worst headache (but no memory) of the night before. She discovers semen stains on her clothes and works out she was probably raped, but has no specific memory of that night. Compare that to Jaime, a pickpocket who is gangraped while in prison. Jaime is fully aware of everyone who raped him, knows their names but cannot safely tell the authorities because he fears for his safety and what their friends will do to his family if he talks. Instead he spends the next six months sleeping in the same room with his abusers. He thinks it’s his fault because he was in jail in the first place, and because he climaxed during the rape he’s scared to death he might be gay. (Not that being gay is bad, but let’s assume Jaime thinks so.)

Now we could talk about which one of these people had it worse. My money would be on Jaime, going just off these facts, partly because he suffered greater physical harm and partly because he can’t get away from his rapists, but maybe not; Mary wouldn’t know who her rapists were so she may not feel safe, she might face much more psychological pressure to be extremely “safe” in everything she does. Which of course just isn’t possible. But here’s the thing: if one rape did more harm than the other, it’s something other than the rape itself that is causing the extra harm that makes one or the other worse. Mary and Jaime are both equally raped, their rapes are both equally horrible and inexcusable, and if one is worse than the other it’s because one caused more psychological trauma, more trust issues or nightmares over remembering the event, or because one would involve sizeable physical damage while the other wouldn’t, or because there are things about society or the person’s psychological makeup that makes what happened to them harder to bear up under, or something like that. Both were equally raped, both were equally violated.

Rape is rape, as they say. Not “All rape is equally harmful” or “All rapists should receive the same jail time,” but “Rape is rape” – the rape itself is equally bad (though that word hardly seems sufficient), whether you’re raped at knifepoint or by the ex-boyfriend you’re too in shock to knee in the groin and run away from.

To me at least, that distinction seems to make all the difference.

One Comment

  • Posted August 17, 2014 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

    Very well said.

    The tweet about rape drips with the privilege of someone who has never had to worry about rape as a realistic thing that could happen to him. It would have been more accurately phrased as “how I picture date rape is not as bad as how I picture stranger rape”, but then it would have been more apparent that his statement revealed far more about how he sees the world than it did about any particular truth to how the world works. It gets turned from simply being privileged and ignorant into something actively harmful both because of Dawkins’s own history of denigrating the lived experience of American women and, more importantly, because attempting to de-legitimise certain types of rape as somehow not counting as much as other rapes count is a thing that has happened very prominently in our public discourse in the recent past.

    The Dennett quote suffers from exactly the same ignorance-borne-of-privilege, I think. In attempting to draw the analogy with “rape” as a whole and murder, he uncritically accepts Dawkins’s assumption that acquaintance rape is automatically less violent and less traumatic than stranger rape. The two men act like (and, I think, genuinely believe) that they’re being attacked for saying that one rape can be worse/more violent/more traumatic than another, but they’re not; they’re being attacked for saying that knowing your rapist intuitively makes the the rape better than not knowing him would have. (Also, with the phrase “at knifepoint”, Dawkins appears to be saying that stranger rape involves an element of violence that acquaintance rape somehow doesn’t.)

    And then, of course, there’s the point you make in your last two paragraphs: even if we do accept that one rape is somehow better than another, it’s still rape. The victim who had the better rape still got raped. Attempting to minimise what you did by thinking of it as date rape doesn’t change that you’re still just as much of a rapist as some masked man lurking in an alley.

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