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Chloe Angyal Headshot

Sex and Power, From North Carolina to Congo

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Last weekend in Hickory, North Carolina, a man was arrested and charged with raping a woman. According to Charlotte's Channel 9 News, the forty-one-year-old man was charged with first-degree kidnapping, first-degree rape and assault with a deadly weapon. Why assault with a deadly weapon? Because after he raped the woman, he used a box cutter to carve the word "Mine" into her stomach.

Rape is not about sex. Rape is about power. Rape isn't about a man getting carried away with passion and desire. As this case makes gruesomely clear, rape isn't about sexual attraction at all, but about controlling the victim and removing their autonomy and humanity.

In the summer of 2008, the United Nations, recognizing the connection between rape and power, officially declared rape to be a weapon of war. Given that raping and pillaging has been a common and successful battle strategy for centuries, the declaration was long overdue. In the summer of 2009, a sudden spike in the number of reported male rape victims seeking medical attention at hospitals in Eastern Congo served as a chilling example of just how that weapon is deployed.

The reports out of Congo also demonstrated, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the connection between rape and power, and the complete lack of connection between rape and sex. As one aid worker quoted in the Times article noted at the time, the goal of systematic rape is to humiliate and demoralize the population one person at a time. Violating the bodily integrity of their victims, the perpetrators leave them feeling vulnerable and hopeless, unable to fight back against the violent rebel forces at work in their war-stricken country.

The rape case in North Carolina, while not part of a systematic campaign, is no less a matter of power and control. The fact that the rapist quite literally spelled out his desire to dehumanize and possess his victim makes this case particularly appalling, but in all other respects, this rape not so different from any of the other 248, 300 rapes that occur in the United States every year. Just like in those cases, sexual desire was not a factor.

It's easy to imagine that rape is a matter of sexual over-excitement, that men who rape simply get carried away and that they're unable to contain their attraction. This narrative allows us to blame women when they're raped, to tell them that they shouldn't have been walking alone in that part of town or wearing that skirt or drinking that drink. Imagining that rape is the result of sexual attraction allows us to brush off rape victims' accusations, to tell women that they ought to take attempted rape as a compliment. Pretending that rape is about sex allows us to shake our heads and sigh to ourselves, and to each other, that boys will be boys. They're just so sexually excitable, you see. Sometimes they get carried away.

But that's not what happened in North Carolina last weekend, and it's not what was happening in the Congo last summer. What happened in both those cases - what happens in all rape cases - was assault. Too often when we talk about rape, we focus on the sexual and ignore the assault. If rape were about sexual attraction, the increase in the number of male gang rape victims in the Congo would not have coincided with an increase in the number of men being castrated by the same militia members. If rape were about sexual attraction, Keith Alan Campbell, the rapist in the North Carolina case, would not have felt the need to mark his victim as his possession after he raped her.

When we forget that rape is about power, when we choose instead to imagine that it is about sex, we make a terrible mistake. It's a mistake that worms into every aspect of how we deal with the phenomenon of rape. It affects how we think about and talk about rape, perniciously affecting how we treat rape victims, how we prosecute rapists and how we try to prevent future rapes from occurring. When we imagine that rape is about sex, we forget that sex can be a beautiful, pleasurable, transcendent experience. Rape, on the other hand, can never be anything but a crime.