THE BLOG
05/10/2016 10:55 am ET Updated May 11, 2017

Rape Is About Sex, And We Need To Stop Saying It's Not

Arman Zhenikeyev - professional photographer from Kazakhstan via Getty Images

In an episode of Law and Order SVU, Detective Olivia Benson declares, "Rape is not about sex. Rape is about power and control." This was the first time I encountered the "rape is not about sex" argument, and I would encounter it again and again throughout college, when I found myself caught in the middle of a firestorm over sexual assaults on campus at the University of Virginia.

As much as I still admire Olivia Benson for her dedication to getting justice for rape victims, I've come to conclude, through both my education and my personal experience, that the "rape is not about sex" claim is not only nonsensical, it is damaging.

The most glaring question is this: If rape were only about power and not about sex, why does the rapist engage in a sexual act? Why not acquire power some other way?

I think the idea that rape is not about sex grew out of the political movement to end rape. To say that rape is not about sex makes the issue more palatable for policy makers who are so hesitant to get involved in people's private lives. It shuts down critics who say colleges want to regulate sexual intimacy when they write policies defining what consent is. It placates men who worry that feminists want to label all men rapists; "Relax, you're not a rapist if you want sex, you're only a rapist if you want power."

That is, at least, what the power theory aims to do. I'm not sure whether it's been successful. But no matter how much success it's had bringing rape into public discourse, it needs to die, because it's inhibiting any meaningful discussion about why rape is so prevalent in our society.

I mentioned Riane Eisler's book, Sacred Pleasure, in my last blog post, and I'm going to use it again here because it's relevant to this argument as well. Eisler argues that all of the world's problems are caused by one societal failure: we value dominance rather than partnership. The earliest human societies lived by a partnership model, where men and women were equals, violence was rare, and sex was worshipped. This was replaced by the dominance model, which enforces a hierarchy ruled by white men, encourages violence, and demonizes sex.

In a partnership society, sex is a sacred act. Sex is holy for its reproductive power and its power to bring pleasure. The sharing of sexual pleasure reduces the need for violence.

In a dominance society, it is unacceptable for women to get any pleasure from sex, and sex (rape) is used as a tool to maintain power over women.

As I discussed in my blog post on the myth of virginity, video games, movies, television and especially pornography teach men (and sometimes women) to experience power in sexual arousal and sexual arousal in power. Why do we, as a society, define sex as penetrative vaginal sex and everything else as foreplay? Why do we teach girls that penetrative sex will hurt? We do this because in penetration there is power; there is dominance.

Rapists want power and sex because in sex there is power.

In the movement against sexual violence, it might seem easiest to draw a nice clean line in the sand and put sex on one side and rape on the other. There is either consent or there is not consent; there is no in-between. But as I've seen bloggers point out, there is, in fact, a blurry middle on this spectrum. Nobody likes that blurry middle. Anti-rape activists who work on policy don't like it because it poses too many "what if" objections to their proposals. Men don't like it because it makes them worry about whether they've ever violated a woman without knowing it. Survivors don't like it because it makes trauma recovery all the more confounding. It is much easier to label rapists a specific kind of men which are in a class by themselves, rather than admit that rape is an act which everyone is capable of.

But that blurry middle is not going to go away just because we want it to. It is here to stay as long as we continue to accept power dynamics as a "natural" part of our sexual relationships. It is difficult to establish consent when the decision to give it is made in the context of power. There may not be a gun or a knife wielded, there may not be a toxin clouding judgment, but power is still written into the script of our society, and sometimes, it is difficult to tell whether we are speaking from our hearts or reading pre-written lines.

I say this not to argue that it is impossible to give consent. I say it to acknowledge that people can be traumatized by situations in which the so-called legal definition of consent may have been given. We can fight sexual violence with legal reforms -- better definitions of crimes, better police training, better access to victim's advocates and rape crisis counselors -- but these measures will not eradicate sexual violence on their own. At some point, we need to get to the heart of this issue: dominance.

Imagine we lived in a partnership society, one which does not teach girls that they are "ruined" once they "lose their virginity"; one which does not teach boys that having sex is like a conquest; one which does not teach children that hitting and pulling braids is an acceptable way to show romantic interest. What if, instead, we lived in a world that valued consent not just as a legal term, but as a means of forming relationships with each other? What if we lived in a world where sex was sacred, because of its infinite capacity to bring us pleasure, closeness, and happiness?

There are important changes that will take place in capitols and in courtrooms, but the most important changes will take place in our hearts, and in the lessons we pass on to our children.