You have to pinch yourself sometimes to remind yourself that it's 2012 and we still don't know how to talk about rape in this country. Who would have thought that after half a century of feminist activism -- and millennia of trying to understand the horrifying personal trauma of rape -- we'd be discussing it as if we hadn't a clue.
Okay, that's a not quite true. When I say "we" -- as in "we haven't a clue" -- that's a little vague. So let me clarify. When I say "we," I mean the half of the population to which I happen to belong. My gender. Men. Just consider the gender of each of these recent examples:
• In recent days, we've had a U.S. Congressman candidate draw distinctions that are so mind-numbingly wrongheaded and so politically reprehensible that even his own party is calling for him to drop out of his U.S. Senate race (where he is leading);
• In recent weeks, we've had one of the more curious debates about whether rape jokes can be funny;
• And over the past couple of years, the word "rape" has entered our vocabulary as a metaphor.
Each one reveals a fundamental misunderstanding about the singular horror of rape.
Todd Akin and "legitimate rape"
In trying to explain his opposition to abortion -- even in cases of rape -- Rep. Todd Akin observed that victims of "legitimate rape" cannot get pregnant because their bodies will shut down and prevent the sperm from fertilizing her egg. That is, he seems to believe that women's bodies have a kind of magical, or God-given, ability to distinguish lovers' sperm from rapists' sperm, and to "know" which ones should be allowed to fertilize the egg.
Of course, this reveals a spectacular ignorance of women's bodies -- but what else did you expect from a right-wing anti-woman legislator? (The fertility rate for rape victims is exactly the same 5 percent that it is for women who have consensual sex.) But what is so offensive is less what he says about women's bodies, and more what it implies about rape in the first place. By drawing attention to "legitimate" rape, Akin implies that "other" rapes are not legitimate -- i.e., not rapes at all. Legitimate rapes are the equivalent of what others call "real" rape -- a stranger, using force, preferably with a weapon, surprises the victim. All "other" rapes -- like date rape, marital rape, acquaintance rape, child rape, systematic rape by soldiers, rape as a form of ethnic cleansing (where the actual purpose is to impregnate) -- aren't really rapes at all. This would exclude, what, about 95 percent of all rapes worldwide?
By linking the criteria for labeling some assault as rape to the possibility of pregnancy, Akin in effect blames impregnated women's bodies for failing to slam that cervix door shut on those illegitimate sperm. Their bodies having failed them, why, then, he asks, should the state sanction a "murder" (abortion) that their own bodies didn't sanction? This isn't just lunacy on the scale of Monty Python's famous inquiry into the identity of witches, it's a consistent ideological position against women's conscious and deliberate ability to make conscious decisions about her body. The body speaks; women's voices are silenced.
Rape as Humor
Last month, the comedian Daniel Tosh attempted to silence a heckler at the Laugh Factory, saying, "Wouldn't it be funny if that girl got raped by, like, five guys right now? Like right now?" This has been a standard theme at comedy clubs for a while now. Hordes of fellow comedians jumped in to defend Tosh. Comedy, they argued, is designed to push the envelope, to make really tragic and horrible things funny.
Such claims are, of course, disingenuous. Have you heard the German comedian's "Two Jews walk into a bar" joke? Neither have I. How about the racist comedian joke about lynching? Only on White Supremacist websites (and never in a public club). The question isn't whether or not rape jokes "push the envelope." It's which envelope it's pushing, and in which direction.
Humor has often been a weapon of the weak, a way for those who are marginalized to get even with those who are in power. This is the standard explanation for the large number of Jewish and black comedians. And their takedowns of the rich, white, Christian are seen as evening the score: "they" get all the power and wealth, and we get to make fun of them.
But when the powerful make fun of the less powerful, the tables are not turned; inequality is magnified. While it's still not acceptable for white comedians to use racist humor (and when they do, they are instantly sanctioned, as was Michael Richards), but it's suddenly open season on women and gay people. Ask Tracy Morgan.
In a sense, though, Tosh's casual misogyny offered a rare glimpse inside the male-supremacist mind. Tosh doesn't defend rape as just a "date gone wrong" or a "girl who changed her mind afterwards," equally vile and pernicious framings. No, he is clear: rape is punishment. Punishment for what? For heckling him. That is: for having a voice.
Rape as Metaphor
Recently, my adolescent son told me he's started hearing the word "rape: as a synonym for defeating your opponent badly in sports, or besting them in a rap competition. As in, "The Yankees raped the Red Sox" or, "Dude, that guy totally raped you" in the high school debate.
Using rape as a metaphor dilutes its power, distracts us from the specificity of the actual act. You got raped? Me too! I totally got raped in that math quiz.
In an interview some years ago, Elie Wiesel cringed at the use of the word "Holocaust" as a metaphor for hatred, or for murder in general. This was not hatred, not just murder, Wiesel argues.
"Hate means a pogrom, it's an explosion, but during the War it was scientific, it was a kind of industry. They had industries and all they produced was death. Had there been hate, the laboratories would have exploded."
Wiesel made clear that it's not a metaphor: it is in its specificity that its power resides.
Rape is not a verbal put-down; it's a corporeal invasion. It's not an athletic defeat; it's the violation of a body's integrity, the death of a self. All equivalences are false equivalences.
It's not a metaphor, it's not a joke, and it's not to be parsed as legitimate. It's an individual act of violence. To believe that you can change the meaning of a word by turning it into a metaphor or a joke is the essence of male entitlement. It is an act of silencing, both the individual and all women. The arrogance of turning it into a metaphor, making it a joke -- this is how that silencing happens.
And the good news -- if any is to be taken here -- is, of course, that it hasn't worked. Women have responded, noisily and angrily, to these efforts at silencing.
Maybe "we" ought to shut up and just listen?