If everything is rape, nothing is rape

Trigger warning for discussion of rape, childhood sex abuse and consent

Self disclosure time: I have been a victim of actual rape and actual childhood sexual abuse from cisgender men, and although I had a lot of good therapy and do just fine I’m more than aware of the impact on any human being violated in this way.

I also work with rape and sexual abuse survivors in my professional life. I work from a feminist perspective, and I am adamant that this is not a gender neutral issue. As such, I have zero tolerence for anyone that blurs or distorts the definition of rape, and that’s what I would like to blog about today.

Extremist propaganda that equates just about anything with rape, if it is done by a man or a trans woman, is offensive to people who have experienced genuine rape, and is as unacceptable as the casual use of words like “frape“. “All PIV sex is rape” is one such distortion. The presence of a young trans girl in a girl’s toilet being described as rape is another. The final trigger for this blog, though, was a trans woman having consensual sex with another woman being described as rape if she (hypothetically) does not disclose her trans status. I recently encountered an earnest feminist discussion on the subject, among people who should absolutely know better.

Robin Thicke could not blur the lines any better than that – how are we supposed to teach young people about consent if these mixed messages are floating around? If a woman freely says yes, it’s still rape? If your rapist is a woman, it isn’t rape? If you don’t tell your partner everything about yourself before consensual sex, yup, that’s rape too? Huh?

I once was super alarmed to find out the woman I was seeing voted conservative. I must admit, I felt ill to think I had been sleeping with a Tory, but it taught me a valuable lesson – if you have a particular issue or prejudice against sleeping with any group of people, the onus is on you to get that cleared up ahead of time. Okay, so saying you would never date a trans woman (if you’re into women) might well indicate that you are a gigantic transphobe but that is still your choice – your body, your rules.

Let’s get this clear, it was not “rapey” for my then girlfriend to call me prejudiced for cooling on her when I found out she was a Tory. Nor was it “rapey” of her not to tell me, nor was it even “rapey” of her to present her political views in exactly the way I wanted to hear them – it was deceptive, and it was not her nicest quality, but it isn’t rape to deceive or conceal from a lover. It’s rape to coerce or force someone into sex, it’s rape not to gain consent. There are many, many shitty things that lovers can do that don’t fall into the category of rape – fraud, deception, cheating, trickery are among the many things that rape isn’t.

Of course, if a trans woman did not disclose her status it would likely be out of fear of violence or social isolation, and the unalterable reality of being trans hardly equates to the wrong-headed choice of voting Tory, so I apologise to trans women for making this comparison, but I hope I made my point.

There’s no doubt that some anti-trans propagandists want to create a deliberate association between trans women and rape in the minds of women, even going so far as to suggest the entire process of transition is an act of rape. And of course, because rape is such a triggering world for the tragically high number of women who have been raped, it is very easy to manipulate people with such an emotive argument – a classic example of what Naomi Klein would call “shock doctrine”.

Things to watch out for – these people always use the term “trans activist” rather than “trans person” to make trans individuals seem like part of an organised political movement, rather than diverse individuals trying as best they can to live their complicated lives. They put transphobic stories alongside other actually serious cases of actual rape and violence against women, to groom you into associating the two, entirely unrelated, things. Some Facebook pages in particular will share a high proportion of trans-related stories, as if to build a feeling in the audience that trans people are the main threat.

Recently I had to complain to my local pharmacy about a wall hanging that read “If a lady says no she means perhaps, if she says perhaps she means yes, and if she says yes, she is no lady”. This is rape culture, in a nutshell, as was the pharmacist’s obliviousness to the harm in this message. The message blurs the lines around consent, and the act of consent should be clear.

No feminist should ever blur the message of what rape is. Extremist, distorted views undermine what people like myself are fighting for; to end rape culture – they are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

11 thoughts on “If everything is rape, nothing is rape

  1. singingbirdartist

    yes, I get very annoyed and alarmed at the blurring of the lines too, excellent piece.
    On a sort of side note: lately I am getting really annoyed at the level of carelessness about trigger warnings about rape/hate speech I encounter. When someone posted something in a group recently and then posted a hostile apology after being challenged, I took matters in my own hands as an admin and deleted it. For me this had come on top of a month of being subjected to hate speech and verbal abuse elsewhere after I objected to certain language and symbols as being inappropriate and unnecessary, so landed extra badly.
    I felt like posting a huge ranty piece about what being triggered is really like, having actual moments of my traumatic history replaying over and over again, intruding on my current life to the point where I become housebound and shaking, tearful, incoherent, agonised and terrorised. I wanted to make the comparison between how that trigger happy person has no idea what they have done, but how comparable the failed apology/”so sue me shrug” is to the acceptance of rape culture as a norm that survivors – perhaps the biggest minority in the world- must simply endure. But I felt this went too far – the people who trigger by carelessness are slow learners who fail to get their privilege, but their carelessness is still not on the level of the rapists. As you say many behaviours can be damaging and abusive but not the same as rape, horrible as they/the betrayals may feel. The dilemma I get stymied by is how to convey to people how insulting their carelessness is, without explaining in terms so graphic and scarring that I break their denial but am guilty of deliberate verbal abuse too.
    This links for me (because of my daily life with extreme PTSD) with the false analogies you refer to, as an eco-activist I come across the “rape of the land” more often than the transphobic slanders, though Dworkin’s analysis has annoyed me since the 80s…
    Thanks for tackling an emotive issue so calmly, I hope the swan of your post doesn’t cover too much splashing and thrashing in the waters underneath 😉

    1. Sandy Hope Post author

      Thanks for sharing those thoughts, SBA, and for also reminding me that although I put up a TW wherever I shared this, I didn’t put a TW on the actual article. I really hope people can hear your words and learn to discuss all potentially triggering topics with more care.

      1. speakeasy25

        I am a firm believer in trigger warnings–but it seems fairly apparent a post with the term “rape” in the title has a built-in trigger warning and no additional warning would be necessary.

      2. Sandy Hope Post author

        I think it helps a lot of survivors to have a bit of a heads up about what kind of discussion will ensue – it certainly helps me. Seeing a TW gives you a chance to check in with yourself about whether you’re mentally prepared to expose yourself to whatever comes next. Maybe not necessary for everyone, but helpful to some and harmful to none, so I erred on the side of caution.

  2. Eleanor

    Hi Sandy,
    once again I am in full agreement with you. As an (adult) survivor of rape and sexual assault I hate the way that “rape” is frequently turned into a joke or diminished in meaning – for example, “frape” as you mentioned, or, as I heard a 20 something woman at work say of a film star, “he can rape me anytime!” Do the people who use these expressions have any idea what they are saying? Obviously not. I am lucky enough that I don’t have flashbacks to my own experiences but the casual way the word is thrown around nevertheless jars every time I hear it.
    I can sympathise with the view that misrepresenting yourself for the sole purpose of persuading someone to have sex with you could be described as rape – the person would not have consented if they had been in full possession of the facts. However, if the person consented at the time then, as you say, it’s deception, fraud, etc. rather than rape – I don’t see how rape can be “back-dated” or consent withdrawn after the event. (I would like to stress that I mean deceiving someone not coercing them.)
    Finally, can I just say how taken aback I am by the wall hanging in the pharmacy? I can’t believe that someone would choose to have something like that in a public place in this day and age. As a balance, there are posters up in my local leisure centre that say “does he call you pretty? pretty ugly, pretty stupid, pretty frigid. This is abuse and you don’t have to put up with it.” Followed by a helpline number and website. I can only draw on my own experience, but I was married to my first husband for three years before I realised that the things he said to me everyday were abuse. I know it sounds daft but if I’d seen a poster like this then, I might have had the courage to get out sooner (I was taught that once you’d made your bed you lay in it – to use an unfortunate expression – and that verbal, mental and emotional abuse were just things you had to live with). I would perhaps change the wording on the poster to “Do they call you pretty. . . ” but even as it is, it’s a hell of a lot more empowering than telling every woman that reads it that she’s worthless.
    Keep it up Sandy – I always look forward to your posts and your insight, eloquence and compassion always touch me.

    1. Sandy Hope Post author

      Thanks Eleanor – to clarify, the wall hanging was for sale in the gift section, one of those pretty, painted homilies like “home sweet home” – not sure if that doesn’t somehow make it worse!

  3. Desiree Arceneaux

    Eleanor, the question becomes, who has the right to judge what information has to be disclosed up front for consent to be valid? If it is “fraud” for a trans woman to fail to announce that she’s trans, is it equally fraud if a light-skinned person of color doesn’t announce that she isn’t white? What other medical conditions must be disclosed “up front”?

    Fundamentally, the argument of fraud places the moral onus on trans women (or other “undesirable” minorities) to disclose extremely private information about themselves and potentially expose themselves to extreme danger to proactively cater to certain people’s sexual preferences. Why are those people’s sexual preferences so special as to deserve this kind of protection?

    1. Sandy Hope Post author

      I think Eleanor was referring to my example of a partner deliberately manipulating the truth rather than the self-protective non-disclosure of trans people, however I absolutely agree with you, Desiree!

  4. rimonim

    Great post, Sandy. This is not much different from all the other ways people trivialize sexual violence, like when people say someone was “raped” by overdraft fees, a huge loss at a game, etc. This is just the transphobic version, which kinda makes it worse, IMO. It should really go without saying that consensual sex is not rape. Words have meanings and all that.


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