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The Next Wave: Feminism in the 21st Century, Part II

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Due to the egregious abortion ban recently signed into law in South Dakota, which does not allow for legal abortions in cases of rape and incest, discussions of rape and its prevalence in our society, as well as its effects, have increased almost exponentially with each day that passes. (For the record, I agree that this lack of exception is wrong, but also believe that any law restricting a woman 's access to a safe and legal abortion is a violation of existing law and of basic human decency.) Rape is the proverbial "elephant in the room " when it comes to gender relations in the United States the public doesn 't know how to handle it, and neither do victims.

In order to fully discuss what Women 's History Month is all about, it is necessary, if uncomfortable, to discuss the one crime that has had the most catastrophic effect on women in the United States, and all over the world. Since the beginning of our recorded history, men have used rape and the threat of rape to control and subjugate women.

Historically, rape has been considered, in most cultures, a crime against the victim 's husband or father, rather than against the victim herself. The crime of rape was usually punished with a monetary fine, paid to the male who "owned " the female victim. Another common "punishment " would force the rapist to marry the victim, in order to restore honor to her family. Over time, this has changed in most of the Western world, but the cultural connotations remain in much of the world, including the West.

Rape is generally defined as sexual intercourse with a woman by a man without her consent and chiefly by force or deception. This definition has broadened in recent years to include other instances of sexual assault other than those perpetrated by a man against a woman, but the vast majority of rapes fit the old definition. While both genders are susceptible, 90% of all rape victims in the United States are women. In addition to this, while male victims make up the remaining 10%, the majority of the perpetrators of those rapes are men. Types of rape include stranger rape (when the rapist is unknown to the victim), acquaintance rape (when the rapist is known, but only in passing), date rape (when the rapist is dating the victim or has been on a date with the victim, but is not the serious partner of the victim), multiple rape (when multiple rapists attack one woman, together), and marital rape (when the rapist is the victim 's husband or intimate partner). While the law makes these distinctions, it is important to keep in mind that rape is rape, regardless of how well the victim knows the perpetrator.

It is vital to remember that rape is an act of violence that uses sex as a weapon, not a sex act, and this distinction is central to any serious discussion of the prevalence of rape in our culture. Rape is about control, domination, humiliation, and degradation not sex. Because control and domination of women by men is integral to any patriarchal system of social order, it stands to reason that men, through their own indoctrination by our patriarchal culture, have been trained to see women as property, or as somehow less than human or less than themselves, and that all men who have been raised this way have the capacity to rape. They have the capacity to commit this crime because they have been taught to view women as subordinate, and rape is a very effective tool for demeaning a woman and destroying her sense of self, effectively shutting down her capacity for self-governance. While it is certainly true that most men do not rape, and that many men oppose patriarchal social structure, it is also true that not enough male Americans have joined feminist activists in working to end rape, once and for all, in this country.

Many men become defensive when confronted with this information. This is understandable, as most men are decent, honorable human beings who have no desire to abuse women or anyone else. However, this defensive behavior is counter-productive to the goal of changing our culture for the better for women, and for men.


It is time for an honest discussion in this country about the social conditions that allow rape to flourish and how we can change this country so American women do not have to live with constant fear. One in six American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape. One American woman is raped every three to eight minutes (this statistic has been computed by RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, using numbers compiled by the US Department of Justice 's National Crime Victimization Survey for 2003-2004). 90% of all rape victims are women. Of these, approximately 40% are under the age of 18, and 80% are under the age of 30. These statistics are based on limited resources, as less than half of all rapes committed in the United States are reported to the authorities.

While you are reading this, a woman is being raped somewhere in the United States.

In 1992, Congress decided what kind of crime constituted a hate crime. They declared a hate crime as a crime in which "the defendant 's conduct was motivated by hatred, bias, or prejudice, based on the actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or gender identity of another individual or group of individuals " (HR 4797). Disabled persons were added to the list in 1994 by the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act.

Putting the pieces together, rape is a crime based on prejudice toward women formed on the basis that the female gender is inferior to the male gender. It is thus primarily perpetrated by males upon women for the purpose of exerting control and domination. By this definition, rape qualifies, without question, as a hate crime according to the United States Congress. Rape perpetrated by men against male victims is often motivated by the same prejudice, even though the victims are male.

However, rape victims are often treated with disturbing callousness by the public and by authorities. In the recent past, many states have enacted laws barring questioning of the victim 's sexual history (unless it is determined that this evidence is absolutely necessary, such as in cases where the victim has had past consensual sexual contact with the accused) as well as court-mandated psychiatric evaluations of victims. When a news story about an alleged rape makes the television news, many of us sit in our living rooms automatically questioning the validity of the accuser 's claim.

In the media, female rape victims are often referred to as "beautiful, " "pretty, " "attractive, " "bright, " "charming, " and "vivacious " (amongst other terms) all words which boil the essence of who she is down to her looks and "feminine " personality. Male rape victims suffer no such ridiculous characterization. They are referred to as what they are: male rape victims.

This misogynistic use of language makes it clear how our society as a whole views the crime of rape. When a woman 's looks are discussed as a valid part of the crime committed against her, the message is that rape is about sex, and sexual attraction. It is not. Rape is about violence. Male victims are not referred to as "attractive " or "charming. " They are allowed to be seen as victims of a heinous crime, while female victims are not. This is just another example among many of how our patriarchal culture values men over women. Female rape victims are assumed to have been "asking for it " while male victims are human beings who have been brutally abused.

Because the vast majority of rapes committed in the United States are perpetrated by men, it is important to ask why this is the case. What is it about men that makes them use sex as a weapon? What is it about men that makes them abuse women and want to control and dominate them? While we are raised to believe that men are just naturally more aggressive than women, I do not think that this is the case.

I did an experiment today. I took my two-year old daughter to the toy store and took a look around. I found what I expected to find, but it was still disturbing.

The "girl " section of the store had an array of items, including: Barbie dolls, other "baby " dolls (complete with accessories like strollers, bottles, and other real-life baby necessities), dress-up clothes (princess gowns, high heels, "play " make-up), "kitchen " play-sets with stoves and miniature fake food, and my personal favorite, a genuine Mr. Clean "play " mop and accessories. Everything was pink and purple and pretty and delicate and perfectly designed to create the next generation of domesticated females. I decided to walk across the aisle to the "boy " section, and the difference was nothing short of appalling. I scanned down the shelves loaded with Home Depot toy tool sets, trucks and cars and motorcycles, toy guns and swords, action figures, and sporting goods and shook my head in disgust.

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Katherine Brengle is a freelance writer and activist.

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