In case you missed it late last week, Patricia Lockwood's poem in The Awl entitled "Rape Joke" became one of those brilliant pieces of art we get to read, digest, and pass around for free thanks to the wonders of the modern age. It's not very often that something so emotionally naked, devastatingly honest and skillfully crafted gets our attention, and it is not just by virtue of its title, which of course recalls an issue we on the internet have discussed and struggled with over and over again. If you're the sort of person who believes great art like this can be wielded as an instrument to change minds, the question becomes: what does this poem bring to the conversation that we have otherwise been struggling to say when discussing controversies like rape jokes and rape culture? The intention of the poem, of course, isn't just to get us to feel bad all over again about rape jokes. It is, after all, heartbreaking and edgy and even darkly funny. Instead, what is compelling about this poem is its honesty and, within that brutal honesty, a call to redefine what we as a society understand rape to actually be.
Whenever rape is discussed on a website, the comments section quickly swells to an incredible size (the comments section of "Rape Joke" is currently no exception), often thanks to a vocal minority who take the opportunity to point how a particular story just doesn't "cut it." Look at the context, they say, do we really understand the context? The hard truth is that we men need to stop looking for ways to weasel out of the word "rape" and acknowledge that all rapes have contexts, and that rapes happen between men and women who know each other and, in certain circumstances, may even care for each other or love each other.
Rape culture is our collective refusal as a society to admit that while we in the abstract believe strongly that women should be free from the fear of sexual violence, we have not done enough to actually make the spaces we inhabit together (college campuses, for example) safer. It's about being trapped in an old mode of defining rape and other forms of sexual violence and thus denying its existence in other forms. For most people rape is something that happens on Law and Order: SVU, CSI, an accuser and an accused (often strangers). This definition empowers a culture of rape apology on the internet and feeds the websites of Men's Rights advocates. They want, by suggesting that rape is not rape unless you've gone to court, or that rape is not rape if it occurs within a relationship or a marriage, to delegitimize the very idea of rape culture. According to them, men like the one in Lockwood's poem do not really exist, or at the very least, are not really rapists; rape is simply not something that can happen between a 19-year-old girl and her boyfriend. To them the world is divided between accuser and the accused, and that in today's politically correct society the accusers are running rampant and more often than not are making things up. This is, at its core, the same pernicious meme that circulates among social conservatives as they struggle with the rape exemption when limiting abortion rights. The idea of "legitimate rape" or "forcible rape" is a means of limiting its definition to something is easily classifiable and only real when reported to the police. According to them, if the police haven't heard about it, it's "made up." Yet, we know from study after study that in the vast majority of instances (the National Institute of Health says 80% of incidents) a woman knows her attacker and that reporting a rape is anything but a clear-cut situation.
The simple fact is, rape is always "in context." As a human rights issue, that's precisely the problem: rape is statutory rape and date rape and rape while intoxicated and prison rape, and worldwide it is rape as a war tactic and rape as child marriage. Now is the time to take the next big step and broaden our discussion of these issues. Like any civil rights struggle, each new level of progress is an order of magnitude more difficult to achieve than the one before it, like boring into the Earth's crust. Cultures of sexual violence cannot be shooed away by legislating or litigating alone, they must be preempted. And we can start by having a discussion that is open and honest about how the vast majority of rapes actually happen.