Rape As a Rite of Passage

All too often, actions against women are brushed aside as cultural rites of passage. In some cultures it’s normal to stone a woman to death if she has besmirched the honor of her family, or to subject her to genital mutilation (so that she can’t dishonor her family), or to rape women as one of the spoils (and retaliations) of war. It’s even common in some cultures to “dispose of” female infants, because females are seen as burdens on already burdened families.

Here in Western society, we gasp in horror at these actions. Of course we would never do anything like them. But what about women who aren’t protected against domestic violence and are routinely beaten and even murdered by their husbands and boyfriends? Often their only recourse is a restraining order which is next to useless. We’ve all read about women whose ex defied the order for the express purpose of hurting her badly. By the time the police come, it’s too late. And she’s in no shape to press charges: she’s dead.

We gasp in horror at these incidents, too. (But not as much as we do at honor killings.) We tend to think that they can’t be prevented, that there’s no way to predict when a man is going to go off the deep edge in this way. But the truth is, we look the other way. It’s just something that happens to women sometimes.

We feel much the same way about date rape.  One reason why there is so much sympathy for Roman Polanski right now is because we don’t see date rape as “real” rape. And even though his victim was only 13 years old, what they were involved in is seen as a “date.” Her mother knew her daughter was with Polanksi, he plied his “date” with alcohol and drugs, and then they had sex (which may or may not have been consensual–although I thought sex with a minor was automatically branded as non-consensual). If anything, people see what happened as a seduction. If the girl hadn’t wanted to have sex, why was she there in the first place? (This is called “blame the victim.”)

I’m sorry, but most people who are participating in this debate are missing the point. Girls are “seduced” every day, by men–or boys–whom they trust. And that’s the problem: they trust their partners to not push the limits of what is acceptable behavior for the girls. They don’t stop and think that it’s acceptable behavior for males to have sex with any female they can. It’s as if the guy and the girl are each assuming that the other will protect their best interests: the girl to make sure that she doesn’t get pregnant and the guy to protect her honor.

It just doesn’t work this way. All too often, a girl is persuaded by different means to participate in sexual activity she isn’t all that sure about. She may not say no, but she’s not saying yes either. She’s unsure of what she wants. She’s curious about sex, she really likes this boy and doesn’t want to “lose” him, and/or her inhibitions have been loosened by drugs, alcohol or false assurances of undying love.

This is the feminine rite of passage. The masculine rite of passage is to have sex, to “do it” to a woman. Young girls rarely have sex, they have it done to them. The boy may think that they’re willing, but what they really are is confused. They don’t know what they’re getting into. They’re trusting the guy to do what’s right. And all too often he doesn’t, at least not what’s right for her.

I’m not saying that all girls are unwilling when they have sex. What I am saying is that girls have bought into the societal template that “men know best.” They’ve been told all their lives that men are bigger and better. They have absorbed the message that the male is the protector. So they enter into relationships with their guard down. After all, he wouldn’t do anything to hurt her, would he?

You bet he would! Again, I’m not saying that all boys–or men–will take advantage of a female sexually. Some are just as confused as the girls are. But I’m not writing about actions, I’m writing about the beliefs behind those actions. The girls are often compliant because they’ve been told to be–not necessarily sexually, but in every other way. And the boys, who often can’t believe their good fortune, will push the limits as far as they can. The result: a sexual encounter that probably isn’t in the best interests of either party.

Why do we make such a big deal about rape? The problem is, we don’t make as big a deal about it as we should. Rape is not always an act of violence. We have to expand our definition of rape to include something like a breach of contract: the contract that men and women enter into when they have sex. Both partners will take measures against pregnancy or STDs. Neither partner will take advantage of the other.

Right. When Roman Polanski had sex with that 13-year-old, she wasn’t capable of entering into such a contract with a powerful, 40-year-old man. He could have easily made her pregnant or given her an STD. He most certainly wasn’t looking after her best interests. (Nor his, for that matter).

The debate over Polanski shouldn’t be about whether or not he deserves punishment. It ought to be about why people (men in particular) think they have the right to sex even when it’s not appropriate. We ought to be expanding our definition of rape. At the very least, we ought to be addressing why being “seduced” is a kind of rape, even if it isn’t violent.

More food for thought:

An open letter by Becky Sharper to Peg Yorkin of the Feminist Majority Foundation who thinks Roman Polanski should be left alone. (Poor guy!)

Other reactions to Roman Polanski’s plight, including Chris Rock’s rant shown on Jezebel. (Don’t miss it.)

3 Replies to “Rape As a Rite of Passage”

  1. rape and unwanted babies sucks as a right of passage for girls, and youth not taught that can expect a culture that is inherently discriminatory whether it is run by men or women.

  2. So, is rape a right of passage? After reading the essay, I could not answer the question. The title is a little off. Please tell me if rape is or is not a rite of passage.

    1. I agree. I should have been clearer: Too many men experience manhood by exerting control over women. Once they have done this successfully, usually sexually, they become “real” men, thus sexual intercourse, by whatever means necessary, becomes a rite of passage.

      Having said that, I thank God for men who experience maturity through other means: being responsible, empathetic, competent, etc. and who do not have to make women do their bidding to feel like men.

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