“Legitimate Rape” and the Good Men Project

By now you have probably heard about the Good Men Project’s recent putting its foot in its mouth on the topic of rape. If you haven’t, Grace has a good summary with a list of posts written on the subject. What it comes down to is this: The Good Men Project has started discussing the role partying, alcohol, and drugs play in rape, which is good. However, instead of focusing solely on the necessity of consent they are spending time talking about how “nice guys” can get confused by alcohol and “accidentally” rape someone and the supposed “mixed messages” both women and society send men. In other words, the Good Men Project writers are portraying rapists as victims while simultaneously turning blame on the actual victims. This is bad.

What I want to do here is place what the Good Men Project is doing in a bit of historical context. I think that to understand what’s going on here you have to understand that the feminist movement has actually expanded the definition of rape. For example, several centuries ago a sexual act did not meet the definition of rape if it was not forcible. Similarly, marital rape was not recognized because it was presumed that by signing a marriage contract a woman was agreeing to be always sexually available to her husband. Furthermore, when a woman accused a man of raping her, her own sexual history and degree of purity was often seen as extremely relevant. As a chief justice in England said in the seventeenth century, “In a rape case it is the victim, not the defendant, who is on trial.”

In other words, Todd Akin’s comment about “legitimate rape” didn’t come out of a void. Throughout history, rape has often been narrowly defined. A master having sex with his slave wasn’t committing rape, because she was his property. If a woman didn’t put up enough resistance, that wasn’t rape either (this is why the Old Testament holds that a woman can only be raped in the countryside, because if she’s raped in the city she must not have yelled or resisted enough.) And women who are raped and take public or legal action have often found their own purity on trial, as whether they are sexually active or how many sex partners they have had is seen as somehow relevant to their case.

A victim of “legitimate rape” is sexually pure, properly demure, and wears white gloves. A victim of “legitimate rape” screams for help, fights her attacker, and must be forcibly constrained.

Feminists have worked to change how rape is defined, and they have been largely successful. Rape is no longer required to be forcible and marriage no longer obligates a woman to be always sexually available to her husband. Today we see rape as any sex that takes occurs without consent. It doesn’t matter whether the victim is sexually active, whether she (or he) has had multiple partners, or whether there was sufficient resistance offered. All that matters is whether or not there is consent.

Why is all of this relevant to the Good Men Project? The writers at the Good Men Project have been suggesting that, what with Well, quite simply, all this talk of “gray rape” isn’t new. In the first piece on this topic, GMP blogger Alyssa wrote about a friend who had sex with an unconscious woman, a woman who literally could not consent to sex (and, for good measure, had not consented to having sex before she she fell asleep). And yet, Alyssa portrays him as a “nice guy” who simply mistook the woman’s flirting – and her admission that she had worked as a sex worker – for consent. Alyssa insists that she isn’t saying this interaction was not rape, but she also says that the woman was sending her friend “mixed messages.” She was dancing. She flirted. She admitted to having put in time as a sex worker. She wasn’t pure and demure enough, and not being pure and demure, apparently, sends “mixed messages.”

The Good Men Project’s highly problematic discussion of rape simply follows Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” comment as the latest terrain in a struggle over both the definition of and the responsibility for rape. Feminists want the definition of rape to revolve solely around consent. Todd Akin and the Good Men Project, in contrast, think it’s important to talk about there being different types of rape. Todd Akin thinks some rapes aren’t “legitimate,” meaning presumably that some women are “asking for it” by dressing or acting just so. The Good Men Project writers, for their part, think it’s possible for men to get confused and “accidentally” rape women without meaning to. In either case, a woman’s “purity” or lack thereof, as well as their “proper” behavior or lack thereof, are seen as relevant to a discussion of rape.

From what I understand, the Good Men Project has a sizable audience. The Good Men Project started out as a well-meaning attempt to redefine and redesign masculinity in our increasingly egalitarian society, but somewhere along the way things have gone amiss. I would like to hope that the Good Men Project’s leadership will learn from the criticism they’ve received on this issue and move in a more positive direction. Until then, however, I’m filing their fuzzy conversation about rape away in the same category with Todd Akin, which ought to serve as a wake up call by itself.

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