Rape and Sexual Coercion

Rape is one of the most disregarded felonies, with a criminal conviction rate of less than 5 percent. While there should not be ambiguity in defining consent, it is no mystery that there is an ongoing debate between what is and is not consent. Similarly, the definitions of rape and sexual coercion are often misinterpreted and their usage is abused. This is a factor in the common reception of rape culture today. Rape culture is a means of normalizing the problem into an acceptable element of society. As is mentioned by Upsetting Rape Culture, “media imagery perpetuates rape by excusing it, validating myths about rape, and/or sexualizing rape.” However, behind the obnoxious rhetoric lies a dark history rooted with the misogynistic messages it so easily dismisses. Let’s begin by defining the two terms. Sexual coercion is a process of harassment in which an individual is pressured to engage in sexual relations against his or her own decision. The problem lies in the subtlety in classifying sexual coercion, especially given that not all methods of instigating sexual pressures are considered illegal. This is therefore viewed as less serious, and sometimes even wrongly excused as delayed sexual consent. Rape is what we most commonly identify with sexual abuse, given its explicit meaning of violent and forceful sex. Sexual coercion, however, is important in identifying rape given as it is coined by Sharon Block to “mark a wider range of experiences than is suggested by the word rape.” The socio-cultural context of the terms is thus important as they represent different experiences for victims coming from various racial backgrounds and social statuses. For the sake of brevity, I will only be analyzing female victims given that women account for more than 90% of rape cases.

Image from PinPointPolitics.

Looking at the intersection of race and social standing, women who were servants and slaves in 18th and 19th century America frequently suffered sexual harassment from their male masters. Rachel Davis, a free white servant, was a victim of rape from the husband of whose family she served. Harriet Jacobs, a black slave, was a victim of similar misfortunes. Rachel was able to bring her rapist to justice, as he was sentenced to 10 years in prison after Rachel’s father brought him to court. Harriet Jacobs received no such justice given the fact that she was a slave, considered her master’s property, and thus was not granted legal status. While the persecution of Rachel and Harriet’s rapists significantly differed based on the girl’s racial background, their similar experiences with sexual coercion united the importance of status and dependency. These women were dependent due their low economic standing and had to cope with such hostile situations, thus encountering their abusive masters on a daily basis. This is where the importance of battling the master’s terms, and therefore disturbing his original intentions of seamless sexual relations, came into play. Women would frequently bargain their way out of coercive accounts which made such sexual encounters appear to be consensual. For example, Harriet would go along with her master’s portrayal of her as stupid, using her position as a slave in order to pretend to be too uneducated to read his notes or understand his signs. The women also understood that despite their master’s threats, his fears of being exposed for his indecencies were ultimately the greatest power the women had over them. While uncommon, sometimes the men would even offer the girls bribes in order to keep them silent. The double standard that followed such negotiations remained that if a woman was quiet about her sexual assaults, she was therefore giving consent and it was not considered to be rape while if she attempted to avoid the sexual encounters with bargaining, she was acting as a conspirator in masking her own sexual coercion.

According to Rose Stremlau, sexual violence is dominant in places where diverging groups are struggling for power; furthermore, men rape women whom they consider racially or culturally inferior and economically reliant. This is such the case when non-indigenous newcomers to the Great Basin disrespected the Northern Paiutes’ egalitarian gender roles, consequently viewing Native women as sexual resources and a right of conquest. And, surprise, rape is influenced by cultural forces. Peggy Reeves Sanday understood in 1981 that “rape is not an integral part of male nature but the means by which men programmed for violence express their sexual selves… Men who are conditioned to respect the female virtues of growth and the sacredness of life do not violate women. It is significant that in societies where nature is held sacred, rape occurs only rarely.” In fact, there are no recorded cases of rape in many Native American societies, such as the aforementioned Northern Paiute, prior to non-indigenous contact with Europe settlers which restructured their societal norms.  One analysis of 109 U.S. cities over three decades found that “the short-term effect of gender equality is an increased rape rate via increased threats to the status quo; whereas the long-term effect of gender equality is reduced rape via an improved climate toward women.” Furthermore, in analyzing the role of power as a factor, one analysis of 228 U.S. cities suggested that “in areas where women enjoy a higher absolute status, rape rates will be lower,” meaning that access to power may protect women against sexual coercion. This finding supports research that disadvantaged women in many societies are the ones who are at greatest risk of experiencing sexual coercion, as were women historically as subordinate servants, slaves, or members of the inferior cultural group in a power struggle.

If you still believe that gender inequality in rape culture is trivial, I’d like to leave you with some current statistics that may change your mind. 31 states do not offer mothers who are victims of rape any protection rights. This consequently provides rapists the possible privilege of being a father. Not only will the victim then have to frequently encounter her abuser, which can promote emotional and psychological trauma, this also allows the rapist opportunities to intimidate and harass the victim with the duality of pursuing custody rights over the child unless the criminal charges are dropped. And let’s not forget that 21 states offer exemptions from contraceptive coverage, while many of the same insurance policies cover erectile dysfunction prescriptions such as Viagra. Bill O’Rilley argues that erectile dysfunction is a medical condition and that contraception should not be covered since it is for female promiscuity. I do not understand the importance of Viagra in a man’s life other than it improving his sexual relationship. Is that not promiscuity? Or is it that a man is naturally sexual while a woman is not? Such ideologies supplement why a woman’s experience is often undermined in rape, sexual coercion is misunderstood as sexual consent, and why the victim often remains in hiding while her perpetrator remains free.

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