Rape: an Everyday Atrocity

I’m glad I’m a man.

The recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that Congress exceeded its power by adopting a law allowing rape and domestic violence victims to sue their attackers for violating their civil rights would have scared me to death were I a woman.

I called a regional FBI office to hear what they had to say about it. I started with what I thought was an easy question, ‘If the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 defines a hate crime as one ‘in which the defendant intentionally selects a victim . . . because of the actual or perceived race, color, national origin, ethnicity, gender, disability, or sexual orientation of any person,’ why isn’t rape considered a hate crime?"

"Rape isn’t about hate," they said. "It’s about sex, and desire.

I work parttime in a state prison. I’ve imagined walking shackled past the tiers of cells, seeing the faces looking back, and knowing this is where I’ll spend the rest of my life. I’ve imagined having to wonder which of those men will be the one to victimize me. Often when a man thinks about entering prison, the possibility of being raped looms large. That reality has become a stock joke in sitcoms, movies, and television talk-shows: the fear of the innocent man locked in a cell with love-starved Bubba, who spends his days pumping iron and his nights alone with you.

Most people acknowledge that prison rape isn’t about sex, but power. Because women are absent, and thus can’t be forced into a subordinate role, the men create a class of the victimized among their own.

The fear of rape in prison has merit. Estimates by the Federal Bureau of Prisons suggest the rates for male rape inside prison run between nine and twenty percent. These estimates are universally regarded conservative. The interesting thing is that these numbers are much lower than the rate at which women are raped outside prison. Most studies suggest about twenty-five percent of women in the United States are raped during their lifetimes, and another nineteen percent will have to fend off rape attempts.

What does one make of the fact the keyword "rape," produces far more pornography on the Internet than any other single category (e.g., rape crisis hot lines, support groups, scholarly analyses, histories, news). Pornography comprises more than a third of the total.

I visited some of these sites. Leaving aside the more obvious and routine treatment of women as objects to be invaded ("Feeling a little sneaky? Take a tour through a house with live hidden cams. Watch unsuspecting victims get caught! Shower cam. Inside her toilet cam!") I was struck by the sheer number of depictions of outright violence against women accompanied by a correspondingly violent–and sorry to be naïve, but disrespectful–ambience. "Nasty little breeders." "You command the action of these young sluts. Your wish is there [sic] command." The pictures speak volumes; women tied, struck, penetrated with jars, feet and some other things I’ve never seen before.

The point here is not to express outrage at the depictions–though that would be appropriate–but rather to point out how slippery our notions of hate are. What if I had found sites with pictures of black men captioned "You command the action of these young bucks," or how about some shots of gagged white men labeled "nasty little breeders"? The organizations that monitor hate groups would, I hope, be on the alert. Even the most comprehensive hate watch sites–for example the extraordinary "Hate Directory," which monitors such obscure sites as "American Christian Nationalists (Sodomy Information Center)," "Grendel’s White Power Video Games," and "Why Christians Suck"–fail to count even the most violent pornsites as hate sites.

The recent Supreme Court ruling reminds me again what I’ve known all along. Rape isn’t considered a hate crime because any hatred that has been felt long enough and deeply enough no longer feels like hatred, it just feels normal.

If we don’t like the fact that rape isn’t considered a violation of the victim’s civil rights, or that it isn’t considered a hate crime, we need to go beyond the Supreme Court. We need to look more broadly and deeply at the normative attitudes toward women that cause rape to occur. When enough of us become uncomfortable with the fact that men attempt to rape nearly half of all women–I mean really uncomfortable with it–when enough of us flip out every time we hear of another rape, as we rightly flipped out at James Byrd, Jr.’s dragging death, only then will this everyday atrocity stop being everyday and the Supreme Court will have no choice but to do the right thing.

In the meantime, I’m glad I’m a man.

Originally published in the May 21, 2000 issue of “The Sunday San Francisco Examiner”

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