Rethinking Rape

Noel Coward once said that it is discouraging how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit. This backward reaction is often true when men and women disclose sexual assault, especially in cases in which the circumstances of the assault do not meet the traditional definition of rape.

Our society has been conditioned to define rape narrowly, usually as a man forcing themselves upon a woman. But force is just one way of violating another human being, and both genders can be victims of rape. Fraud and coercion are two other major means of achieving power and control over another via sexual violation.

Unfortunately, defining rape as anything but an act of force is stereotyped as feminist or liberal thinking. Reality is that rape committed through fraud and coercion can cause most of the same traumatic effects as rape by force. We don’t need scientific proof of this; just ask someone who’s been through it. PTSD, for example, is alive and well in a wide range of rape victims.

Rape by fraud and coercion can carry an additional psychologically damaging element because victims may question how they could allow themselves to be duped and blame themselves for the violation. Victims can also suffer from lasting medical issues such as sexually transmitted diseases, some life-threatening, as a result. Pregnancies and financial difficulties can occur, and the victim’s ability to have or maintain future relationships can suffer horribly.

Many rape laws in this country were written years, even decades ago. The legal definition of rape in most states does not allow for the prosecution of anything but rape committed by force. Lawmakers frown warily upon expanding the definition of rape to include rape by fraud and/or coercion, afraid that they are opening up a can of worms. Prosecuting fraud and coercion cases may not be as concrete as force cases because of a potential lack of evidence.

In other papers and articles I’ve written, I’ve questioned the validity of narrow and archaic definitions of crimes against persons given the breadth and depth of evil in this world. In many stalking statutes, for example, I’ve questioned why fear is a necessary element of the crime when not all stalking victims feel afraid. Some are angry, some are annoyed. Why does the definition of stalking depend on the victim’s reaction rather than the suspect’s repeated intrusions upon their life?

Only within the past decade have legal definitions of stalking begun to catch up to the realities of what stalking is. Not long before stalking started to be taken seriously, domestic violence laws finally started to acknowledge what’s actually going on in our society. Now it’s time for rape laws to join the modern age. Why is force the most important factor in what constitutes a rape? What about consent? Is it more important that violence occurred, or is it more important that the victim did not give consent, or would not have given consent had they known the truth?

This is one of the arguments that legal minds become embroiled in when rape is discussed. Various rulings have said that despite the web of lies a perpetrator has spun before robbing a victim sexually, intercourse gained by fraud doesn’t equal rape. Never mind when the victim is thrown to the side of the road like garbage once the rapist is through with them, or the mental issues the realization that they have been taken advantage of has caused them.

Never mind the doctor bills, or the expensive prescriptions, or the children that they are left to care for on their own. They may be scarred for life once it occurs to them that they were lied to and used as a plaything, diversion, or resource, but none of that seems to matter if they were not knocked down in a dark alley and brutalized by a stranger. Most rapists are known to the victim, by the way, and many have committed rape by fraud and coercion multiple times.

Defining rape by force only is, in a word, ridiculous. It’s like saying that you’ve only been robbed if an attacker punches you in the face and takes your wallet from you. People can be deprived of their money and property by many other means. The criminals who rake in the most money don’t take it by force, but take it by fraud and coercion. They are smooth talking psychopaths who wheedle their way into victims’ lives and convince them that sharing of themselves is in their own best interest.

If we built our financial laws around the concept of force, then Billy the Kid would be a robber since he used guns and shot people, but Bernard Madoff would not (and yes, I realize that Madoff is technically called something different). Why then do we define rape this way? Is one’s bank account more important than their body? It is fraud if you are talked out of your retirement accounts but not out of your virginity? It is coercion if you sign over control of your assets under threat of harm but not if your sexual violator promises to tell your family things they don’t need to know if you refuse them? How does this make sense? How is this equitable?

For those opposed to the idea of including rape by coercion or fraud in a legal definition of rape, or those who see problems with prosecuting such cases, the concept should not be completely dismissed. Rape does happen this way and we can’t keep pretending it doesn’t. There are different degrees of rape now, and I see no reason that we can’t work rape by coercion and fraud into those various categories.

Perhaps you will not successfully prosecute such a rapist on a first degree charge, but could you convict them on a lesser charge? If our laws are modernized and reflect the experiences of all rape victims, couldn’t we start trying to achieve justice rather than sitting around wondering if it’s possible? Could juries be allowed to consider these cases as they come up rather than assuming no charges will stick? Could we start educating judges and lawmakers about fraud and coercion instead of allowing ancient statutes and stereotypes to dictate who gets away with rape?

Obviously the introduction of such education and laws should not be allowed to become a witch hunt. I’m also a firm believer that people need to take responsibility for their actions and to try to avoid situations in which they may be victimized. But there are many seasoned liars out there who prey upon good, successful, giving, and principled people in an effort to fill the bottomless voids inside themselves. They are drawn to people who possess attributes that they don’t, even though they create the illusion that they have much in common with the victim, including the same values.

Through their well-practiced magic routines of smoke and mirrors, they are able to bring victims to the point of sharing themselves body and soul. Then one day their mask slips, or they’re gone, or other partners are found out, and the magnitude of what has been taken from the victim dawns on them. Months later, they may learn just how heavy the baggage is they are holding as the medical, reproductive, psychological, and financial consequences are realized.

Right now, we let these con artists, both male and female, get away with it. We blame the victims, snidely offering such gems as “oh, they should have known better” or “how could they be so naïve?” We deny the power of evil and of the psychopathic mind when we guilt the victim for straying from God’s will rather than acknowledging just how off balance and confused they were kept by their rapist’s mind games. Instead of helping these victims back to a safe place with God and finding them justice, we abandon them to the trials their rapists created and dumped on the victims when they moved on to their next banquet.

Rapists need to be stopped regardless of their form, gender, or modus operandi. While our legal system may not be willing to put rape by fraud or coercion on par with rape by force, we should still make it illegal and provide meaningful consequences for it. Personally I would like the former to be taken just as seriously as the latter given the impact on victims, especially when there are lasting aftereffects as there often are.

It is a horrible, sinking feeling to realize that the person you trusted your whole self to is not who you thought they were, and you would not have gone so far—or allowed them to be part of your life at all—had you known the truth. It is a violation on every level of one’s being. It’s time for our legal system to step up and acknowledge all types of rape victims, as well as prosecute all three types of rapists. Right now some of the most seasoned perpetrators of sexual assault are free to harm victim after victim with no one to stop them, all because they’ve found a way to fly under the radar and achieve their conquests by a more covert means than force.


The superior man understands what is right; the inferior man understands what will sell.  –Confucius


Update: For the record, this post should not be viewed as an endorsement of abortion. I am against abortion in the vast majority of cases and don’t believe they should be publicly funded. Obviously a minority of cases involve rape and incest.


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