Words and concepts are only our best approximation of reality; we look for the closest fit to describe our world. Human sexuality is complicated and subtle, and so the fit between words and reality is always going to be a bit jerry-rigged in this area. The concept of the “rape continuum” was described recently in the blog “Radical Bookworm,” in the post “Consent Matters”:
We may agree – by and large – that rape is bad and that rapists are bad people. But sadly, a lot of us don’t see a problem with violating people’s boundaries in less serious ways. Hitting on someone after they’ve made it clear they’re not interested, for example. Touching someone’s hair or face without their permission. Pressuring your partner to do something they’re not into. Cat-calling women on the street. These things are so commonplace that many of us fail to acknowledge that they are wrong. That they exist on the same continuum as rape, and that they need to be taken seriously.
Boundary violations should be taken seriously. Agreed. But it is not helpful to think of them “on the same continuum as rape.” To explain why, let me take a few paragraphs to talk about Michael Vick:
A few days ago, I was troubled to hear that President Obama had phoned the owner of the Philadelphia Eagles and thanked him for giving Michael Vick a “second chance.” Now, for most people, I’m all for second chances. A twenty year old inner-city kid busted for selling crack, for example, should be given a second chance. But there are some crimes so vile that the perpetrator should not be given a “second chance,” and I think Michael Vick’s crimes are of this nature.
So why did President Obama praise the Eagles’ owner for signing Vick? From what I’ve read, he was motivated in part by a belief that ex-convicts rarely get a second chance in life, and that this is unjust. True enough. Many ex-convicts are treated unjustly. But not all ex-convicts are the same. And it seems to me that an offer of redemption comes with the implicit understanding that the second chance is being offered because the ex-convict, although guilty of past misdeeds, is not himself inherently sadistic or cruel. It’s society’s way of saying, “We understand you are not an inherently bad person. Now go and sin no more.”
Forgiveness has value, but it is in the interest of society for us to be able to conceptualize distinctions between inherently evil people and people who merely do bad things. It isn’t easy to distinguish these groups in practice, of course. But the concept is important, because there is a small, psychopathic portion of the population who inflict great harm, and it’s a harm that can only be mitigated by lifelong incarceration or close monitoring of the offenders. The concept is also important because men like Michael Vick should not be able to pass their crimes off as “mistakes,” nor should evil men be able to pass themselves off as morally equivalent to a twenty year old kid caught in a drug bust. The concept is important because crimes that are particularly cruel or sadistic ought to be viewed as qualitatively different from other crimes, and not as merely acts we place on the more extreme end of the “crime continuum.”
Back now to the question of the “rape continuum.” As per Radical Bookworm:
[S]exual assault is not an isolated phenomenon. Our culture encourages a whole range of violations of people’s boundaries and bodily integrity, of which rape is only the most serious. And the worst part? You have probably committed some of those violations. I know I have.
Do you see the problem with this way of thinking? Have I ever “violated a boundary,” said or done something inappropriate, or made someone uncomfortable? Yes, of course I have. The author of “Radical Bookworm” says she has as well. But neither I nor she has ever committed a “sexual assault” or anything that ought reasonably to be placed on the “rape continuum,” unless you want to make a mockery out of the meaning of “sexual assault” and “rape.”
The problem I have with the idea of the “rape continuum” is that it allows the predator to hide himself within the masses of well-meaning men who at one time have, as fallible human beings, behaved inappropriately. It at once excuses the rapist, and accuses the good-but-imperfect man. It erases the important qualitative distinction between sexual assault and inappropriate behavior. The “rape continuum” idea creates a mental framework within which rape is merely an extreme version of lingering too long in the company of an uninterested woman.
Reflect for a moment on the effect of Obama’s support for Michael Vick. It erases the important distinction between Mr. Vick’s vicious crimes and the lesser transgressions for which second chances should be granted. It allows Mr. Vick to hide within the masses of non-predatory ex-convicts, while simultaneously tarring all ex-convicts – the inner city kid nabbed in a drug bust – with the ugliness of Mr. Vick’s crimes.
I said earlier that the mental frameworks within which we fit reality are always somewhat jerry-rigged. That’s true when applying a mental framework to the problem of rape, of course. And while I believe that the great majority of rapists are psychopathic predators, there are non-psychopathic rapists as well. But here’s why I think the rapist-as-predator idea is the most useful mental framework: Predatory rapists commit the greatest number of rapes, by far. And rapes committed by psychopaths are probably more damaging and more traumatic than those committed by non-psychopaths. (That last sentence I offer with a great deal of humility, because I don’t know that to be the case, although it makes intuitive sense.)
I understand the thinking behind the idea of the “rape continuum.” A culture in which women’s boundaries are not respected is also a culture in which sexual assault will be taken less seriously and probably happen more frequently. But there’s no reason why respect for boundaries has to be taught by placing boundary violations on the “rape continuum.” And furthermore, placing minor boundary violations – e.g. hitting on someone who is “obviously” not interested – on the “rape continuum” is troublesome because it is very difficult for a young heterosexual man to develop psychosexually without making several mistakes along the way, some of which may entail violations of boundaries. (Unlike women and gay men, heterosexual men rarely have sexual “mentors” when they are young.) So, the idea that boundary violations are on the “rape continuum” is often a very inaccurate portrayal of reality, especially when applied to adolescent boys and young men.