Rape is Rape: How Denial, Distortion and Victim Blaming is Fueling a Hidden Acquaintance Rape Crisis

Rape is Rape: How Denial, Distortion and Victim Blaming is Fueling a Hidden Acquaintance Rape CrisisAuthor: Jody Raphael
Publisher: Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2013. 256 p.
Reviewer: Janine Benedet | September 2013

In Rape is Rape lawyer and researcher Jody Raphael returns our attention to the sexual assaults that make up the large majority of crimes of sexual violence: those between acquaintances and intimates. In this passionate book, Raphael uses research, media commentary, the facts of high profile rape trials and the accounts of rape survivors themselves to make a number of surprising and challenging claims about how America understands and deals with acquaintance rape.

It is useful to recall something of the history of feminist writing on rape in order to understand where Raphael’s book fits in this body of work. The first writers trying to bring attention to sexual assault as a cause and a result of sex inequality tended to focus on the treatment of rape complaints by police and the criminal trial process, most of which were complaints of stranger rape. Women who complained that unknown men had sexually assaulted them on the street were often treated with contempt and disbelief, their sexual histories examined for anything that might taint their credibility. The most celebrated of these accounts was Susan Brownmiller’s Against our Will (1975), in which Brownmiller, drawing analogies to lynching, argued that rape is a practice by which all men keep all women in a state of fear. In Canada, Debra Lewis and Lorenne Clark’s study, Rape: The Price of Coercive Sexuality (1977) took a similar approach.

Attention expanded fairly quickly, however, to the more common sexual assaults in which the perpetrator was known to and often trusted by the victim. For example Diana Russell’s book The Politics of Rape, which was published the same year as Brownmiller’s, featured accounts by women of sexual assaults by teachers, boyfriends and employers, as well as strangers. She followed this up in 1982 with her book Rape in Marriage, featuring accounts by dozens of women of the sexual assaults perpetrated by their husbands. Indeed, the abolition of the marital rape exemption was a rallying point for feminist law reform. The anti-incest movement, eponymized in Louise Armstrong’s Kiss Daddy Goodnight,exposed sexual abuse of children within the family. Catharine MacKinnon provided a feminist theory of rape law as an institution of patriarchal dominance.

Thus one of the main contentions of feminist writing and activism around rape was that while law reform and public opinion was changing, it was only stranger rape was being treated as “real rape.” This argument can be found in the literature since the 1970s, as Russell’s work shows, but gained popular traction in the 1980s in Susan Estrich’s book Real Rape as well as accounts such as I Never Called it Rape by Robin Warshaw. This was supported by the scholarly research of Mary Koss, whose large scale surveys of college-aged women indicated that as many as 1 in 4 had been raped since adolescence. As pressure grew to “take date rape seriously”, particularly with respect to young women, so too did the backlash against feminist claims. This reached its height with the media attention lavished on Katie Roiphe’s book The Morning After, which argued that young women were being encouraged to re-cast bad sex as rape to fuel a false crusade against men.

One could ask, at least from a feminist perspective, what more is there to say? In the last two decades, attention has turned to rape in international conflict, trafficking, and other issues. Much of the scholarship focusing on domestic rape trials has questioned the practical impact of legal reforms and how to address the stubborn effect of rape culture on judges, prosecutors, police, defense lawyers and jurors. Feminists have mapped out an analysis of rape as a crime of sex inequality; pursued an agenda for law reform; persisted in the quest to reform public attitudes; and certainly know their foes.

Raphael’s contribution to this body of work takes on many of these issues anew. In this slim volume, her arguments include the following:

  • Acquaintance rapes are not drunken misunderstandings in which the offender fails to appreciate the blurry line between consent and non-consent. They frequently feature considerable additional force and violence, confinement and premeditation; the offender is well aware of the victim’s unwillingness to engage in sexual activity. Acquaintance rapists should be seen as sexual predators.
  • American society tends to meet claims of rape with indifference, disbelief and inaction. The belief that false reports of rape are common continues to be accepted and promoted. This denial has terrible consequences for rape victims.
  • Feminists have at times been sloppy with facts and statistics, contributing to misinformation and a lack of credibility.

The first of these claims is an important contribution to the literature on sexual violence. The second builds on well-established ground forged by Russell, Estrich, Warshaw and others by providing new examples of how the state’s failure to take sexual violence seriously recurs and prevents redress. The third claim is provocative, coming as it does from someone with such a longstanding commitment to the women’s anti-violence movement, and deserves careful reflection.

Raphael’s first point is, in my view, the most important contribution of the book, and one that should serve as a counterpoint to the accepted narratives about acquaintance rape. Using the detailed accounts of rape survivors, Raphael paints a convincing picture of the violence and manipulation of date rapists. The women recount being shoved, restrained and asphyxiated. They are protesting, screaming, crying, bleeding and trying to get away. In one case, the woman is unconscious. Afterwards, the men rationalize, threaten, cajole and shame the women. This information is important because it reminds us that just because the victim is known to the rapist does not mean that he is not violent to her or that he does not know exactly what he is doing. This research will be valuable to both the reader who is relatively new to the subject as well as those who are long-time activists and rape law scholars.

Of course, like so much writing about rape, the book’s first-hand descriptions of acquaintance rape can also be used against women’s interests. If these accounts become the new stereotype of date rapists, they threaten to reify an understanding of rape as requiring proof of resistance and may obscure the fact that women may simply give up out of fear, resignation or self-preservation. Raphael recognizes this when she writes effectively about the reaction to the sexual assault allegations against Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and the prominent left-wing writers, feminists among them, who rushed to his defense and sought to downplay the facts underlying the charges against him. Raphael herself seems to oscillate between support for a more expansive legal understanding of sexual violence and a narrower one, acknowledging the debates over what, if anything, other than forcible penetration should be rape, and not coming to any clear conclusions about the sexual assault of women who are intoxicated or “high”. This may be consistent with her arguments, discussed below, that some anti-rape advocates are being less than rigorous with some of their claims.

The book’s second theme is that when it comes to acquaintance rape, we live in a culture of rape denial. This denial manifests itself not only in victim-blaming and intransigence on the part of authorities, but in attacks from both women who may profess sympathy with feminist aims and conservatives who see feminism as a threat. Raphael provides ample examples of these problems culled from a variety of sources. Although the book is clearly intended for a popular audience, rather than an academic audience, at times the sheer number of undifferentiated examples are a distraction, coming from different years and contexts and deserving of greater or lesser weight. Cases of child sexual abuse by coaches and priests, and historical cases such as fugitive film director Roman Polanski, are mixed in with references to the women who Raphael interviewed and comments from online commentators. If the reader is to draw connections between these cases, there also needs to be a clear explanation as to what one is to make of the apparent differences among them.

The final theme of this book is more critical of the feminist project. Raphael spends considerable time examining the available evidence regarding the rate of false rape claims as well as the actual incidence and prevalence of acquaintance rape. She shows how rape deniers repeat their unfounded attacks on sexual violence research by using selective studies and misreporting data. At the same time, however, she argues that many of the statistics used by advocates are articles of faith with little sound basis in the evidence. In particular, Mary Koss’ work, in which 20 to 25% of women respondents said that they had experienced behaviors that met the definition of rape, has been misreported by some advocates to mean that 1 in 4 women will be raped while in college. Similarly, the claim that only 2% of rape claims are false, which is likely a misreporting of a figure in Brownmiller’s book, also draws Raphael’s ire.

Raphael is of course right that feminists cannot afford to be anything other than scrupulously accurate in their claims. To do otherwise just gives ammunition to their detractors.  Yet I think her position is probably too demanding, especially in the digital age where facts and figures tend to take on a life of their own. It is perhaps unfair to expect that every student activist with good intentions can, as she recommends, read the original research on which the figures are based, compare it to the larger body of social science literature, and cast a critical eye on figures that are widely repeated. It is also to be expected that feminist anti-rape activists will sometimes express themselves less than perfectly in media interviews. The fact is that, even when the best possible information is used, the lifetime prevalence of sexual abuse for women is extremely high and reports to police later verified as false (as opposed to merely classified as “unfounded”) unsurprisingly low. These claims can be asserted with confidence, and yet are still met with anger and denial.

Rape is Rape seeks to set the record straight on acquaintance rape and move us beyond a rape denial culture. Raphael does not mince words with either her detractors or her allies. The book’s greatest strength is that so many women trusted her to tell their stories, reminding us that the struggle against sexual violence continues to deserve our attention.


Susan Brownmiller, Against our Will: Men, Women and Rape (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1975).

Diana Russell, The Politics of Rape: The Victim’s Perspective (New York: Stein & Day, 1975).

Rape in Marriage (New York: Macmillan, 1982).

Lorenne Clark and Debra Lewis, Rape: The Price of Coercive Sexuality (Toronto: Women’s Press, 1977).

Louise Armstrong, Kiss Daddy Goodnight: A Speak-out on Incest (New York: Hawthoen Books, 1978).

Susan Estrich, Real Rape (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987).

Robin Warshaw (with Mary Koss) I Never Called it Rape (New York: Harper & Row 1988).

Katie Roiphe, The Morning After: Sex, Fear and Feminism on Campus (Boston: Little, Brown, 1993).

Janine Benedet, Associate Professor, Faculty of Law, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada.

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