Consider this: Can you kill someone without being a murderer? Of course you can. You can kill someone by accident or by being careless. You can kill someone on purpose, either in the heat of the moment, under the influence, or with premeditation. The law allows for these differences, and the crimes are treated differently by the justice system, the media, and the public.
Why doesn’t this same logic apply to the issue of rape and sexual violence?
First, with murder, no one argues whether or not the victim is dead – regardless of whether the killer planned the murder for months, stabbed the victim in a bar fight, or ran them off the road while drunk. With sexual violence, this is not the case. Instead, we decide whether the victim is a victim based on whether the perpetrator used a weapon, was “confused” about consent, or had a prior relationship with the victim.
The end result of a sexual assault is always the same: someone was sexually assaulted. It doesn’t matter whether it was a first offense or a tenth offense, whether the perpetrator is a nice guy or an evil rapist or whether he or she was drunk or sober at the time. Someone was sexually assaulted. And for that person, the impact on their emotional and psychological health is the same. That doesn’t mean that the “how it happened” isn’t relevant to the perspective of the offender. It just doesn’t matter to the victim.
Second, because the victims of manslaughter or murder are dead, we don’t talk much about how the victim feels or felt about the perpetrator. We just assume the victim must hate the person because the person killed him/her. With sexual violence, we have to face the hard truth that sexual assaults are often committed by people we actually like and trust. It’s the person you liked enough to say yes to a second date. It’s the person you were in love with at some time. It’s a family member or family friend that you spend the holidays with and confide in about your life.
It doesn’t help victims to create a false either/or. Either this person is a “good” person who made a mistake or an “evil” person that will always be evil. In one scenario, victims are forced to minimize their experiences of being assaulted and forgive the good person for their terrible mistake they made. In the other scenario, victims are forced to question their judgement for trusting, liking, or loving someone who is truly evil. This isn’t to say that some sexual assaults are in a gray area, less legitimate, or rape-rape. It’s about validating survivors complex reactions to the reality that good and evil exist side-by-side in our world.
In my personal experience as a survivor, the hard part was not being angry at the evil of my perpetrators. It was coming to terms with the fact that I loved them. They were my grandparents, after all. And despite all they had done to me, they also showed me affection and love, however twisted it was.
Simplistic, polarizing views also don’t allow for redemption, remorse, and responsibility for perpetrators and they don’t allow for resilience and recovery for survivors. Like it or not, humanity is a little more complex than that. It may not be as debate-worthy in today’s blogosphere, but it’s the reality that so many survivors and their friends and family members live with on a daily basis.
If you want to read about the origins of this debate, start here on The Good Men Project and then read this response. There was more on this topic, but this will get you started.