We can’t fix a problem we don’t understand.
Rape myths and misconceptions are rampant. It’s incredibly common to think of rapists as strangers with weapons. Rare. Many people believe a sexual victimization isn’t harmful if no vaginal penetration happens. False. The idea that a husband can’t rape his wife still exists. Wrong. The notion someone held in high regard (say, A VERY FAMOUS PERSON) would never "slip you a Mickey" or otherwise force himself on you is simply incorrect.
Since many people don’t have an accurate understanding of what rape is, there are folks walking around suffering the consequences of sexual violence without even understanding that they’ve been victimized. A primary reason why rape continues to exist is that there’s so much silence about it.
Not here. Not now. If our goal is to #EndRape4Ever, we have to talk about it—and we have to know what it is.
We recently spoke to Monika Johnson Hostler, Executive Director of the North Carolina Coalition Against Sexual Assault and President of the the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence for some clarity and insight. Some of her answers to what seems like simple questions may surprise you. Read on.
EBONY.com: What is rape?
Monika Johnson Hostler: The elements that are consistent across the country, because every state and territory has their own specific definition of rape, is some use of force, unwanted, without consent sexual contact. In North Carolina, our definition is clear that it’s carnal knowledge, meaning it can only be penile-vaginal. A lot of states have made theirs gender neutral, so it doesn’t have to be penile or vaginal. It can be same-sex. It’s important to understand contextually that every state is different.
More than half the states still have force in their rape definition, although we don’t agree with it because we know most rapes don’t have to actually have force. They actually just do not have consent. There’s no consistent definition for consent. That’s a huge problem.
EBONY.com: What is sexual assault?
MJH: Sexual assault is really an umbrella term. Sexual assault has a continuum of unwanted sexual acts.
EBONY.com: Here’s the definition I use when I give talks: Sexual assault is a form of violence which involves the sexual body parts of the perpetrator, the victim or both. It can involve objects. Any unwanted sexual contact, whether or not the assailant uses his physical strength, wields a weapon, drugs the victim or articulates a threat, is a sexual assault. I’ve seen statistics that say in a single year rapists use a weapon in only 7 percent to 11 percent of assaults.
MJH: That’s exactly right. Because you’re using the word sexual assault, so that absolutely for me is a great definition that is all-encompassing. If you’re going throughout the country, what you just said would fit anybody’s statute.
EBONY.com: What do you think is most misunderstood about sexual violence?
MJH: Unfortunately, what I still think is misunderstood is that people assume [the assailant is] a stranger and they do assume there is use of a weapon of some sort. Almost 19 years into this work, I have seen fewer stranger rapes, but the most media attention around stranger rapes.
I always tell people, 'As a parent do I worry about stranger danger?' Yes. [However] the people in our lives that are associated with us, that it appears that we trust, those are the people I worry about most.
EBONY.com: Are there specific scenarios of sexual assault that you find are commonly misunderstood? For example, a boyfriend and girlfriend. People think, “Well, if they’re in a relationship and they’ve had sex before, then it can’t really be rape.”
MJH: That is the most common. Which is why those military sexual assaults and campus sexual assaults are huge public issues right now, because it’s forcing people to [think] in a way that they’ve never thought before—when you look at these two issues, these are not stranger [perpetrators]. They’ve had some kind of consensual, sexual contact at some point or they’re familiar with each other.
People still assume one-time contact equals lifetime consent and that’s a huge concern. I always tell young people consent is required every time.
EBONY.com: The traditional understanding in the anti-rape movement that I always heard was that "rape is about power and control and has nothing to do with sex," but I personally was never completely convinced by that. A Black woman leader in the movement was the first person to say to me: I disagree with that. I think that rape has to do with both power and sex.
MJH: Absolutely. Quite frankly, we know that to be true if we look at young people’s relationships and the way that they commit sexual violence.
EBONY.com: Explain that.
MJH: Look at the campus sexual assault cases that don’t deal with past or current relationships. Young men by virtue [of the fact] that they have access to vulnerable women, rape them. I do not think that in that case it is about the need to control. I think it’s about the [desire] to have sex.
For instance, Steubenville [a 2013 case of two teenage boys convicted of raping an unconscious 16-year-old girl]. I looked at almost all of the video footage and [listened to the] audio footage that was out there. It absolutely was about, “We have a drunk girl in the car. I’m going to have sex with her. I’ve never had sex in this position. I’m going to do it with her because she’s intoxicated and passed out.” There were several young men in the car with them who talked about performing sex acts with her and it literally was because they could.
EBONY.com: Why is there still so much confusion about what rape and sexual assault are?
MJH: I think the reason why there’s still so much confusion is because people just cannot believe what we’re saying. I always say this about why rapes are often not adjudicated in the court. Women who have been sexually assaulted say that female jurors were the hardest. As a society we need to believe that rape is something that happens to other people. So if we own what the prevalence of sexual assault really is, then we have to own that it could happen to any of us, at any time, in any relationship. If you own it, then you have to do something about it. And as long as people get to pretend that it’s somewhere else, it’s somebody else, then to me that’s the confusion. Why 40-plus years later of a full movement we still have people believing women "ask for it" and blaming victims, I have no idea.
Lori S. Robinson is a journalist and the author of “I Will Survive: The African-American Guide to Healing from Sexual Assault and Abuse.” Her work has been published in the Detroit Free Press, Chicago Tribune, Washington Post and several national magazines. She is the special guest editor of the EBONY.com series: ENDING RAPE 4EVER.