What we talk about when we talk about rape

Oct 6, 2015
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“We need to draw distinctions between behavior that is criminal, behavior that is stupid and behavior that results from the dance of ambiguity,” writes Carol Tavris in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times

What we talk about when we talk about rape

Students at Dickinson College marched across campus in March 2011 demanding the school deal more harshly with students who committed sexual offenses. (Jason Malmont / Associated Press)

When I was a young social psychologist and feminist in the 1970s, I never imagined that I would be asked to testify for the defense in a rape case. Rape laws at the time still included the “marital rape exemption,” with rape commonly defined as “an act of sexual intercourse with a female, not one’s wife, against her will and consent.” Men joked about this. “If you can’t rape your wife,” California state Sen. Bob Wilson said to a group of women in 1979, “who can you rape?”

Making the nation aware of the reality and brutality of rape — in a time of jokes, nonsensical theories and misogynist laws — was an arduous task, so it put me in a state of cognitive dissonance when a female defense attorney asked me to work with her on a case. Her client had been accused of raping a woman he had fired for incompetence.

The plaintiff had ready responses to the defense attorney’s questions. Why did she wait a month after her dismissal to file charges against him? She was traumatized. Why didn’t she report it at the time to anyone she knew, or a doctor? She was ashamed. Why didn’t she have emotional or physical symptoms then or afterward? The absence of symptoms is a symptom of “rape trauma syndrome.”

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