February 3, 2011

Congress Calling For A Redefinition of Rape…And It’s Not So Good

In an effort to restrict funding for abortions, the Smith bill actually redefines how rape is conceptualized.

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A new bill introduced by Representative Chris Smith has the potential to redefine rape. The bill, entitled No Taxpayer Funding of Abortion Act, aims to further restrict federal funding for abortions and through those restrictions redefines the term rape. Currently, federal funds cannot be used to pay for abortions, except in cases of rape, incest, or in the event that the woman’s life is in danger. However, the Smith bill, with the support of 173 members of the House (as of right now) would narrow the scope of rape even further to include, “cases of ‘forcible’ rape but not statutory or coerced rape.” What does this mean given that nearly 90% of rapes include a perpetrator known to the victim and thus potentially limited physical indicators of force? The language of the bill seems ambiguous. In fact, according to Laurie Levenson, a former assistant US attorney and expert on criminal law at Loyola Law School in LA, the writers of the bill are “using language that’s not particularly clear, and some people are going to lose protection.” Many states do not have a legal definition for the term, “forcible rape,” and in fact, the term is not defined in federal criminal code. So it sounds like certain rapes will likely NOT be covered under this legislation such as when a woman is drugged or given excessive amounts of alcohol, date rape, and the rape of women with limited mental capacity. Additionally, the bill would not cover abortion in the event of incest in which the female is 18 years of age or older. Levenson states that, “there are a lot of aspects of rape that are not included” in the bill and therefore, it sounds a lot like the Smith bill says that some rape is rape and other types of rape don’t qualify as rape.

A throw back in time

Like most women in their 20’s, I have come to expect certain rights that women were not afforded 100, 50, 20 years ago and that many women had to fight long and hard for. One of those battles, which continue to be fought today, is about rape. In my opinion, this legislation spits in the face of that battle. According to Steph Sterling, a lawyer and senior adviser to the National Women’s Law Center, “this bill takes us back to a time when just saying ‘no’ wasn’t enough to qualify as rape.” It sounds like this bill says that rape does not count unless a woman displays physical indicators of force such as bruises, cuts or scrapes. So what does that say to women who go into shock, to women who rationalize that fighting back may result in greater suffering, to women who were drugged and cannot fight back or even remember what happened to them, or to women who are paralyzed by disbelief that they are being forced to do something by someone they know and trust? Are we telling these women that their experience does not matter? That their experience does not count as rape? Furthermore, what messages are we sending to women with diminished mental capacities or to girls over 18 who are forced into incest? Show some evidence that you tried to fight back and then we can accept this as a legitimate rape experience? We must not simply ignore the documented evidence that power differentials as well as the feelings of fear, guilt and shame associated with rape and incest can prevent women from fighting back with brute force.

Another point for anti-women activists

I have previously blogged about some of the ongoing battles women face when it comes to sexual assault and victimization. This bill is extremely disappointing because it is a huge, glaring example of victim blaming. Essentially this legislation says to me that certain rapes are bad and worthy of the title rape and other situations of rape are not. And this message is just a small hop away from the mentality of “well she could have done more to prevent that rape and therefore on some level she is at fault.” I know that people can get emotionally tied to the issue of abortion when it comes to this legislation. But I am not talking about the issue of abortion. In fact, historically pro- and anti-choice sides have seen a middle ground on issues of rape. Yet this legislation is asking Americans to redefine rape and regardless of which side of the fence you fall on in terms of the issue of choice, as a woman, or husband, partner, friend, supporter, or family member of women, that fact is scary.