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You’ve heard a lot about rape the past couple of years, all sorts of loose talk about rape jokes and rape babies and rape culture, the kind of heated, polarizing discussion you probably figured would end with the current election cycle. Instead, the drumbeat’s only grown louder. Are the number of rapes on the rise, then? Actually, they’ve declined steadily for the past three decades, though the US still leads the first world countries in rapes per capita. So is this a manufactured issue, then? Is the issue of rape merely an unfortunate fact of life, one that’s always been with us, but one that’s been played up recently in order to gain some political end?

Well, in a way, it is. In the same way that gay marriage is an issue that appeared seemingly out of nowhere on America’s cultural landscape in the past few years, or the way that granting blacks the simple right to vote suddenly transformed the social landscape of the country in what had been a placid and orderly postwar society. And that’s because rape, which has been dealt with as a public safety issue, a morality issue, and even occasionally as the crime it is, is actually a civil rights issue — one that’s riding a groundswell of change right now not because the issue got bigger, but because the world keeps getting smaller. The imbalance in question is now too large to ignore; like abolitionism just before the Civil War, the issue is starting to bleed into areas where we used to be able to ignore it: social media, high school football, presidential elections. To paraphrase Al Franken, rape has been blown into proportion.

Rape was once mistakenly considered a sex act, even though sex was merely the weapon used in the crime; if forcible sex was as easy to pull off as squeezing a trigger, it’d be happening on every corner. Over the past few decades, it’s been more properly rebranded as an act of aggression, but as recent incidents like the Steubenville, Ohio “rape crew” trial prove, that definition isn’t big enough either. A town with a remarkable history of civil rights violations, Steubenville is also home to no fewer than sixteen students who refuse to divulge more details on what happened that night of August 11, 2012, all of whom have now been subpoenaed by the Ohio attorney general to appear before a grand jury. Even if we somehow assume half of them are blameless, that still means eight kids thought it was okay to rape, or help others to rape, an unconscious teenage girl. Were they all angry at her? At anything? Likely not. They did it because they had the power to do it, and they thought it was normal for them to have that power, and to use it.

Rape is a civil rights issue because it’s an abuse of power. People largely do it because they’ve got pretty good odds of getting away with it; only half of all rapes in America get reported to the police, and of those, only one-quarter will even go to trial. Rape is indeed an ugly fact of human nature, but like murder, that doesn’t mean society is helpless to control it. It only has to care enough.

Men, particularly straight men, make up (by far) the majority of rapists. However, having a penis doesn’t make you a rapist any more than having a gun makes you a murderer. Society helps with that. Murder is a crime, for example, but it wasn’t always so in America — there was a time when being black meant your life could be taken by a white man with little or no consequences, especially if he were considered your property and not some other white man’s.

In the same way, rape was once dismissed in the context of marriage, hard to “prove” or prosecute, because married women were considered their husband’s property. Some countries still have these kind of laws, and it’s not at all coincidental that they also have the most rapes per capita. And while America is somewhat more enlightened than those societies, women here are still dealing with the legacy of being second-class citizens. Rape still happens because, in the eyes of far too many husbands, lawmakers, law enforcers, and even some complicit women, being female makes you a receptacle for sex. It’s still seen, by and large, as a female’s primary function.

Don’t believe it? Then, like me, you’re probably a hetero male. And if you are, allow me to demonstrate my point by raising the specter of unwanted gay sex. The only time straight guys ever get uncomfortable talking about rape is when it’s in the context of prison — the one remaining sex-segregated area of society, and the only one where men, now property of the state, are allowed to be raped. Going to jail? Congratulations! Your manhood is suddenly up for grabs. You’re someone’s bitch now, and the only thing you’ve done is share a cell with someone who’s bigger and stronger than you.

Women, on the other hand, live in a prison every day of their lives: most women are smaller and not as physically strong as their male counterparts. Getting someone to pay attention to or care about their rape, much less fully prosecute it, is just as difficult as it is for a male prisoner in lockup. And so, with apologies to my gay friends and their consensual sex lives, let’s flip the script and see how those double standards would work on a hetero male.

Is it rape?

  • Straight men, if you were walking alone at night and a man pulled you into an alley and forced anal sex on you, you’d consider it rape. It wouldn’t matter that you’d made a decision to walk alone at night, would it? After all, that’s your right.
  • If you went to a party and a man took you anally in the bathroom without your consent, you’d consider that rape. It wouldn’t matter if you’d worn your sexiest outfit, even if you wore it because you were hoping to have sex (with a female, of course). And you’d punch someone in the face if they even hinted that you’d given up your right to not be raped when you let yourself get too drunk to make decisions. Or remain conscious.
  • Likewise, if you met another straight dude you thought was really cool, and you hung out with him one night, it would in no way imply that your ass was fair game, would it? Hanging out with him wouldn’t be enough to be considered implicit consent; it wouldn’t matter if he were a senator, or a rock star, or a famous athlete, even if that’s why you wanted to hang out with him in the first place. You’ve still been raped.
  • If you, a hetero male, were ordered to give your male boss a blowjob or a handjob in order to stay employed, or if the threat was even implied, you probably wouldn’t consider that natural. part of the process of climbing the corporate ladder. No, it’s still attempted rape. Now imagine for a second that you sue your boss for trying to force you into sex, and you get on the stand, and his lawyer reveals that you’d slept with a few women in the office, and so that somehow made you immoral and seductive and therefore unrapeable. How would that make you feel?

The reason society, still dominated by straight men, makes endless excuses for rape is that we straight males have been taught to always push for sex with women, and to never ever have sex pushed upon (or into) us. Why? Because we’ve always run the world, and by and large, we still do. We have the power. And one group using power to their advantage against another group — again, that’s the very definition of a civil rights issue. If you don’t think so, talk to another hetero bro who’s done some hard time, and ask him how the world worked when no one cared about his right to do anything but keep breathing. Then ask yourself what it might be like to be raised in a jail.

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