What is Rape? What is Sex?

What is rape? Well, what is sex? If rape is sex without consent, then we have to define sex before we can define rape. A legal case in Ohio is currently revealing confusion about what counts as rape. Many of us (especially those under 40!) believe sex is only about vaginal intercourse/sexual intercourse. Remember President Clinton’s insistence that he did not have sex in the oval office? Because it was only a blowjob? We have to define what sex is before we can answer what is rape.

What is Sex?

How we define sex is so important. As a therapist, I work with many married or committed couples who wonder about their sex life. Is it good enough? Should they be doing “it” more often? Well, what exactly is “it”? Measuring a healthy sex life by only counting how often a penis enters a vagina is a bit absurd and completely unhelpful. Why? Because human sexual pleasure comes from many other activities. Intimate, physical connection doesn’t require sexual intercourse. When a couple worries about the state of their sex life, I worry about how often they are intimately connecting in many ways. Whether the connection is there or not is the important thing. The connection shows whether a relationship is healthy or not.

I think this habit of reducing sex to just vaginal intercourse comes from many things. Public policy debate and education in the last twenty years has focused heavily on unwanted pregnancy and abortion. Some people wish to deny non-hetero intercourse as not “sex” for their own moral reasons. Since the Puritan era, defining sex has mostly been about protecting inheritance and maximizing (white) men’s access to any available (meaning without father or husband, women of color, lower class, etc) woman. If sex is just vaginal intercourse, then deciding what counts is pretty clear cut and easy. Maybe. What is rape if sex is vaginal intercourse? Under this definition, rape is vaginal intercourse without consent.

As the Ohio case shows, this definition leads to confusion. Confusion about what is rape can lead to legal consequences, but it always has psychological and emotional consequences.

What is Rape? 7 Reasons Vaginal Penetration is a Bad Definition (at least psychologically)

Loads of books and academic journals have been written trying to answer what is rape, so I am only going to touch on the complexity here. Although the news story that inspired this post is talking about a legal situation, I am going to look at this from an emotional and psychological well-being perspective. I am going to assume rape means sex without consent. As we’ve said above, sex means vaginal intercourse. (I’m not agreeing with this definition, just using it to show its limitations!) So rape is vaginal intercourse without consent. Ummm… here’s my concerns, based on personal and professional experience:

  1. Marital rape: In my experience, emotional and psychological pain resulting from violations does not distinguish between unwanted vaginal intercourse and other unwanted sexual acts. Within committed relationships, sexual boundaries can be crossed in many ways: through anal or oral penetration, through degrading acts or humiliation, or through veiled threats.

  2. Same-sex relations: Rape and consensual sex happen between same-sex people.

  3. Yes means yes, and no means no – to what exactly? Last year, slut walks took place in many cities. ‘Yes means yes and no means no’ was a common rallying cry. If sex is only vaginal intercourse, then what does it mean if my date sticks his hands down my pants without my consent? From a mental health standpoint, I am likely to still feel used and disturbed after this encounter, at some level.

  4. Street compliments and objectification: Under a narrow understanding of sex (and consequently rape), how do we understand wolf whistles and cat calls? Are they a part of the rape culture or do they have nothing to with sex? When does admiration cross the line and cause damage to a person or to their image?

  5. Safety: Vulnerable people, like minors, women, women of color, LGBT folk, lower-class, etc. worry about their safety in the world. How does this definition of rape protect them from unwanted physical contact that falls short of sexual penentration?

  6. Defining infidelity: If sex is only vaginal penetration, then how do we define infidelity? In my experience, infidelity doesn’t require sexual intercourse to leave one partner feeling betrayed.

  7. Healthy sexuality: Finally, from a sex-positive standpoint, I worry about our presumption that sex only counts if it includes vaginal penetration and orgasm. This definition increases anxiety about our sexes lives that is often inaccurate. It limits our sexual imaginations. It minimizes the range of possibility in physical intimacy.

How do you define sex? What is rape in your opinion? How did you come to these understandings?

Photo credit  Lucas Cobb via Compfight