Daybook · On Politics

Impossibly Elastic Sexual Violence

This has been bugging me ever since I read it.

A new CDC study attempts to quantify the number of people in the United States who have been a victim of rape and sexual violence, which includes stalking and “intimate partner violence”, a broader definition of domestic violence, and coercion involving reproductive health.

The report doesn’t suggest that anyone lump all these categories together, but in a take down on the methodology in The Washington Post, Christina Huff Sommers does just that and totes the categories, arriving, of course, at a very high number. She goes on to claim that the number of people who are counted as being a victim of some sort in this study is overdramatic, overstated, way too high — “comparable to war-stricken Congo.”  She argues that the methodology has been infested by feminist theory and that the CDC should recall the report.

This is the part that amazed me the most:

In a telephone survey with a 30 percent response rate, interviewers did not ask participants whether they had been raped. Instead of such straightforward questions, the CDC researchers described a series of sexual encounters and then they determined whether the responses indicated sexual violation. A sample of 9,086 women was asked, for example, “When you were drunk, high, drugged, or passed out and unable to consent, how many people ever had vaginal sex with you?” A majority of the 1.3 million women (61.5 percent) the CDC projected as rape victims in 2010 experienced this sort of “alcohol or drug facilitated penetration.”

What does that mean? If a woman was unconscious or severely incapacitated, everyone would call it rape. But what about sex while inebriated? Few people would say that intoxicated sex alone constitutes rape — indeed, a nontrivial percentage of all customary sexual intercourse, including marital intercourse, probably falls under that definition (and is therefore criminal according to the CDC).

This has to be one of the silliest arguments I’ve ever read on such a serious subject.

A thought experiment: if you get drunk at a party, and someone steals your wallet, does it count as a theft? Or is it a gift?

Of course it’s a theft! We can argue about whether one should be getting drunk at a party or not, but the fact is that if a person doesn’t consent to a sexual act, whether they’re physically capable of giving that consent or not, something has gone very wrong. A crime has been committed, and the CDC gets it right.

But let me back up here because the question Christina Huff Somers poses here is a major red herring.  What about sex when inebriated or intoxicated, she asks, pointing out that a great deal of even hallowed marital sex would fall under that category, and therefore “probably” falls under the CDC’s definition of sexual violence.

Is she serious? The question from the study she reproduces is clear — the issue here isn’t whether a few cocktails went down the hatch before married people hijinx ensued, but whether there was consent. I simply don’t understand how this could be in any way controversial:  Nonconsensual sex is the very definition of rape.

The term “rape” is loaded, in part because of arguments like this, and so many victims have trouble saying the words “I was raped”. Good for the CDC for phrasing the question in a way that gets past that.  And shame on Christina Hoff Sommers for wasting everyone’s time with ridiculous comparisons.


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