Guest column: What we talk about when we talk about rape

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.”

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 controversy 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.”

The defense attorney was not squeamish in questioning the plaintiff specifically about what she claimed had happened in her office.

The courtroom was silent as everyone, male and female, realized what a challenge that would be with a willing woman, let alone a protesting one. The woman next to me said, “Pantyhose are nature’s chastity belt.” The defendant was acquitted.

That defense attorney taught me two important lessons: Don’t let ideology ever trump justicefor women who are wrongly disbelieved or for men who are wrongly accusedand don’t shy away from precise questions, to clarify what “rape” is when we talk about rape.

Our challenge is to accept what is valid in both perspectives. We can vigorously pursue the goals of justice for rape victims and fairness for accused perpetrators. We can understand that many acts of sexual assault are violent, and appreciate the subtleties of sexual communication that can create mischief and misery.

It’s the subtleties that cause such controversy. When many people think of rape, they imagine two strangers, but 85 percent of all reports of rape occur between people who know each other.

When trying to reduce sexual assault, labeling all forms of sexual misconduct, including unwanted touches and sloppy kisses, as rape is alarmist and unhelpful. We need to draw distinctions between behavior that is criminal, behavior that is stupid and behavior that results from the dance of ambiguity.