The Rape Spectrum

Rape is Rape.

This is a phrase repeated ad nauseam in many circles, especially those deep in the discourse of rape, rape culture, and consent culture. The reason I say “ad nauseam” isn’t because I’m tired of hearing it, far from it. That simple concept is the key to eradicating rape culture once and for all. The reason I say “ad nauseam” is because the word “rape” means different things to different people. By defiantly saying “Rape is Rape” without an agreed cultural definition becomes meaningless. The person saying “Rape is Rape,” likely a lawmaker, politician, or anti-rape activist/advocate, all have different images of what “rape” means.

This is one of the biggest problems with The R Word.

When one hears the word rape, one generally pictures an extremely brutal attack of sexual violence, usually by a stranger wielding a knife or gun, that jumps out of a dark alley or some nondescript bushes and with overt brutality and threats of bodily harm and/or death violently rapes his victim.

With this image in mind when the word rape is spoken, the person hearing it finds it difficult to believe that the charming, funny, attractive person in their ecstatic dance troupe did such a thing. The one “crying rape” must be exaggerating. It must be a misunderstanding. They must be crazy or seeking revenge.

The above rape scenario is what I and a large portion of the people involved in the anti-rape discourse call “stereotypical rape.” The response to an accusation of rape in a community, as described in the proceeding paragraph, is also, quite unfortunately, stereotypically common.

The “stereotypical rape” scenario is, of course, rape–a severely brutal manifestation of rape that accounts for less than 15% of rapes in our culture. In an attempt to clarify the way a specific rape was perpetrated, some try to categorize it as “acquaintance rape” or “coercive rape” or “oral rape” or “digital rape” or “corrective rape” or “marital rape.” Such categorizations come across as somehow less-serious than, like Whoopi once put it, rape-rape. This is where survivors and anti-rape advocates will angrily shout “Rape is Rape,” but until those hearing those words understand what behaviors the word rape encompasses, the phrase becomes meaningless.

As a survivor who not only had a difficult time accepting what was done to her was, indeed, rape, but also had three separate progressive communities turn their backs on her and embrace her rapist, all the while calling her a liar and vindictive and the rest, this is a rather sensitive topic for me. Not being believed, especially by friends, family, and colleagues, is as traumatic as the assault itself, in many cases. It’s called secondary trauma. A rape victim finds themselves between that proverbial rock and its cohort the hard place. Say “so-and-so raped me,” and the image that comes to mind is “stereotypical rape.” As more details come out and the victim’s specific rape scenario doesn’t match that image in the listener’s mind, she suddenly becomes a liar. Vindictive. Exaggerating. Etc. Clarify and call it “coercive rape” or something similar, and the victim gets inundated with judgments between “that’s not really rape” and shouts of “Rape is rape! How dare you classify it/minimize it/normalize it.”

Let’s compare rape to murder, something that has a very obvious outcome, and in my eyes, is no worse than rape. In fact, I’ve said my whole life that if I was ever raped I hoped the guy would kill me as I couldn’t survive it. I was speaking about stereotypical rape, but I’ve found that the more common forms of rape can be even more devastating because of the inner doubt and societal doubt, all while suffering the same traumatic effects of that very overt, plenty-of-physical-evidence type of rape. Rape murders a part of the victim’s soul and often leaves a shell that appears to be unharmed behind, so very few believe the unseen damage is as devastating as it can be, and usually is.

If a perpetrator takes the life of another human being, they can do so in many different ways. The result is the same: their victim is dead. The murderer murdered the victim. This murder can be perpetrated in a variety of ways from a lethal injection of a fatal substance that doesn’t cause the victim any pain and takes their life in a few seconds to a multi-hour or day ordeal complete with extreme torture and terror before finally releasing them to death, and countless scenarios in between. This is the spectrum of murder. The result is the same for each victim: a person or persons took the victim’s life from them using some sort of force or coercion to get close enough to do so.

Rape has a similar spectrum, and this is where it gets subtly confusing. There is no lesser offense, as any rape is too severe, but there are greater offenses: horrific ordeals with the use of gratuitous violence and brutality.

A murdered might thrust a knife through the sternum of his victim. Another murderer might poison her victim with a toxic plant, mixed in with his tea. A third might give an overdose of a drug which could result, depending on the drug, in a horrific, painful death or a death at the end of a pleasurable trip or peaceful sleep.

Just as murder can be perpetrated using differing tools in one’s murderous arsenal, rapists use a plethora of tools to perpetrate rape from outright brutality and overwhelming force to coercion or emotional manipulation or the use of drugs or alcohol. The result is the same: each perpetrator is exhibiting control over their victim and demonstrating their power and “right” to their victim’s body, regardless of consent.

In an attempt to avoid classifying rape into perceptively “lesser” forms, I propose we change up our semantics to reflect that, indeed, rape is rape and it can be perpetrated by many methods, none any more traumatic than another, as it often depends on the victim’s ability to withstand trauma and their history of abuse as to how deeply damaged they are from the attack. Meaning, one person who has never suffered abuse before might be brutally, stereotypically raped, and they might cope with their attack better than a person who has endured years of covert emotional abuse and multiple rapes by coercion or intoxication. The latter, seemingly less brutal, but due to the victim’s nervous system, forced to adapt to years of “lesser” offenses and cultural denial of her victimization, might struggle on a deeper level. Both people have been violated in the most humiliating and damaging way, but the first one has cultural support, since their rape fits the stereotype, and the second person is disbelieved, setting them up to be raped again and again. Their body and mind react to the trauma just as the first person’s did, but the second has the added struggle of doubting themselves and dealing with the plethora of victim-blaming and rape apologia that are both deeply ingrained in this rape culture.

My intention in showing these two different ways rape can be perpetrated is not to make one a “lesser” offense than the other. Not by any means. My point is that the rape perpetrated in the culturally accepted, stereotypical way might find more cultural and legal support, enabling the victim to process the trauma with the support of her community, family, and with a sense of justice. The other, far more common form of rape, although not as overtly violent, meaning there are no visible, physical marks or signs, might be more traumatic in the long run because of cultural and personal doubt. Neither rape is “worse” or “better” than the other. Both are rape. After all, rape is rape, but the aftermath of the assaults can be made worse or better depending upon the amount of support the victim receives from society and their community.

Here are a few examples of the ways rapists perpetrate rape, by far from all-inclusive. Please forgive the profanity.


  • Fucking or fingering or going down on a person who is unconscious is rape
  • Fucking or fingering or going down on a person who is too drunk or drugged or terrified or emotionally distraught to freely consent is rape
  • Fucking or fingering or going down on a person who is crying their eyes out, terrified that if they don’t do it they’ll be abandoned or hurt or punished is rape.
  • Consenting to sex with a lover who turns violent halfway through without additional consent for that level of aggression/violence is rape
  • Violent, angry sex as means of a punishment for a perceived slight is rape.
  • Coercion is rape. Which means, if she says no and/or pushes your hand away, and you keep going and keep going and keep going, inching forward a little at a time until you finally wear her down and she “gives in,” that’s rape.

As for these rapists who made a “mistake” or didn’t know what they were doing or claim to have some “misunderstanding,” it’s still rape. So, for all you rapists who don’t think they’re rapists. Read the article “Rapists Who Don’t Think They’re Rapists” from the Washington City Paper. We’ve got your number now. You know if something isn’t right. If it’s not “legally” rape, meaning it can’t be proven beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law, it is still rape. You know the difference between enthusiastic consent and a partner trying to stop you or who is terrified or who is repeatedly saying or indicating no or who is too intoxicated to consent.

You fucking know.

As of now, our culture protects rapists, which is part of what we call Rape Culture, but not for long thanks to people who refuse to stay silent about this culturally taboo subject. Survivors who refuse to stay silent about what happened to them because it makes others uncomfortable. Survivors who refuse to stay silent even when the law and society says they need to shut-the-fuck up.

Because, let me tell you one thing, provable or not in a court of law, rape is rape is rape. Too many people think rape must be violent rape by a stranger in a dark alley or in the bushes.

Too many people think of “date rape” as somehow not as traumatic as stranger rape. It is. Perhaps more so because you have the betrayal of a loved one on top of the humiliating assault.

Too many people think rape has to be violent to be rape. It doesn’t. It can be coerced. It can be emotionally manipulated. It can be under intoxication. It can be by impersonation.

Too many people think consent cannot be withdrawn. It can. At any time.

Too many people think that rape depends on the promiscuity level or lifestyle or attire or geographical location of the victim. It doesn’t.

The responsibility for rape lies on the head of one person: the rapist. Secondary responsibility lies in the hands of our communities who continue to victim-blame, excuse and doubt the behavior of accused rapists, and renew their social license to operate by turning their eyes away.

The victim is not to blame. Ever.