Recently, our new favorite insult-generator, Richard, left this comment, designed to cut me down to size: "No one wants to rape you, Shakes. Sorry to inform you."
Which, you know, was news to me.
It also put me in mind of one of the most irritating attitudes toward rape that I have repeatedly encountered—that rape is a compliment.
Richard, who also likes to tell me how ugly, fat, and grotesque I am, implies in his latest comment that "no one wants to rape [me]" because rape is only something that happens to attractive women—a sentiment I've seen expressed before by other men who inform women they are not attractive enough by suggesting they're not "rapable." Appallingly, I've seen men go out of their way to physically intimidate a woman on the subway (or bus, or in a parking garage, etc.) only to scoff, "Don't flatter yourself" if she reacts with the fright he desires. He's pretending that rape is about sexual attraction, though he knows it's about control and humiliation—his craving for which he has just satiated by terrorizing and insulting a woman he doesn't know.
Fetishizing rape, regarding it as primarily about sexual attraction, recasts rapists as sexually frustrated men, or oversexed men, or men who simply can't control themselves when they see an attractive woman. Rapists are not merely men with heightened libidos; they are men who seek to possess and control, and sex is the weapon they wield—not the ends, but the means. To think that rapists all rape for one universal reason is to think that murderers all murder for a single reason, and to think that rapists all rape because of sexual attraction is to think that murderers who use guns all murder because they like the smell of gun powder. People who like the smell of gun powder go to shooting ranges; murderers who like the smell of gun powder use guns instead of knives. The point isn't the weapon; the point is someone's getting dead, and no one really bothers to contemplate the "compliment" of Moe Murderer having used his favorite weapon to do the deed.
Rape as a fetish is packaged and marketed to men and women as a steady stream of images which blur the lines between rape and the kind of passionate sex we're all meant to want. Movies show us a man and woman fighting, then suddenly fucking. Two bodies slamming against a wall, or a wrought-iron fence, or a car hood, walking the line between sex and violence. Her head, pulled back by his hand pulling her hair. She tries to run, but he pulls her to him and she collides with him, sobbing yet horny (of course). The most recent of these scenes I can recall was in last year's A History of Violence, in which wife Maria Bello tries to run up the stairs away from husband Viggo Mortensen, who grabs her and pulls her down onto the stairs where they fight-fuck in a scene reminiscent of so many others before it.
These scenes are decidedly different in tone from those that seek only to represent the desperate yearn and clamor of a passionate fuck, as fight-fucking is infused with a sense of both force and yielding, and suggestive that both are necessary components of any "real" fuck. It is within these scenes, where an attractive woman is overwhelmed either physically or pheromonally (or both) by a powerful man, that we begin to understand the unsettling association between ravishing (beautiful) and ravish (rape).
And so there are women who have "rape fantasies," which is extremely silly; as soon as you want it to happen, it isn't really rape. Wanting someone to force themselves on you against your will is a practical impossibility, and reimagining rape as rough sex with a hot stranger, whom you'd coincidentally want to fuck if offered the chance to consent, is a ridiculous enterprise. But being overcome in the bodice-ripping, shoulder-grabbing, shaken-and-tossed sexual encounter of films (and soap operas and romance novels, where female characters more often marry their rapists than report them) is yet regarded as the most coveted ovation a man can bestow on a woman, the purest expression of his raw desire and an irrefutable commentary on her irresistible desirability. Only driving a man to almost-rape you is definitive proof of your allure as a woman. (So we're told.)
And so there are men who believe that sexual aggression is always flattering, which creates in many of them a weird sort of dichotomy of coexisting notions—that rape is immoral, but aggressive sexuality is flattering, so rape must be, too—and what results from it are men who don't themselves rape, but tend to regard men who do as little more than overly aggressive lotharios. (Sex as the ends, not the means.) And thusly, rape becomes something that only happens to "pretty girls," whose suffering ought to be mitigated by the knowledge that the crime was really a compliment.
If you are willing to spend a little time in some of the darker corners of cyberspace (which I don't recommend), you'll find message boards where men decide the guilt of accused rapists by how attractive their accusers are. "No way," they'll say, considering pictures of the two people involved. "He could do better than that." This girl might be deemed a liar because she's too ugly to rape "unless he put a bag over her head," but that girl might be deemed honest because "she looks out of his league." And he paid her the definitive compliment by raping her, you see.
(A pertinent caveat is that the pretty girl can only be wholesomely so; if she's sexy, she was obviously "asking for it.")
Resultingly, we end up with classifications of rapists, as well. The "normal" rapist (whose crime is most likely to be dismissed with a "boys will be boys" sort of jocular apologia) is the man who forces himself on attractive women, women his age in fine health and form, whose crime is disturbingly understandable to his male defenders. The "real sickos" are the men who go after children, old ladies, the mentally retarded, the physically disabled, accident victims languishing in comas—the sort of people who can't fight back, whose rape is difficult to imagine as titillating, unlike the rape of "pretty girls," so easily cast in a fight-fuck fantasy of squealing and squirming and eventual relenting to this flattery; no harm, no foul, orgasms all around. It's no fun, and there is no handy pop culture reframing mechanism, to imagine a granny being raped.
In pop culture and many minds informed by it, the plain, plump, dishwater-blond rape victim with frumpy frocks and a mousy personality doesn't exist. But she is just as likely to be raped, by a stranger or a date, as any other woman—and if she carries herself without confidence, perhaps even more likely. And there is not the difference we assume between the man who rapes her, and the man who rapes a stunning girl, and the man who rapes a granny. Because rape is not primarily about sexual attraction, and the parts of it that are do not necessarily acknowledge the beauty standards most of us would recognize. When your goal is possession and dominion, "pretty" by any conventional definition may mean significantly less than, simply, "there."
I am a woman who is not good at taking compliments, though I need them as much as anyone else. And I am quite content to remain free of the "compliment" of rape for the rest of my days—because rape is not a compliment. Period. Never. Never ever. It's not flattering, and it's not sexy. It's about the worst thing you can imagine. That's it, and that's all.