Rape and Communication: A rapist in bungler’s clothing

This, the first in what will be a series of posts on rape and communication, is in response to an excerpt from Deborah Cameron’s new book, The Myth of Mars and Venus.

Cameron begins from the premise that many of us believe that misunderstandings between men and women are a widespread and serious problem. She goes on to argue that our concern about inter-gender communication is not justified by evidence. In fact, men and women can communicate perfectly well. And to believe otherwise, Cameron argues, is to perpetuate a dangerous and potentially damaging myth.

Cameron cites the following excerpt from a linguistic research project carried out during a university rape tribunal:

In this extract from the hearing, one of the complainants, MB, has just told the tribunal that the defendant persisted in touching her even after she had repeatedly communicated to him that she did not want to have sex. A tribunal member, GK, then asks her the following question: “And did it occur to you through the persistent behaviour that maybe your signals were not coming across loud and clear, that ‘I’m not getting through what I want and what I don’t want?’ . . . This is the whole thing about getting signals mixed up. We all socialise in one way or the other to read signals and to give signals. In that particular context, were you at all concerned your signals were not being read exactly and did you think, since signals were not being read correctly for you, ‘Should I do something different with my signals?'”

Not only does tribunal member GK couch this scenario in terms of communication (signals), but she also places all of the blame for any miscommunication squarely on the “complainant”. It is her fault that she did not communicate her lack of consent effectively enough to avoid being raped.

Later on in her discussion of this case, Cameron points out that the defendant is never criticized for “not realizing that, by pretending to be asleep, the victim did not want sex”. He says, essentially, that she never said ‘no’.

Disregarding for a moment the tribunal’s blatant sexism and participation in the culture of blaming the victim, this example throws Cameron’s thesis into high relief: Is acquaintance rape just a communication failure gone horribly wrong?

With regard to the above case, I’m with Cameron. There is no way, no how, that this defendant does not know that being asleep or feigning sleep is a signal that a girl doesn’t want sex. However, the “no means yes” case is not dismissed as crazy talk by everyone. More than a few feminist philosphers have published accounts of how such miscommunication comes about and who we should blame for it.

Clearly the way a person communicates her refusal and the way that this refusal is understood are both very important in any analysis of sexual consent. Cameron’s point is that by couching talk of rape in terms of misunderstandings and failed signals, we are dressing the rapist in the trappings of a benign, confused bungler who would be happy to do the right thing if only he understood what his partner wanted. Do feminists really want to leave the door open to this kind of thinking?