The standard conservative view of rape, which has seeped into large swaths of the American punditry as well as most men’s rights activists, is that it’s a sexual crime. As such, it’s a lot like consensual sex: the victim can enjoy it, the perpetrator can be easily influenced by what the victim is wearing, and overall the best way to make people rape less is to make them have less sex. Ironically, in a certain way it’s also present in a segment of radical feminism, except that the generic category “sex” is specialized to kinky sex, rape fantasies, and pornography.
That view has very little evidence accompanying it. Increased sexual liberalism generally has no effect on rape. Actually asking victims, as opposed to conjecturing, reveals that they never enjoy it. If the accounts of rape victims I’ve read are any indication of the general trend, the act itself is anything but erotic. Profiles of rapists reveal that their issues are mostly about power and domination rather than about sexual fantasies.
Another view is that rape is a violent crime – in particular, the second worst, so that it shares some characteristics with murder and some with assault and robbery. In this view, it’s as enjoyable as being beaten up; it’s certainly more traumatic, in accordance with its being a more serious crime than simple assault, but once you aggravate a non-sexual assault enough, for example by making it a near-murder, you more or less get equivalence. More importantly, the best way to reduce the rape rate is to reduce the overall rate of violent crime.
Unlike the conservative view, the law-and-order view has a strong empirical basis. Rape rates generally go up and down with general violent crime rates; this does not hold for the violent crime rape is most often compared to, battery. In the US, intimiate murder has been going down for 30 years, even through periods of increases in general homicide rates. In contrast, rape has only diverged significantly from the general violent crime rate in the early 1980s and early 2000s.
But there’s another view, one that’s noisily expressing itself on Feministing right now: the idea that rape is a hate crime, like lynching. That rape is a violent crime is almost incidental in this view; the main charge is that it’s an act of oppression, that it’s about male domination of women. As such, the best way to counter it would be to reduce the level of gender inequality, and to make it clear to men that rape is unacceptable.
And, as it turns out, this view doesn’t have much more empirical backing than the conservative view. Some victims feel oppressed; others just feel victimized. The key book behind this theory, Against Our Will, also provides the most compelling reasons why it’s wrong: rapist profiles are too similar to robber and assaulter profiles, the use of rape as a psychological weapon is similar to this of looting and murder, and the only times the patriarchy ever enters the equation are when people use “They’re raping our women” as a propaganda item and when people who hold the conservative view of rape don’t believe victims.
One of the rallying cries of people who adhere to that theory is that women are always at risk of rape. Several commenters on the Feministing thread have complained that they’re consistently afraid of rape, and one went as far as saying that the perception that it is oppressive is all that matters.
However, perception isn’t reality, and Americans’ perceptions of crime have never been rational. The seminal book about that is The Culture of Fear, which documents how media hypes of crime have gotten Americans afraid of a mythical crime wave and several mythical problems, like road rage.
Rape is no different; an American woman’s lifetime chance of being raped, if current rates hold steady, is about 5%, and can be much lower or higher depending on her specific profile. Against Our Will‘s introduction says that rape is a weapon used by all men to subjugate all women, but then when it comes to presenting evidence, it only says that not all women are at a high risk of rape, and those who are have the same profile as men who have a high risk of assault, robbery, or murder.
Besides, if feminism reduces the risk of rape, the countries with the lowest rape rates would be the most feminist ones. But that doesn’t seem to be the case, judging by the fact that while the US has a sexual assault rate of 67/100,000, Sweden’s reported rate, which is probably an underestimate, is 11,700, i.e. 130/100,000. Considering only rapes reduces the rates to 35 and 42 respectively.
For what it’s worth, the international crime victimization survey (which, mind you, has a pretty bad methodology) shows no obvious correlation between a country’s sexual assault rate and its level of gender equality. The developed country with the lowest rate, Japan, is also the most patriarchal; in the West, the sexual assault rate seems to correlate with other violent crimes’ rates a lot better than with gender equality.