Acquaintance rape: reassessing a classic study

Robin Warshaw’s book “I Never Called It Rape” was first published in 1988. Shanice Octavia McBean reconsiders it now as a contribution to the discussion emerging from the last few years’ rise in anti-rape activism.

Book cover, I never called it rape

“I Never Called It Rape” by Robin Warshaw was a seminal book of its time, and for that it must be given credit. “I Never Called It Rape” contributed to a process of changing the very cultural lens through which the most common form of rape – that between people who are known to each other – is viewed.

Seen as either “honest mistakes”, “seduction”, “provocation” or “miscommunications”, acquaintance rape has historically – and remains – a “less serious” form of abuse than stranger rape. This, despite the fact that acquaintance rape survivors, as Warshaw points out, experience just as much post-rape trauma and anxiety as stranger rape survivors. In fact, due to disbelief and doubt, the social denigration and belittling of acquaintance rape and the confusion caused by someone you trust abusing you, survivors of acquaintance rape often experience longer and more intense bouts of trauma, according to Warshaw. In public consciousness, stranger rape survivors are more often accepted as legitimate victims and often start the process of recovery sooner than acquaintance rape survivors.

There is a bitty irony and gross perversity, then, in the disbelief of acquaintance survivors under the guise that it’s “less serious”. This trope actually causes acquaintance survivors to suffer, on average, longer term trauma than victims of “traditional”, violent stranger rapes.

We can see snippets of how these attitudes are at play today. Footballer Clayton McDonald had had sex with the same woman who a jury found was too drunk to consent to sex with convicted rapist Ched Evans, but McDonald was cleared of rape. Why the discrepancy? While I can’t say with any certainty without speaking to the jurors themselves, what seemed to play a role was McDonald had previously established contact with the woman and she appeared to agree to go back to an isolated room with him (i.e. he was an acquaintance) whereas she didn’t know Evans was also invited (i.e. he was a stranger). Hence the acquaintance/stranger dichotomy creates some basis for ‘consent’ with McDonald, but not Evans.

Nevertheless the book, read by a committed feminist today, reads like the-sky-is-blue type common sense. In some places it reads in quite a reactionary fashion; a mark of its age.

For example, there’s an entire chapter dedicated to advising women on what behaviours they should adopt or do less of in order to minimize the chances of being raped. Now, on the one hand this seems to make sense. Around 40% of acquaintance rape survivors were intoxicated when they were raped, according to the book. Surely it makes sense to tell women to drink less (ignoring the fact that around 60% of survivors were sober at the time of their rape)?

In fact this misses several important things.

First, there is reactionary ideological import to the kind of narrative that advises women to alter their behaviour. It not only advises for the reduction of freedoms amongst women that men, on the other hand, can enjoy (i.e. drink less) but it completely skirts the question of looking at the social conditions under which rapists themselves are created and reproduced.

We recognise this narrative everywhere we look in neo-liberal, austerity Britain. If you just work harder, you’ll be able to overcome poverty. If you just ignore it, racism will disappear. If you just drink less, you won’t be raped. All of these ideas are part of what I’ve called elsewhere the “ideological emporium”  that gets us individualising and decontextualising our oppression, rather than understanding its context and challenging the hegemony that apologizes for and reproduces rape.

This omission shows in Warshaw’s book. More concerned with telling women what they can do to reduce the risk of rape, she ignores the plethora of ways a violent, greedy capitalist society itself creates the conditions for depressingly high levels of rape in all countries. Hence the book totally fails to even begin to address longer term solutions that seriously challenge the roots of rape. While I don’t pretend to have high-knowledge of what those roots are and how we challenge them, Warshaw ends up relying on piecemeal strategies of education and “teaching people not to rape”. While education and smashing myths surrounding rape is important, it doesn’t offer a strategy for destroying or even challenging the social relations that reproduce misogynistic violence.

Resisting this narrative is deeply important, especially in a context where immigrants, black people and the working class as a whole are being blamed for our own oppression. Resisting this narrative allows us to centre our anger on the structures of power and social relations under capitalism that make rape a continual part of the drudgery of our lives and challenging rape in this way requires a more far reaching vision of liberation that asks what kind of society we want to live in.


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