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A blog about student activism.

‘Proper Rape’ and ‘Violence against Women’

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This is a guest post, re-blogged from Silver Unicorn with kind permission.


Trigger Warning: This post discusses sexual and domestic violence in detail


I am one of those rape survivors who has never experienced “proper rape”, as Ken Clarke so aptly put it. But let me assure you that I have been severely affected by it –reliving those experiences night after night; unable to sleep due to flashbacks and nightmares; panic attacks when in crowds and triggered by an unexpected touch; countless days spent in hospital receiving treatment because of self-harm or attempted suicides; and desperately trying to avoid returning to my past eating disorder or drinking problem. So don’t anybody dare tell me that what I experienced wasn’t proper and severe rape.

Ken Clarke made the misogynistic, cissexist, heterosexist claim that “proper rape” involves a man using physical violence against an unwilling woman. The reality is that rape is traumatic regardless whether the rapist is a stranger hiding behind a bush, a date, or a partner. Rape is traumatic regardless of how much physical violence there is or if you freeze instead of fighting back. Rape is traumatic regardless of whether you are physically forced, or forced through coercion. And rape is traumatic regardless of whether the survivor is a woman, a man, or any other gender.

Sexual violence is an issue that disproportionately affects women, and I’d never argue otherwise – the 2005/06 British Crime Survey reports that 3% of men and 23% of women experience sexual violence during adulthood.

However, there is one very important issue that is hidden by these statistics and that is the rates of sexual violence that non-straight people face. A review of 71 pieces of US research (Rothman et al, 2011) found that the number of non-straight people who experienced sexual violence was around 15% of men and 23% of women – with a substantial number of perpetrators being (ex-)partners.[1] Research also suggests that trans people face higher levels of sexual violence as well (Roch et al, 2010). And there are also cases of women being sexually violent towards men. I will leave the issues surrounding men’s sexual violence against women for others to speak about, and instead speak from my perspective as a queer agender/neutrois[2] person who is also a survivor of domestic violence and partner rape.

Speaking about sexual violence solely in terms of men’s violence against women ignores the experiences of rape survivors who are trans, genderqueer, men and survivors of female-female rape. And it is not just Ken Clarke, but also the media and many others within society. For example the recent feminist Edinburgh Reclaim the Night march, aimed at ending violence against women, distributed literature focusing on the simplistic, heterosexist idea that violence against women is about male violence. Their leaflet went as far as saying that domestic and sexual violence that occurs between women is a secondary concern to heterosexual violence:

“When we can better deal with the effects of men’s violence against women and work towards a society where [men’s] violence against women is not condoned then we will be able to find solutions to address women who are violent towards men and same sex partners.”[emphasis mine].

This leaflet sends the message to all lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer women that their experiences sexual and domestic violence from female partners are less important. This heterosexism is indefensible at an event meant to be about violence against all women. And the justification they give is pretty feeble: “that 87% of domestic abuse related call outs are in relation to men’s violence against women”. Given that the vast majority of relationships are heterosexual, it isn’t surprising that same-sex domestic violence makes up a small proportion.

* * * TRIGGER WARNING * * * * * * * *

As I mentioned earlier I am a queer rape survivor, which is perhaps why I’m particularly angry about this. My only significant relationship was with a woman I fell in love with when we were at school together. We started dating when I was 18 and it lasted for most of our undergraduate years. During the relationship, she was controlling, manipulative, verbally abusive, aggressive, and a rapist multiple times over. I not only fail Ken Clarke and Co’s “proper rape” criteria for being raped by my partner, I also fail for being raped by a woman and fail for not self-identifying as female.

Sex for me was always a bit complicated back then. I felt uncomfortable about the “gendered” parts of my body including my genitalia, and I’m also asexual (I only experience romantic attraction to people without feeling any sexual attraction). But I was in love with my partner and for me that was enough for me to willingly have sex with her. And for the first few months of our relationship, we had consensual sex.

But things started to get worse when we started university and moved in together. She would behave more aggressively towards me, she’d stop me seeing or speaking to friends, she’d make all the decisions (big and small) about our relationship, and she controlled my life. As this continued I soon learned to do whatever she wanted me to do, just so that I could avoid the worst of her temper. And that included having sex with her whenever she wanted it, simply in the vain hope that she wouldn’t take her anger out on me. Thinking back, it feels like I was prostituting myself – giving my body in exchange for a bit less abuse.

This situation lasted until I eventually said “no” to her. She didn’t respond well to that and raped me. Or at least it felt like rape, though legally it was a sexual assault (a penis is required to commit rape in English and Scots law). Following that I was always too scared to say no to her again, and she always managed to coerce me into sex anyway. Those were the times that were worst, not so much the sexual assault/rape, but waiting for it. Knowing that she was quite prepared to have sex with me against my will. Seeing how much she enjoyed having that power over me. Always being on edge whenever I was alone with her. And waiting for it to happen again, just so it’d be over with.

From the time of that first non-consensual sex, it took me over a year to leave her. During that year I have no idea how many times she raped and sexually assaulted me. Much of my memory for that time is a blur, and I still haven’t got my head around what my choosing to have sex because I was too afraid of saying no, means in terms of my consent and rape. I don’t think I want to know either.

I ended up going back to her, and it was a couple of years before she was finally out of my life for good. By this time I was emotionally a wreck and struggling with mental health difficulties. But when I eventually sought help I’ve had very mixed responses, often due to me identifying, at the time, as a lesbian trans woman. A GP has basically ignored my experiences of domestic violence once she found out the gender of my partner. Psychiatrists have decided that my mental health problems are because I’m trans and dismissed as irrelevant my difficulty coping with the abusive relationship. Though probably the worst experience was with one counsellor who refused to acknowledge sex could be anything than penis-vagina intercourse, and she said that I should have expected the domestic violence because I’m trans.

There have of course also been supportive counsellors and others who have helped me a lot, and to whom I’m enormously grateful. But the point I’m trying to make is that it is harder to get help when these cissexist heterosexist ideas of domestic and sexual violence persist.

My other point is that violence within relationships are not always due to the patriarchal oppression of women by men. Of course given that we live in a sexist society that treats heterosexual relationships as the norm, it isn’t surprising that most domestic and sexual violence is perpetrated by men against women. But stopping here leads to an overly simplified view of gendered-violence. This analysis ignores the fact that not all men have the same level of power in society and nor do women. There are other issues such as race, ethnicity, class, sexuality, gender-normativity, ability, age, etc that all have an impact on the position people have in society and in their relationships. By reducing sexual and domestic violence, to a single issue of men oppressing women, all the other parts of our identities that intersect with our gendered selves are ignored.

Same-sex relationships are not immune to the common ideas in our societies about power in relationships. That being the “breadwinner” is the dominant and most important role in a relationship. That people can’t control their sexual desires and partners have a duty to satisfy them. That drinking is a justification for violence. That what a person wears means they are up for sex, and saying no is teasing. These ideas are most often conveyed in a male-female gendered manner, but the messages still impact upon gay, lesbian, bisexual and queer people as well. Also there are other issues specific to same-sex relationships that can altar power balances, such as controlling a partner through threatening to out them, and the use of homophobic, biphobic, acephobic, or transphobic verbal abuse. Just because people are of the same gender does not mean that there can’t be a power imbalance between them, and as the evidence shows, this can and does lead to sexual and domestic violence happening.

Then there’s relationships involving trans* people.[3] Gendered analyses, such as those used within man “men’s violence against women” discourses, typically only focus on gender-normative people. Whilst there’s such a thing as male-privilege, this does not relate to trans* people in the same way that it relates to gender-normative people. Trans men are regarded as “not real” men by many people; and male assigned at birth (maab) trans* people are forced to choose between pretending to be something they aren’t, or being seen by many people as less than gender-normative maab people. [N.B. this is a short introduction to the intersection of trans* and male-privilege, and I make no claim that this in anyway covers the full complexity of the topic]

All trans* people are marginalised in our society and more likely to experience gender-based violence. We face harassment and violence (verbal, physical and sexual) from strangers because of our gender. We face not having our gender identities respected by partners. We face the fear and reality of violence when we tell partners and others about our genders. We face people wanting and expecting to have sex with us in ways that don’t respect our genders or how we feel about our bodies. We are made to feel like we can’t leave our partners because we are told nobody else could love us. We are pressured to not transition or express our genders in ways acceptable to our partners. All these contribute to the sexual and domestic violence of trans* people.

For me feminism is about ending the oppression of women and others, caused by the heteronormative gender-binary, including people of all races, ethnicities, abilities, sexualities, gender identities, classes, etc. For me feminism must necessarily be inclusive of queer, non-straight and trans* people (and even some men) who experience these oppressions. Certainly feminism should focus on issues that disproportionately impact upon women and other marginalised genders (such as sexual violence, domestic violence, abortion rights, body image, street harassment, etc), but on these issues I believe feminism must speak for all people who face these oppressions – being exclusive does nothing but cause divisions.

When it comes to issues such as sexual and domestic violence, I acknowledge that other feminists have different views about whether or not men (and non-binary people) should be included. This I can accept. But what I find deeply problematic is claiming to speak for women but in reality restricting to white, middle-class, straight, cis (i.e. not trans*) and/or able-bodied women.


P.S. This is not intended to be in anyway an attack on men, feminists, white middle-class straight people, etc as a whole. My aim is to point out some of the problematic ideas that are commonly expressed about sexual and domestic violence.

P.P.S I’m sorry for using a lot of trans* related words that are not in common usage. It is very difficult to write about the topic with any justice, without resorting to language that may be unfamiliar.

[1] Quoted figures are the median percentages calculated using results from 71 separate studies, for women and men experiencing adult sexual violence

[2] Agender people feel that their gender is neither female, male, nor anything in between. Neutrois people are agender but also feel the need to be without the physical characteristics associated with their assigned birth gender, and may seek hormone and/or surgical treatments.

[3] I’m using trans* as an umbrella term for all people outwith gender-normativity including: trans women, trans men, agender, neutrois, androgyne, bigender, polygender, two-spirit, third gender, genderqueer and other non-binary gendered people, gender-fluid people, genderless people, gender-variant people, gender non-conforming people, crossdressers, and other trans* people I’ve failed to mention.


Written by CakeCakeCakeCakeCake

June 21, 2011 at 3:29 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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