A FEMINIST ALTERNATIVE
Creating an alternative conceptualization of acquaintance rape is difficult because of the context in which we find ourselves embedded. However, what is needed is a new conceptualization of rape that does not focus on a woman’s consent. As with other criminal acts, the focus should be on the perpetrator’s behavior. A feminist perspective argues that an analysis of sexual assault’s broader social context is integral to the understanding of acquaintance rape.
When we examine crimes of a nonsexual nature, it is the perpetrator’s actions and their consequences for the victim that are used to determine whether a crime has been committed. In nonsexual crimes we do not ask whether the victim consented to the crime. We examine the perpetrator’s behavior and its consequences. Our persistence in focusing on consent is deeply rooted in historically androcentric views of women and men.
We advocate consideration of the consequences of the assault for the victim. From research, we know that consequences can include acute medical problems (i. e., physical injuries resulting from the rape, sexually transmitted diseases), acute psychological consequences (i. e., posttraumatic stress disorder), chronic illnesses (i. e., pelvic pain, headaches), stress – related health problems (i. e., illness resulting from increased alcohol and tobacco use, and poorer sleeping and eating habits), anxiety and fear, depression, reduced sexual satisfaction and more sexual problems, poorer school and work performance, and restriction of social activity (Koss, Heise, & Russo, 1994; Koss, Goodman, et al., 1994; Koss, Koss, & Woodruff, 1991).
We also advocate consideration of the social context in which sexual assault occurs. Perhaps a more constructive conceptualization of rape should focus on control rather than consent (Muehlenhard, Danoff-Burg, & Powch, 1996, p. 133).
A focus on control would lead us to ask questions such as, Who controls women’s sexuality? Who controls men’s sexuality? How free are women and men to control their own sexuality? How free are women and men to refuse to engage in unwanted sex, to engage in sex with the partner of their choice, or to engage in the type of consensual sexuality that they would like?
This conceptualization would allow analysis of power at the individual, interpersonal, and institutional levels. Constraints that inhibit an in
dividual’s ability to choose to engage in sexual activity could be examined. Rape trials would emphasize evidence of equity of power within that particular context rather than evidence of victim consent. The burden of proof would shift to the perpetrator to demonstrate that both individuals were able to exercise choice. In criminal trials, evidence regarding interpersonal power will be most relevant. Evidence of coercion, deliberate use of alcohol or drugs so that a woman is unable to resist, physical restraint (e. g., holding a woman down or blocking her escape), threats, and violence are indicators of the imbalance of interpersonal power. In research and prevention efforts, individual and institutional power also would be relevant. Individual approaches would focus on empowering women and providing them with tools of resistance. Institutional approaches would focus on public advocacy for social change as a necessary step toward creating a society in which sexual assault is not tolerated.
This conceptualization challenges researchers to identify methods for examining multiple levels of analysis (individual, interpersonal, and institutional) as they study issues of power and control in acquaintance rape. Prevention strategies also must assist young men and women to examine traditional underlying discourses regarding consent and sexual assault and to challenge these assumptions. It is hoped that this analysis will encourage us to reexamine the issue of consent and its usefulness as a definition for sexual assault.