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Why does rape and sexual assault happen?

There is strong evidence to show that a significant proportion of men - and some women - honestly believe that it is alright for a man to force a woman to have sex, whether she wants to or not.

Three research projects have been carried out in different areas of South Australia, involving over 1000 young men. About one third of them could identify situations in which they believe that it is OK for a man to force a woman to have sex. (The word 'force' is actually used in the question.)

The circumstances include

  • they have had sex together before
  • she has had sex with other men before
  • she has let him touch her 'above the waist'
  • she has let him touch her 'below the waist'
  • he has spent a lot of money on her

People who hold these beliefs do not think of 'forcing a woman to have sex' as being wrong. They probably do not think of it as being rape.

There are other attitudes and beliefs that can underpin rape and sexual assault. For many hundreds of years, western cultures (and some other cultures) believed that wives were the property of their husbands and that one of the rights that marriage gave to husbands was a right to sex with their wives whenever the husband wanted it. Some people still believe this.

The law in South Australia does not support this view. Being married does not mean that one partner has automatic rights to the body of the other partner. Sex without consent, or without caring about whether or not the other person consents, is rape whether or not the parties are married or in any other ongoing relationship.

Power and Violence

Another attitude that underpins rape and sexual assault relates to the use of power over another person to get what you want. Using power might mean using force, using violence, using threats, or using deceit. Some people believe that it is acceptable to use force to get what you want. This is essentially a selfish view that says 'what I want matters and what the other person wants doesn't matter'.

Feminist Analysis of Rape & Sexual Assault

Feminist explanations locate the cause of this crime within society. they suggest that the crime of rape and sexual assault is a crime of power. Rape & sexual assault is an abuse of power which:

  • is a result of unequal power between perpetrator and victim/survivor
  • reinforces the inequality of power in this relationship
  • reinforces the inequality of power between men and women

Feminist theory focuses on the wider picture of women living in a society which is dominated by men. Rape and sexual assault is seen as one of the ways in which men enact their dominance in a violent way over women, children and other men. It rejects ideas that rape results from sexual attraction or from the way victims/survivors dress or behave.

When looking at our society, and indeed globally, men are in the most powerful positions in social, political, legal, economic, military and religious institutions. The dominance of men leads to a patriarchal societies in which men make the rules and laws. The rules and laws are structured in ways that uphold the status quo and thus the powerful positions of men. As a result, there is systemic and structural discrimination of women and other vulnerable and marginalised groups in society. These inequalities lead to increased vulnerability and negative social, economic and health outcomes for marginalised abnd disadvantaged groups. In regards to rape and sexual assault, this means increased vulnerability to become a victim/survivor of rape or sexual assault and to disadvantages when dealing with health, legal and other social systems.

Responsibility and Vulnerability

There is another set of attitudes that are sometimes used to explain rape and sexual assault. These beliefs suggest that people who are raped or sexually assaulted were somehow responsible for the assault.

Statements like "she shouldn't have been dressed like that", "he's too young to have been out by himself that late", "she shouldn't have hitchhiked", "he shouldn't have had so much to drink", all suggest that the behaviour of the victim allowed the assault to happen.

Important things to remember are:

  • vulnerability is not the same as responsibility
  • rape and sexual assault is a predominated
  • the offender is always responsible for committing the crime
  • no-one asks to be raped or sexually assaulted
  • no-one deserves to be raped or sexually assaulted
  • rape and sexual assault is always an abuse of power.
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Updated April 12, 2010
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