The XX Factor

AP Headline: Partner Rape Isn’t Really Rape

Rape is rape.

Photo by Antony Dickson/AFP/Getty Images

The Associated Press headline is horrifying: “Study: 1 in 10 Men in Parts of Asia Have Raped.” The accompanying article is about a recently published survey of 10,000 men in Bangladesh, China, Cambodia, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Papua New Guinea who were asked whether they’d ever forced a woman to have sex against her consent. The problem—apart from the fact that many men answered that question in the affirmative—is that the AP headline is wrong. The study didn’t find that 1 in 10 men had raped a woman. The study found that 1 in 4 men had raped a woman.

In fact, the very first paragraph of the article acknowledges the true upshot of the study, albeit in an unbelievably minimizing way. Take it away, AP:

About 1 in 10 men in some parts of Asia admitted raping a woman who was not their partner, according to the first large studies of rape and sexual violence. When their wife or girlfriend was included, that figure rose to about a quarter.

When their wife or girlfriend was included. As though the researchers were generous to include wives and girlfriends among rape victims in this study, since, you know, partner rape isn’t really rape.

This isn’t the first time in recent memory that the AP has perpetuated a sexist narrative in an ostensibly objective article, but you’d think we’d have done away with this pernicious myth about partner rape by now. Feminists fought tirelessly to criminalize marital rape in the 1980s and 1990s, and today more than 100 countries (including two of the countries in the rape survey) have overturned laws exempting husbands from rape prosecution. Most people—the kind of people who read the AP, anyway—have come around to the view that wives do not, in fact, belong to their husbands or boyfriends, and that by saying “I do” (or by entering a committed relationship) women do not sign away their right to say no to sex. But apparently the AP still ascribes to the view of 18th-century jurist Matthew Hale, who wrote, “the husband cannot be guilty of a rape committed by himself upon his lawful wife, for by their mutual matrimonial consent and contract the wife hath given up herself in this kind unto her husband, which she cannot retract.”

Insisting that the term rape includes partner rape isn’t just a question of semantic or legal accuracy. There’s a persistent stereotype about what rape looks like: that it involves an evil, wild-eyed man jumping out of the bushes to defile an innocent, chaste young woman. In fact, most rape looks nothing like this. Most rape victims know their attackers, and a significant portion of those attackers are friends or partners. But many people still think that “rape” means “stranger rape,” which is one glaring reason it’s so hard for rape victims whose cases don’t fit that mold to get police officers, prosecutors, and judges to take them seriously. Just a couple of weeks ago, Montana District Judge G. Todd Baugh gave a rapist a 30-day sentence because his crime wasn’t “some violent, forcible, horrible rape.” This kind of miscarriage of justice happens because of the popular false belief that acquaintance rape and partner rape don’t count as rape. And when the AP echoes this belief, it isn’t helping.

Update, Sept. 11, 2013: The Associated Press has changed the headline on the article to “Study: 1 in 4 Men in Parts of Asia Have Raped,” and the first paragraph of the article has been rewritten to emphasize the 1 in 4 figure.