A friend sent me a message last week asking if a dubious sexual encounter counted as “rape” or not. She didn’t feel particularly upset by it, but lots of other people were telling her it was rape, and she was confused about how to handle it. I didn’t know either, so I did a survey!
I made it on Guided Track, where I listed 19 different scenarios, and asked people to rank them on a spectrum from “not rape” to “rape”, and to only answer for the word rape itself, regardless of how good or bad they find the situation otherwise. I posted the survey on both my twitters, to my reddit profile, and on Fetlife. After removing people who answered less than half the questions and really suspicious answer sets (like ranking every single question “100”), I ended up with 5551 responses. 932 of these were cis women, 4296 were cis men (the last 323 were nonbinary or trans); the average reported age was 32. I then checked correlations and likelihood ratios in Google Sheets.
I made this graphic for a faster representation, but a lot can depend on wording. At the end of this post I include the actual questions I used in the survey, my raw correlations sheet, and raw data.
But a few things that popped out to me:
Women are more likely than men to classify things as rape; their average rating was 53.6, whereas men’s was 44.2.
Men and women disagreed the most about “relationship pressure”, where someone heavily guilt trips someone in a relationship to have sex; men rated this 36.6, and women rated it 58.4. Other big disagreements were about someone having sex in a relationship because they want to make their partner happy, even though they don’t really feel like it (men rated this 11, and women rated it 21.7), and about a person getting drunk and having sex with their sober date, after they’d expressed a lack of enthusiasm previously (men rated this 52.7, women 67.4).
Older people tended to view things as slightly less rapey in general (age and avg rape score were negatively correlated at r=0.16, LR=3E+29).
Squinting at the data, it looks like there might be some factors that describe what people use to judge what’s rape or not. I am still learning about how factor analysis works, but with the disclaimer that I just ran the data through a process that spit out some factors and then I squinted at them, here’s what I found.
Enthusiasm - how much people want the sex for the sex’s sake, as opposed to other incentives like making your partner happy or getting paid
Mental capacity - are you a mature/conscious/aware being who would endorse their decision later?
Conditional consent - if you chose to have sex based on certain conditions, are those conditions met?
Victim orientation - how much does the internal state of the receiver matter? What if they don’t consider it to be rape, or enjoyed it?
People who identified as liberal tended to rate things as more rapey; the avg rape score someone gave was correlated at r=.36 for being socially-liberal, and r=.42 for being economically-liberal. It’s interesting to me that economic identification was a stronger predictor than social, here! (likelihood ratios were 5e+149 and 1e+211, respectively).
The scenario that liberal people were least likely to rate as rapey (compared to conservatives) involved a trans person failing to reveal their trans status until after sex (though in absolute numbers both were pretty similar, r=-.09, LR3e+08)
The highest standard deviation (which means basically how much people disagreed) was tied with “stealing payment back from a sex worker after having sex” and “a 16 year old eagerly has sex with a 26 year old”, at 39 (out of a spectrum of 100); the question everybody agreed on the most was the “a stranger jumps out of some bushes and forcibly penetrates someone, who screams the whole time” scenario.
Some things to watch out for: I didn’t adjust for any confounders here; “male, old, conservative” and “female, young, liberal” had some overlap in my data gathering due to my sources, so I wouldn’t be surprised if attempts to replicate this saw weaker effects in some of the correlations for those than I found here.
My sample size was big enough that I’m not very worried about p-hacking. I’m also not worried about p-hacking because I’m not using p-values. I inevitably get people yelling at me for including small effects, but I’m going to keep including small effects as long as I have enough data to be reasonably sure that I didn’t get those effects on accident. In this data, I started getting LR (likelihood) ratios of around 200 at r=0.05 ish.
Also disclaimer: I’m using a LR calculator that a smart mathy friend of mine built, and so far spot-checks have been right, but I’m still trusting my smart mathy friend here.
When previewing my survey, some friends said they worried some people would rate bad scenarios as “rapey” even if they weren’t actually rapey, in order to express how bad they thought the scenarios were. To try to mitigate this, I included a semi-detailed “please don’t do this” at the beginning of the survey.
But to some extent that is something I want to include in the measure? As in, in real life probably people do this too - if they hear of a really terrible scenario, they might be more likely to call it “rape” even if it isn’t strictly rape, and I don’t want to eliminate that effect in my survey results. I want to see how people are using the word, and what we can realistically infer from the use of the word, not what’s literally, technically true.
The actual questions used in the survey, and their average ratings:
11.5: ”Ali hires Ellison, a low-end sex worker, to have sex. Ellison doesn't seem to be enthusiastic about the experience, but verbally consents and displays no resistance.”
13.3 “Sage and Taylor have been in a relationship for two years. Sage asks Taylor for sex, who doesn't really feel like it. But Taylor wants to make Sage happy, and has sex with Sage anyway.”
17.4 “Wynn has down syndrome, and really wants to have sex with Andie, who does not have down syndrome. They have sex. Wynn displays enthusiasm throughout the experience, saying things like "please have sex with me.""
18.4 "Jackie meets Kerry, who claims to be a very successful lawyer from a wealthy family with lots of creative hobbies. After they have sex, Jackie finds out Kerry is actually penniless, with only video games as a hobby. If Jackie had known about this before, Jackie never would have had sex with Kerry."
22.8 "Lane meets Marlow at a bar, finds Marlow very attractive, and goes home. They have enthusiastic sex. After having sex, Lane discovers that Marlow is actually transgender. If Lane had known, they never would have had sex with Marlow."
28.9 "Emerson and Frankie have been casual friends in overlapping social circles for a while. They go on a first date, and have sex at the end. Frankie is afraid of upsetting Emerson because they have to share a social group after this, and so does not say "no" or express resistance, despite secretly hating the whole experience."
29.5 "Teagan and Vic are at a party, making out. Teagan escalates. Vic seems nervous and tense, but doesn't resist or say no. Teagan does not ask for verbal consent. They have sex."
36.1 "Miller hires Nico, a sex worker, to have sex. After they have sex, Miller steals back the cash they had paid Nico, and runs away."
36.5 ”Harper goes on a date with Kerry. Harper demonstrates being very interested in Kerry, with warm body language, compliments, and flirting. Harper gets progressively drunk, and at the end of the night is very intoxicated. They go to Kerry's apartment and have sex. Kerry is sober the whole time.”
41.9 "Perry has been dating Ray for two years. Perry pressures Ray to have sex when Ray isn't in the mood, saying things like "If you really loved me, you'd have sex with me" and "I'm going to be grumpy today if we don't have sex and it'll be your fault." Ray gives in and has sex with Perry."
46.1 "Carroll has sex with Darby at the end of a date. Darby gives mild resistance, looking unenthusiastic and saying hedged "no"s, but secretly really wants and is enjoying it."
46.4 "A 26 year old has sex with a 16 year old. The 16 year old displays enthusiasm about this, and often initiates sexual experiences."
48.4 “Bailey and Alex are at Bailey's apartment after a date. Alex makes repeated attempts to have sex with Bailey, who clearly says "no" each time. Eventually, Bailey gets tired of saying "no" and lets Alex have sex with them. Bailey makes no further attempt to say 'no' or to resist.”
55.9 "Carey and Aspen have sex, and initially both parties display enthusiastic consent. During the sex, without asking, Carey begins hitting, choking, and biting Aspen. Aspen does not like this, but is careful to appear happy and enthusiastic out of fear that if they express any displeasure, Carey will become more violent."
56.3 "Micah goes on a date with Kim, and seems uninterested, with cold body language and comments like "not being the kind of person to have sex on first dates". By the end of the night, Micah is very intoxicated. They go to Kim's apartment and have sex. Kim is sober the whole time."
73.2 "Glen and Harper are hooking up for the first time on a Tinder date. Glen secretly takes the condom off when Harper isn't looking and continues to have sex."
76.7 "Jack and Jill have been married for fifteen years, their entire lives spent (by choice) in a traditional, conservative community, where wives are expected to keep husbands sexually fulfilled. One night Jack and Jill have a fight, and Jack forcibly penetrates Jill, who is angry. Jill does not consider Jack to have done anything unusually wrong by their community standards."
99.1 "Paige has a rape fetish, and often talks to a friend longingly about experiencing a real rape. Paige's friend, trying to be helpful, gets a stranger to abduct and forcefully penetrate Paige."
99.6 “A stranger leaps out of the bushes and sexually assaults Aiden, including penetration. Aiden screams and fights back the entire time.”
The instructions I provided before the questions were
“Content warning: some questions involve sexual aggression and might be disturbing to read.
These questions ask about rape. Please answer for "the way you use the word rape" or "what you would expect someone else in your community means when they use the word rape."
Please keep in mind you may find some situations bad, but might not consider them to be "rape." Please just answer for the word "rape" itself; I understand this doesn't mean you think the situation itself is fine.”
I tried to be consistent and answer all the deception-based-consent questions as 45%, including the one about stealing money back from a prostitute. Also tried to be consistent about social pressure < deception < drugs < violence. Except for the one where the person was enthusiastic pre-alcohol so the alcohol didn't change anything, I gave that like 5. The one where the 16yo was enthusiastic the power dynamics or inexperience didn't change anything so I gave that a 0. I'd also argue that being 16 is much less mentally impairing than having down syndrome, and I'd already given the enthusiastic-down-syndrome scenario a really low score.
I've had something similar kicking around in my head for the word "murder" in the context of the abortion debate. Is it murder to cut off a leaf of a lettuce plant and eat it without killing the plant? Is it murder to walk into a mall and behead a random child? Is it murder to eat a carrot, killing the plant? Is it murder to destroy the upper brain functions of a human adult even though the brain stem and life support machine keep the body alive? Is it murder to pull the plug of the life support machine? Is it murder to cut off one head of a conjoined twin? Is it murder to cut off a (headless) parasitic twin? To kill a kitten? A chimp? A space alien that can hold a normal conversation in English? An AI that can hold a normal conversation in English? An anencephalic human fetus? A human blastocyst that failed to implant in the uterus? etc. etc.