Why isn’t rape defined as terrorism?

People are talking about what terrorism is. Do you define a crime as terrorism by looking at who the perpetrator is? Or by looking at the victim(s)? Or is it about the crime itself, or the stated reasons for the crime? There’s no legally binding international definition, but M15 gives one possible definition:

The use or threat of action designed to influence the government or an international governmental organisation or to intimidate the public, or a section of the public; made for the purposes of advancing a political, religious, racial or ideological cause; and it involves or causes:

  • serious violence against a person;
  • serious damage to a property;
  • a threat to a person’s life;
  • a serious risk to the health and safety of the public; or
  • serious interference with or disruption to an electronic system.

When these discussions come up, I always think the same thing: if what you’re describing is terrorism, why aren’t we defining rape as terrorism too?

It’s an act, or threat of action, designed to intimidate a section of the public (usually women) for the purposes of advancing an ideological cause (usually male dominance) and it involves serious violence against a person. It’s a global problem. The actual incidence of rape seems to vary wildly from country to country, but the message is universal: women should do the work of avoiding it, change their own behaviour to reduce the chances of it happening to them. And men who’ve been raped are under huge cultural pressure to keep quiet about it.

The ideological aim of the rapist has been achieved if we’re not talking about the perpetrators and how to stop them. It’s been achieved if we carry on behaving as if rape can never be stopped, only managed and dodged. It’s been achieved if a huge section of the world’s population is amending its behaviour, living a less free life, because of the threat of rape.

I’m not claiming that rapists are an organised group with stated aims. They don’t have to be. The individual actions still add up to a clear pattern with a clear message.

We talk about rape as an act of terrorism in conflict areas like the Democratic Republic of Congo, but we don’t talk about rape as an act of terrorism happening globally, all the time, with the effect of frightening half the world into behaving more submissively. We talk about rape as a war crime; we don’t talk about it as a war in itself.

And the amount of money we spend on fighting rape is, needless to say, a pittance compared to what we spend on fighting the “easy” kind of terrorism, the kind carried out by bearded foreigners with bombs instead of our friends and colleagues and brothers and sons. The questions we ask and the assumptions we make about the two kinds of terrorism are wildly different.

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