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Opinion: Sex without consent is always rape

The key element in the definition of rape is consent. Sex without consent, regardless of what the victim was wearing or does for a living, is rape.

Unfortunately, myths about what makes someone a legitimate rape victim abound and they serve to silence survivors. A sober woman who is attacked by a stranger and has bruises or other injuries is seen as a “real” victim. But if a woman had been drinking or using drugs, was in a dangerous area or has no marks, the blame slowly starts to shift from perpetrator to victim. Some people have so many misconceptions stacked against them that they are seen as unrapeable. This used to be true for married women raped by their husbands, and it is still true for sex workers.

OPINION

Sex work encompasses many different industries and types of work and can sometimes, but not always, involve two adults agreeing to meet in person to exchange some kind of sexual activity for money. That’s the kind of arrangement a Chicago sex worker is said to have made with Roy Akins after he responded to an ad she placed on Backpage.com. When she arrived at his home, police allege, he instead held her at gunpoint and raped her.

In Saturday’s Sun Times, Mary Mitchell wrote that she felt this was not rape but a theft of services simply because the victim is a sex worker and was going to what she thought would be a consensual exchange. Mitchell isn’t alone. In 2007, a Pennsylvania judge used the same reasoning to dismiss sexual assault charges against a man accused of organizing a gang rape of a sex worker. In my work as an attorney and formerly as a volunteer rape crisis counselor, I’ve heard it repeated by law enforcement officers, hospital staff and attorneys.

Adding money to plans for a sexual encounter does not erase either party’s right to consent. If you remove the financial transaction from the story above, so that it is instead a story about an online hookup that turned into a sexual assault, there’s no question as to whether it was rape or not. There should be no question in this instance, either, and that there is contributes to an already existing culture of violence toward sex workers. Take one look at the victims of choice for violent predators such as Gary Ridgway, the Craigslist Killer and Neal Falls — the list goes on — and you will see they all have something in common: they were involved in the sex industry.

Sex workers don’t go to the police when they are harmed because they fear this kind of shaming and they fear being arrested themselves instead, making them ideal targets. Indicating that they are so less than human that they can’t be legally raped — and reducing them to their profession by creating a hierarchy of innocent woman vs. “Backpage prostitute” — also sends a clear message: these are the ones to hurt as no one will mind. Mitchell herself said she was “grateful” that an “innocent woman” wasn’t “snatched” off the street.

I applaud this woman for the bravery it took to tell her story to police and hospital workers and to endure a rape kit and the court process. I am thankful that law enforcement and the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office took her assault seriously. A survivor myself, I do not feel delegitimized by another woman being told that being forced to have sex at gunpoint was not her fault.

Anytime the blame for sexual assault is placed exactly where it belongs — on the shoulders of the person who made the choice to rape — all victims win.

Elizabeth Ricks is a Chicago attorney who specializes in civil rights and contracts.