I've started to wonder whether rape is worse in our society than it might otherwise be because of how we view sex. So imagine a group of pre-linguistic humans (yes, homo sapiens existed for a very long time without language) who are hunter-gatherers: they have a community and community rules, but fewer ways of enforcing those rules than we do now, and less severe consequences. Actually, you could probably just picture a group of chimps and get more or less the same idea how social dynamics would work in a group of inherently intelligent and social beings who lack language.
Now, let's try to separate out things that are inherently bad about rape from things that are culturally bad about rape. I would imagine that in this group of pre-linguistic humans, rape would still be awful, because it's 1) physical assault, often painful, and 2) could possibly get you pregnant with the child of someone whose baby you did not want. This #2 is almost the same thing as pointing out that you should be able to choose your sexual partners, since birth control did not used to exist, and people choose sexual partners (attractiveness based on pheromones, immune system compatibility, traits that make one a good mate like being able to bring home the bacon, being kind, etc) in very similar ways to how they choose parents for their children. Possibly we could include a 3) Violation of personal choice in a very intimate, traumatizing way, but I would argue that this is probably more cultural and less innate.
What affects cultural attitudes about rape? For one thing, sex is shameful in our Western, puritanical culture. This makes a whole bunch of things more shameful than they might “naturally” be, with such concepts as shaming girls who like to have lots of sex as “sluts,” and, at best, relegating sex to something sacred and only to be shared with serious, long-term significant others, or after marriage. So this makes rape more shameful, too – rape survivors are sometimes seen as dirty or soiled, and there's a stigma against even admitting that one has been a victim of rape.
Why this stigma? I suggest that there are three parts to it: the first part I'll just say is unexplainable and stupid (simply because I think it's more complicated than my other two points alone). Society doesn't stigmatize being the victim of other crimes, so maybe it's just part of our many weird attitudes about sex. Part two is that people (often subconsciously) blame the victim for not standing up for themselves, with a thought processes of roughly “Well, if I were in that situation, I would do everything possible to get out of it, like kicking him in the balls, running away, and calling the police.” This view ignores the fact that most rape is more complicated than that: it is most often not a scary stranger man jumping out of the bushes at night, but is done by friends and boyfriends, people you wouldn't want to hurt or have arrested even if they're being coercive, plying you with drinks, or being oddly aggressive. Maybe the victims would wish after the fact that they had stood up for themselves more, but in the moment few people would have the instinct to kick your good friend in the balls. All I will say about that is I don't think any of us have the right to say how we would act in that situation unless we've actually been there. (By the way, this part of the stigma would explain why even fewer male victims report the crime than women. The fact that I'm primarily talking about women in this post doesn't mean I'm trying to ignore male victims here!)
Part 3 of my explanation for the stigma is that rape victims seem to be required by society to be perfectly pure, virginal, desire-less beings in order for anyone to accept that they did not, in fact, “want it.” (I have some texts from my GWS class I could cite, if anyone is curious.) Rape cases are rarely taken to court, but when they are, victims are questioned along the lines of “But you were kissing him earlier.” “Why did you go to the railroad tracks with him if you didn't want to have sex with him?” “But you said in this facebook correspondence that you 'love bjs' so clearly you like sex. How can you prove you didn't want it?” etc. Essentially, as soon as one admits that a woman has sexuality/desires (not something that our culture does), she loses the right to choose who she wants to have sex with, because clearly if you like sex, all sex is good, right? Logic. So rape victims are generally seen, at least in some – often unspoken – way, as dirty because they “wanted it”.
On a more broad and direct level (okay, I'm adding a part 4), it might be shameful just because of the overall stigma against sex. If sex is taboo and shameful, and people who have sex are dirty or shameful people, then rape victims, prostitutes, “sluts” (see above: this is just a derogatory term for women who like sex, which shouldn't be derogatory at all), and anybody else who has sex before marriage are all grouped into the same category, a very broad and meaningless category one could fall into via very, very different situations.
This stigma probably makes sex seem even more intimate than it already is. Naturally, it is intimate because having sex with someone could result in having their child, so we're programmed to be somewhat selective about it. But there's no inherent reason the organs under our clothes should be so taboo, and I'm fairly certain in any hunter-gatherer culture they would be far less taboo if not completely acceptable. Therefore, if we've made holy temples out of our nether regions, to be shared with only a select few, doesn't that make the invasion of that space even worse than other kinds of assault on less taboo places? Isn't that what separates rape from other kinds of assault and taking without permission, like mugging someone or beating them up? By this reasoning, rape in our pre-linguistic society would still be worse than mugging or being beaten up, because there is some inherent intimacy to sex, but would not be worse by as much as it is today.
Let's all agree that rape is inherently bad and should be avoided by all costs because it's very damaging to a lot of people for some natural reasons and some cultural reasons. (This is the sentence I will direct you to if anyone starts screaming about how I don't understand how horrible rape is and how could I possibly say any of this.) Now that that's been said, doesn't it seem like ending slut-shaming and being a sex-positive culture would actually help rape victims immensely, even if it doesn't stop rape? This is not a very conventional way to link these two different feminist issues, but I think they're incredibly related and that gives us even more cause to fight for both at the same time. And as one last side-note in a post riddled with parenthetical clauses, increasing sex-positivity would likely decrease rates of rape, because girls are pressured into denying wanting sex, which might make some men pay less attention to explicit consent. Essentially, because it's hard for girls to say “yes” since they aren't supposed to want sex, that makes consent seem fuzzier, and sometimes “no” is interpreted as playing hard to get, or being coy “like women do”. If we manage to be more sex-positive as a culture, and educate people openly about their choices instead of treating it as a shameful taboo, then I hypothesize that it would not only be awesome in many other ways, but would also decrease rates of rape and sexual assault AND make the experience (specifically, the aftermath) of rape less horrible and traumatizing for women. Naturally, I would much rather stop rape entirely – but just because one hopes to find a cure for cancer doesn't mean we should stop trying to find ways to manage and treat it.