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STANFORD -Two decades ago, feminists working in rape crisis centers began to change society's ideas about rape, redefining it as an act of violence and not sex.

Beth Gerstein, a doctoral candidate in anthropology at Stanford University, thinks it may be time to take another look at sexuality and rape as part of a cultural system.

"The books are not closed on how to think about rape, sex and violence," she said. "As a cultural anthropologist, I know these things are always changing throughout time."

For her thesis, which will focus on the issue of rape, she is doing research in the San Francisco Bay Area, interviewing rape crisis staff members and rape survivors.

Gerstein is particularly interested in how feminists working in rape crisis centers have changed society's ideas about rape, redefining it as an act of violence and not sex.

Gerstein said she approaches the subject with some presuppositions.

"Perhaps we have too narrow a definition of what sex and sexuality is all about," she said. "When we talk about sex, it's usually about the romantic ideal, which is genital, heterosexual intercourse, in a setting of mutuality and loving bonds. But there is a lot of consensual sex that is not pleasurable.

"Because our notion of sexuality is narrowly defined, there is a disjuncture for women who know that rape is about violence, and not about sex, yet find their experiences with rape implicate sex and sexuality a lot."

Often, Gerstein said, the rape "evokes memories of previous relationships that perhaps bordered on rape, or might actually have been rape, but were never labeled as rape."

"I think it is common for women who have just been raped to stop having sex for a period of time," she said, "or, alternatively, to have sex a lot, as a kind of corrective, so that they can be in control of their sexual experience.

"Rape does mimic our ideal of sexuality. Bonds that are supposed to be loving bonds - with rape, the same actions, the same behaviors, are turned around and become mechanisms of women's domination, of pain and trauma, and I think that causes a lot of confusion.

"If rape had nothing to do with sex, then women who have sex after being raped wouldn't go through flashbacks, which often happens," Gerstein said.

"This is not to say that rape equals our idealized notion of sexuality, but it is to say there is a lot more that needs to be talked about with rape, sex and violence.

"I'm not sure that seeing sex and violence as two opposing poles really gets at the broad range of experiences of sexuality."

Gerstein said she understands very well why it was imperative for those working in rape crisis centers to redefine rape as an act of violence.

In the early 1970s, she said, feminists working on the issue of rape "were fighting existing ideas that saw male sexuality as aggressive and did not take rape seriously. Often women were viewed as complicit in, and therefore deserving of, rape.

"It was important to say, 'This is violence and it is not OK,' " she said.

Gerstein is herself a rape survivor and a former rape crisis counselor. The rape - an attack by a stranger who broke into her apartment - occurred when she was an undergraduate at Connecticut College.

In her second year at Harvard Divinity School, she began volunteering at a rape crisis center in Cambridge. After earning her master's degree in comparative religion, she worked full time for a year at the center, where she was a counselor, led groups for rape survivors and worked on public education and advocacy.

She found volunteering at the center a constructive way to use her own experience, she said.

"I had to struggle for a long time to figure out how to integrate this into my life," she said. "I never had a tremendous amount of difficulty talking about [the rape] and I thought I could share with other women my feelings of isolation, extreme turmoil and disbelief that something like this could happen."

In interviewing rape survivors for her thesis, Gerstein said, she is interested in how rape changed their sense of who they are and their relationships to others, as well as how it might have altered their ideas of themselves as sexual beings.

She also will explore identity issues, she said.

"The anti-rape movement has constructed an identity for rape survivors," she said. "Someone might get a certain empowerment from saying 'I am a rape survivor.' It also connects them to a movement, and I want to know what that means to them."



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