Talking Past Each Other
I recently read a social psychology paper, “If A Girl Doesn’t Say ‘no …': Young Men, Rape and Claims of Insufficient Knowledge,” by Rachael O’Byrne and others. (hat tip Vampire Kitten, who linked the paper.) Social Psych is not my field, and so some of the terminology was new to me. It provided an interesting perspective, and the language to describe a lot of what happens in online discourse about rape. One aspect of that I will take up here, and I will probably discuss another in a companion post.
The paper provided a description of the models for rape, many of which are unstated by assumed in the arguments people make. (O’Byrne’s typology is drawn from earlier work that I have not read.)
The first is the “victim precipitation model,” which many of us might call the victim-blaming model:
The victim precipitation model is derived from psychoanalytic theory and suggests that every woman experiences unresolved conflict between their conscious wishes and unconscious desires for coerced intercourse. … While subsequent feminist scholarship has repudiated the victim-blaming conceptualization of rape (e.g. Brownmiller, 1975) inherent in this approach, it is apparent that many of these ideas, particularly those regarding appropriate female behaviour, still remain endorsed, albeit implicitly, by a number of contemporary psychological accounts of rape and more explicitly within Western culture.
For example, media coverage of sex crime cases is dominated—almost without exception —by accounts of rape in which the (usually female) victim ‘is either pure and innocent, a true victim attacked by monsters. . .or she is a wanton female who provoked the assailant with her sexuality’. Noting this tendency in the American media more generally, the US journalism pressure group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) summarized a 1991 survey of American reporting by noting that: ‘helpful reporting on rape is the exception not the norm. Instead of hearing the cries of survivors, the press is hearing the complaints of apologists; instead of condemning cruelty, the press promotes excuses’. That little seems to change in this respect is suggested by more recent research. Thus, for example, in their analysis of the reporting of two rape cases in the Israeli popular media Korn and Efrat suggest that, via a focus on the victims’ prior sexual history, newspapers ‘reinforce[d] the myths that a woman who is having consensual sex cannot be raped’ and, if she is raped, that she is both culpable and likely to have been ‘asking for it’.
[Pp. 169-70, some internal citations omitted, emphasis supplied.]
The second model is the “social-structural model,” which is the feminist view that rape culture contributes to the prevalence of rape. The authors say:
A second way of viewing sexual assault, described by Crawford (1995) as the social structural model, conceives of rape not as a ‘women’s problem’, but rather as a logical corollary of the structure of western heteropatriarchal societies … the social structural model of rape identifies cultural justifications of inequality, such as the beliefs that women are the property of men; that women’s sexuality is inherently evil and that men are entitled to the sexual services of women as crucial factors in nourishing the sexual violence of men.
Indeed, one of the most consistent findings in the social psychological literature is the effect that the existence of traditional sex roles, adversarial attitudes towards women and the accompanying acceptance of rape myths have on the reported proclivity of men to rape. Furthermore, rape myths promote self-blame by the victim, particularly in the case of acquaintance rape, an effect that may discourage women from reporting the crime, result in ‘secondary victimisation’ and deter victims from actively seeking recovery resources.
[Pp.170-71, internal citations omitted, emphasis supplied.]
Finally, the authors describe the “miscommunication model”:
<blockquote>[T]he majority of contemporary rape prevention campaigns and programmes … are, rather, informed by Tannen’s (1992) ‘miscommunication’ model, as evidenced by the assumed need to say ‘No’ presented in campaign slogan after campaign slogan (e.g. Commonwealth of Australia, 2004) or, alternatively, the necessity for a clear and unambiguous verbal ‘Yes’ to sex: thus the British government has recently launched a rape prevention campaign which is predicated on the proposition that ‘this campaign aims to reduce incidents of rape by ensuring that men know they need to gain consent before they have sex’. Clearly, such a campaign presupposes that at least some men simply may not know that they require the consent of their sexual partners.
The miscommunication model is then arguably the dominant current account of acquaintance rape, informing both professional and ‘lay’ understandings . Briefly, the model proposes a dichotomy in conversational styles between men and women, making miscommunication inevitable. From this perspective, acquaintance rape is understood as an (albeit extreme) instance of miscommunication, where both man and woman fail to interpret the other’s verbal and non-verbal cues, with the resulting communication failure ending in rape.
[P.171, some internal citations omitted, emphasis supplied.]
It often seems that people talking about rape in online communities are talking past each other because they have vastly different models in their heads for what happens. This typology systematizes that. The out-and-out rape apologists often apply a victim precipitation model. Feminists generally apply a social-structural model. The problem arises with the miscommunication model, which is just plausible enough to suck people in to talking as though that were the prevailing situation, when we ought to know otherwise.
I know that the miscommunication model describes, if anything, only a marginal subset of all rapes because I know that about 90% of all rapes are committed by a small population of repeat offenders who do it again and again, with premeditation, taking advantage of the prevalence of the victim precipitation and miscommunication model to provide cover for what is really the deliberate use of alcohol and isolation to rape their acquaintances. See here and here.
After describing these models, O’Byrne’s paper analyzes the language used by nine young men in focus groups to discuss rape. I am more interested in putting the models out there than in the findings of the study, so I will summarize it only briefly and trust that readers can do their own follow-up. The gist of it is that these young men evidenced an understanding of and even a preference for nuances and diplomatic communication to refuse sex, but then when discussing rape, reversed course and began to argue that anything the least bit ambiguous was unintelligible. They framed rape as largely a problem of miscommunication, and further framed the miscommunication as a problem with women not nowing how to say the right thing.
That doesn’t square with the research. It doesn’t square with their own discussion of communication when they’re not talking about rape. And basically it’s just self-justifying bullshit. Yet Lisak’s research and others shows that the vast majority of these guys — seven or eight out of nine — probably do not rape. What gives? Why create a social framework where rape is accidental if they don’t have to cover their own asses?
I have a lot of thoughts on that, and no answers. When rape is overwhelmingly the work of a small segment of the male population, why do other men (and I am mostly talking cis men here, not because only cis men or only men rape, but because I know of little or no research that acknowledges, let alone examines, rape by anyone other than cis men) make excuses for them?
I’m just going to leave that one hanging.