Denial and the Rapist Next Door
Jaclyn has an op-ed in the Hartford Courant, ahead of a speaking engagement at her alma mater Wesleyan on Tuesday, and she gives voice to the troubling truth about victim-blaming: people do it to feel safe.
It may be that the most compelling mission in human psychology is to explain why bad things happen. If bad things can happen to anyone, for no reason, then they can happen to us. (One could argue that the sense of insecurity produced by this realization is the root of all religion, though there are certainly powerful alternative theories.) That’s the tension that people relieve when they victim-blame about rape. No other crime is both so serious and so epidemic. Significant fractions of all women in the U.S., and almost certainly in the world, are the targets of an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime, whereas the number of people who are murdered or kidnapped (like rape, an A felony here in New York) are a few out of every thousand. One blogger wrote powerfully about the effect of that (in a piece at Jezebel about Lotoya Peterson’s fantastic Yes Means Yes essay The Not-Rape Epidemic) and I quoted it in a post some time ago:
Men can do things that we will never be able to do without first brokering some kind of peace with the fear.
Even for men, who are at far less (though still some) risk of being raped, the realization that rape could happen to our friends, mothers, daughters, and for those of us with female partners, to the people with whom we share our lives, does not sit easily. The most comfortable response is denial, or as Jaclyn puts it:
You want to feel safe. You want to feel like rape is avoidable and rare and only happens to foolish girls who don’t follow the rules. Not to you, or to your daughter, or anyone you love. You want to believe that only monsters commit “real” rape, terrifying men who look nothing like you or your friends. You want to think that when nice-seeming boys get accused of rape, they were provoked, or are victims themselves of some kind of sexual misunderstanding. You want to feel in control. Who doesn’t?
But that’s not the reality. Jaclyn cites Lisak and McWhorter’s work, the body of literature I call the Predator Theory. The rapists who commit about ninety percent of rapes are just 4-8% of the population. They do it on purpose, they use alcohol and target acquaintances, and they do it because they can get away with it and do it again and again and again.
When people shift the focus to the victim, they have all sorts of explanations. They may say it’s all just a communication problem. I’ve addressed that before. They may say that the rapist is at fault, but we can’t affect the rapist’s behavior. I’ve addressed that before. They may say that people need to take personal responsibility, or some other “I’m not blaming the victim BUT …” excuse, and I’ve addressed that before. What we should all hear, though, is the subtext of the argument. The speaker demands an easy explanation that reinforces the speaker’s belief that bad things won’t happen to good people.
That denial comes at a terrible cost. We cannot address a problem that we will not acknowledge, and again Jaclyn puts it better than I can:
Our collective failure to treat rape among acquaintances seriously means that the vast majority of students found responsible for rape on campus graduate with their classes, while many victims transfer or drop out altogether.
Not only is that unjust, it’s a real missed opportunity. Ensuring that campus rapists receive meaningful discipline for their crimes could have a dramatic effect. Because a tiny minority of students are responsible for most campus rapes, prosecution that takes them out of circulation would mean they wouldn’t get a second or third chance, and that their potential next victims would be spared.
All it will cost is giving up our misguided illusions about who perpetrates rape, and who deserves it. For a chance at real safety, it seems a small price to pay.