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Denial and the Rapist Next Door

April 26, 2010

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?

[Emphasis supplied.]

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.

[Emphasis supplied.]

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 26, 2010 3:20 pm

    We have a similar response to other things. My mother died of cancer when I was quite young and I have had several health issues (not related), and I can sometimes see that part of why people don’t how to respond to me and my experiences is that if it can happen to me, it could happen to them, their parents, their daughters, their friends, etc.
    At some point in time we have to get use to the fact that we aren’t safe. Life isn’t safe.

  2. May 29, 2011 9:57 pm

    The post winded up longer than I thought it would, so here goes a very short version for those who don’t want to read that much, and just in case my message ended up confusing and too much of a rant.

    I don’t think it’s much the case in blogs such as this and feministe, but, try to consider the implications of the possibility that rapists are just a considerably small fraction of men that won’t change this behavior just because they’re asked to with ads like the “sexual assault prevention tips” meme/ad. And take also in consideration what would happen if that were true, but you’ve trusted followed the implicit advice on campaigns such as “this is not an invite to rape me”, “drinking is not a crime, rape is”, that would be, to drink, happily and unworriedly of an possible rape, because, well, the other ads just told men not to rape, they’re supposed to do the right thing and not do such a thing against you. But just think that maybe some of them simply (not all of them, a small fraction of them, but a small fraction you can’t still spot from the crowd) won’t. And lastly, but not least, consider the possibility that many of these (and you don’t know who they are) could use just pure alcoholic beverage as a date-rape drug.

    Take all this in consideration, and then try to be safe accordingly, and spread the “hypothesis”. Please.


    I’ll read the “addressed before” posts later, I wish to comment before it becomes closed for comments, whenever that happens.

    I’m one who would probably be put in the same bags as both “we can’t affect the rapists behavior” and “it’s not the victim’s fault, but”.

    Regarding the first line of argument, I think they’re mainly some sort of psychopaths, as pointed in the “predatory theory” link (and thanks for such great compilation of research). Many, many people seem to just ignore that and assume the notion that all men are potential rapists, they only have to be taught some good manners, which can be made through some ads like these shown on some feminist sites and blogs. So when you point that slogans such as “drinking is not a crime, rape is”, and “society teaches how not to be raped, but does not teaches to not rape” are both useless and nocive, they assume that what you really mean or think is something like “but if she’s really drunk I’m in the right of raping her”. Finding excuses not to avoid raping someone because, you know, it’s so fun for all us men. “If a woman does not want me to rape her, it’s her job to prevent it, I have not obligation to help and I can’t resist my sexual urges/evil objectives of using my penis as a weapon against women in general”.

    It’s so paradoxical and nonsensical that I find even hard to slice the argument and deal with it in logical parts. The “men are essentially good but only lack some bad manners” show an astounding lack of rational empathy, of ever trying to think whether it would be really fun to rape someone, whether she (or he, for the men who also make the same argument somehow) would really be able to rape someone for fun, only does not that because of good manners.

    Perhaps it would be easier to explain with an hypothetical ad that addresses to all women in general advising against cruelty against little children, “teaching” mothers and babysitters not to torture children and babies, not to burn their skin against a hot pan or a cigar, to not lift then and then releasing so they fall to the ground, to not bump their heads against walls. I can only imagine that a mother would jump in my neck if I suggested that she only complains about how pointless such message is if I suggested that she only mentions that because “she does not want to make any effort in not torturing her children when she’s irritated, wants all the responsibility to be on the poor child, the victim”.

    To summarize, such “don’t rape”, “this is not an invitation to rape”, simply won’t work. Men who rape are not unaware of that. They can’t be. It’s too stupid to really think that. And even those who do think that, are probably not really going to change their minds as they see the message more often, as it’s not really a “new concept”. It simply is not like a “dont talk with your mouth full” kind of situation, where one could really “learn” not to. It’s not etiquette.

    The only way that we, perhaps, could affect the rapist behavior would be not on such paradoxically optimist strategy of simply “asking” them not to, but increasing their odds of being caught, and the risk/consequences implied. “If you rape, you’ll be caught” would be a better message. The next reasonable thing in terms of raising awareness would be a campaign to somehow decrease the feeling of shame of the victims and thus raise the number of reports and prosecutions. (Actually, the very next closest thing would be something like, “men, if you drink to much, you may become a rapist, and that’s no excuse, you’ll be prosecuted” — I’m willing to concede that there are non-sociopath rapists that just happened to be drunk, but it’s still their responsibility not to be drunk, just as it’s the responsibility of the dog’s owner to keep it on a leash, not biting anyone.)

    But, as pointed in the post I’ve mentioned on the “predator theory”, we can’t only rely on that because 1 – it’s an action after the fact, that would only prevent rape in the very long term as the perception of risk and punishment changes dramatically, and 2 – the modus operandi often is such that leaves very little evidence, often not involving even actual violence, physical forcing by other means than alcohol intoxication. So it wouldn’t be hard for the rapist to get away with the defense that they were both very drunk, he didn’t know what he was doing and or/she was actually pursuing it but now is falsely accusing him as she now regrets for feeling a slut.

    So, addressing the “it’s not the victim’s fault but” part, what really rests, unfortunately, is self defense and prevention strategies, instead of hoping that now men have learnt that they’re not supposed to rape (as they’ve finally seen the ads telling them not to…), getting drunk amidst of strangers and so on. It’s also interesting to mention that even “drink spicing” is so rare as to be considered a myth. Not only it’s not odorless, tasteless, and colorless, but alcohol alone seems to be enough to “do the job” according with the statistics. If women were drugged with these non-alcoholic spikes, it could be detected on their bodies, but it never is. By raising the possibility that she had been involuntarily drugged on a court, she puts herself in a position where such claim can be demonstrated false, then she’s “exposed” as a “liar”, and the rapist gets away, without ever having to bother to find some dare-rape drug other than beer.

    And, if I’m not making myself very clear, I’m not saying that it is the victim’s fault, or that it only happens with “other people” who are particularly slutty or foolish. The victim is not more “guilty” than a victim of any other crime that, for some reason or another, exposed herself to unnecessary risk, or didn’t, but the crime happened anyway.

    If the perpetrator has to share the guilt with someone, is not with the victim, but with those idiots who may influence women on vulnerable behaviors with these stupid “I’m drunk but this is not an invite to rape me” and “men, please be nice, don’t rape”.

    Sorry for the long rant. I’m just too disturbed by these things these days, I think it may even be affecting my health, seriously. I wish I could take a “mental break” from the subject, but the acceptance of such dangerous campaigns makes me crazy. The difficulty in communicating what’s wrong with them without being accused of being a rapist yourself just adds to the insanity.

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