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The Excuses Write Themselves

September 18, 2010

They don’t, actually. People write the excuses that appear, almost immediately, in the first accounts of a sexual assault, no matter how horrific. One could define rape culture that way: a culture where accounts of rape, but not other crimes, frequently meet immediately with speculation aimed at nullifying of mitigating the allegation.*

That’s not how murders are reported. The early accounts don’t say, “there is always the possibility that the victim was initially the aggressor,” unless there is reason to believe that was the case. But in rape cases, there always seems to be “reason” to explore the possible mitigation. Armed robberies are not reported that way. Arsons are not reported that way. The first reports that a fire was deliberately set are not accompanied by, “was the guy drunk? Maybe he didn’t know he was pouring gasoline on the floor. Did someone in the building lure him there to do drugs? There must be a reason!”

(White collar crime is actually sometimes reported that way, but we live in a white collar crime culture as surely as we live in a rape culture, one that only punishes symbolic scapegoats periodically to forestall social upheaval. I have more basis for this view than I’m willing to expound on here.)

In the past, I’ve used the term “social license to operate” to describe the social structures that make it possible for a significant population of serial rapists to live undetected among us, abusing victims again and again. The excuse-scripting process we call rape apologism. The rape apologists don’t actually commit the rapes, but what they do ensures that the rapists can do it again and again.

It sometimes feels like playing whack-a-mole to respond to the same mythology again and again. But the alternative is to cede the field and let folks hear the script without the response.

So, when the first accusation about Ben Roethlisberger went public, and people started running the “lying golddigger” script, feminists responded. When the second accuser came forward and people ran the “drunk” and “starfucker” scripts, feminists responded.

All the scripts have an essential similarity. They usually focus on some stigmatized personal characteristic of the victim, which has three effects:
(1) it disappears the rapist, so that instead of a particular offender whose conduct is in question, he’s a cypher on which people, especially men, project themselves or men they know;
(2) it makes the victim less sympathetic, so that without even making a logical argument about the human right not to be raped, it reduces people’s willingness to enforce that right; and
(3) it attacks the victim, discouraging her and other women from seeking justice or accountability.

There are plenty of excuses. And when people trot out the “she was doing sex work” script, it’s good to respond. When they pull out the “lying sluts” script, it’s good to respond. When they use the “provocatively dressed” script, it’s good to respond. And when they use the “she was kinky, that’s what she gets” script, I think it’s good to respond. Because these scripts are pre-written, and they’re really all the same shit about different women.

*(I’m paraphrasing something Lindsay Beyerstein wrote privately.)

10 Comments leave one →
  1. Sam permalink
    September 18, 2010 11:45 am


    “…unless there is reason to believe that was the case. But in rape cases, there always seems to be “reason” to explore the possible mitigation.”

    well, but isn’t the problem that the usually private nature of the alleged crime – often stressed by feminists saying that stranger-rape is much rarer then acquaintance rape – makes it almost imperative to wonder about possible motives of the accuser and the accused (who are, until then at least, often romantically or emotionally involved)? Wondering why seems to be a much more appropriate reaction than a standard assumption of “he apparently was a sociopath all along”.

    • September 18, 2010 11:53 am

      If a person murders their spouse- they may come up with “maybe the murdered did something to provoke it”, but they never insist that the crime didn’t actually happen as in the case of rape. Couldn’t that have occured in just as emotional and possibly romantic a situation?

      Also- who said rapists were sociopaths?

      • September 18, 2010 12:32 pm

        In murders there is usually a dead body, so it would be difficult to claim the murder never happened.

      • Sam permalink
        September 18, 2010 1:11 pm


        “…but they never insist that the crime didn’t actually happen as in the case of rape.”

        I think “insist” is a bit strong. But the problem with rape is that the subjective perspective of the alleged perpetrator is substantial in the definition of the crime. I mean, in the most problematic of all circumstances, the accused had all the reason to believe there was consent for what happened, while the victim has all the reason to believe he/she effectively communicated the absence of consent. So it’s rape from one perspective and consensual sex from the other. So, as opposed to the provocation in a murder case, the perpetrator’s subjective understanding of the situation is not only relevant with respect to motives but, at least in the cases I describe above, and I assume they aren’t too rare – although not the cases Thomas has apparently in mind, since he refers to his previous articles about the sociopathic subgroup of men who seem to be regular rapists, although not necessarily “stranger” rapists -, also with respect to deciding whether there *intent* on the part of the accused. So, I still believe that the nature of the alleged crime justifies the different starting assumptions.

  2. September 24, 2010 10:44 am

    Isn’t it a double standard that it’s automatically assault to punch the loudmouthed drunk in the bar… I mean… it isn’t excused because he “deserved” it, should have expected it, asked for it, left himself vulnerable to it, etc. etc. etc.? No matter what that guy does, it is NOT ok to assault him… unless he hits you first.

    It is no longer ok to rape a girl if YOU are drunk, however the trend seems to indicate that it’s OK to rape a girl if SHE is drunk…. because she should have expected it, asked for it, left herself vulnerable to it, kinda “deserved” it.

    I was a Steeler fan for over 30 years. Haven’t watched a smidge of it since this happened. Even if you believe his side of the story – he was a creep, and I’m a woman and I have daughters and I expect more from the Steeler players and more importantly the Steeler ownership. This is a public nightmare story of why so few assaults are even reported.

    • Sam permalink
      September 24, 2010 1:25 pm


      I don’t know what story you are referring to (not living in the US), but I think it’s totally possible to be a “creep”, asshole, what you want, even with respect to sex, without being a rapist. I don’t think that it’s useful to conflate those categories.

      • September 24, 2010 2:04 pm

        Sam, she’s talking about Ben Roethlisberger, who has been the subject of several posts on this blog. Make no mistake: two women in two different cities allege that he got them alone and raped them. There are scattered reports of victims who have not come forward, and Roethlisberger’s use of off-duty police to quash allegations against him and interfere with an investigation is probably the only thing that prevented the Georgia incident from resulting in a felony indictment.

      • Sam permalink
        September 24, 2010 4:21 pm


        I’ll look for the posts you mention, but my statement was not related to anything specific. It was more related to what you mentioned in “Talking past each other”. That there is a problem of male defensiveness and verbal hedging when it comes to rape. So, I think to get rid of that and get into a productive dialogue that respects the fears of everyone, it would be a start to limit the application of the term to those who are not merely “creps”, or assholes, or whatever, even in a sexual context, but who are actual rapists. Whether or not the man referred to by Annie is one or the other, or both, I have no idea.

  3. haloinshreds permalink
    October 14, 2010 4:04 am

    Good points but I think there is an additional script which gets overlooked sometimes in the analysis ‘If there wasn’t a conviction then she is automatically a lying scum and he is ‘proved’ innocent’.

    The burden of proof is ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ a high one as it should be when loss of liberty/custodial sentences etc apply. Not meeting that standard of proof to get a conviction doesn’t mean no rape occured or that it was a false allegation, it just means there was not enough evidence on the day. A good eg of this is OJ getting off the criminal charge for murder but losing the civil case where the burden is ‘on the balance of probabilities – more a 50/50 scenario.

    The courts can and do occasionally make determinations of innocence in judgments. (one I can think of was where a man who looked eerily similar to the real offender was identified but was able to demonstrate he was out of the country at the time of the offence) But its rare. All too often the media proclaim innocence based on a lack of conviction and make allegations that it was a false rape allegation when there is no evidence to show this was true – only that a not guilty finding occurred in that case. A not guilty finding does not necessarily equate to innocence. But according to the apologists, its often used as ‘proof’ of a delierate false rape allegation.

  4. Hugh permalink
    January 18, 2013 2:45 am

    I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on white-collar culture at some stage

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