Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers
[Content Note for rape and kidnapping, and general rape culture.]
They look just like everybody else.
It’s not an easy thing to keep in your head. Disney movies have taught us that villains look like villains.* But in real life, they look like everybody else.
Once they get caught, and we see a mugshot and they look like they were up all night drinking and then groped a stranger in a parking lot and were driven off by force, it’s easy to see them for what they are. But in the office, before Jeff Krusinski got arrested, he looked like a normal person. Someone gave him the job of heading up sexual assault prevention for the Air Force. In hindsight, it seems like a cruel joke, or a deliberate effort to put the fox in charge of the henhouse. Rather like putting a pedophile in charge of a program for troubled children. And given the massive issues the US armed forces have with sexual assault, it’s not absurd to think there are plenty of people who are more or less outright pro-rape. But just like the proportion of the population that are actually rapists is limited, the proportion of the population that can think both “that guy’s a rapist” and “I’m okay with that” is limited. I don’t have anything quantitative to point to for the size of that population, but experience teaches me that when people are determined to make excuses for a rapist, they first deny he’s** a rapist. Even the rapists don’t say they’re rapists.
Men’s power advocates (the guys who call themselves “men’s rights activists”, which is not a little like calling one’s self a “white rights activist”) get all wound about the term “rape culture,” making really facile arguments like we can’t have a rape culture if rape is a crime. But if you have a crime that perpetrators routinely get away with, where people defend even those duly convicted, then isn’t it a crime the culture offers a lot of support to? I think we’d all agree that we have a culture of corruption in politics, even though every once in a while one of the scoundrels gets hauled off in handcuffs. It’s illegal, but it’s common, it’s both decried and laughed at and to way too large an extent tolerated. Rape culture is like corruption culture: we all know it happens, it’s a crime, it’s sometimes prosecuted; but efforts to stop it are ineffective and lots of people who know about it find ways to make believe it isn’t what it i,s or convince themselves that the people who do it are justified; especially when it’s their friend.
I’m not saying that outright, self-serving human venality isn’t a significant reason that people look the other way. If we look at Sandusky, certainly for some people at some point there’s a more or less conscious thought process: I know what he is, I know what he does, but I’m putting the interest of the program and my self-interest first. If we look at Polanski, some people are simply calculating that supporting him is important in Hollywood and calling him what he is just isn’t in their self-interest. Even someone whose primary public reputation is as a feminist will call a rape a “model sexual negotiation” when necessary to appeal to a target market.
But people don’t have to be making consciously self-interested or rape-supportive choices to participate in rape culture. All that is required for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.*** People participate in rape culture when they choose not to see, refuse to believe, reject evidence that leads to painful conclusions.
So when General Franklin overturned Lt. Col. Wilkerson’s conviction by a military jury for rape, he may have been thinking, “rape is awesome, and I’m in a position of power and I can help the rapist, so I will.” There certainly are people who think that. They even form groups on Facebook (which Facebook will not take down because they’re engaged in that good people doing nothing thing). Or maybe he believes all kinds of victim-blaming shit. Maybe when a victim’s story varies in any way from the script he has in his head for the “real rape” story, he decides he doesn’t believe it or it doesn’t count. Maybe that decision to disbelieve isn’t really a conscious one, but a gut feeling based on a mythology about how the world works that he has internalized, and never really examined. I’m thinking that’s a lot more common.
And then there’s the all-time, number one reason why people look right at a rapist and don’t see a rapist: he’s their friend. I excoriated Alyssa Royse for her piece about how her friend is a rapist and also a nice guy. I stand by that. The reason I went after her personally so hard (as opposed to the Good Men Project, which I view as essentially a failed project) isn’t that what she said is so rare, but (in part) because it’s so common, and she of all people should recognize that by doing that “but he’s a nice guy” stuff she’s part of the problem. It’s what Whoopi did with Roman and what Naomi did with Julian and what some fans did with Kobe and Mike and Ben. We know him, they think, he’s our friend. It must not be true, it must be more complicated. What was unique about Royse’s piece was that instead of trying to dodge the word and concept of rape and explain it away, she acknowledged what it was and still said the things she said. Usually, the way people manage cognitive dissonance between values (“rape is bad”, “this rapist is my friend”) is to keep the contradictory facts as vague or obscure as possible, to avoid dealing with the conflict by not looking at the conflicting facts side by side, as it were. As Upton Sinclair put it, it’s hard to get a man to understand a thing when his salary depends on not understanding it. It’s a special kind of messed up to be able to just confront the fact that a friend is a rapist and still do all the victim-blaming that people do when they’re trying to weasel out of the conclusion that their friend is a rapist.
This week, a woman escaped from years in captivity. It’s not the first time. She wasn’t alone, either. And now, some people are sending around video of Charles Ramsey, the neighbor she ran to, who called 911. This guy did the right thing, obviously, and anyone whose reaction to the interview he gave is to mock him is being an asshole. But here’s the part that has my attention: he is talking, I think, Ariel Casto (or maybe one of his brothers) who is now under arrest for keeping the women captive, and he says they were buddies. They ate ribs together. They saw each other daily for a year. And when Ramsey saw Berry trying to escape from that house, he helped her. He believed her. It sounds so simple, and it should be, but people’s capacity to wish away all evidence in favor of maintaining their good opinion of their friends is vast. Ramsey’s willingness to do the right thing is, sadly, something we really can’t take for granted.
How normal did Ariel Castro seem? When Amanda Berry disappeared, he helped pass out fliers.
They don’t wear hats that say, “Rapist.” We have to get our heads around the reality that we can’t tell who they are just by looking at them. Try this: imagine that you were a serial rapist or maybe a child molester. I’m not asking for emotional connection here, just a logical thought experiment. If you were a serial rapist and didn’t want to stop being a serial rapist, what skills would you see as your mission-critical skills? Here’s what I came up with:
(1) Seem normal, the sort of person that people don’t think is a serial rapist;
(2) Learn to pick victims who are less likely to talk or be believed;
(3) Learn to use tactics that tend to make prosecution or other accountability less likely.
The villains are the ones who do the villainous things. Castro is now alleged to have had a history of beating his wife and kidnapping his own kids. Which is exactly what the Lisak & Miller research says we should expect from a serial rapist.
Here’s another thought experiment: assume that a serial rapist has mastered all three of those those rapist skills. How could we know that he’s a serial rapist? Not just by looking at him, and not necessarily because he says creepy things; he may have a good sense of his audience and calibrate what he says to not seem out of place. What we would expect, though, is:
(1) A string of victims. And all of them will come with “problems”, reasons to disbelieve their account, because that’s part of picking the victim.
(2) Use of tactics that undetected rapists use, or could use, to keep from being detected: boundary testing, isolation, choice of alcohol and drug facilitation over overt force unless the victim or circumstances offer cover for other tactics. You can actually see this in operation sometimes.
This doesn’t come naturally. The culture tells us to look at the surface. If we want to revoke rapists’ social license to operate, we have to learn to look for different things. Because they don’t wear hats that say, “Rapist.” They hang out in the back yard, work on their car and eat some ribs with the neighbors. Just like they were normal. Even while they have captives in their homes.
* The linked bit is in my view very problematic for its failure to contextualize what constitutes conventionally attractive. Disney villains are not ugly, they’re “ugly”, which means older and/or darker skinned and/or fatter, sometimes disfigured and often with exaggerated facial features. This isn’t exclusive to Disney, though. The over-representation of all these characteristics among villains is a broad cultural tendency.
**Or she or they, because when we talk about the rape of adult victims we’re largely talking about something men do, but if we include the rapes of children, men don’t have a monopoly on molestation; and actually I don’t believe anyone has good numbers of rape by (or of) non-binary gendered folks, but it has happened.
***Versions of this are almost universally, and wrongly, attributed to foundational conservative Edmund Burke. The real origin of the saying is, as far as I know, unknown, and it’s probably closest to something J.S. Mill said.