Cockblocking Rapists Is A Moral Obligation; or, How To Stop Rape Right Now
Throughout the now nearly five year history of this blog, I’ve written extensively about the dynamics of rape, who the rapists are, how they operate and what has to happen in the culture to make them stop. Much of this is broad, and involves decades of change. In the words of an old Jewish saying imparted to me by Jaclyn Friedman, “it is not yours to complete the work; neither is it yours to desist from it.”
But rape the social problem takes decades to solve, and the rapes that happen to us or our friends or the people we love don’t happen over decades, they happen all of a sudden. When people read things like my responses to Emily Yoffe, they want to know, “I don’t have decades. What do I do now?”
The activist answer to this question, in the broadest terms, is really easy. You do what you can, with what you have, where you are. What does that mean practically? Here is what I think it means, today, and starting tomorrow. Because this is coming up on the context of the Yoffe piece, I’m going to primarily address one common area where repeat-offender acquaintance rapists operate, adult and young adult social environments in the US, especially those where alcohol is the social drug of choice. This leaves out stranger rape, where the dynamics are very different. It also leaves out a whole slew of other circumstances that repeat rapists use. For example, in institutional settings, like inpatient facilities and prisons, or in the armed forces, or in the certain sports environments or workplaces, there are very different dynamics and, probably, very different solutions. I am not going to try to address those, though, because I don’t know enough about them.
What To Do Today: Cockblocking Rapists
The paradigmatic repeat rapist uses a set of tactics that work, and they go like this: push alcohol, test boundaries, physically isolate the target, and narrow the target’s options. Look for that, and break it up. In the rapes of juveniles now being reported in Missouri, what did the older boys do? The girls were already smashed, but they pushed more alcohol, they put them in separate rooms, isolated from each other and with no friendly faces around. The person looking to get the drunk drunker, and then alone, is not to be trusted.
Spot The Boundary Testing
Look for the boundary testing. If a rapist wants to buy someone a drink, and doesn’t take no for an answer, what he got for his money is that the target can be talked out of “no.”
Not everyone who pushes boundaries is a rapist. Some people think they can touch without asking, because they have absorbed some terrible ideas, or because they are in social circumstances –like some highly sexualized environments — where they think they can touch whoever and however they want. That’s boorish, but it’s not the same thing as what the rapist does because the motive is different. Someone who gropes or smacks like they have permission even when they don’t may think it’s funny, may think it’s cute, may think it’s a good way to get laid. I have a problem with that, because that behavior makes it tougher for everyone else to see what the rapists are doing. But what the rapists do, they do for a different reason.
What the rapists do is target selection. They are looking for someone whose boundaries they can violate, and who won’t or can’t stand up for themselves. The best targets, the ones who offer the rapists the best chance of getting away with it, are those who won’t report — or who will never even admit to themselves that what happened was rape. The way the rapist finds those people is to cross their boundaries again and again, progressively testing and looking for resistance.
That’s the pattern to look for. If somebody seems to be testing to see if one of your friends can be pushed off of “no,” has a limited ability to stand up for themselves, that’s the red flag.
The most important thing you can do if you see this pattern is tell the target you see it. Forewarned is forearmed. In fact, somebody who is being targeted and pushed and tested may think they see the pattern, but may not trust their own instincts. If they know you see it, too, then they may trust a bad feeling that they are already feeling.
If you think someone is acting like a rapist, sizing up a target — encouraging intoxication, testing boundaries — then one of their best tools they have is to limit the target’s options. The rapist wants to get the target isolated. But when “hey, let’s go be alone somewhere” isn’t working, it may be because the target already has a bad feeling. If the target needs something — a ride home, a place to sleep, that sort of thing — then they may be willing to overlook misgivings if the rapist is the one offering it. A rapist will always want to be the target’s only ride home, only place to stay, etc.
It’s pretty easy to keep that from happening. If the drunkest person in the room has been left by their ride, and the person who has been pushing them to drink more is offering to take them home, they may not want to go, but they may not have a better option. Providing that option may be what gets your friend away from the potential rapist.
Protect The Drunks
Of course, people don’t only get drunk or high because someone pushes them to. Lots of people get drunk or high because they want to. Longtime readers will know that I don’t, but it’s part of the culture and it would be unrealistic to ignore it. Lots of people want to get drunk or high. And lots of people want to do that and then be sexual with someone. Now, that’s not how I roll. I wish alcohol had a less prominent place in our culture, and I wish there were a lot less overlap between sex and substance use. But that’s a really hard problem to change, and the whole point of this post is to talk about what to do today and tomorrow, not what to change over the next couple of decades.
So maybe you have a friend who wants to get fairly drunk, and then finds someone to have some sexytime with. That’s fine. But just like we tell our friends when they’re too drunk to be driving, shouldn’t we tell our friends when they are too drunk to hook up? Nobody can really take the keys away, but there’s a point past which we’re all pretty clear something shouldn’t happen. People who can’t walk or form a sentence clearly can’t consent, and if we let people wander off like that with a potential partner, we’re abdicating responsibility to people who have no ability to exercise it. People can make their own decisions when they are capable of making their own decisions.
What To Do Tomorrow: Make Sure Everyone Knows
The thing is, rapists absolutely need one thing to operate. They need people to believe they are not rapists. Stranger rapists do that by trying to hide that they are the person who committed the rape. Acquaintance rapists do that by picking targets who won’t say anything about what happened, or by using tactics that, if the survivor does speak up, people will decide don’t really count as rape. If you want to do something about rapists, make sure people know they are rapists.
I’m talking right-now solutions, literally something you can do tomorrow, so I don’t mean that over time we can change the culture so that alcohol-facilitated assaults are understood as rape. Lots of people are working on that. What I mean is that you can tell everyone you know that the person that you know raped someone, because the survivor told you and maybe only a few other people, is a rapist. You may not be able to say how you know, because you may not have the survivor’s permission to talk about it. But you can quietly tell your friends.
Cliff Pervocracy wrote about this in 2012: someone that, within a tight-knit community, lots of people know or suspect is a rapist, so much so that they kind of work around that person:
Have you ever been in a house that had something just egregiously wrong with it? Something massively unsafe and uncomfortable and against code, but everyone in the house had been there a long time and was used to it? “Oh yeah, I almost forgot to tell you, there’s a missing step on the unlit staircase with no railings. But it’s okay because we all just remember to jump over it.”
Some people are like that missing stair.
And what people do is, without being able to prove it, sort of take for granted that this person can’t be trusted, stick someone on them to monitor them and keep them from being able to commit rape. Cliff was very critical of this, as effectively if unintentionally covering for the rapist. And I agree. What communities need to do with the rapists in their communities is not to find a workaround; they need to actually deal with them, catch them and hold them accountable or throw them out. But that has to start somewhere. It starts with sharing information about the rapist. It starts with the new people knowing what the allegations are, the old people knowing what the allegations are, the leaders knowing what the allegations are, and all the people who would make excuses for the rapist knowing what the allegations are.
Because of the way people work around rapists in social circles now, the communities keep kicking the can down the road. New people often don’t find out until they’ve been around for a while, and some people know part of the story but not the whole story, and other people have a story about how one survivor isn’t credible but never have to deal with the commonalities between the several survivors’ accounts.
I drew a flowchart for my There’s A War On series, which dealt with consent violations, rape and abuse in kinky communities. Here’s the flowchart. What it shows is that if the stories of each individual survivor exist in isolation, the problem never gets dealt with. The survivors are each on their own, and the fear or the reality of resistant community reactions will tend to silence them. When those silos get broken down, the community can (and may be forced to) consider all the evidence together, which is really important to getting the fence-sitters and defenders to recognize that the behavior they are looking at is a pattern of abuse.
In the first instance, telling people what has been said, to the extent you can, will lead to the “missing stair” phenomenon, where people are wary of the accused rapist but feel like they can’t take decisive action, and so work around the person like a broken stair tread. But what happens is that letting the stories grow legs will bring other stories out. The serial rapists leave a trail of survivors; if the all speak up at once, the rapists can’t hide what they’ve done.
What can people do with unsubstantiated accusations? Quite a lot, actually. If you’re watching someone pushing one of your friends to have another round and getting handsy, would it be better to know if another person in your social circle said, “that person raped me”? Yeah, that would be important to know. And if two different people said it? And, given the silence around rape and the low reporting rates, one story is often an important catalyst for another. Once one story is out there, others tend to come up. The more data, the easier it is to compare, and evaluate credibility based on multiple data points. And what then? Then, accountability. That can look like a lot of different things. It can look like prosecution. It can look like some model of transformative justice, though I won’t try to make a pitch for transformative justice models because I won’t do it as well as its advocates would.* It might look like ostracization, because any social group, when someone harms its members, ought to be able to say, “you’re not welcome here anymore.”
Some people will say that’s rumormongering. Yes. Yes, it is. If stopping rape isn’t a good enough reason to spread rumors to you, then you and I have nothing further to discuss.
Some people will say that it’s unfair to do that, to simply take the survivor’s word, to say things about people without due process. Well, due process is for the government, to limit their power to lock people up or take their property. You don’t owe people due process when you decide whether to be friends with them. You don’t have to have a hearing and invite them to bring a lawyer to decide whether to invite them to a party. And let’s be honest, most of us repeat things that one person we know did to another person we know based on nothing more than that one participant told us and we believe them. We do it all the time, it’s part of social interaction.
So if you want to do something, take the label, plant it on the missing stair in your social circle, and make it stick.
It Can’t All Be On The Survivors
I’ve seen the following two things happen:
(1) someone gets sexually assaulted, whether raped or violated in another way, and people say to the survivor, “you have to do something! If you don’t do something, who will protect the next victim?”
(2) someone gets sexually assaulted, whether raped or violated in another way, and the survivor yells and shouts for people to deal with it, and the people who are friendly with both the survivor and the violator shrug their shoulders and try to stay “neutral.”
What these two things have in common is that in each case, the people around the situation place all the responsibility on the person who most needs help and can least be expected to go it alone.
That’s lazy, and that’s selfish, and it’s really easy. It’s really easy because it requires nothing of the bystanders. The people who are friends with both people may not want to accept that their friend, someone they are close to and think highly of, could do such an awful thing, because it calls into question their ability to judge people.
Or, they may just be afraid to confront people. Confronting people is emotionally taxing, and it often irreparably ends the friendship. In fact, about something as serious as rape, it invariably irreparably alters the friendship. If you believe that your friend raped your other friend, and you say, “hey, you raped my friend,” then the old friendship is gone forever as soon as the words leave your mouth. What remains is either enmity, or a relationship of holding someone accountable, just as tough and taxing as staying friends with a substance abuser who is trying to get clean and sober. That’s not easy. That’s a lot of work, and most people are not up for it.
The option most people choose, because it gets them out of that, is to choose to not make up their minds about what happened. Now, you might think that people can do that with one accusation. But believe me, people, that I could name several people who still “don’t know what happened” about a person — not the same person, but different ones — who has been accused not once, not twice, but at least three times of similar violations by three different people.
Just think about that. “Hey, you’re still friends with Boris. But X said Boris raped her.” “Well yeah, but I don’t know what to believe.” “Well, but you know what Y said, and Y’s account was a lot like X’s.” “Yeah, but I don’t know what to believe.” “But Z said Boris violated consent, too, and that’s three people …” “Well, I’ve been friends with Boris a long time, so I kind of don’t know what to think …” (Trust me when I tell you, folks, I’m not making that up.)
What can you do tomorrow? Don’t let your communities do that shit. Hold your friends to a higher standard.
Now you may be saying to yourself that this isn’t relevant to you, that you never are in social circumstances where you see someone pushing people’s boundaries and pushing alcohol and looking to be the one to take the drunk “home.” Or that in your community you don’t have someone who everyone kind of knows but doesn’t want to know is not to be trusted. Or that you never see the bystanders sitting on their hands and making rape an issue between the survivor and the rapist.
And if that’s true, it must be nice where you live.
*I’m not a fountain of good references for transformative or restorative justice, either, but the restorative justice Wikipedia entry looks like a good place to start, and Tranformative Justice Law Project, and RestorativeJustice.org might also be useful reading.