There’s a mountain of discussion going on right now about rape, particularly rapes that occur on college campuses and why female college students who are victimized are so often treated unjustly in the aftermath by their colleges, the legal system, and culture generally.
But I’m more interested here in why rapes occur in the first place. Obviously rapists are the proximate causes of rape (is that obvious? Please let that be obvious). But what is it that leads a man to rape in the first place? And is it possible that we’ve adopted attitudes and beliefs about men, women, and sex, that help to create an environment where rape becomes not only probable but inevitable? I’m especially interested in what men think or could be thinking about this. I often like to focus on men in these kinds of conversations, because A) I am one and B) men are usually those proximate causes mentioned above. What is it about being a man or understanding what must constitute being a man that leads to tragedies like this? There’s always need aplenty for analyzing legal and cultural structures, examining school and police policies, discussing what societal institutions should be doing to better protect their patrons, etc. But I’m more interested here in what would lead men to become rapists, or more broadly what kind of logic would need to be in place in order for men (and often women) to think and behave in ways that are detrimental to protecting the vulnerable and capturing predators or would-be predators.
What are the possibilities? Well first off, at minimum, you have the sickos. Twisted maniacs, sexual predators. But those have to be in the minority overall. Is it really possible in a world where the majority of the female population is sexually violated in some way that there are that many sickos? Seems unlikely unless you’re willing to admit that the vast majority of males are just sickos, or can easily be persuaded or caused to become sickos. I’m down with that if it’s true, but there doesn’t seem to be much evidence for it.
So if probably most guys aren’t depraved predators, where does that leave us? Specifically, I’m trying to imagine the logic in which it genuinely makes sense to someone that a rapist might primarily responsible for his act, yet there’s somehow a leftover percentage of responsibility—no matter how small—assignable to the woman who was raped. That logic is important because it greatly contributes to why rape continues to be so pervasive in societies that have developed laws and technologies and sophisticated understandings of why humans behave as they do, in order to protect the members of its communities. Nevertheless, members of those communities (female ones in this case) are often unprotected. One of the main reasons rape culture thrives, thereby enabling rape to be so common, is because many otherwise normal men and women think that it’s perfectly logical to hold a woman accountable on some level for her own rape, and as long as that idea persists, we’ll be shooting paper bullets at this problem. Rapes happen because of rapists, but maybe rapists continue to multiply because we’ve created and/or allowed an environment that makes it easy for them to survive.
So let’s try this. For the guys. Because if any one group of humans is directly responsible for this never-ending misery, and therefore has the most power to change things, it’s this group. You know, the ones doing the raping. If you’re a guy who is pretty sure, bordering on absolute certainty, that you don’t rape and don’t want to rape and can’t imagine even trying to rape, and likely never even think about having to decide if you should rape or not, possibly the only way rape makes sense to you as something that not only happens but happens frequently, is if you think about it in terms of your own sexual experience. Which is what I’m going to assume forms the basis of many non-raping men’s understanding of rape as a phenomenon, or at least as a reference point. It would possibly go a long way toward explaining how this becomes so pervasive and hard to eliminate if you conclude that rape probably most likely happens in situations where a man is sexually responding to a woman’s sexual responding and then at the last minute she decides she doesn’t want to go any further, but he’s over-the-top aroused by this point and just too horny to stop so he does whatever it takes to satisfy himself. You understand sexual desire and the frustration of not satiating that desire, and then throw in a (probably) initially willing and desiring partner who then stops willing and desiring before you do, and you might be able to somewhat empathize with being in that situation. Not with still going through with it, necessarily, but just in being in that kind of situation. The guy still raped and should be punished and the message about consent reinforced once again, but man, that’s still a frustrating situation, because biology.
So in this story—the one you might be most familiar with—rape is about sex and sexual desire (and the frustration of that desire) and you get that because you have sex and have sexual desire. Also in this story, women have bodies that nature or God designed to be irresistibly attractive and nature or God likewise designed men to be irresistibly attracted to them, so much so that women’s bodies become a source of immense power that can overcome both of you if you’re not careful. But, you also understand that it takes two to actually have sex and once one person calls it quits, no matter how inconvenient the timing, it’s no longer sex if you try to keep it going. That’s basic and you’re certain you would act accordingly; hell, maybe you already have been in situations where your partner stopped desiring (or just as likely never really desired in the first place) at not the best time, and you stopped, too, no matter how much of a let-down it was, because you are, after all, a good guy.
More to the point, you can’t imagine any other kind of scenario that would make rape physiologically possible. That’s possibly the key, the foundation for your understanding of rape: in order for it to physically happen, there has to be some kind of a male physiological response to stimuli. So, with that in mind, you tick off the other scenarios that you’ve heard about apart from the man simply wanting sex more than the woman does: she was drunk and unconscious; she had previously rejected her rapist; she was gang-raped; she was raped as punishment for this or that; she was raped on a dare; she was raped because he hates women; she was raped because he felt his manhood was threatened; and a hundred other situations, all of them boiling down, more or less, to men exercising power and control over women through sexual dominance. But that just doesn’t make sense, not entirely, you think, because how could the physiological response necessary for making intercourse possible, especially in violent non-consensual situations, come out of any of those scenarios? You can’t imagine yourself becoming aroused; frankly, all those scenarios make you a little sick, pretty much the opposite of arousal. It’s completely not how you’ve experienced the desire essential to enabling you to have intercourse, and rape usually (though not always) involves intercourse so there must be something else going on besides power and control, and that something else simply must be some variation of the woman providing the stimulus to making that male desire performable, even if its performance was with evil intent. So she was unconscious, but also maybe she had on a really tight shirt, and why else would she wear a really tight shirt? That could basically be enough to get the ball rolling for some guys. Or in another scenario the guy may have wanted to punish her for some reason, but she must have also done something or dressed in a certain way—at least at some point—that provoked sufficient arousal to make that possible. In every conceivable scenario surely the woman provoked enough physiological response to make sexual violation physically possible. That doesn’t excuse the rapist, but there must have been something overtly sexual to make the rape performable at all. Otherwise it couldn’t physically have occurred.
And that’s really not outside the realm of possibility, you think, because you know, as a man, how easy it is to become physiologically aroused. Doesn’t take much for a lot of guys, probably most guys. Just biology, nothing more complicated than that. It might not even be anything the woman intentionally did. But something had to happen. Something besides just the desire for power and control, which doesn’t seem to be equivalent to sexual desire (so you might think). Sexual desire appears to be absolutely necessary, so rapes happen at least partly out of sexual desire, and maybe then you reason that sexual desire might actually have to be the main thing, because why not hurt women in some other way? Why does it have to be sexual in nature? Clearly, because sexual desire was paramount.
But the problem is that none of that really matters. It doesn’t matter if there was some sexual desire mixed up in the power and control or revenge or compensation for insecurity, etc. It doesn’t matter what created the conditions for the rape to physically occur or even if the rape couldn’t have occurred without some level of physical desire, because rape is not those conditions. It isn’t that desire. Rape is rape, not sex. Breaking it down to increasing physiological possibility and even necessity is possibly one of the underlying principles that keep rape culture in business, where it’s simply accepted that rapes are a common occurrence precisely because rape exists on the same spectrum as sex (even if it’s on the opposite end). And since sex is by definition participatory, it becomes easy to blame the victim, think of women as desirable objects, and trivialize rape when it happens, because rape becomes merely extreme or unconventional sex, along that same spectrum as normal, mutually desired sex–but still sex–and not an attacker attacking a genuine victim who is overpowered and not participating.
We are thinking rape is really just sex if a woman tells us she was forced against her will to have intercourse and we immediately look for the angle where she provoked the male sexual desire we think is the most necessary element for the rape to occur. We are thinking rape is really just sex if we think he can justifiably be called a rapist but she’s nevertheless partly responsible. We are thinking rape is really just sex if the well-being of anyone or anything that is not the victim is of any substantial importance. Rape culture, in this sense, is at best the idea that rape is sex gone wrong, the misalignment of two sexual wills, sex with an outcome that was much more beneficial to one party than to the other. At worst, rape culture is the belief that rape is merely the unfortunate logical consequence of women transgressing cultural codes of propriety that have been put in place to control their dangerous bodies. But rapists are in no way solely to be blamed, and are often only secondarily seen as responsible for their actions. Rape culture denies women as sexual agents–and therefore as fully human–by over-allocating sexual desire and desirability to them, but then removing desire and desirability completely when they protest their own violation. Women are then both hyper-sexed and undersexed, providing cover for accusations that they are their own irrational victims, and cover for institutions to find it safe to believe that nothing needs to change.
In theory rape might be an ever-present threat on some level, but our attitudes and beliefs contribute to the structures and institutions that create environments where rape can endure and multiply. The people who build and maintain and support our institutions (and that means all of us) believe certain things about sexual assault. Since men are the primary builders, maintainers, and supporters of these institutions, what they believe about rape and rapists is particularly important. I think these often include false beliefs about the equivalency of rape with sex, which allows responsibility to be imputed to victims, having the effect of both traumatizing victims further but also in softening responses to rapists. I think these beliefs also include beliefs about women’s bodies and male and female desires that are also detrimental to enabling adequate protections for the vulnerable. As long as these or similar beliefs continue to go unchallenged and unproved, they will continue to form the basis for all the protections being afforded to institutions at the expense of victims, as well as the softening and weakening of the environments that actual rapists need in order to continue to assault.