Why People Rape

25 February, 2012 § 7 Comments

Rape is a human experience. It is something that people do, to other people.

This seems like a trivial statement, but yet a lot of our cultural narratives are pretty much dead set against it. Pretty much every cultural narrative about rape, particularly about rapists, seems to be laser-focused on either dehumanizing the rapist — turning them into a motiveless, inhuman monstrosity — or on delegitimizing the rape by using the humanity of the rapist as some sort of moral counterweight.

In a previous post, bq gives a perfect example of this: “i got upset when people on my first/ex accountability team said stuff about how they didn’t want to “demonize”/”excommunicate” him from org spaces, and pointed out that perpetrators sometimes lash out because of traumas from their own past, people aren’t good and evil in terms of black and white, etc. so sometimes i get really wary when the conversation starts to look like that.” Basically this argument boils down to “he’s human, so obviously his raping you doesn’t count as real rape, which is only done by monsters.”

This argument gets morality exactly wrong. In the absence of choice — if we can imagine for a second a ravening monster that really could do nothing but rape — there nothing really evil… dangerous, yes, but not particularly evil. The evil thing is when a human chooses to rape another human.

This is very uncomfortable. As humans, we really don’t want to recognize our own capacity for evil. And so, to avoid this, we make excuses. We either dehumanize rapists, excusing ourselves from having to share a species with them, or we delegitimize their rape, arguing that since they are humans with redeeming qualities, they clearly can’t commit rape. Or we take some other tack, like claiming that rape is mostly accidental or strictly the result of cultural messaging or dehumanizing the victim and so on and so forth. Anything to avoid the truth: that rape is something that humans do to other humans, for their own human reasons.

If we want to seriously confront rape, in order to take action against it, we need to be able to banish these excuses and confront reality. This will be hard. I am trying, in this essay, to start myself on that.

Rape is violence, and thus if we want to look at the causes of rape and the motivations of rapists, we should look at the causes of violence and the motivations of the violent. Rape is, of course, a particular subset of violence, sexual violence, and so it will have its own particularities but it does behoove us to first look at the general case.

Violence is often shown in the media as a crime of uncontrolled emotion. In the case of non-rape violence, this is usually shown as uncontrolled anger. In the case of rape, this is usually shown as uncontrolled lust (when it is ascribed a human motivation at all: most rapists in fiction are simply portrayed as inhuman). Rarely, we might see non-rape violence as an expression of power.

In reality, violence is rarely a crime of emotional incontinence. It is much more likely an expression of, or claim over, power over others. To have power over someone is, in a lot of respects, to be able to do socially-tolerated or even socially-sanctioned violence to that person. Likewise, in a certain sense, to do violence to someone is to claim power over them, justly or unjustly.

The relationship between power and violence is, in most circumstances, one of potential violence rather than actual violence. Lots of people have power, and don’t express it via violence. So what’s the difference between the minister and the minister who rapes his ministry?

Often people commit violence when they are uncertain of their power, and want to reify it. This sense of power uncertainty can come from a lot of places: low self-worth, genuine power uncertainty, PTSD or other pathologies, and so on.

By committing an act of violence, an abuser is creating a space wherein they have the power, control, authority, and respect of others. There are any number of reasons to seek this out, but I want to now talk specifically about rape.

Sex is, in a lot of ways, terrifying, particularly for someone who is uncertain of their power. Consensual sex creates bonds of intimacy and trust, and bonds of intimacy and trust are absolutely corrosive to power relationships*. Sex is also really terrifying for a host of other reasons, not the least of which include disease, pregnancy, social stigma, and, for some, traumatic history.

Rape presents a solution to this, albeit a horrible one from a moral standpoint. A rapist isn’t breaking down their power, they’re reifying it. Rape provides the rapist with sex** in a means which is “safe” for their own self-image. It’s a means of sheltering the self from the emotional consequences of sex.

To some degree, I think that this is a bad strategy. Rape, like most acts of violence, does emotional damage to the perpetrator as well as the victim. But I think that the attraction, to a rapist, is the idea that you can “get sex” without having to give up your power (in fact, it’s a means of gaining it) or debase yourself by associating on a peer level with a lower-status person.

Additionally rape, like all violence, provides a to establish power over someone in a more trivial and direct sense. Rape is particularly useful in a lot of situations because it is much more likely to be kept secret than other forms of violence, both because it has less obvious physical signs than a beating and also because the victim-blaming, rapist-excusing trappings of our society strongly dis-incentivize reporting. This is particularly the case for rape committed by an intimate partner or acquaintance, but it extends from there pretty directly to all forms of rape. Even rape that our society will acknowledge is evil, and is rape, is something that most people don’t want to hear about, and don’t want to believe exists within their sphere.

Of course, these two things tie together pretty directly: to someone whose self-worth is tied up with their power over others, rape becomes a pretty convenient means of indulging that power. Likewise, to someone with that viewpoint, consensual sex is a pretty terrifying thing, and rape provides a functional (better than functional) alternative to it.

In the future, I’d like to talk about what this means, in terms of culture, society, and reducing instances of rape. There are a lot of directions where this goes: racism and misogyny are definitely two, as well as just the general structuring of power in our society (and other societies: I just talk about ours because I’m familiar with it, not to imply that these issues are not trans-social.)

But for now, before zooming out, I want to leave it here, at the individual level: Rape is something humans do, to other humans, for their reasons. If we want to be serious about understanding rape, and fighting it, we need to understand the motivations at play at a deeper level than “bad people do bad things.” Rapists rape because it makes them feel safe, secure, because it expresses and indulges and creates their power over others, because it is a way to have sex while keeping your disdain for the other intact.

* I really should do better than assert this. Another essay.
** I’m not actually sure about this. I will probably contradict this point later.

Thank you to Charles, Alice, and Alexis for providing emotional, logical, and logistical support for this piece.

Rape is Violence

7 February, 2012 § 7 Comments

It is slightly depressing to have to write this post. Maybe it’s just that I was raised in a particular political environment (amongst a very liberal rural population by a self-critical second wave feminist mother) but my feeling is that, when I was younger, the dialogue around rape as a crime was “rape is not a crime of sex, it’s a crime of violence.” In other words, rape is not “sex gone wrong” it’s “violence gone sexual.”

More recently this has seemed considerably more muddled to me: I see a lot of people who are putatively anti-rape and pro rape survivor using “sex gone wrong” formulations (most egregiously and omni-presently the vile Men Can Stop Rape meme.) This lends to me a distinctly panicky and frustrated feeling when in anti-rape discussions: that I am actively losing ground, and having to fight basic definitional battles with people who are at least claiming to be my allies. It’s tiring.

(I think that there are particular reasons for this ideological shift, but they’re off topic for this post. Foreshadowing!)

So let’s be clear, here: Rape is not a form of sex, it’s a form of violence. Rape is no more a form of sex than beating someone with a baseball bat is a form of sport.

One of the most positive developments in terms of how our society handles rape and, thus, rape survivors, is the decrease in the use of the term rape in criminal codes and the increase of the considerably more precise term sexual assault. Despite this, I use the term rape in my own discussions, mostly, because it has an emotional and cultural impact that the more clinical term sexual assault lacks. But, culturally, sexually assault is simply the better term. I have seen it repeatedly argued, for instance, that men can’t be raped and that women can’t commit rape. I’ve never seen it argued that men can’t be sexually assaulted or that women can’t sexually assault someone. Likewise, for instance, the horrible “are you SURE it was rape?” meme is exposed as the vile shit it is when you rephrase it as “are you SURE it was sexual assault?”

The best thing about sexual assault as a term is that it places the adjective and noun in their correct places… what we are talking about here is assault — direct physical violence — with sex as the means of perpetuating that violence.

Apologies for the rather blah essay: this is really a preliminary, but I want to make sure that we’re clear on this and to have it to refer back to in the future. It is something that I want to make sure we are all absolutely motherfucking clear about.

Note 1: This essay was very heavily pruned: the discussion topic has a lot of tangents coming off of it and I had to only allow myself to go down one or two. So I apologize in advance if it’s somewhat incoherent in the segues. If you do notice weird jumps of either logic or style, please let me know and I will fix them up.

Note 2: Because of the cultural dialogue around things like “rape rape,” “forcible rape” and “honest rape” that de-legitimizes non-ideal rape victims, I feel the need to add this: my discussion of this absolutely, irrevocably and completely includes date rape, rape by coercion, and other forms of rape that do not include additional components of physical violence. They are no less sexual assault than jump-out-of-the-bushes rape. Rape is not “sex + physical violence” it is “the mechanics of sex as a form of physical (and emotional and social) violence.”

Who are rape survivors?

28 January, 2012 § 6 Comments

Recently I commented on twitter “Ironically, a post about making safe spaces for abuse victims made me feel so unsafe, as an abuse survivor, that I’m afraid to post.” The exact discussion isn’t important (and, in fact, linking directly to it is probably counterproductive) but I want to talk about some of the social forces at play, because this sort of alienation from actions putatively in our name is not uncommon for me and, I imagine, is not uncommon for other survivors of rape. I dunno. Maybe it’s just me. Tell me in the comments!

On the surface, social activism / action on behalf of rape survivors is pretty much completely unobjectionable. We are a pretty needy group, in terms of both immediate resources and care and also long term support, and we’re socially seen as very pitiable and in need of help (there’s a separate issue here, but not the one I’m driving at.) It makes for a good cause. But, of course, the reality is much more complicated.

When choosing to help a problematized group, such as rape survivors, an activist can take two options. They can either attempt to help the group in total, which is pretty much the legitimate, morally valid choice, or they can choose to help only the subset of the group that subscribes to their social prejudices and preconceptions, which is pretty much despicable in its effect, regardless of how well intentioned the actor is.

A lot of the speaking on behalf of rape survivors that happens in parts of the internet I frequent is the latter, not the former. There are groups that do the former (Rape Crisis and RAINN, as institutions if not always in specific instances, are really great institutions and wholly deserving of your respect, as well as your moral and material support), but they’re not what I want to address here.

When you choose to deal with rape survivors, you don’t get to only deal with ideal rape survivors. Rape survivors, are, as a class, are not ideal. Compared to the general populace, we are more likely to be criminals, drug users, drug addicts, alcoholics, depressed, have PTSD, have other mental illness, have socially or politically problematic sexualities, be unemployed, be homeless, be socially maladjusted, suicidal, and more prone to, ourselves, be rapists. Further complicating things, rape survivors form an enormous cross-section of our society, coming from all social classes, races, genders, and biological sexes. Rape survivors are, in short, not an easy group to work with.

If a would be actor is made uncomfortable by this, there are three possible responses. The first, totally admirable, is to mold themselves until they are comfortable seeing rape survivors for who we are and working with us on our own terms, whatever those are (and, given our enormous diversity, that’s likely going to vary survivor to survivor.) The second, also totally admirable, is to simply take that altruistic urge and use it towards a different, more comfortable form of activism, or in a role removed from direct interaction with other people. This is great as well. The last, and seriously problematic reaction, is to simply discard any rape survivors that the actor sees as “unacceptable” by any means, to void them of their legitimacy and often of their very existence. This is not acceptable, and it’s actively harmful not only to the rape survivors that it dismisses, but also to rape survivors as a class, because it paints a dangerously erroneous portrait of us, usually one based in patriarchal values and rape culture.

The traditional (patriarchal) view of rape is that it is a crime committed by monsters against innocents, and that monsters and innocents are not legitimately intersecting groups. See nifty venn diagram, below (I worked hard on these Venn Diagrams: if you want to get brownie points with me, praise them.)

In this view of rape, activism on behalf of rape victims, and really anti-rape activism in general, becomes a matter of sheltering the innocents from the ravages of the monsters. See next nifty venn diagram.

This ranges everywhere from the KKK putatively protecting white women from rape at the hands of liberated black men to a modern feminist blog attempting to make a putatively safe space for rape survivors by ostracizing all men, or (in another example) anyone who has a problematic sexuality or problematic sexual history.

The idea is that the activists, as knights in shining armor, are here to protect the delicate rape survivors and would-be rape survivors from the ravages of the horrible rapists. It’s a highly motivating narrative, partially because it casts the activists in a wholly noble role, and frames the entire action in a clear Mannichean duality between good and evil.

It is also wrong.

Here is an actual view of rape survivors and rapists.

In this view, which is considerably more troubling, rapists and rape survivors are both humans, not innocents and not monsters. Thus, there can be (as there actually is) an overlap between survivors and perpetrators. When an activist holds this in their head, and really understands it, the role of activism changes dramatically. It cannot be the role of activist to protect would-be and present victims from the ravages of the monstrous rapists. It must be the goal of activism to provide comfort for anyone who needs it and, in a strategic sense, to shrink the entire diagram whether by psychological support, social change, or other means.

This is much, much harder. I understand not wanting to accept it: if I were in a position not to accept it, I would clearly reject it, on two grounds. First, it creates a lot of headaches for me. Second, it massively conflicts with social indoctrination about what rape is, who does it and to whom. But if we’re going to be see clearly, if we’re going to actually address the problems of rape in a single person’s life, let alone in all of society, we have to be able to formulate our world views in this more complex and more difficult way.

That means that, for instance, safe spaces for rape survivors must also be safe spaces to express problematic sexuality and problematic sexual history, up to and including talking about rape that a survivor committed. I’m not saying that there should be support for actually raping people in the present, and the victims must be acknowledged, but a space in which having done something wrong (whether it be rape or some other violence) 10 years ago invalidates your presence in the space is not a safe space for rape survivors, because, for many of us, it means not being able to address the effects of rape in our personal lives directly and clearly and honestly. Likewise, a space where, say, being a BDSM fetishist is unacceptable similarly leaves no room for honesty. And, without that honesty, there can’t be healing.

Ironically, such spaces are perfectly fine for people who are rapists and actively continuing to be perpetrators. Such people are not particularly interested in self-reflection or honesty, and are often perfectly capable of negotiating the rules (whatever they are) of the space while still silencing victims and recruiting more.

A last point I want to add, which is kinda particular to me, is that the contrasting views of rape above are, explicitly, sexist and patriarchal, even as they are reified and propagated in feminist spaces. It is not by accident that we culturally paint most men as rapists, and most women as victims. To that end, I’d like to just throw up two more diagrams, for discussion and dissection either in the comments or at a later date.


(Note: None of these diagrams are to scale.)

Three ways to talk about rape

23 January, 2012 § 2 Comments

I’ve run into some real stumbling blocks talking about rape, previously. To some degree this is simply unavoidable: for both personal and cultural reasons rape is an incredibly emotionally fraught topic, and naturally people’s dander gets up when you talk about it. The other is that rape functions at multiple levels in society, and people feel a strong sense of “ownership” over the issue depending on their relationship to it. So I’m going to lay these out early on to have a post to refer to later.

1) Rape as an individual crime, with a perpetrator and a victim, including causes and effects. This is the baseline of experience, and when we talk honestly about rape to some extent we need to talk about this. In particular, I think that we don’t often talk about the motivations of perpetrators in any coherent sense. This is because the dialogue around rape is so culturally fucked that we feel a need to dehumanize both perpetrators and survivors: thus, talking about motivations and effects as things which are done by humans to other humans becomes very difficult. I’d like to talk more about this, upcoming.

2) Rape as a social institution. Rape isn’t an aberration: it happens in every human society throughout all of human history. It is fundamentally built into our social structure, and it forms an important part in both generating and enforcing social norms. If we’re going to take serious action to confront and reduce rape in our society, we’re going to have to address the ways it is part of our social structure. In contrast to “rape culture” we might call this “rape society.” I don’t think a lot of people talk about this, at least not in the corners of culture I frequent, so if anyone has any reading links please toss them out. I would like to eventually get to a point where I can analyze and discuss this level, but I’m not there yet.

3) Rape as a cultural concept. This is separate from the above, because it’s not about the actual practice of rape, but the idea of it and the use of the threat of rape to enforce and perpetuate social norms. A lot of anti-rape activism exists at this level: this is where the gender differences are most pronounced for instance (as a guy, for example, I have never been told that I shouldn’t walk home alone at night because I might be raped, but I have been told that if I break the law I will be punitively raped in prison.) This is where “rape culture” lives.

Of course, these things are actually so interconnected that placing them in three bullet points is misleading. Individual acts exist in a social and cultural context, the cultural context is not separate from the social hierarchy, and so on. But I think that confusion about the differences here leads to a lot of mistakes and mis-steps. When a feminist activist who is not a rape survivor tells me, a male rape survivor, that “I can’t understand rape,” she’s talking about the cultural level, where rape is strongly gendered and I will never have the female experience of it. (This is a charitable reading: she also might be a male rape denier or just ignorant and bigoted.) If I hear her as talking about the other levels, where I clearly have experience and understanding, I’m not going to take it well. So having this laid out will hopefully avoid some of those problems.

Being a rape survivor

20 January, 2012 § 11 Comments

Hi everyone. I’m Ben Lehman. I’m a rape survivor. I was raped by my maternal grandparents and some of their accomplices multiple times between the ages of 4 and 10, in a systematic and calculated way. Resulting from this, I have PTSD and chronic mono-polar depression.

I want to talk about rape in this space, and the really fucked up way that our culture deals with it, so it behooves me to talk about my own experiences as a rape survivor. There are two reasons that it so behooves me: one good, and one bad.

The good one is that I want to talk about theories and structure of rape as a personal crime, a social institution, and a cultural concept, and thus in the interests of honesty I should be clear about my own experiences so that we can analyze and discuss how my own experiences have led to my ideas about rape, as well as biased my views about rape.

This is important, and I want to come back to this over the course this discussion, which I’m hoping will be ongoing. I’d really love to have an audience willing to go “ok, Ben, but you’re biased because of your experience in such-and-such a way” because, lord knows, I’m not going to see all my own bias.

The bad reason is that, because I am not the ideal rape survivor, I need to use my own experiences to justify my privilege to talk about rape at all. We have a cultural tendency to question, doubt, and undermine rape survivors who don’t fit our ideal (young but sexually mature, female, pretty, virginal, “broken” by the experience, depressed by not acting out violently, white, attacked with force by a stranger). I meet some of these, but not others, and thus I’m pretty consistently belittled and dismissed in discussions about rape. This has happened to me so consistently, and so many times, that I now feel like I have to prophylactically but my “talking about rape credentials” forward before I can even begin to discuss it.

To be clear, this is bullshit. Rape is a human problem, and a widespread one. Everyone, from every society and in every class of our society, has skin in the game about rape. Even if you are not a victim or a perpetrator, chances are very high that you know someone who is one or both. Even if, by some miracle of statistics, you don’t know anyone immediately affected by rape, you are no less deserving to talk about it, because you have likely been threatened with rape. The threat of rape is used widely throughout our society as a means of enforcing gender, racial, and social norms, and I find it hard to imagine someone living today who has not experienced threats of rape to “keep them in line” somehow.

I want to use this space, in the future, to talk about this. But first I want to make sure it’s okay to talk about. First let me show you my credentials, and yours. This is a place where everyone gets the right to talk about rape, the right to be right or wrong about it.

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