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.