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.

§ 7 Responses to Why People Rape

  • Ewen says:

    I just wanted to say, thank you for writing all of this. I can’t even imagine how difficult it must’ve been to write, and it really is helping me make sense of the world and of some terrible things that have happened to some of my friends and family members.

  • Yes, this is really brave of you.

    • benlehman says:

      Hey, so, uh … this is not to pick on you specifically, but I’d like to get away from this “Ben is so brave” thema.

      Yes, rape is a scary thing to talk about. But, like, here we are. I’d rather have you talk about it with me — we all have experiences with rape, one way or another. At least, if you feel capable of that.

      I don’t want to seem ungrateful, because praise feels good (of course). But my hope is that you’ll be able to join the discussion at some point soon.

  • Bq says:

    Hey again. I read this and was puzzled: “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.” i dunno, i don’t think they subscribed to the latter part. I think I didn’t write clearly/was misread.

    One of the people who botched my accountability process is public as an activist around being an incest survivor. She equated doing anything whatsoever (like getting him out of social justice org spaces where he might continue to harm people) with replicating the prison system and being “punitive”. She was very much about emphasizing that perpetrators often act out of their own prior traumas. And I understand that, although throughout the course of knowing him, the perpetrator would often switch between lording over me as an intellectual superior and playing for pity and caretaking and nurturing bc i’m female, he’d switch to a pity party for himself to disorient me, so i’m really soured on his pity party. She/they used a lot of transformative justice rhetoric, and that’s the kind of rhetoric the perpetrator himself was savvy with using to excuse himself, that my worldview is overly manichean and politically simplistic and i should just let him hurt me as much as he wants.

  • Bq says:

    like, both the perpetrator and the “accountability” team would lecture me about how people aren’t black/white, good/evil. and this was the supposedly politically sophisticated, more radical-than-thou cover for total inaction and retraumatization.

  • Darla Magdalene Shockley says:

    Often people commit violence when they are uncertain of their power, and want to reify it.

    Ben, thanks for writing this. I have always had a bit of trouble with the rape is about power thing, and this post makes me understand two things. One, what I am really specifically having trouble with is violence is about power. (Previously I guess I thought I was having trouble with rape is always violence? I mean, not in the sense of disagreeing but in the sense of really understanding it intuitively.) Anyway, the thing is that I have a natural inclination towards violence and aggression,* but I genuinely don’t have an inclination towards wanting to have power over others. Those facts are kind of difficult to reconcile with the idea that violence is about power. But I also really, really, really, really dislike the feeling that other people have power over me. It’s a really strong thing which tends to get me in trouble with authority figures whose sole claim to authority is “because I’m in charge.” And, DUH, committing an act of violence because you feel that someone else has power over you and you are trying to change that is still about power. I don’t even know how I missed this honestly. I have had many conversations that explicitly included the word “power.” Somehow I just didn’t connect it, though. I thought the urge towards violence was just some other separate thing. Anger. I don’t know even.

    That being said, I wonder whether it’s common for people who commit acts of violence to have trouble seeing how it is about power? Maybe it’s a lot easier to see it as about anger, or sex (in the case of rape), or some other thing.

    I was going to question the thing you said that the first footnote is about, but then I saw the footnote, so probably it is best to wait until it comes up more on-topic. Otherwise, I am not saying a lot about rape here, because I agree emphatically with pretty much everything you said.

    *I feel really uncomfortable posting this without clarifying somehow that the acts of violence I have committed are somehow “not that bad.” Which really is kind of counter to one of the points you are making which I agree with. So, I apologize, really, but I really want to say the things I have said and I just don’t feel comfortable without providing the caveat that I’ve only acted out violently against people who were bigger and stronger than me and I haven’t hurt anyone seriously. And I haven’t done it at all in many years. (But still, no matter what the circumstances, of course I believe that it is never ok to hit someone unless you fear for your safety and have no other reasonable action.)

  • Darla Magdalene Shockley says:

    Right. Ok, so more on topic, and I hope I am going to maybe make the point that I was poking vaguely at with that Google+ comment. My previous comment actually succeeded at making me figure out what that actually was.

    First let me say that I’m talking about people who know that what they are doing is wrong, not “accidental rape,”* and not people who are too mentally ill to have meaningful control over their actions. (The person in question doesn’t need to term what they’re doing as “rape,” just know it’s wrong.)

    I think that the “power” answer is only part of the answer to “why people rape.” That’s what you get out of it (that and sex, maybe). The other part is, so here is this thing that you know is wrong, that gives you a benefit. What makes you decide that you should do it anyway? Related question, how do you make it ok to yourself, how do you know you’ll be able to live with yourself, essentially?

    So, on Google+, I said

    They think they are just convincing their girlfriend/boyfriend to have sex with them. They need to feel wanted. (And sex, even coerced, seems like it will work for that.) They feel they deserve sex now because they did the dishes all week just like she asked. She hasn’t put out in two weeks and for fuck’s sake it’s about time, just keep demanding til she doesn’t say no anymore. That sort of thing.

    And this is what I was trying to get at. The question of what pushes someone over to “evil,” rather than what they get out of it, I guess.

    Anyway, obviously my thought processes are different than other people’s, but I just assumed this angle was what you were getting at as well, the “what makes you finally at the end make the decision to do evil?” question, essentially. (I guess maybe the answer could just be “power,” but to me, as a person who has done some not-so-good things, just like most people I assume, that doesn’t really ring true.) But, uh, where I intended to be going with this paragraph, is this other thing, which is that I’m really a pragmatist. I can play nicely with the intellectuals, I have a ridiculous amount of education, but in the end I get a bit irritated and think “Yeah, so, what does that mean practically?” And so my “perspective” is, what can we actively talk and think about right now to make some progress against the problem of rape? Figuring out what pushes people over the edge to “evil” seems easier to use for progress than this big, over-arching “power” thing. So I just jumped there and forgot there was anything else.

    *Honestly, I am not sure I even believe in this “accidental rape” idea. I mean, the question of whether someone would call something “rape” is different than whether it’s accidental. I’m sure plenty of people rape and don’t call it rape (and plenty of people are raped, and don’t call it that), but does anyone really ever rape someone, and not realize at all on any level that they’re doing something wrong, something violent? I’m really not sure of that.

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