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.


Compassion for Evil

24 February, 2012 § 16 Comments

So I have been working on an essay, titled “Why People Rape,” which starts from the basic premise that both rapists and rape survivors are human, and works out from there some of the ramifications of what that means for rape as a decision. It’s hard to deal with, which is why it’s taking a while to write (I have to write part of it, step away and emotionally recover, come back and see if I wrote anything horrible, then take on the next part.)

A lesson I’ve learned, mostly from my friend Vincent, is that when writing something is hard, it behooves you to connect it to your personal experience. Both because writing from personal experience is far easier than writing from universal principle, and also writing from personal experience forces you into honesty that is often elusive in higher-level material. So, on that vein, let me do that.

There is no one in our society more broadly dehumanized than pedophiles (the only group I can think of that come close are the severely mentally handicapped.) Pretty much the only use we have for pedophiles, at least in terms that we express, is that they die a tortuous and perhaps ironically appropriate death. Acknowledging the humanity of pedophiles will get you some pretty awful looks, some pretty awful words, and some pretty awful threats of physical violence.

(To be clear: a pedophile who rapes children has done something very, very evil. I’m not an apologist for the practice of pedophilia.)

Dehumanizing pedophiles is a very useful thing, in terms of maintaining a strong self-image. If you de-humanize someone, you don’t have to come to terms with the fact that you have the potential for enormous evil, as well. You also don’t have to come to terms with the fact that some of your friends, mentors, leaders may be pedophiles or rapists: their humanity attests their innocence. I’m going to have more on this in the next post.

I often find myself in a position of defending the humanity of pedophiles. This is … shit. I can’t even describe. It’s unjust. Of all people, I (and survivors like me) should have a right to be bigoted about this. It’s appalling to me that our society is so extreme in its denials that I’m the one who has to defend the humanity of people like my maternal grandfather.

But I do. And here’s why.

I was raped well before the age sexual maturity, and I was conscious of it a few years before. Being a precocious little brat, one of the first things I did is read up about what this would mean for me, going forward. One of the key things that I learned is that people who were sexually abused as children are much more likely than the general population to become pedophiles.

There are a host of psychological and social reasons for this, but I don’t really have to expertise or inclination to get into them. If you have insight, post in the comments. What I’d rather discuss is what it meant for me.

What it meant for me is that, for a couple of years in my pre-adolescence, I was wrestling with “what do I do if I’m a pedophile?” I wanted to be prepared for it. I reviewed strategies, thoughts, and feelings. I was pretty clear that actually raping kids was not an option. But what would I do? Be celibate my whole life? Try to marry someone who had a child-like appearance? I knew even then that I wanted to get married and have kids. But could I trust myself around my own children? Would I be able to tell people about it, even people I loved and trusted, or would I have to cope entirely alone?

I didn’t resolve this, because it is impossible to resolve. There is not a good answer.

(I’d like to take a moment to say that there are some people in this situation — possibly a lot of people in this situation — who deal with their pedophilia in the right way, by not raping any kids. These people are fucking heroes and it is a damn shame how little support we have for these decisions in our society.)

Fortunately, and by the grace of God (or luck, for the theoallergenic), I turned out not to be a pedophile. You have no idea what a relief this was for me, and honestly continues to be to this day. But, like, a slightly different psychological maladaptation, a tweak instead of a twonk in my subconscious, and things would have worked out very differently.

This is hard to deal with. I want to have the luxury of dehumanizing pedophiles and other rapists. I would like to pretend that I would never be like that, never do something like that. But I can’t. That informs a lot of my writing here.

We should, when talking about horrible evil, maintain compassion for those who commit it. Not for their benefit — honestly, fuck those guys — but for our own. By dehumanizing evildoers, we do damage to our own humanity. The fact of the matter is that any one of us can choose to do evil, not because we are monsters, but because we are humans. Inasmuch as we do not, that is a good thing, and something we should feel happy and joyful about.

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