Beliefs have power over the actions we take and condone of others. Pretty cut and dry there, right? If I think A is true, then B happening is okay.
The problem comes when certain actions reach the moral event horizon and we are left scrambling for a belief for those actions that doesn’t immediately unease our sense of right and wrong.
A woman staggers drunkenly down the street wearing a short dress and full make-up as a man who seems to know her guides her into his car. He will take her to his place and he will take off her clothes as she lies passed out on his couch. And as she drifts in and out of consciousness, never uttering a word, he will begin to penetrate her. He will have raped her.
It’s an ugly word, rape. The willful disregard of another’s bodily authority, not necessarily out of malice or a need to control others, but certainly out of a marked disrespect for their victim’s personhood; a man who rapes a woman is a man who sees a woman’s consent as unneeded (and even scarier – as unwanted) to his personal enjoyment.* Consent is for equals.
But that’s an ugly reality to confront, that such people can exist. That we ourselves can someday cross that line if we grew callous enough. It’s uncomfortable and for those who on average need not worry about that reality (guys), it’s all the easier pushed aside with some handy rationalizations.
36% of people asked in a recent Home Office survey believed that a woman should be held wholly or partly responsible for being sexually assaulted or raped if she was drunk, and 26% if she was in public wearing sexy or revealing clothes. [Home Office, 2009]
Over a quarter of people think a woman bears some responsibility for being raped if she is wearing revealing clothing. [Rape Crisis Scotland, Rape Crisis Scotland Public Awareness Campaign, in Rape Crisis (England and Wales) National Conference. Leeds (5 February 2008)]
18% think rape can be a woman’s fault if she is known to have had many sexual partners. [Rape Crisis Scotland, Rape Crisis Scotland Public Awareness Campaign, in Rape Crisis (England and Wales) National Conference. Leeds (5 February 2008)]
These statistics, collated together by the Against Violence and Abuse (AVA) project, a UK-based charity based around combating domestic and sexual abuse through education, point out a very depressing reality; there are plenty of people in the world who will lay fault with the woman in the story above. (I specifically picked Europe here because of how ‘enlightened’ they’re supposed to be about sex)
If A is true, then B is okay. If a woman can foster some of the blame for misleading a man into forced sex, then it’s not so bad. It eases the discomfort in confronting our own beliefs about the nature of abuse. That these beliefs themselves degrade men and women alike (men are horny rapebeasts who need to be kept at bay by a modest skirt) is a tradeoff some of us are willing to make to avoid questioning our passivity or darker impulses, however unconsciously.
I bring all this up not to hammer home that over one-third of us apparently take our mentalities about sex from the 1840′s, but to remind that beliefs come in degrees. The belief that rape is okay is not the belief that rape can be deserved if you’re of lower moral standing (prison rape/drunks/sluts) is not the belief that sex is a prize to be won at any cost from women (nearly every rom-com ever), but only by slivers on a spectrum. They co-exist and co-mingle alongside each other as a convoluted series of norms and expectations about what it means to be socially successful.
And I’m not looking to foist up any revolutionary ideas about why men rape or women don’t report it nearly as often as they should or why we generally find it so easy to joke about rape (the simple answer to that last one is because it’s not personal). Only to remind that beliefs precede actions, even the more innocuous of them.
Take ‘playing hard to get’. The idea that feigned reluctance on the lady’s account is just part of the cat-and-mouse game of sex is a mind-numbingly idiotic one that lets us downgrade away crimes against one’s consent as misdeeds of misunderstanding if we’re so inclined.
I say ‘us’ very specifically here. If there’s one thing to take away, it’s this: Most men are not and will never be rapists, and so much more importantly, most rapists are repeat offenders who purposefully rely on social cues regarding drinking, relationships and flirting.
The belief that a woman can get so drunk that the line of sexual assault becomes impossible to tell isn’t a belief that a rapist holds, it’s a belief that a rapist hopes the rest of us hold. And so it goes for the idea of a man who misinterprets a woman playing hard to get, or of a women so embarrassed of a one-night stand she’d rather rape it away. That’s the whole point of so-called ‘rape culture’, the beliefs of many excuse the actions of a few. Believe it or not, rape is a pretty hard thing to pull off without knowing how wrong it is. It gets easier to pull off when there’s no lasting consequences.
A recent set of rightly ridiculed articles on The Good Men Project, an online publication focused on offering a guide to the “enlightened masculinity” of the 21st century, showcased the stories of two self-confessed rapists, one whose ‘mistake‘ involved raping a formerly flirtatious woman while she slept and another whose excessive partying and drinking convinced him that “a certain amount of rape” was the price he paid for his lifestyle.
In response to the massive reaming they received after publication of the two articles, GMP editors defended themselves by arguing that we need to confront the reasons why some men rape, disturbed though we are. The problem is that these justifications – drugs and misread cues – aren’t why these particular men raped, they’re justifications to be let off the hook by everyone else, bystander and victim alike. They’re post-hoc excuses that undercut the true motivation of wanting to take something from someone regardless of permission, whether out of hatred, self-gratification or an overwhelming need to control. And while drugs can certainly inhibit our moral safeguards, they don’t inhibit anything that wasn’t already there. The grey area of sexual assault is significantly smaller than the GMP gives it credit.**
Rape is a knowingly cruel act perpetuated against someone seen as lesser, and exploring the factors that inspire such cruelty is a worthy endeavor, no different from studying the case files of murderers. But confusing the excuses given to us with the actual reasons behind a sexual assault answers nothing and provides societal cover for those actions. We already know what rationalizations rapists try to hide underneath, the only point behind these stories should be to shine a light to ourselves as to why we accept it from them in the first place. The response by the GMP team misses that point by a wide margin.
Crimes like rape and abuse will always be committed by a small minority but they’re also dependent on the implicit silence granted by others’ beliefs, beliefs which speak to our perception of women and men. They’ll come in all sorts of degrees, some obtusely hateful, most merely ignorant, but none of them exist in a vacuum.
*This is going to be deeply from the perspective of a heterosexual guy, not because I’m ignorant of prejudices regarding sexual assault involving trans/gay/other sexually oriented people, but because I could hardly do it justice. Other folks have done a much better job of that than I ever could.
**As a formerly young college student, I’ve been more privy to that grey area than I’d care to admit. I’ve made out at parties, I’ve had women in my bed, and I’ve tried to proceed further with those women, sometimes with alcohol in my system. The only true sense of relief from those experiences comes from knowing that No still always meant No, six-packs aside. The sickening sense of dread comes from realizing years later just how fearful the other person would have felt had that not been the case.