May 22, 2008

On binaries and rape apologists

Posted in Feminism, Musings, Rape culture at 4:45 pm by The Lizard Queen

In my recent reading I came across a discussion of binaries. We humans often think in terms of binaries: black and white, good and evil, wrong and right, male and female, us and them, familiar and Other. When I took just a moment to consider those and other dualities, I thought of a post on rape I came across recently, via Cara. In it the author states that “Sociopaths do not rape women, men rape women.” It’s a simplification, to be sure (men also rape men, and women rape women, and women rape men), but the post itself is rebutting the idea that your average man doesn’t rape; only sociopaths do so — the idea that it’s insulting to the average man to put up posters encouraging men to “Man up, get consent” because rape isn’t simply a matter of sex without consent.

And so we’re back to the idea that the only true rape is a sociopath physically overcoming a woman in a dark alley, threatening her with a weapon, etc.

A couple of problems with that, though: first of all, rape is simply a matter of sex without consent. Is that necessarily the legal definition? No, not necessarily. Is that, at the very least, how feminists define it? Yes (obviously). Here’s Cara:

Rape is forced sexual intercourse, including vaginal, anal, or oral penetration. Penetration may be by a body part or an object.

* Rape victims may be forced through threats or physical means. In about 8 out of 10 rapes, no weapon is used other than physical force. Anyone may be a victim of rape: women, men or children, straight or gay.

So, folks. I don’t care what the law is. I never said that penetrating a woman against her will with a finger fits the legal definition of rape. In some sane places, it does. In many others, it does not. I don’t give a shit. In many places, a man who has nonconsensual sex with his wife has not legally raped her. But he still raped her. In many places, a man who has sex with a woman who is unconscious has not legally raped her. But he still raped her. In most places, a woman does not have to say “yes” to give consent, but simply fail to say “no.” A situation where she did not say “no” but does not want sex and did not agree to it is still rape. No matter what the law says. Rape is the nonconsensual sexual penetration of another person. It’s not that fucking difficult to grasp.

Second, why do people go to so much trouble to defend men who have sex with unwilling women? In the comments of the aforementioned post, an anonymous commenter took exception to the idea that men (as opposed to sociopaths alone) rape.* Many of the standard arguments came out: women who call unwanted sexual activity like that described in the post “rape” are misandrists/man-haters who believe all male-on-female sex is rape, etc. Again, I found myself wondering why someone would put so much time and effort into trying to put down someone who’d been sexually assaulted, thus defending the man who assaulted her.

After thinking about binaries some, I think I might have an idea of what’s behind it. Feminism has had some effect on the rape culture, so that in the abstract, the average person considers rape to be evil. So I suspect there are men out there who think: “Rape is evil. I am not evil. Therefore I could never rape someone. Similarly, the average man is not evil, therefore the average man couldn’t commit rape. It must be something only truly evil people — sociopaths — do.”

Here’s the thing, though: my belief is that each of us has the potential to do harm to someone else. Sure, the average person is most likely not going to grab a knife and accost someone in a dark alley, but there are times when someone who falls well within the realm of “average,” “normal,” might put their needs above their partner’s, or feel like they need to show their partner, or that woman they just spent $289 on for a swanky dinner and the theater and she flirted the whole time and how dare she say she has a “headache” now, who’s in control (given that the general idea is that “Rape is not about sex to the rapist; it has to do with control and power”).

So with that in mind, why spend so much time and energy trying to decide just how far a man can go with an unwilling woman without calling it rape, and instead work toward making sure sex is engaged in with enthusiastic consent from both/all parties, and is safe and enjoyable for everyone involved?

*Please note that this is distinct from the statement that all men are rapists.



  1. […] On binaries and rape apologists from I am the Lizard Queen (tags: rape rape_myths sexism) […]

  2. DavidD said,

    I agree that it would be good not to spend so much time quibbling about how far a man can go with an unwilling woman without calling it rape. That is a legal question, about which lawyers, legislators and voters can all chime in. It is also a moral question, where most people see rape as a greater evil than unwanted touching, closeness, words, whatever, though the latter is still evil to my mind if it is just for the sake of using someone. My moral system is that if an act is not love, it’s evil, though I would say a certain among of respectful indifference is OK, too.

    The thing is that sexually using someone in that last moral system is not that much different from using people in any other way. Whom do you call a sociopath? Do you mean someone who can be diagnosed as meeting specific criteria for a particular personality disorder? Or do you mean someone who uses people, maybe not all people, maybe just certain classes of people? It’s hard to tell how many such people there are. One could argue that most of the population are sociopaths the same as one could argue most of the population are narcissists if you mean the broader moral pathology, not a diagnosable personality disorder.

    One book on this subject is The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout, Ph.D. I admit I’ve only glanced at that. I’m going to continue to use “sociopath” in the broadest possible sense, even if I overdo it, because I think we should look at why the average person does what he or she does, not just men, and what might be a better way. “Sociopath” gets people attention, if they’re inclined to be engaged on the subject at all.

    Using that definition, who says not all rapists are sociopaths? Who says almost any man is capable of rape? Where is the data that says this? Anyone who claims this doesn’t know me. I know I’m capable of physical violence for the sake of vengeance or protecting someone I love, especially if there were no consequences for my actions. Except for consequences, my daughters’ boyfriends would be very rightfully afraid of me for however they harm my daughters. My desire for vengeance or even better acting before the harm is done is as inescapable as my desire to breathe, yet culture and experience have taught me to control that, which I usually do, except for an occasional putdown.

    But rape? You’ve got to be kidding! I look inside myself and there is no chance, none, that I would rape women, men, children, dogs, chickens, anything. It’s not morality as much as rape is nothing I want. Some women have taught me they will have an orgasm if they feel physically dominated during sex. That’s nothing like rape. It’s just an aspect of gender roles in sex that’s hard for many people to talk about. For me it’s just something I do for my partner’s orgasm. Mine come differently.

    So while there’s some truth to the idea that we all have the potential to harm someone else, the nature of that harm is not all the same. I suppose when I was a teenager, my life had some potential to be different. When I didn’t know how to talk to girls, was there some potential for me to be a rapist? Yeah, I suppose, if some circumstances had made that easy. I’m not sure what those circumstances would have been, a stuporous girl might have been one of them.

    But it wasn’t long before I became competent with girls and discovered that what I really wanted was intimacy, not masturbating inside someone else. There are other reasons why I’m not a rapist, but that’s a big one.

    If I saw a rape in progress, do you know what I’d see? I’d see some degree of moral outrage, but what would really get my nostrils flaring would be I’d see an opportunity to hurt a guy really badly without consequences. I might be inhibited from doing anything obviously suicidal, but other than that I’d love the chance to express some of the rage I have, mostly from men using me in non-sexual ways, from quickly, painfully, and viciously subduing a rapist. There is this thing that also contributes to that being OK. This rapist is a bad guy, not just any old guy.

    Now I wouldn’t want any woman to suffer a rape so I can have the opportunity to beat up a bad guy without consequences. I’d rather there not be any rapes at all. I’ll find another outlet for this rage. But it’s not like this anger I carry is just going to hurt people in any old way.

    Any woman who claims I could be a rapist makes me snarl a little. I can be a bad guy, even a murderer, but not a rapist. There is a hierarchy to these things you know. It’s best to learn who people really are and not pigeonhole them into a duality, even one that seems as undeniable as male and female. Sociopathy is a spectrum. To use that as a binary concept loses sight of just how much sociopathy is a spectrum. Sociopathy is even a spectrum in multiple dimensions. It is a good thing to learn about, both as it is in the outside world and in ourselves. Like narcissism, it springs from a healthy regard for one’s needs, but then something goes wrong, whether congenitally or during life or both. It’s not just about having a Y chromosome.

    Maybe it would be better to say this. It’s not just extreme sociopaths who are rapists, but it’s not healthy men, either. Nor is it a somewhat unhealthy man like me. I’ll never rape you. I probably won’t hurt you – just don’t hurt one of my children or anyone who might be one of my children.

  3. DavidD said,

    I was curious enough to look at your first two links to see if anyone is using data to make their claims. I found no data. I hardly even found any anecdotal evidence, just small facts like someone did object to an anti-rape campaign being broadcast at all men without saying men with no chance of being rapists need not include themselves as being an object of the message.

    Did you follow the link about pedophilia in that first article to which you linked? It comes close to saying all men are pedophiles. If you use words to mean whatever you want them to mean, you can get far away from reality, way into fantasy, even a truly ugly fantasy. We need some data to keep us grounded in reality, as well as definitions of words. One can use “pedophile” in the same broad way that I use “sociopath”, so that pedophilia is a spectrum of any sexual attraction to children, but to suggest men in general are attracted to children because teenage girls are both sexually mature and still legally children or dress up like immature children is just being argumentative in a truly ignorant way, maybe even a sociopathic way.

    It is very human to think that whatever pops into our head to explain anything is the truth. If that worked, though, Aristotle’s ideas on how nature works would have been right, when in fact they were usually wrong, even though Aristotle had a method that refined his natural thoughts, a method that came in part from his culture and in part from his own experience. Later experience and experimentation showed Aristotle’s method wasn’t enough. He was still trapped in his human nature when it came to describing his world.

    So are many in the blogosphere trapped in their human nature when it comes to their words. It’s not sociopathic to be so trapped. It’s just naturally how human beings think and speak or write. But it is sociopathy to use such unreliable words to attack or perjoratively label others, using that word in its broad sense.

    What’s the dividing line between merely being human and being sociopathic? That’s hard to say. One can say that sociopathy is a spectrum of somewhat deliberately using people or hurting people, but when is someone stepping on someone else’s toes by accident and when is it at least somewhat deliberate? That requires looking into a person’s brain, at that person’s motivations and desires, in a way that science still cannot do well. So there is no clear dividing line between thinking naturally and using those flawed thoughts to hurt people, but one can learn something about ordinary people hurting others from a book like Dr. Stout’s or go to the other end of the spectrum to more universally accepted labels of sociopath and pedophile and see how those people are different from most men and women. There’s a lot to learn before one’s opinion means much.

    Anyone who thinks he or she can re-invent the wheel intellectually is letting human nature get the best of them. We can make improvements in our culture’s worldview, but we need to start with something real, not just whatever words come to us, especially on a serious subject.

    That’s not where human nature leads us usually, something many places in the world prove everyday, including the blogosphere. Evil is not just to deviate enough from our average nature. Following our nature can be evil, too. There’s a lot written on that. Some of those writings are better than others, but there is such a thing as evil and such a thing as good, even if they’re too intertwined to be thought of well as a duality or ignore how relative they can be, so that one action can be good for one but evil for another, evil for one but for the overall good. We can do better regarding both, but we have to go beyond our nature to do that.

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