Who needs a Good Rapist Project?

Major trigger warning: Rape and rape apologism, victim-blaming, enabling rapists.

The Good Men Project’s recent posts are a particularly horrific and exploitative example of a narrative that centers the perspective of perpetrators, and their supposed needs and feelings, in the name of “humanizing” them. But there’s similar reasoning at work in other recent pieces on sexual violence, e.g., Cord Jefferson’s piece on pedophilia as a “sexual orientation,” and Jennifer Bleyer’s somewhat less disturbing Slate article on the same topic.

The argument goes something like this: the idea that rapists are blatantly evil and monstrous is wrong, and an obstacle to preventing sexual violence. Many (most?) perpetrators are “good people who do horrible things.” Without recognizing this, we can’t have a nuanced, honest conversation about sexual violence. If we want to keep people from becoming perpetrators or reoffending, and if we want to rehabilitate perpetrators, we need to humanize instead of demonize them.

Note what’s always conspicuously absent from this argument: any real consideration of survivors.

Sure, there’s vague acknowledgement of rape as an abstract “bad thing.” But the material emphasis is on keeping good people from “accidentally” or “against their better judgment” doing this bad thing – on the tragedy of becoming/being a rapist – not on the fact that rape is a bad thing done to another human being who has to live with the trauma and fall out and lack of support that usually comes with it. We’re only asked to invest in the supposed pain or damage or confusion of otherwise “good” rapists.

Survivors are, at best, effectively erased as barely mentioned, abstract victims. They aren’t afforded the kindness, demanded for perpetrators, of being “humanized” with personal details, firsthand accounts, or sympathetic portrayals. At worst, as in Royse’s and other GMP pieces, they are actively blamed for behavior that “led to” rapes or assaults that from the perpetrator’s side are rationalized, minimized as “accidental” and “unintentional.” [eta: as a reader noted, Royse not only blames the victim in this case, she also shames and dehumanizes her for being sexual: “if something walks like a fuck and talks like fuck, at what point are we supposed to understand that it’s not a fuck?”]

This “humanizing” project depends on pretending victims don’t exist, not as people to be empathized or identified with. That’s a problem.

This kind of rape apologism has just enough truth to it to sound reasonable. It’s easy not to notice that it requires people to extend understanding to perpetrators at the expense of overlooking victims. It starts with valid observations and uses them in service of dangerous falsehoods and huge logical fallacies.

There are few things quite as dangerous as mixing a little truth with lies and omissions. Let’s break this down.

True: Our cultural stereotype of “the rapist” is of someone who is obviously and simply monstrous.
False: All rapists are seen as monsters (implied).

As a culture we do tend to caricature peeople as monsters – when there’s public consensus that someone is a rapist or abuser. This is a kinda crucial disclaimer.

These cases are the minority. Most of the time, as a culture we don’t believe survivors who name rapists. Put differently, when presented with the information that someone is a rapist, most of the time we don’t believe that they are one.

This calls into question the value of getting people to see rapists as “good people.” Why? Because this is already what most people do. The vast majority of people named as rapists are in fact rapists, but in the vast majority of cases, people generally believe they are not rapists.

True: The image of rapists as monsters perpetuates the dangerous misconception that people we see as “nice” or “upstanding” or “good” can’t possibly be rapists or abusers.
False: The main effect of this misconception is to make it more difficult to prevent people from becoming perpetrators and to rehabilitate people who are already perpetrators. Again, this is implied – in this case by the fact that these pieces only present the monster rapist caricature as a problem for effective sexual violence prevention and rehabilitation.

Again, in reality? The really obvious effect of the monster stereotype is that it makes it a lot easier for people to disbelieve victims who come forward. There are a lot of different factors that contribute to survivors being routinely doubted when they name names, but this is a major one.

To my mind this also is the primary effect of the “rapist as monster” meme. It’s a huge obstacle to successfully prosecuting rapists and getting justice and support for victims.

I have to wonder what to make of pieces claiming it’s dangerous to say only bad guys rape that make no mention at all of the fact that survivors face an extremely high – virtually impossible – burden of proof when they come forward, in part because of this image.

Kinda makes one think that survivors don’t factor into consideration at all.

True: “Good people,” leaving aside how we define that, sometimes do terrible things without intending to. I won’t say with good intentions, which is very different from not intending harm.
True: Perpetrators are, like virtually all human beings, behaviorally complex. The same person can treat some people with (apparent or real) niceness, respect, and even love but inflict great harm on others.

False: “Rapists do good things/are nice to some people” is an equivalent statement to “good people do terrible things.”
False: Talking about how rapists can be “good” or “nice” is necessary to humanize perpetrators and is a helpful counter to caricatures of rapists as monsters.

There’s a whole lot of daylight between “monster” and “nice guy.” Insisting on the humanity and complexity of perpetrators is not the same thing as insisting that some nebulous majority of rapists are “good dudes.” Nor is being human incompatible with being a predator or a terrible person.

“Nice guy” is not the opposite of “monster.” Human is. Humanity includes everything from kindness and compassion to callousness and cruelty.

People rape. All kinds of people – people we might perceive as good or bad, dull or brilliant, charming or repulsive. This is a more concrete, more accurate, and therefore more useful observation for addressing sexual violence than “nice guys rape too.”

The question of whether or not a rapist or someone capable of rape is good deep-down only muddies the waters with speculation that’s both unprovable and irrelevant to preventing sexual violence.

First of all, what’s meant by “nice” or “good?” From what these advocates for supposedly good rapists say, it seems to mean someone:

  • they know, often someone they like and care about
  • who’s behaved towards them and others in a way they see as “sweet” or nice
  • who claims they had no intention of raping anyone
  • who claims to be really sad about being a rapist
  • who hasn’t been adequately educated about what consent means.
  • whose innate traits or life circumstances allegedly make them susceptible to raping people against their better judgment, or less able/unable to keep themselves from raping (e.g.: pedophilia, addiction, mental illness)

Look, I don’t know that I could give you a coherent definition of niceness or goodness separate from someone’s behavior – that’s a bit too abstract for me – but by any measure these criteria for “nice” and “good” are pretty weak tea.

Also: these criteria demand that we evaluate a rapist’s moral fiber based on what they claim about themselves and how they’re perceived by people who haven’t been harmed by them, instead of based on their harmful behavior and the perspectives of the people they’ve harmed.

This is an extreme exercise in giving the benefit of the doubt: selectively and tendentiously interpreting those actions of rapists that we can frame as “good” as a reflection of their true nature, while minimizing rape as a circumstantial aberration. “Good” things are who they are, while bad things are just things they did, probably without meaning or wanting to.

This demands the belief that there must be some reasonable explanation for any horrible thing these people do, including rape. If they’re essentially “good,” they can’t really have meant or wanted to do something bad.

This, of course, is ass-backwards reasoning from a predetermined conclusion back to motivations and explanations for harmful behavior. It also relies on steadfastly erasing survivors, refusing to center them or see a perpetrator’s actions through their eyes.

False: We can only prevent “good dudes” from perpetrating “unintentional” and “accidental” rapes if we acknowledge their deep down goodness. To wit:

“When we say “only bad guys commit rape”, we’re disengaging any guy who thinks he’s a ‘good guy’ from having a conversation about how he can help prevent rape.”

“Your inebriation may make it unclear whether the consent you feel you have is actually consent…Dismissing all these folks as ‘bad guys’ only serves to feed the problem, because the reality of rape is that most often it does not look like what we think it does—a psychopath with a weapon and intent to do harm.” – Joanna Schroeder of GMP [No, I won’t link them.]

This is where they really lose me. That’s being kind. Frankly, this is nonsensical horseshit. It is mindboggling beyond expression that they think this makes any kind of sense.

The hand-wringing about poor men who don’t understand consent and are misled into accidental rape by assumptions that all rapists are “bad guys” strikes me as transparent concern trolling. But say we take it at face value. What exactly does talking up their goodness have to do with addressing their misunderstanding?

If someone understands what consent is and how to be sure they really have it, but doesn’t apply that knowledge…if the question of whether or not someone actually wants to have sex with them is irrelevant to their decision-making about sexual contact? They’re pretty unambiguously a terrible person regardless of whatever lovely stuff they might do.

And if they do apply that knowledge, this doesn’t necessarily make them “good,” it makes them someone who wants to have sex with people who want to have sex with them. You don’t have to be “good” to be this sort of person; it’s not a shining moral triumph. It’s most people.

The same goes for the so-called “unwitting” or “accidental” rapist who thinks they have consent they don’t actually have or doesn’t fully understand what consent means. Once that person is informed about what real consent looks like – or once they’re confronted with the reality that they actually raped someone they thought they “had sex with” – they either adjust their behavior accordingly, or they keep doing what they’ve been doing.

Again, the latter choice makes the no longer “unwitting” rapist an unambiguously horrible human being (e.g., GMP’s anonymous “sorry, but not sorry” rapist). The former doesn’t prove that they’re “good,” it only proves that what they’re interested in is sex and not rape. Again, like most people.

All of which to say: ascertaining or affirming the deep down goodness of some rapists has shit all to do with prevention. If someone is not an intentional sexual predator, being educated about consent is sufficient to prevent them from raping people, whether they’re “good” or not.

By the same token: education about consent? Won’t stop someone who doesn’t care whether someone consents to sexual contact or not. It certainly won’t stop someone who enjoys forcing themselves on people.

Either you understand what consent means, or you don’t.
Either you apply that knowledge, if you have it, or you don’t.

This is fairly simple. Some people want to make it far more complicated than it actually is.

And as Brian Stuart/@red3blog points out, “misunderstanding” or being ignorant about what consent looks like isn’t a neutral state, especially when the “misunderstanding” occurs along lines of power and privilege:



Really, really false and inexcusably ignorant or disingenuous:  GMP’s Joanna Schroeder’s implication that most “consent education” = “No means no” alone and therefore “doesn’t work.”

It seems unlikely, given Schroeder’s familiarity with alternative models of consent, that she doesn’t know that consent education is much more than “no means no” these days. But I don’t really care whether her claim comes out of ignorance or disingenuousness. Either way it’s dangerous and irresponsible.

Conversations about the circumstances under which one can consent, that not saying no isn’t the same thing as consent, that there are many circumstances under which someone consciously rapes/assaults another person and KNOWS they have no consent for sexual contact without the victim saying no, and that coercion can take many forms have been going on for some time now. The point being, the work that she’s claiming needs to happen to prevent “good people” from becoming rapists is already being done,and by lots of people who get that waxing sentimental about perpetrators as broken or tragic figures doesn’t teach anyone about consent and certainly doesn’t help survivors.


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  2. [This is an email comment from a friend of mine who’s done rape exams as an ER nurse – G]

    I wasn’t aware of David Lisak’s research at UMass. He found that most of the rape that is done on college campuses is done by serial rapists (I guess around 90%) who will pose as the person who was “confused about consent” if caught. There was a study done by the Navy that replicated his findings.

    You’re definitely right about victims. They are believed much less often than the perpetrators are. FBI statistics reveal that only about 2% of rape reports are false. Only about 16% of victims report. Even if a person does report, they don’t have much of a chance of justice. Out of the 55 rape exams I did, I’ve only been summoned to court for 3.

    Many of the police officers who brought in victims still talked about “real rape” which to them meant stranger rape. They had received training and education regarding this, but it doesn’t always work.

    And I can tell you from being in court that victims are definitely revictimized there. Also, the trial dates are pushed back again and again which exacerbates anguish and pain for survivors. The deck is definitely stacked against them.

  3. Wow. I’m not really sure what to say about this piece other than it perfectly encapsulates a lot of the thoughts I’ve had bouncing around inside me for ages and expresses them much better than I ever could have. Thank you so much for it.

    You can be a friendly, cheerful person who donates time and money to helping others who has done a horrible thing. The former does not and never should overshadow the latter.

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  5. Karen Powers says:

    I think that an open and compassionate conversation about the socialization of both women and men would in regard to power and control would be good to have.

    • And what, pray tell, do you think feminists have been doing for the past hundred years? What do you think all the constant discussion about what *causes* rape is about?

      The problem isn’t that these conversations aren’t happening. The problem is that people keep dragging the illness into the treatment.

      Instead of taking an absolute moral stand some people feel the need to prove they’re not *that* kind of feminist by giving ground to the LUDICROUS idea that if we talk nicely enough women will get handed our full default humanity.

      It’s not even that we’re not talking. nicely. enough. It’s that we’re not heard no matter HOW we talk about it, at least not by those who could do some real good by NOT RAPING ANYMORE.

      Rape isn’t an accident. It doesn’t MATTER what the motive is. It’s all of a piece–a person is being seen as an object to be used instead of a human to be related to. The mental illness that allows that to happen is NOT going to be fixed by a really nice girl talking sweetly enough. It’s only going to be fixed when the rest of the world quits agreeing with the idea that rape victims must have somehow asked for it.

  6. I just wanted to second Siff’s comment – this is such an amazing articulation of so many of the problems with GMP’s horrific posts, thank you for sharing your thoughts with us. I’ve been a long time reader at xoJane, but I’ve unsubscribed from them now. Such a disappointing move from them to be promoting such blatant rape apology.

    • Thanks so much Helena. I agree, xoJane’s part in this is very disappointing (but I can’t really say a complete surprise, given other editorial decisions they’ve made over the past few months).

  7. Lindsey Weedston says:

    GMP and rape apology in general seems to have been born out of a massive collective cognitive dissonance. The fact that there are people who seem good and seem nice and do things that are good/nice who then end up raping someone is extremely difficult for people to deal with. We want to characterize all rapists as slavering assholes who hate women because we can’t deal with the fact that our loved ones could be bad people. We need to stop making excuses for our friends who go out and hurt people.

    We do this constantly, whether it be in reference to rape, infidelity, exploitation, manipulation, or downright cruelty. I have a friend who cheated multiple times on her former partner. After she told me, we both engaged in a mutual fact-twisting mind fuck wherein we picked out reasons to excuse her behavior and make it her partner’s fault. Looking back, here are the facts: My friend went to another person’s home to spend time with him knowing full well what would end up happening. She knew full well that if she went to his home and became drunk, cheating would happen. She did these things regardless, not only out of desire but out of malice – intentionally hurting her current partner.

    The people of GMP need to acknowledge reality. “Nice Guys Rape Too” is a completely meaningless assertion. If you have observed a person doing many nice things and only one terrible thing, does that make them nice? No, because you don’t know what was in his mind. You don’t know of his intentions when doing the nice things or the terrible things. I know you want to believe that your friends are good people, because you want to believe that you are a good person. And good people aren’t friends with bad people. If you found out your friend was bad, you’d have to shun or at least condemn them, and this is hard.

    Do the hard thing. Look in the eyes of someone you love and tell them that what they did was cruel, hurtful, spiteful, malicious, etc. Let them know that what they did will be stamped on the receiver of their cruelty until they die. Humans do not forget cruelty – we carry it with us always. And violence begets violence, meaning every cruel act makes the world a worse place to live in. They should be ashamed and remorseful and take time to seriously analyze their actions and their state of mind, and their moral fortitude.

    Should you give in to your moral weakness and make excuses for the person or ignore their cruel actions just to make yourself feel better, that makes you selfish. Every single human being shares responsibility for the well being of the species. When we are cruel, we hurt everyone. When we allow cruelty, we hurt everyone. Those alive and those not yet born. THAT is what we should be teaching. “What is consent” should be intuitive. If we teach empathy and kindness – that each person on this Earth is connected to us and is exactly like us and feels what we feel – there will be no need to teach the meaning of consent.

    Thank you for this piece, Grace. It’s excellent.

    • Sgaile-beairt says:

      ….shakespeare said it best, One may smile and smile, and be a Villain….in fact, it works better that way!! Nice villains get trusted!!

      whats next, a feature on how nice the people who keep getting caught up by the world court for enabling, genocide, in Bosnia & rwanda are?? ‘he coached local youth, sports, she taught kindergarden, they were so nice!!”

      • Lindsey Weedston says:

        Right? They don’t say crap like that when it comes to racial violence.

        “That white supremacist was raised in a confusing culture. When that black guy was walking around being all black and talking like a black guy, how was the white supremacist supposed to know not to try to kill him? Let’s let him off the hook. He’s really a nice guy if you get to know him.”

        • Actually, Lindsey, they say things like that about racial violence all the time. Racism isn’t somehow a less acceptable axis of oppression than sexism/misogyny. You need to check yourself.

          • Lindsey Weedston says:

            Really? Never heard anyone say that in my life. They even have hate crime laws to better nail those who commit racial violence to the wall.

            I’m not and would never try to say that race based violence is less important than gender based violence or that we shouldn’t fight just as hard against it. But to me it seems like gender based violence is much more acceptable, and I’m basing that on rampant rape apologism and shockingly low rapist conviction rates.

            People at least have to use creative means to create violence in minority communities. the war on drugs is a massively rampant problem and is way more acceptable than violence against women. They’re both problems, equally important.

            • ““That white supremacist was raised in a confusing culture. When that black guy was walking around being all black and talking like a black guy, how was the white supremacist supposed to know not to try to kill him? Let’s let him off the hook. He’s really a nice guy if you get to know him.”” is almost word-for-word what people in and out of the mainstream media said about Trayvon Martin’s killing. There are scores of similar examples. Your comparison doesn’t hold water, and I and many other women of color can give you example after example like the one I just gave you. Just because you haven’t heard it doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.

              I’ll repeat what I said before – you need to check your privilege here.

            • Lindsey Weedston says:

              Alright, well, I didn’t read the Martin tragedy as being quite like that, and I thought Zimmerman was demonized pretty bad (as he should have been), but I am super white so I can’t really speak on issues of race. I apologize for trying to compare gender issues with race issues. It was dumb.

  8. This is an excellent examination of how Royse and Schroeder mixed in reasonable claims with rape apology in their writing. One thing I haven’t seen Royse or Schroeder directly address in all of their claims about how gosh-darned hard it is to figure out consent is what messages exactly society is sending that make it so hard to figure out that having sex with a person who is ASLEEP is not okay. Since Royse had so many painful and beautiful conversations with her friend, she should surely have been able to go into more details about how exactly her friend found “don’t force sexual activity on a sleeping person” so difficult to understand and why she thinks men need to be explicitly taught that if they receive/hear “I’d like to have sex with you” signals, those signals don’t mean “and you can use me like a sex toy anytime, anywhere of your choosing regardless of whether I’m conscious to participate, enjoy, or even know about it.” I mean, THIS is what she thinks is hard and confusing?

    I also would like her to address whether in these painful and beautiful conversations, she advised her friend–whom she acknowledges multiple times is a rapist by legal and ethical definition–to turn himself into the police. Ignorance of the law is no excuse after all, and if he’s really a good, nice man who was just so gosh darned confused and is so gosh darned horrified now that he realizes he did a bad, bad thing, he should certainly be willing to do the right thing, turn himself in, and face whatever follows.

    I really hope whatever organization Royse worked with as a rape counselor stops working with her.

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  11. Thank you for this exhaustive take-down of all of their bullshit. My date rape had a lot in common with the one Royse describes, and it wasn’t a ‘mistake’ at all. Of course, if you asked my rapist, that’s what he would say. One of the many reasons why trying to stop rape by working from the presumption that ‘he didn’t mean to’ is utter BS. I wrote about it more here, if anyone’s interested in a more anecdotal response from the victim’s POV: http://loriadorable.com/2012/12/15/the-bill-clinton-incident/ (I hope this isn’t too obnoxiously self-promotional :-/ )

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