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:
The idea that “accidental” rape isn’t about power, but about misunderstand is BS. Its about rapists’ power and entitlement to misunderstand.
— Brian Stuart (@red3blog) December 12, 2012
Our culture has empowered men to disregard consent, to “misunderstand” through negligence. That is still a show of power. #rapeculture
— Brian Stuart (@red3blog) December 12, 2012
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.