What causes rape? How can we change our culture so that it happens less often, or not at all? I’d like to give my opinions on this – at, perhaps, some risk of pissing some folks off.
Alas readers who know me know that I’m a font of statistical evidence about rape; there was a year or so in which I didn’t read about much other than quantitative research about rape. But of the hundreds of stats about rape I’ve read, the most essential one is the most obvious: the overwhelming majority of rapists are male. If we want to discover how to reduce rape, we have to be willing to figure out what the hell is wrong with men, and how to change it.
(Okay, ass-covering time: when I say “what the hell is wrong with men,” I do mean all men in our culture – even men as “enlightened” as the more feminist men on this board. But I don’t mean that all men rape, or even that all men are potential rapists. Rather, I’d say the things in our culture which screw up men so much that rape becomes a widespread problem affect all men to some degree – even those who never rape.)
Unfortunately, I think feminism – and especially radical feminism – has been limited in increasing our understanding of rape, because feminism is (generally) focused on women, whereas rape is mostly about men. You will never find the cause or cure for rape by examining women, because rapists are overwhelmingly male.
So what does cause rape? Or, put another way, if we can agree that we live in a “rape culture” (defined as “a culture in which rape is prevalent and is maintained through fundamental attitudes and beliefs about gender, sexuality, and violence”), then what are those fundamental attitudes about gender, sexuality, and violence?
I’d identify three interrelated candidates: the myth of masculinity, cultural disdain for women, and our society’s conception of sexuality as something possessed exclusively by women. If we want “24 hours in which there is no rape,” then we have to destroy these three warped cultural ideas.
1) The Myth of Fragile Masculinity.
From early boyhood, men are taught that their masculinity must be protected above all else, or else it will be lost. Men who have lost their masculinity are objects of contempt, derision and violent abuse, and have lost the right to be loved or respected by their fellow men and by their fathers.
Boys are also taught that masculinity is fragile and high-maintenance; you work to get it and to retain it, and the slightest slip can cause it to be altogether lost. You can slip instantly, with no transition, from the most popular boy in the room to the butt of everyone’s jokes: all it takes is a moment’s lapse in which you say or do anything that can be interpreted as feminine.
This is essential: Masculinity is fragile. The man who has lost his masculinity is, in the eyes of male culture, less than nothing, worse than dead. Therefore, force in defense of masculinity – like beating up a boy who accuses you of being a faggot – can feel to boys and men like a form of self-defense.
Masculinity is defined by what it is not. Being masculine means avoiding the feminine. Being feminine, even for an instant, means risking loss of masculinity. Empathy, in our culture’s warped conception, is feminine; thinking about other people’s emotions is feminine. Boys are taught to avoid empathy.
Masculinity is also defined by power-over. The man who is overpowered by others is less then a man; the man who has power over others is a man among men. Remember, masculinity is fragile: if you don’t have power-over, you’re in danger of losing your manhood.
Once boys become teens, masculinity is additionally defined by the absolutely crucial task of getting laid. Once again, masculinity is fragile: he who isn’t getting any ain’t a man.
So there are a myriad of ways in which boys and men can lose the status of “being a man.” But at the same time, boys and men feel absolutely entitled to becoming men.
Masculinity comes wrapped around a sense of entitlement. Men don’t feel grateful when the women in their life (mothers, wives, maids) prepare meals, make beds, or whatever: in our society’s warped view, the women are just doing what they’re supposed to, and men are just getting what they’re entitled to. (Statistically, it’s interesting that virtually everyone in our culture who decides to blow up a building or machine-gun a crowd is white and male. The main reason for this, I believe, is that white men feel so entitled to high status in society, some of them take revenge if they don’t their rightful entitlement.)
There is one bit of good news – for most men, issues about masculinity are more extreme in the first thirty years of men’s lives then thereafter. For someone still in school – be it the 6th grade or a college frat house – the social enforcement mechanisms for not maintaining masculinity can be extreme. Those who can’t “be men” are social pariahs, are taught to be ashamed, and are not-uncommonly the subjects of beatings. But that’s not as true in most adult environments (although it’s true in some adult environments, like prison). Perhaps once we’ve been away from those sorts of environments for five or ten years, most of us begin to feel that our masculinity isn’t so threatened, after all.
Statistically, environments which tend to have the most rape – middle and high school, frat houses, prisons – are also the environments which most emphasize masculinity, and where boys and men have the most reason to fear losing masculinity. If we could change the culture of such environments, we’d go a long way towards reducing rape.
2) Low regard for women.
The fact is, women aren’t respected as equals, by and large. To some degree this is a self-perpetuating cycle: why aren’t women in more of public life’s highest-respected positions (Presidents, CEOs, Senators, movie stars, cartoonists , etc)? Because women aren’t seen as capable of holding society’s highest positions. Why aren’t women seen as being as capable? Well, just look around: there are almost no women are doing those things.
Women’s lower pay – and lower status generally in most of the overtly powerful and materially rewarding aspects of our culture – is both a cause of and a result of the low regard in which our culture holds women. That the huge amount of unpaid caretaking work our society requires to get by is overwhelmingly done by women, and accorded almost no respect (“stay at home moms just sit around watching TV all day, right?”), is both a cause of and a result of the low regard in which our culture holds women.
Women get paid less. Women get promoted less. Women get out of the house less. The work women do is worth less. In our society, women are less. This must change if rape is to be eliminated.
Remember how masculinity encourages lack of empathy? Well, low regard for women also encourages lack of empathy. Social scientists have shown that people (regardless of sex) are less empathic towards those who are below them in the social hierarchy. Bosses are less empathic towards secretaries than vice-versa; owners less empathic towards slaves than vice-versa; men less empathic towards women than vice-versa.
Why do men rape women? It’s not because they hate women, by and large. Do hunters hunt because they hate animals? No, they hunt because hunting is fun, because they like the meat, and maybe because hunting is a way of male-bonding, They don’t hate the animal; they just consider empathy for the animal’s feelings irrelevant, less important than their desire for meat or fun. (I’m ignoring the ecological arguments for hunting for the sake of the analogy).
Men who rape women don’t do it because they hate women, but because they don’t give a fuck about women (at least, not the women they rape). They want something, they take it, and they’re by-and-large indifferent to how the person they “take” it from feels.
This is why the “rape isn’t about sex, rape is about violence” analysis falls short. It’s not true – not from the point of view of many rapists – and it denies the true horror of the situation. Many rapists don’t rape because they hate and want to hurt women; it’s not that personal. Rapists rape because they want sex; they don’t consider the woman’s feelings at all, because a woman’s feelings aren’t worth considering. They’re just women, after all.
Which brings me to my third point….
3) Sexuality is something possessed by women, which is given to (or taken by) men.
That’s our society’s view of it. Look at the magazines on the racks – it’s pretty obvious why men’s magazines, wanting to sell copies with a sexy cover, usually use photos of mostly-undressed women. But why do women’s magazines do the exact same thing? Because to do a sexy magazine cover, you generally have to show a photo of a woman. Sexuality equals women in our culture; it is something possessed by women, not by men.
That’s also why women are taught to wait to be asked for a dance (or for a date), while men are taught to do the asking. Women have it; men ask for it. That’s why porn-like images of women are so common they’re impossible to avoid, while porn-like images of men are (outside gay male culture) relatively infrequent. Women have sex; to show a picture of sex, show a porn-like image of a woman.
Why do men rape, while women virtually never rape? Because sexuality is something possessed by women, in our society’s warped view. In our society, women don’t rape for the same reason rich people don’t mug.
This connects to the first point, too – the fragility of masculinity. Men who have lost their masculinity are, in our culture’s view, less than men, less even than women. They are the lowest of the low. One way to lose your masculinity is to be unable to “get” sex from a woman. This also breeds resentment of women (in much the same way that poverty can sometimes breed resentment of rich people): “how dare women not give something to me that I need so desperately? How dare women withhold from me the masculinity that I’m entitled to?”
If there’s nothing worse to a man than losing that fragile masculinity, and if one way of retaining masculinity is to use masculinity’s power-over to take sex from the owners, and if the owners are only women, anyway, rather than being anything important – then rape is frequently the result.
Hell, looking at how twisted and sick our culture is, sometimes I’m surprised rape doesn’t happen even more often.
* * *
Obviously, I’m not saying that this is right. It’s sick, warped, and twisted. But that is the truth about our sick, warped, and twisted society, in my opinion. People talk about a “rape culture.” I’d argue that these three things – Masculinity, Low Regard for Women, and Sex is Owned by Women – are the three main ingredients of that rape culture. And if we want to create a world without rape, finding ways to change those three things is where we should start.