First, a full disclosure. The Good Men Project (TGMP) has published three pieces of my writing. I will be discussing that fact in more detail in the second part of this series, but for those who don’t know my work, or who want to see it in context at TGMP–which, given the title of this post, I can imagine some might want to do–the three pieces are For My Son, A Kind of Prayer; My Feminist Manifesto; and Towards a Discussion of Male Self-Hatred. At the same time, I recognize that there may be people reading this who will not want to click through to TGMP, so you can, if you want to, also read those pieces on my own blog here, here, and here.
I started writing this post more than a week ago in order to respond to Alyssa Royse’s rife-with-rape-apology TGMP essay, “Nice Guys Commit Rape Too” and to Joanna Schroeder’s follow up piece, “Why It’s Dangerous to Say ‘Only Bad Guys Commit Rape.’” (Schroeder is TGMP’s senior editor.) As it turns out, this post focuses pretty much exclusively on what Royse wrote; I will say what I have to say about Schroeder’s article in Part Two. In any event, the circumstances of my life and the inevitable end-of-semester pileup of work, got in the way of my finishing this in a timely enough manner to say what I originally wanted to say. As a result, a good many people were able to respond before I did, and so I think the most appropriate thing to do is provide you with links so you can read what they wrote for yourselves:
- Nice Guys Commit Rape, Too? (also on TGMP)
- What in holy hell is this?
- On Why Men Rape and Why They Don’t
- The dreadful dangers of normalization and the terrible mistakes of the Good Men Project. (Or why most men don’t rape (continued)
- Why I Left The GMP
- Why did the Good Men Project publish a blog by an unrepentant and unconvicted rapist?
- On Why Men Rape and Why They Don’t
- A Public Service Announcement from the Good Men Project
- The Good Rapist Project
- Not-So-Good Men Project & Enabling Rapists
- On Rapists Who Have No Idea Rape Is Wrong
- Why the ‘nice guys commit rape too’ conversation is unhelpful
There is, however, one particularly insidious aspect of Royse’s argument that I have not seen anyone else address, the way she defines rape more as a matter of bad manners and poor etiquette than as the sexual subjugation of one human being, almost always a woman, by another, almost always a man. Egregious as the rape apology is in how Royse analyses the specific situation that motivated her to write, it’s important not to let this other aspect of her argument pass. First, it falsifies the social, political, and cultural function of rape and, second, in this falsification, confuses more than clarifies the conversation about what it means to be a “good man” that TGMP claims as its mission.
In the event that you haven’t read what Royse wrote, here’s the gist: A “dear friend” of hers, the “nice guy” of the title, raped a woman who’d been “flirt[ing] aggressively with [him] for weeks.” Given that, according to Royse, no one disputes that the woman was sleeping when he penetrated her without her prior consent, there is no question that he raped her. “This part,” as she puts it, “is simple.” What is not simple, at least to her, is trying to understand not only why he did what he did, but also how, in such clearcut circumstances, he could possibly have been “genuinely unsure” about whether or not doing it would constitute rape. As she tries to answer those questions, Royse engages in the worst sort of what used to be called bleeding-heart liberalism. She can’t change the fact that her friend raped a woman, but the real culprit, she says, is a society that makes it unreasonably difficult to recognize sexual boundaries and/or the difference between actual and imagined consent:
The problem isn’t even that he’s a rapist. [I'm sorry, but I need to repeat that again, because she really did write those words: The problem isn't even that he's a rapist.] The problem is that no one is taking responsibility for the mixed messages about sex and sexuality in which we are stewing. And no one is taking responsibility for teaching people how the messages we are sending are often being misunderstood.
What’s worse, according to Royse, is that these mixed messages actually make rape inevitable:
Rape is what happens when we aren’t allowed to discuss sex and sexuality as if it [sic] were as natural as food, and instead shroud it [sic] in mysterious languages and grant it [sic] mysterious powers and lust for it [sic] like Gollum after the ring. Rape is what happens [when] we don’t even understand what sex and sexuality are, but use them for everything anyway.
As the writers I linked to above point out, Royse’s reasoning throughout her piece leaves apologetic loopholes large enough for a rapist to walk through without even having to duck his head, but her reasoning also does something else, which is why it’s important to remember that her argument is not that her friend did not actually commit rape, but rather that “society” did not teach him well enough how not to rape in the first place. As Royse defines it, in other words, rape is really a matter of inadequate education and poor impulse control, really not so different in kind–though obviously different in degree–from what happens on the playground between very young children who have not yet learned that hitting is wrong. Indeed, just as one might say of such children that they don’t really understand what they are doing, Royse wrote, in one of the most disingenuous passages I have ever read, “More often than not….the rapist is just a person who may genuinely not realize that what he’s doing is rape.”
Leave aside the profound infantilization of men contained in that statement, and consider that this line of thinking excludes from discussion the fact that, whatever else rape may be, it is now, and has been for millennia, the conscious, purposeful, willful sexual subjugation of women by men. Or, to put it another way, consider that by excluding this fact from discussion, Royse is able to argue, primarily by implication and allusion, that because her friend is a “nice guy rapist,” he is essentially different from, say, the soldier who rapes women as an act of war, or an abusive husband who repeatedly rapes his wife as a way of controlling her, or the men who brutally gang raped an unmarried young woman in New Delhi recently for being out with a male friend who was not her father or husband. “[Ridiculous] as it may sound,” Royse insists, her friend “is a really sweet guy,” by which I assume she means that he’s the kind of person who, unlike the men I’ve just mentioned, would never intentionally rape a woman. She goes on:
He was devastated at the allegation of rape, and even more so at my confirmation that it was rape. We spent a week or so exploring how this could have happened. Not excusing it, but trying to understand it. [T]he conversations were painful and beautiful, and he understood. He claimed it, at least to me, and learned a hard lesson: he had committed rape.
As far as it goes, and taking Royse at her word not just that her friend was devastated, but that he fully came to understand what he’d done, I am willing to accept that he might in fact be different from the other rapists I described above. The fact that he left town–largely, according to Royse, because of the fallout from the rape–may suggest otherwise, as does the fact that she reports no restitutive or restorative action on his part; but just for the sake of argument let’s assume either that he already has–and that Royse didn’t report it because she did not know about it yet–or that he definitely will perform those actions. The difference they would make–and I don’t want to deny that it would be a real difference–would not change the fact that he was not being, that there is no way he could have been, “a really sweet guy” while he was raping his victim. Nor could you characterize him as “sweet” in the moments just before, when he decided he was going to rape her. Nor would anything change the fact that, in raping her, he was being, as a man, just as presumptuous and dehumanizing and entitled as those other rapists I mentioned above. The fact that he was less brutal than they were, or that he deceived himself into believing that he was doing something his victim wanted him to–”To a large degree,” Royse says, “my friend thought he was doing what was expected”–is entirely irrelevant.
Royse gets this last point. Not only does she not shrink from calling her friend a rapist; but she also insists that his victim’s experience is pretty much all that is necessary to characterize the sex he had with her as rape. This is from the introduction to her essay:
However, I was not used to getting the call in which a dear friend of mine says, “I am being accused of rape.” And I was certainly not used to saying, “did [sic] you do it?”
It seems like a simple question to answer. But he, like many people, struggled with it. He didn’t answer. So I asked the question from another angle, “What did she say happened?”
“She said I raped her,” he answered.
“Well, then you probably did. What exactly happened?”
Presumably because she doesn’t identify as a feminist (scroll down to the comment’s end), Royse does not point out that her position in that last sentence is a quintessentially feminist one, borne of the need first to resist how men have for millennia denied, trivialized, and otherwise excused the rapes we’ve committed and, second, to make the rape survivor’s narrative central to how we talk about rape in the first place. Rape, according to this way of seeing things, is rape regardless of who commits it, where it is committed, or under what circumstances, meaning that there is no essential difference—though there is certainly one of degree—between the experience of a woman whom a “nice guy” penetrates while she is sleeping without her prior consent and the experiences of each of the women raped by the men I talked about above. More to the point, according to this way of seeing things, women’s common experience either of living under the threat of sexual violation by men, or of actually having been sexually violated, is also always the experience of a male dominant value system that explicitly excludes women’s full humanity.
I don’t think anyone, including Royse, would deny that this was the value system embodied by those four men in New Delhi, each of whom might also have been, in other aspects of his life, “a really sweet guy,” though I somehow doubt that Royse would so easily include them in the category of “nice guys” created by her title. Those men knew exactly what they were doing and why they were doing it. They were not confused because they had received “mixed messages” from their society about consent or “what sex and sexuality really are.” Rather, they were taught very precise lessons, including the fact that raping women “who deserve it” is their right as men. It may be difficult to imagine that a likable, friendly, considerate-of-others “nice guy” in these ostensibly enlightened United States would share this disbelief in the integrity of women’s personhood; but if you want to understand how he, a man of good will could rape a woman while honestly, if self-delusionally, experiencing himself as having consensual sex–and let’s take Royse’s word that her friend was such a man–then you cannot pretend that the rape he committed was at all different in its hatred of women, though it was certainly different in the level of its brutality, from the rape committed by those men in New Delhi.
To put it more plainly, the self-delusion Royse’s friend practiced upon himself, in order to be effective, had to be rooted in the presumption that a woman who flirts, who lets you know that she wants you, who may even say while she is flirting, “You know what would be really hot? To have someone wake me up by fucking me,” is actually issuing to the man she’s flirting with, whether she intends to or not, an anytime anywhere open invitation to her vagina. By the same token, the men in New Delhi clearly believed that a single woman out in public without an appropriate male escort is issuing an identical, if perhaps less personal, invitation. If Royse is right that her friend truly came to understand the injustice of this, that understanding did not reside in the fact that he’s a “nice guy.” Rather, if we are to assume that Royse’s conversations with him were in keeping with what she says in the passage I quoted above, he most likely owes that understanding to a decidedly feminist analysis of his actions, his assumptions prior to acting, and, one would hope, his values concerning women and sex. Indeed, any discussion of men and rape that is not explicitly rooted in such a feminist analysis is unlikely to be one which fully holds men accountable, not because feminism in all it various forms is always unerringly accurate in its depiction of men, but because feminist analysis is the only one I know that places the misogynistic values expressed through rape at the center of the discussion.
Neither that analysis nor the accountability it makes possible appear anywhere in Royse’s essay, not in what she tells us about her friend, not in the brief mention she makes of male sexual entitlement, and certainly not in the way she trivializes rape by calling it the inevitable result of a society refusing to be sexually honest with itself. Royse’s conclusion, in fact, in which she throws her hands up in inarticulate frustration, demonstrates that she wasn’t really interested in accountability to begin with. Rather, she seems to have been more concerned with working through her inability to comprehend emotionally what she knows without a doubt intellectually, that her friend is a rapist:
What happened [to the woman my friend raped] was wrong. [He] raped her. But I am still trying to figure out why. And no, it’s not as simple as the fact that he put his penis in her. It is a lot more complicated than that. And we need to talk about it.
The fact that The Good Men Project published Royse’s piece as if it were revelatory (it is not) of an aspect of rape that simply has not been discussed–i.e., that rapists often look like “nice guys”–suggests that TGMP is also not really interested in holding men accountable for the misogynistic values of male dominance. Indeed, as TGMP founder Tom Matlack writes, ”The goal [on this site] is to provide a forum for us as men to collectively become more skillful at living our lives well, to being good dads, husbands and friends. But there is no way to summarize that up, to reduce manhood to its core elements, to judge us as anything but individual human beings” capable of doing both good and bad. Alyssa Royse’s friend, in other words, and those four New Delhi rapists were acting not as men, but as individuals whose actions can only be fairly judged in isolation from each other.
I will have more to say about what Matlack wrote in Part Two. For now, I would just point out the inherent contradiction in claiming that one wants to foster a conversation about what it means to be a good man while at the same time insisting that one cannot generalize about what it means to be a man in the first place. This kind of contradiction is also apparent in how Matlack defines TGMP’s concept of goodness, “a journey, an aspiration, not an end point.” There may be wisdom in understanding goodness as a process rather than a static quality–the metaphor of the path, after all, is common to religious mystics and spiritual seekers throughout the world–but a process that doesn’t end is meaningless, a journey without a final destination is a journey to nowhere, circular and self-indulgent. Alyssa Royse’s article takes us on that kind of journey. As her publisher, sadly, so does The Good Men Project.