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Do you know that you shouldn't walk home alone at night, or on unlit streets? That when walking home, you should have your house key between your fingers to poke a potential attacker in the eyes or throat? How about that if you don't want to be raped, you need to be sure your skirt is somebody's idea of the right length, that you don’t sway your hips when you walk, that you shouldn't be alone with new dates--especially not alone in large groups of men--that you shouldn't say aloud that you enjoy sex where men can hear you, shouldn't drink -- not because you'll get liver damage or become an alcoholic, but because it'll result in you being raped? Did you know that if someone tries to force you to have sex, that you shouldn’t fight back, but should probably just try to be nice to them? How about that if you say yes to one kind of sex, you’d best be prepared to have every other kind of sex your partner wants, and that if you want to avoid being raped, you’d best say no to ANY kind of sex, even the sex you DO want?
If these things aren’t as familiar to you as the nose on your face, I can guarantee you that they are for nearly every woman you know. Women have this stuff drilled into our heads endlessly, from nearly everywhere we look, all with the aim of helping us prevent something from happening we aren’t even doing. Almost every article we see when it comes to rape prevention is aimed at women – the ones most often getting raped -- not at men, who most often are the ones doing the raping.
It’s a bit like if all the warnings we see about driving drunk were aimed at people hit by drunk drivers: “Don’t ever get in your car: someone else might be drunk!” or “To prevent your drunk driving death, never leave the house during happy hour: someone might be drinking and driving.” Imagine, too, if when you found yourself or someone you loved hit by a drunk driver, the common sentiment about that trauma was that unless the person hit was doing everything possible to avoid being hit – like, say, never leaving the house, or only leaving the house when dressed in SUV-resilient armor – then it was only partly the drunk driver’s fault, and maybe not that driver’s fault at all. If you weren’t doing everything you could to not get hit, well then it’s really your fault you got hit, not the fault of the moron full of vodka behind the wheel.
Those articles about rape prevention telling women all they can do to prevent rape? This isn't one of those articles. This one’s for the men.
Prefer to read something this big in smaller sections? No problem.
Rape is often framed as about women, but it's not. Something done TO us really isn't about us. It's the things that we choose to do which are about us, which is why it's such an error for rape to be framed as a women's issue or about women: it's almost always a men's issue and really about men.
Potential victims of rape often can't prevent it from happening, even when we follow every instruction on avoiding rape. Sure, we can learn self-defense and use it, and employ a few things to minimize our chances of being raped, or escape from a rape, but for the most part, whether or not a rape happens is up to the person who would or does rape. Making the prevention of rape the responsibility of victims or potential victims is incredibly ineffective. Yet, we rarely see pieces written for the other half of the equation -- to someone who might be, or is, a rapist; to someone who might be, or is, knowingly or unknowingly enabling rape, and to the men who have more influence over each other than women can have over them. If men don't know NOT to rape, how not to enable rape, and don't know that both are their responsibility – not just the responsibility of women -- all the self-protection in the world on a potential victim’s part isn't going to help very much.
However hard it is for any of us to accept, most rapes are perpetrated by men. Much of how rape is treated and enabled is about male behavior and what men do and don't do. Let’s face facts: around one out of every three to four women or girls has been or will be raped or sexually assaulted in her lifetime. Based on sound data from diverse sources, around 90% of all rapes are those where the victims are female, identify as female and/or are identified by the rapist as female. Even if you don't know it, you probably have at least one woman in your life you know and care a lot about -- your mother, a grandmother or aunt, a sister, a girlfriend, a friend, a mentor – who has been or will be raped in her lifetime.
It’s usually estimated that at least 10%, and probably more, of rapes are to male victims, and for men and women both, close to 99% of their rapists are male (Statutory rape, based on a victim being unable to legally consent to sex due to age, is the most common form of rape by female perpetrators. It should also be noted, however, that female perpetrators are often found to be more common in the case of child abuses, including sexual abuse, than teen and adult abuses, so those figures are often not included in rape statistics because they are instead filed with child abuse data. But even when those things are factored in, the vast majority of rapists are male). It is most common to be raped in early adolescence, the teens or young adulthood, and rape is a vastly underreported crime: with women, it's estimated that less than 40% of rapes are reported overall (and among young people, substantially less than that), and with male victims, the rate of reporting -- primarily because a man who has been raped is often framed by other men as then being less of a man, or as a victim being “made” gay or into a woman – is even lower. Most experts in sexual abuse and assault agree that certain aspects of culture designed and upheld by men, which many males often perpetuate, play a great part in enabling rape to all kinds of victims. In other words, a lot of the way masculinity is commonly defined, idealized and enacted is one very big why for rape being as common as it is, for rape so often being seen as such a minimal crime, and for rapists often being treated better by people than their victims are.
It's hard to acknowledge the reality of rape. Think about it this way: When we know that around one in four people have an STI we can't realistically deny that we or someone close to us may be one of those people. The same goes here. A rapist may be someone we know, even someone we're close to, or even a person reading this right now. It is tremendously hard to look at, I know, but all those men doing the raping are real people, and there are enough of them that many of us know or have known at least one of them. They're not imaginary bogeymen: many are “regular” guys.
Thinking about these things may make you feel angry or uncomfortable -- especially to be spoken to as a potential rapist or someone who could be enabling rape -- but it's an important reality. We should be a LOT more angry about anyone being raped, and about anyone having to live in fear of rape, than we should be about anyone telling us that we need to be careful not to rape or enable rape. There are things we can do to NOT rape someone, or to keep from enabling rape. It's a whole lot worse to be raped than it is to be considered a potential or even an actual rapist: someone can change their mind about how they consider you, especially when your actions stand counter to their accusations. Even a bonafide rapist, if he is reported, charged and punished, which is a rarity, usually has a very limited time-frame during which he really has to deal with concrete consequences of his actions. Rape victims have to deal with rape and its severe consequences -- something we didn't even choose to take part in -- for our whole lives, including people thinking things about us that are not often true and which are very hurtful. In justice systems and many communities, rape victims hear rape is their fault far more often than rapists hear that it is theirs.
I'm sure you don't want to be raped, and I'm sure you don't want the women, girls and boys close to you to be raped or assaulted, either. I am also darn sure that most people don't want to be rapists, including you, and that most people don’t really want to enable rape. Even if you are sure none of this will ever apply to you, that you could not possibly rape someone else or perpetuate rape, just cultivating a real awareness about rape and raping can help you, the people around you, and our culture quite massively. We've only started to cultivate real rape awareness over the last few decades, and only in limited areas, but even in that short time and in those limited areas, awareness alone has helped to reduce some rates of rape markedly.
I’m asking you to examine something personal and difficult, so I want you to understand that this is always personal and difficult for me, too. I am a rape and sexual abuse survivor, more than once over. I survived a molestation at the age of 11 from the friendly man who cut our hair as children. I survived a physically violent gang assault at the age of 12 during which I was dragged out of my volunteer job by a group of boys who had been stalking me all afternoon, to whom I had verbally declined to go with earlier, more than once. I survived a date rape in high school with a guy I really liked who I earnestly thought did just want to go sit at the beach with me, and maybe make out some, not force his penis down my throat to the point that I struggled to breathe. I also managed to get myself out of an attempted acquaintance rape in my twenties at a friend's house where I had fallen asleep on the couch after a night out, accepted what seemed a generous invite to crash there, and woke up with that guy trying to climb on top of me after he had removed some of my clothes in my sleep, and just a few years ago, fended off another attempt by another acquaintance at the pass by being lucky enough to see it coming well in advance. My great-grandmother was raped and murdered in her own home at the age of 76 – something no one even told me in my family until I was an adult -- and I assure you that her skirt wasn't too short and that no one misunderstood that she wasn’t interested in sex with them. A man I loved intensely grew up in foster care and was sexually assaulted in two out of the three homes he was in. Neither my great-grandmother nor myself were dressed provocatively or “asking for it,” and even if we had been doing any number of the things so many women are told either makes rape somehow our responsibility, we still wouldn't be the people who got us raped: it was our rapists who did that. It wasn’t my ex-boyfriend’s fault that he was placed in homes with abusive men as a boy, nor were those men owed sex because they fed and housed him: they chose to exploit someone they had pledged to care for. So, beyond how often I deal with sexual violence in my work at Scarleteen and elsewhere, it's a very personal and difficult issue for me, and one that has, obviously, had a large influence on my life.
Like most people, I don't enjoy talking about rape. I’d love to never have to talk about it again. It also makes a rape survivor more vulnerable than rape has made her or him already to talk about rape or their rapes so publicly that thousands and thousands of people will know they've been raped. But I talk about it, no matter how difficult, because it is so crucially important to talk about, and because until we all really get talking things are not going to get better.
I don't want to say that I'm asking a favor of you, because anyone doing what they can to keep people from being harmed, physically and emotionally, is not doing something incredible. A person who neither rapes someone else, nor who doesn't enable rape isn't being a hero: they're simply being humane, but that basic humanity is far too often excused for men when they don’t exercise it. The bar is set low for you guys when you’re all more than capable of raising it. I'm asking that you read through this to help you invest yourself in something that many of you could certainly get away with not investing yourselves in. Therein lies the favor, because I'm asking more than plenty will ask of you. I'm asking that you, knowing how difficult it is for someone like me to talk about it, afford me the mutual respect of reading about it and talking about it yourself, even though it’s difficult for you, too.
Rape is when one person wants and pursues a sexual act on, to or inside another person who does not want to participate, and who does not fully and freely consent to take part in that act.
Someone giving consent to sex is someone giving a clear, active and enthusiastic yes, and who is clearly, actively and enthusiastically participating throughout (we’ll talk in more depth about consent in a bit). Partnered sex is about two people equally sharing something sexually, but rape, while it involves and effects both people, is only really about what one person, the rapist, desires and chooses to do to that other person against their will.
Unwanted sexual touch or sexual use of someone through force or coercion is rape. To coerce someone sexually is to get them to engage in a sexual activity they do not want through guilt-trips or nagging, threats, bribes, intimidation or some other kind of emotional pressure or force. Where on the body is unwanted touch rape? Touching someone’s vulva or vagina, breasts, buttocks, anus, penis, testicles, mouth, or other parts of the body without permission, when that touch is intentional and sexual on your part, or is considered sexual by most people, are all rape or sexual assault. (the laws are different in different places. In some places, rape and sexual assault mean the same thing; in others, meanings differ based on the activity or situation). It is also rape to make someone else touch YOU when they don’t want to, or to force or coerce someone into doing something sexual with someone else.
It is rape when one person does something sexual on, to or inside a person who is unable to give informed consent to sex because they’re asleep or otherwise incapacitated, like via drugs or alcohol (even if they drank or drugged of their own accord), because they're ill, injured, or emotionally bereft, or due to lack of physical, intellectual or emotional maturity, developmental disability, mental illness or because the person assaulting them is in a position of power over them, like a teacher, clergyperson or police officer.
(If you're wondering why I don’t say rape can be, say, vaginal intercourse or oral sex, rather than unwanted touch, that's because words like sex or intercourse imply that both parties are mutually engaged and involved. Because rape isn't sex for the person being raped, calling it sex not only enables rape, it also is a terribly hurtful thing to hear as a survivor, and one that can have a harsh impact on your sexuality: if rape was sex, then the victim was somehow complicit, and it also doesn’t differentiate rape from the wanted, consensual sex we have and enjoy.)
It’s also wise to think of attempted rape as very real sexual violence and violation, too. Someone trying to rape you, but either failing to or deciding not to at some point, tends to leave the person almost raped with nearly as much emotional trauma as if they had been “fully” raped. In other words, almost victimizing someone is still victimizing someone. While sure, it’s “better” to not-quite be raped than to be raped, I’m sure you can imagine that it would be very traumatic to have your male best friend force you on the bed and rip at your clothes with the clear intent of raping you, even if he didn’t succeed in, or finish, doing so.
If some of this still seems unclear, that’s understandable. Not only is it often hard for people who haven’t been raped to figure out when rape has happened or what it is, it’s sometimes hard even for people who HAVE been raped to figure it out. Our culture has some seriously messed up ideas about sex, gender and sexuality which obfuscate the issue. For instance, ideas that it’s normal for women not to enjoy or initiate sex (and abnormal for men to dislike any kind of sex with women at any time, including even when their partner is NOT enjoying it, or abnormal for men not to initiate), normal for women to not want sex as much as men (and normal for male sexual needs to be more urgent than women’s needs or for male sexual desire to be ever-present), or normal for women to want their sexual partners to dominate them (and for male sexual partners to want to dominate) are often stated and taken as absolute facts, even though those things are rarely normal, when we mean healthy, or biological in origin. In the cases where they are common, these things often have more to do with how men and women are taught to enact or think about their sexuality than it does with our sex or gender, and with a sexual ethos that was designed to perpetuate a power hierarchy for men. There are prevalent ideas that gay men or boys are fair game for anyone, that the first time a woman has sex she should feel devoured or violated and be in great pain, and that sexual violence isn’t a choice for men, but a biological imperative, but if we just do our homework and think about these things, it’s pretty obvious to a smart person that they are not truths, but ideas which often excuse or deny sexual violence.
When it comes to young people, you are told so often that sex is something you’ll regret if you have sex as a teen or an unmarried person, and that if you have sex, something terrible will happen. So, young people who are raped often figure they’re feeling the way they are because of sex, not because of rape: they were told they were going to feel terrible after all, right? And rape happens from strangers, not from your boyfriend, right? Young men who rape, thinking they were just having “normal” sex, might also have a hard time understanding that sex was rape because they have the idea that for their partner to be terrified and vacant, or to feel ashamed, guilty or victimized during or afterwards is normal.
There is no difference between being raped
And being run over by a truck
Except that afterward men ask if you enjoyed it.
There is no difference between being raped
And being bit on the ankle by a rattlesnake
Except that people ask if your skirt was short
And why you were out anyhow.
There is no difference between being raped
And going head first through a windshield
Except that afterward you are afraid not of cars,
But half the human race.
The rapist is your boyfriend’s brother.
He sits beside you in the movies eating popcorn.
Rape fattens on the fantasies of the “normal” male
Like a maggot in garbage.
Fear of rape is a cold wind blowing
All of the time on a woman’s hunched back.
Never to stroll alone on a sand road through pine woods,
Never to climb a trail across a bald
Without that aluminum in the mouth
When I see a man climbing toward me.
Never to open the door to a knock
Without that razor just grazing the throat.
The fear of the dark side of the hedges,
The back seat of the car, the empty house
Rattling keys like a snake’s warning
The fear of the smiling man
in whose pocket is a knife.
The fear of the serious man
In whose fist is locked with hatred.
All it takes to cast a rapist is seeing your body
As jackhammer, as blowtorch, as machine gun.
All it takes is hating that body
Your own, your self, your muscle that softens to flab.
All it takes is to push what you hate,
What you fear onto the soft alien flesh.
To bucket out invincible as a tank
Armoured with treads without senses
To possess and punish in one act,
To rip up pleasure, to murder those who dare
Live in the leafy flesh open to love. The fear of the smiling man
In whose pocket is a knife.
It’s very difficult to talk about what rape feels like at exactly the moment it happens or is going to happen, because words rarely cut it. Rape is a physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual, personal identity, gender and sexual violation, all at once. At the moment it happens, for most rape victims, something in the fabric of the world as we knew it rips wide open. For those who had such low self-esteem they already felt they only deserved pain or suffering, rape validates that feeling. But the pain of rape doesn’t stop once the rape is over: not even close.
During wanted sex with another person which is about the pleasure and personhood of everyone involved, we might feel excited, physically and emotionally high, close to that other person, awakened, taken care of, put in the best kind of spotlight, dizzy, heady or totally blissed-out. We tend to have a silly grin on our faces afterwards that our friends often notice. Even with sex that wasn’t the best sex we ever had, when we have it with someone we like and care for, and when it’s wanted, while we may be a little let down, we’re not likely to feel traumatized or to be doing all we can to keep from crying or having a nervous breakdown.
What is in our heads the whole time we’re having wanted sex is something like “Yesyesyes -- moremoremore,” not “Nonono – stopstopstop.” It’s “I wish we could do this all day,” not “I wish he would just kill me and be done with it.” We should be present with our partner, glad they’re there, not trying our best to block out what’s going on and put our minds somewhere else in some effort to preserve our sanity and selfhood. Most of us can agree that sex with another person which is wanted, and which absolutely was about us, not just the other person, will leave us feeling emotionally and physically uplifted or relaxed, not violated and injured.
After a rape, sexual abuse or attempted rape, a person who has been victimized often experiences what Ann Burgess and Lynda Holmstrom coined Rape Trauma Syndrome in 1974. RAINN outlines those three phases and their effects as follows:
The Acute Phase: This phase occurs immediately after the assault and usually lasts a few days to several weeks. In this phase individuals can have many reactions but they typically fall into three categories of reactions:
The Outward Adjustment Phase: During this phase the individual resumes what appears to be his or her “normal” life but inside is suffering from considerable turmoil. In this phase there are five primary coping techniques:
There are many symptoms or behaviors that appear during this phase including: Continuing anxiety, severe mood swings, a sense of helplessness, persistent fears or phobias, depression, rage, difficulty sleeping (nightmares, insomnia, etc), eating difficulties (nausea, vomiting, compulsive eating, etc), denial, withdrawal from friends, family, activities, hypervigilance, reluctance to leave house and/or go places that remind the individual of the assault, sexual problems, difficulty concentrating and/or flashbacks.
The Resolution Phase: During this phase the assault is no longer the central focus of the individual’s life. While he or she may recognize that he or she will never forget the assault; the pain and negative outcomes lessen over time. Often the individual will begin to accept the rape as part of his or her life and chooses to move on.
Some rape victims do not get to that resolution phase, or take a long time to get to it, particularly those in communities or areas where they are blamed for their rapes or are without support and counseling resources.
Rape survivors also -- sometimes even years and years after their rapes -- often have to deal with difficult reactions to their rapes from their sexual or romantic partners. Given how much cultural stock is still put in women's sexual value -- and how often rape is seen as having "spoiled" a woman sexually -- and given the kinds of anger men have towards other men, but often misdirect at women, the person one would often look to for the most support can sometimes be just one more source of stress.
Too, since those who are raped do not tend to get a say in birth control or safer sex, many rape survivors also have to handle unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections in the midst of all the other trauma they’re dealing with.
We can safely say that those after-effects are not what most people imagine they will feel after partnered sex, nor are they what most people experience after wanted, consensual partnered sex. They are not things rapists tend to feel after they rape. They are, however, what rape survivors feel and experience.
The vast majority of rapists are and have always been male. That does not mean that most men are rapists. While many women will be raped, the majority will not be, and the majority of men are not rapists.
That also does not mean that ONLY men can rape, and that women cannot or do not ever rape. Just because it is far more rare does not mean that women should not be doing everything in our power to be sure to obtain full consent from our sexual partners, and to only be having any kind of sex with partners who want to be having sex with us. Now and then, we have had female users even at Scarleteen who presume that men or boys are always ready for sex, and do or should always say yes to sex, which is a dangerous and false presumption. All this isn’t directed at you guys because it’s all somehow okay if and when women rape or enable rape: it’s not. This article is directed at men both because rapists will nearly always be male, and because the help we need most right now with rape prevention is help from men.
A lot of people have inaccurate ideas of what rapists look like, act like or who they are, and think that there is just no way any of their friends, boyfriends or other men in their lives could rape.
Last year, on YouTube, a video surfaced -- distributed by the rapists -- of a group of boys who filmed, and later sold copies of that film, a gang rape. As someone assaulted by a group of young men when I was young, it was incredibly painful and triggering for me to watch. Seeing it caused me such upset, I had to just let myself be an emotional wreck for the rest of the day, and accept that I was going to feel delicate and on edge for the rest of the week. When you survive a rape, it's not something you want to think about or relive every day, and if you've done some healing, you (hopefully) don't usually have those images in your head every waking minute of your day. Enough time has passed since that assault for me, and I've done enough work in healing, that it's rare enough for me to envision what I can recall from my assault. But those images of a group of fresh-faced, smiling, laughing guys -- smiling and laughing while they knowingly tormented a developmentally disabled young woman -- brought it all back. For some, what those young men looked like may have been a surprise, or it may have seemed an anomaly to see rapists that looked like any other bunch of guy friends having fun together.(The eight teens were charged and pled guilty, but none served any jail time: instead six of them were only given counseling – a service not likely provided by the government for their victim – and community service work.)
But rapists usually look, act, smell, dress, talk and seem like anyone else. While rapists are often acting out of a desire to punish, humiliate, dominate, overpower and/or control, and while the person they are raping is in turmoil in some way, they are generally still having a good time themselves, even when – and sometimes because -- they know the person they are raping is not. While we know that for the person being raped rape isn't about sex, and while we know that for the rapist, it isn't only about sex, to at least some degree, a rapist is having sex on his part, and is expressing his sexuality in some way while raping. Plenty of rapists also do not see themselves as rapists, even those who rape in such a way that is within a definition of rape which pretty much everyone can agree on and see clearly as rape. Part of why it's so difficult for anyone to protect themselves from rape is that we can rarely see a rapist coming with any sort of signs, and can’t tell who we should "expect" to be raped by. Most rapists are liked by those they aren't raping, and who other men will vouch for. Most people can't tell who a rapist is until they are being raped, and more often that not, that person is someone the victim would least expect to be attacked by.
Rapists are most often known to the people they rape. Statistics from a wide variety of sources show that for the majority of rapes, most victims, be they male or female, know their rapists: they are friends, boyfriends, husbands, neighbors, teachers, even family. One of the most quoted and credible studies on rape -- Tjaden and Thoennes, Extent, nature, and consequences of rape victimization: findings from the national violence against women survey. Washington: National Institute of Justice; 2006 -- showed that in 8 out of every 10 rape cases, the victim knows their rapist, and that it is far more common for women than for men to be raped by an intimate partner or date -- around 64% of women are raped by a partner or date compared to around 16% of male rape victims.
The 2005 National Crime Victimization Survey found that 73% of rape victims knew their rapist.
When it comes to rape, we – especially women -- can't always count on the people we trust not to rape, even people we're told to trust most, which is obviously something awful to live with. Someone who rapes may very well tell the person they rape that they love them, may have been their friend for years, may be someone who other male friends vouch for, and may even be related to the person they rape. This is also another way that making rape all about danger from strangers not only doesn’t help keep people from being victimized by rape, and keeps the more common forms of rape so invisible, but can do many people real harm. Even though it may be a terrible truth to face, we’re all safer being aware of it than we are trying to deny it.
What else do we know about rapists? According to the 1997 Sex Offenses and Offenders study, just more than half of rapists are white, and close to one-quarter of rapists are married. Most rape their victims in the victims’ own home, or in the home of a friend, neighbor or relative. Only around one out of every ten rapes happens away from home and outside. Only around 6% of rapes involve the use of a weapon: most rapists rape via the physical force or their own bodies or by verbal and emotional force and/or coercion. Around one out of every three rapists is intoxicated when he rapes. Overall, rapists rape younger people more often than they do older people: in the United States alone, around 44% of victims are under the age of 18, 15% are under the age of 12 and 80% are under the age of 30 (Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice, February 1997).
Rapists tend to believe that the people they are raping deserve to be raped, and most rapists are very opportunistic -- in other words, who they rape isn't usually about what someone is wearing, what someone says or where they are at: it is merely about them being available and it seeming to the rapist that he can succeed in raping that person and get away with it. Rape also isn’t usually about a man strongly desiring sex and being unable to get it consensually. In other words, a guy really wants to get laid, but can’t find a willing partner, and so he rapes: most experts on rape agree that rape of all types is primarily motivated by a desire for power and control, not just out of unmet sexual desire. Mind, many men have been raised with ideas from other men that their part in sex is all about masculinity, domination and power-over, about subduing or a partner or making them surrender, which certainly doesn’t help men to develop sexualities or sexual ethics which don’t incorporate some of those qualities, and those kinds of attitudes certainly are part of rape.
The simplest typology is the Groth typology, which currently divides rapists into three primary types:
The anger rapist -- uses rape to degrade or humiliate women; expresses much profanity; attacks often prompted by some marital conflict, occupational or financial problem
The power rapist -- uses rape to express sexual conquest, establish masculine identity, and likely to kidnap victim for repeated assaults over an extended period of time
The sadistic rapist -- uses torture or bondage to experience sexual arousal over victim's suffering; frequently targets prostitutes, women who have had many sexual partners or who actively express their sexuality (or are perceived as doing such, even if they really aren't), or those who symbolize something he wants to destroy or punish.
The first two types are most common, some rapists will bridge types, and all of these elements are often part of rape and the motivation to rape. In plenty of ways, all of these are also parts of how people enable rape. For instance, when we hear anyone -- be they a rapist or not -- express that a rape victim "deserved it," for any reason, they're reading from a rapist’s script, because in most rapist’s minds, all women or girls (or men or boys, for those who rape those groups) deserve it. When we hear people express that male sexual dominance – be it over women and girls or over boys – is a given, or that rape and dismissing real consent is a “boys will be boys” activity, they’re enabling the same sorts of ethos that those who rape usually share. Men who trash-talk women as a group and who treat or think of women as sexual objects – or who mutely agree with other men who do, even if they disagree – are enabling behavior and ideas which make rape more prevalent.
We also know that less than 40% of rapes are reported to the police, which is unsurprising given how much victim-blaming goes on in society, how poorly rape victims are often treated within the justice system, and how many messages raped people are sent that tell them their rapes aren’t really rape, and that it isn’t right for victims to speak up. The rapists in those rapes, where a report wasn't made, will not have to serve any time or suffer any sort of consequence for raping. For only those rapes which are reported, only about 50% result in arrests, only 80% of those arrests result in conviction, and less than 17% of reported rapists convicted of rape will ever even do time in prison. When it comes to rape, the victims nearly always do far more “time” than the perpetrators.
If you’re wondering how rape all started and where it came from, the answer is that we can’t really pinpoint it to one area, or find that it started at a given time. The few experts who have delved into and written about the history of rapists, do generally report that from what they know rape isn’t some sort of a universal given or something which we have sound reason to believe has been going on since the start of human life. Professor Joanna Bourke, author of Rape: A History from 1860 to the Present, says that she’s found no basis that there is anything “natural” or inevitable about male sexual violence, and that it tends to most often occur with men in specific settings or cultural power systems; who feel required to enact rape as a kind of social performance, as proof of masculinity to their victims, other men or themselves. In other words, when you hear someone express something like, “Oh, that’s just how men ARE,” about rape and sexual violence, from what we know, they’re wrong. It’s not how men are: it’s how some men choose to be.
As an example of one of the most common settings for stranger rape that’s about cultural power systems, we know that rape has been popularized and made more acceptable during wartimes among soldiers – groups of men both under (in terms of their higher-ranked superiors) and enacting (in terms of the people in countries they were based in) a system of power, violence and masculine hierarchy. Nearly a hundred thousand women were raped during the Nanking Massacre. Hundreds of thousands of women -- called, horribly, "comfort" women, since they were seen as responsible for providing "comfort" for soldiers -- were forced into prostitution during World War II, and millions of women were forcibly raped as that war ended. During the Holocaust, while it’s thought that rape occurred to Jewish women less often than it does to women during other wartimes, that was only because of racism: Jews were seen as subhuman by Nazis and while rape was by no means considered a crime, racial mixing, or rassenschande, was. Nonetheless, women were still frequently raped in the ghettos and camps, and in some concentration camps, brothels and “escort services” were set up for the soldiers which women were forced into, or bribed into with promises of food. Some women in the camps were also “experimented” upon by Nazi doctors. Dr. Hermann Stieve, as a particularly heinous example, would have guards rape the women, then brought to the gas chambers to be killed. Their bodies would then be brought back for autopsies: Stieve reported he wanted to see if their reproductive systems could handle stress (rape being the stressor), and later published reports based on those studies without hesitation or apology.
During the Bosnian War, tens of thousands of women and girls were raped: during an organized Serbian program of cultural genocide, one goal was to make raped women pregnant, and to raise their children as Serbs. A U.N. report estimated that during the relatively recent civil war in Rwanda, as many as 500,000 women and girls suffered brutal forms of sexual violence, including gang-rape and sexual mutilation, after which many of them were killed. Gang rape is common during times of war, and in some cases, gang rapes during wartime have involved as many (or more, for all we know) as 80 men raping one single woman. None of these scenarios are anomalies: rape as an agent of war or occupation has nearly always not only been prevalent, but a given.
Too, for most of history -- and in plenty of places and people's minds still -- rape was only or primarily considered a crime not against those BEING raped, but against those to whom a rape victim was considered to belong to. In other words, rape was, and often still is, seen as a crime against property, women being that property. In plenty of ancient societies, we know that bride capture was a standard practice: to obtain a wife, a man would kidnap her, rape her, and then marry her. Not only was this practice socially acceptable, in plenty of cultures, it was viewed as an act of great heroism and machismo. Bride capture made the woman her husband’s property directly through rape.
Rape as a crime in areas where it was/is viewed as a crime against property was or is seen as victimizing that woman's husband or father, the person who "owned" that woman, because the rapist would be taking something not that rightfully belonged to a woman or child, but as belonging to the person who owned them. Appallingly, in some ancient laws, rapists were "punished" by being required to marry the woman they raped: what was supposed to punish them resulted in a woman being pawned off unto her rapist, giving him the legal right to rape her every day if he pleased, and that was considered okay so long as she was his property. Rape law as we know it today, based on rape being a crime against the actual victim -- even though many of these laws are flawed -- didn't really exist until feminist movements took action and helped usher them into being or reform them in the late 1960’s, when women also started organizing rape crisis centers and domestic violence centers, as well as identifying things like rape trauma syndrome. In the United States, the first law against marital rape – where a husband rapes his wife, which was not seen as a crime for so long because wives were considered their husband’s property -- wasn’t even imposed until 1976.
Sometimes, someone being raped will clearly say no and will NOT clearly say yes. They might say no verbally, with words, they might say no by crying, they might say no by physically trying to push away the other person or get away from them. They might try and change the subject from sex to something else, and some might try and make a deal with a rapist agreeing to a kind of sex they still don't want, but feel might be less traumatic, in the hopes that if they provide that, they won't be forced to do other things they want to do even less, or are afraid of more. They may also be saying no by nonparticipating in sex, by being passive or dissociating (mentally going somewhere else in their heads so they don’t have to be fully present during their rape). In fact, when a person you or someone else is going to have sex with is physically unresponsive, not reacting to sex with some clear expression of enjoyment or is very nonverbal, the chance that pursuing sex with them is, instead, pursuing rape, are high.
There's a weird idea that's been out and about for hundreds and hundreds of years that it's normal for a female partner to "just lay there," -- and disturbingly, this has been a common complaint from heterosexual male partners about women -- or to be totally unengaged in sex. The thing is, while that may be common, it's anything but normal. Someone who wants to be having sex with someone else -- who really wants to, which is the only time anyone should be having sex -- isn't just lying there, silent and prone. They're clearly engaged, and clearly and actively participating in the sex they’re having.
Yes is yes. No is not yes. And neither is maybe. When it comes to sex, "maybe" isn't yes. At best, it’s “Not now, but perhaps another time” -- and so in a scenario where the answer to “Do you wanna?” is maybe, maybe is no. Consent to sex isn’t an “Ugh, okay,” or an “Ummm… I guess.” It’s only an enthusiastic yes.
A lot of people have been (and are still) reared to think that sex with someone is something you "get," and if someone will LET you get it – rather than really sharing it with you -- it's all okay. Those same folks have often also been reared with the idea that while no is no, maybe is yes (and that even when someone says no, if they’ll let you get away with ignoring their no, it’s still okay to ignore their dissent). We have a tragically long culture history of men being told then when women say "maybe" it’s a cute way of saying yes, so it can be hard to recognize that under all the bizarre coyness usually affixed to that, being told a woman’s maybe is yes is being told that sex is only about what men want, and that rape is okay, so long as you can get away with it or excuse rape in a way that the victim or others accept.
Let's think about all that for a minute, and play nonconsent out in some other contexts.
• You're making dinner for someone, your favorite spaghetti sauce, which you’re intensely proud of. But as it turns out, they are allergic to tomatoes. You ask them if they’re sure, and they assure you they are. You suggest maybe it’s different with your sauce somehow. They say, again, that they’re pretty sure they’re still going to be allergic. But you worked al day on the sauce, feel like they at least owe you one spoonful to see how great it is, so you ladle it unto their plate anyway, and in time, your nagging gets to tiresome that they go ahead and take a spoonful, even knowing they’re likely to feel sick very shortly.
• Your friend's Dad is huge with football: he’s the football coach for the high school. He will not leave his son alone about joining the team, and belittles him constantly for not having interest. Your friend not only can't stand sports, but joining the football team would take away from the time he wants to put into the debate team to prepare for a career in law, where his heart is really at, and where his life goals lie. As well, he knows that he's going to have to put up with a lot of abuse from other fellows on the team because his dad is the coach, and because he’s just not very athletic. Your friend's Dad is not leaving him alone about this, to the point that it's clear his love is pretty conditional: if your friend gives up his own dreams and joins the team, his Dad is going to be a lot nicer to him. Too, he's just starting to feel really unloved because he's not doing what his Dad wants him to do. So, he joins the team, but only because he wants to escape his father’s insults and pressure, and it costs him the pursuit of his own goals.
• Your best friend has been enjoying boxing a lot, so much that he's started training to compete in pro fights. Not only are you not excited about boxing, even watching is tough for you because you had a bad experience being beaten up when you were a kid. But he wants you to try it with him – even though you know he’s going to be rough with you and will probably hurt you: he’s a lot bigger than you are, and you don’t know how to box -- saying even when he gets hit, HE likes it, and he's also been saying some pretty crummy stuff to try and get you to do it, calling you a girl (including to other people), saying you’re a pussy, saying you aren’t really his friend if you don’t support him by getting into the ring with him. Wanting him to just stop verbally abusing you and maligning you to other people, you finally step in, only to get your nose broken, which he later will tell you and everyone else was your fault for not blocking your face from his punch.
• You and a friend are in an airplane, considering skydiving. You only have some of the equipment you need, and might know some of how to do it, but you really aren't prepared or in a position to be safe, and just haven't made up your mind yet, and are only on the plane so you can get a better sense of what you want. But he really wants you to do it, too, to give him the courage to do it. You’re explaining you’re not sure at the same time he’s just grabbing you with him as he jumps, pushing you out of the plane.
Do any of those scenarios seem like maybe is really yes, or that taking those actions after that maybe is anything but an abuse? Can you see how one party in those scenarios is coercing the other through verbal, emotional or physical force?
The same goes with sex. We can easily suss out that if your pal didn't even ASK you if you wanted to skydive, and just pushed you off a plane with no warning, that'd be a clear assault and abuse. If your friend had the conversation with you above, and still pushed you out of that plane – or even if he just got you to dive by nagging you -- would it be about him wanting to share something with you, and you with him, or would it be about bullying, about forcing you to do something for THEM, without respect for your wishes? In other words, it's still an abuse; it's still an assault.
If they're not yet able or ready to communicate about sex in any way, then tell them – kindly and with care, not as an ultimatum -- that you’d prefer to wait for sex with them until they are more comfortable. With shy people, they often just need more time to feel safe being open. And with young women, given the world we live in and the way many are raised in terms of sex, it can take longer to get to a point where we do feel able to clearly communicate, to initiate sex, to voice our desires. If you have a female partner who isn’t there yet, then wait until she is, or choose partners more on your same level.
But being prone, stiff or vacant during sex isn't usually about shy: it’s usually about feeling very scared, not feeling at all ready, not knowing how to say no or about feeling like your no matters. Someone saying nothing, or really just laying there (and without some form of disability that limits their voice or mobility) isn't usually being shy: they are, for whatever reason, finding it difficult or impossible to voice nonconsent.
When someone wants to, really wants to, have sex with us, we'll know because that person will be taking a very active role, will be saying -- if not yelling! -- "Yes!" or "Please!” or "Do me NOW!" We may know because that person is the one initiating sex, at least as often as we are. (If you’re going to say that younger women just aren’t like that yet, know that isn’t always true. Some are, but those who aren’t likely aren’t because things are either moving too fast, or they really just aren’t ready for or that interested in sex with you yet.) We'll know because it will feel like something we are absolutely doing together, that couldn't happen if the other person wasn't just as engaged as we are (imagine trying to dance with someone else when they’re just standing there or not really paying attention: same goes with sex). We'll know because our partners will absolutely not "just be lying there."
We can easily be sure never to rape someone by making a choice to ONLY have sex with someone else when we are certain we have not only their full consent, but their full interest and attention, and they ours; when they’re clearly as enthusiastic about sex as we are, and we’re just as excited about their enjoyment as we are our own. If we're having sex with a partner and they start to space or zone out, or stop participating physically or verbally, if we stop what we’re doing and say, "Hey, you still into this? It's okay if you're not, we can do something else or just go snuggle," and mean it – rather than saying it to imply they need to get into it, or else -- we can be sure not to rape. If we are interested in sex with someone who seems they will allow us to have sex with them, but who is not taking equal part or deeply desiring and mutually initiating sex with us, we can and should step back and wait for them to take a lead.
Men can also pay attention to the factors which have been found to create a risk of them raping. The Centers for Disease Control lists the following factors:
Individual Factors: Alcohol and drug use, coercive sexual fantasies, impulsive and antisocial tendencies, preference for impersonal sex, hostility towards women (or, in male-male rape to other men or homophobia), hypermasculinity, childhood history of sexual and physical abuse, witnessed family violence as a child
Relationship Factors: Association with sexually aggressive and delinquent peers, family environment characterized by physical violence and few resources, strong patriarchal relationship or familial environment, emotionally unsupportive familial environment
Community Factors: Lack of employment opportunities, lack of institutional support from police and judicial system, general tolerance of sexual assault within the community, settings that support sexual violence, weak community sanctions against sexual violence perpetrators
Societal Factors: Poverty, societal norms that support sexual violence, societal norms that support male superiority and sexual entitlement, societal norms that maintain women's inferiority and sexual submissiveness, weak laws and policies related to gender equity, high tolerance levels of crime and other forms of violence
Obviously, men can't control some of those factors. But awareness of all of these factors, including the ones no one really can control, is helpful in and of itself. Mitigating the factors -- for yourself, or helping male friends and family to mitigate them -- men CAN control, like how YOU think about and treat masculinity, how you view women, if you drink or drug it up excessively, and what kind of headspace you’re in with sex, can make a very big difference. Too, let's not forget that even when it comes to society and culture, it's made up of people, and every single one of us has the power to do things differently than the generations before us did. When enough of us do them, we have the power to change culture so that we and our next generations don't have the same negative influences.
We can all prevent rape by doing all we can to be sure that the interpersonal sexual dynamics we take part in never make our partners feel like they owe us sex out of obligation, or must have sex with us in order to keep us around, keep us treating them well, or keep us from becoming angry. If our partner says no to something sexual we want, the only right response is “Okay.” We can all prevent rape by remembering that when we want to engage in any kind of sex where we only really want to think of ourselves, that kind of sex should be masturbation, the kind where we are the only people involved and sex IS be completely about us and not about anyone else. We can also easily prevent rape by truly being communicative during sex. I know that lots of us have been raised to think -- and the media often supports that message -- that somehow, talking during sex isn't sexy, or that there shouldn't be any talking in sex. However, those are very dangerous messages, and they're messages that not only do a lot of people real harm, even for people in fully consenting sexual relationships, not talking about sex or during sex can really limit how good the sex both people are having even is, emotionally and physically. Be clear in communicating with your partners about sex, and seek out clear communication from them: clear communication and responsiveness to that means that rape is unlikely and better sex is more likely: it’s a win-win. That doesn’t mean you have to get verbal permission for every single second of every single sex act: just that you pay attention to your partner, check in with them now and then – especially with something new, or when they’re a new partner – and be sure you’re both talking and listening to each other about the sex you’re having.
There is a lot more all of us can do to help disengage our rape culture beyond not raping someone else. Since again, most men or women won’t rape, these “extras” are the things most of us need to work on.
For instance, people will often report that they know or have known that someone else -- even people very close to them -- are or have been raping or abusing another and that they have never said anything, to that person or to anyone else. Plenty of people have had an experience where they strongly suspected someone or known was raping someone else and they have still remained silent and passive. Silence on anyone’s part when it comes to rape never helps and always does harm.
It's one thing when people avoid doing anything in those situations out of a real concern for their own personal safety, but in nearly any situation like this, there is always a way to help. If you find yourself in this situation and are fearful for your own safety when it comes to saying or doing something, call the police anonymously, a hotline, or go get someone else to come help with you. Some people feel like it’s disloyal to report a friend, partner or family member who is raping or abusing, but your loyalty is never more important than someone else’s life or keeping another person from incredible trauma. Even if you can’t see it that way, at the very least recognize that rapists and abusers are troubled and often unlikely to stop, and far more unlikely if they are never held responsible. Helping a friend stay disturbed and aiding them in doing harm through your inaction isn’t helping your friend.
We can also all get better at calling out acceptance or even applause for any kind of rape when we see it. For instance, a friend joking about rape or sexual violence isn’t being funny: he’s perpetuating rape culture. If you laugh right along with him – rather than calling him out, or even just making a point of not laughing -- so are you. If you trash-talk women, their bodies, or talk about sex as if it wasn’t about two people’s mutual benefit, make a promise to yourself to stop doing that right now. Just like with racism, when anyone talks about hatred or disdain of any given group all the time, it tells other people around them that that hatred is acceptable. That doesn't mean you can't call out women when women do it, too: some women will joke about rape to other women through self-hatred, out of jealousy, the idea she'll be safer if she does, or to try and be one of the guys, and it's no more okay just because it's coming out of a woman's mouth.
Jackson Katz, author of The Macho Paradox: Why Some Men Hurt Women and How All Men Can Help, talks a lot about how hard it can be for men to learn to call one another out, and he's right, it CAN be really tough (you know that already). It’s often not easy for women, either: those of us who call men out often get harassed, name-called, slandered, and sometimes abused. But again, if you want to earnestly be strong – not the fake kind of strong that’s about harming other people and falling in line like a lemming – it’s one great way to be so. When a person’s community and peers don’t support rape and sexual or gender-based violence, it takes away the cheering section those kinds of people tend to rely on to support their hate, and can help prevent that person or others around them from raping or enabling rape.
Another thing you can do is to try not to take it too personally when women around you are fearful or wary of men – or speak critically about abusive men -- including you. As a teen male or adult man, it’s unlikely that you have to worry about being raped in your lifetime, especially by a man you know, because statistically, it’s not likely you will be. But with millions of women and girls raped every year, women and girls really do have good reason to worry about being assaulted by the men around them. Women can’t help but worry about rape and sexual violence given how common it is, and because rape happens more often with men known to women, they also can’t help but be wary of even the men which they know and call friends or partners. Getting angry at women for being worried about something so scary and so valid is neither fair nor helpful: it’s better to simply listen, be trustworthy and patient, and ask what you can do to help them feel more safe.
One of the most important things you can do is not to deny rape happens, that it happens to many, many women, girls, boys and some men, and that it is overwhelmingly something young adult and adult men are largely responsible for singly and as a group. You can be sure never to excuse rape or behavior that encourages or enables rape. "Rape apologism" is a term used to describe those who excuse or deny rape, per rapes they engage in directly themselves, when it comes to rapes other people have done, or ideas about any kind of rape being okay or as a lesser violation than it is. It's about the ways that society dismisses and diminishes rape. It's about the ways that victims of rape are constantly accused of lying, or how they're told that the crime is, in any way, their own fault. If you can always come to the proverbial table with the unwavering conviction that rape happens and that it is never, ever okay, that alone, that’s a powerful thing.
Here is a great roundup of what men can do to prevent rape, from Men Can Stop Rape :
I want to leave you with what I think is a powerful and meaningful challenge for yourself, one I very deeply am sure you're all up to. Like many women, I have faith in men, and truly feel that men right now are capable of making changes for themselves and others which many haven’t been strong enough to make before.
We’ve talked here about the idea of a “false” strength and a “false” masculinity, or machismo, that are about or incorporate things like domination, abuses of power, obedience to other men, violence or hate. With feminist movements, women realized that the feminine, ideas about and roles for women, needed a profound makeover and takeover, and tirelessly dedicated themselves to doing so which brought about massive positive changes in many women’s (as well as men’s) lives over a relatively short period of time. Those changes also allowed more women to design their own femininity, rather than having someone else assign it to them. Given, women didn’t come up with most of those ideas and constructs about us, men did, but all of you didn’t come up with the ideas and constructs many men have about masculinity, women and male sexuality, either. It was men before you who defined roles and ideas about your gender, too, just like they did with ours.
I dare you to be the compassionate, courageous author of your own masculinity, and a better one than whatever you’ve been shown or told was ideal; a better one than is so often celebrated in most of our cultures while it’s doing men and women alike harm. In that self-design, identify strength and masculinity not as what you or another man does that shows male power over someone else, but as what you do to truly empower yourself and others: identify those qualities with the very best parts of yourself. Meet, face and come through challenges to your male identity by standing up for what you know is right and refusing to participate, in any way, in what you know is not, even if doing so means you are less easily accepted by other men around you or results in you having to change habits or ways of thinking which aren’t easy to change or supported as well as they should be.
One of the strongest men in history, Martin Luther King, Jr., said that “Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals.” Real strength -- something we all are capable of having, and not something someone else can give us -- isn’t about force; it’s about resiliency, dignity, humanity and character, and about the power not to fall in line or to dominate, but to resist anything that causes you to be less than who you really are, or takes that personhood away from someone else. Real strength is never violent, and protects others, rather than doing harm. It is not a strong person who rapes or supports any part of rape: it is a weak one.
You can be – and maybe you already are – that strong, and so can other men. If and when you all are, everything we know about rape points to the strong possibility that you guys – that’s right, you guys – can make a huge change for yourselves, others and the world at large that could stop rape for good.