One of the healthiest developments in the ongoing struggle to reduce sexual violence in society has been the changing nature of rape prevention campaigns. Although, as Zoe Williams recently noted, there is still work to be done, the Home Office, police and other bodies have started aiming their advertising more at would-be rapists than their potential victims. Whereas traditionally posters and adverts would say “don’t be that woman” they increasingly say “don’t be that guy.”
This is important, because it places responsibility for rape (and rape prevention) squarely where it belongs, with the rapist rather than the victim. It matters as well to survivors, who can find the trauma harder to heal when surrounded by messages suggesting, usually wrongly, that they could have prevented the attacks if only they had behaved, dressed or acted differently.
If this lesson has been important to learn for public service advertisers, it is equally important that it sticks with journalists, writers and sex educators.
A nice rapist
A couple of weeks ago the Good Men Project (GMP) published an article by Alyssa Royse entitled Nice Guys Commit Rape Too. If you’re not familiar with GMP, it is a large and successful US-based blog site and online magazine aimed at men, focussing on gender-related issues, and tending towards the introspective and painfully liberal. They do host some brilliant writers and astute commentators, along with others who are a bit more patchy (throw my own name in there, for disclosure) and had always managed to attract the disdain and disgust of the more radical fringes of both the men’s rights movement and feminism, which is generally a healthy sign. I’ve always been ambivalent about the site, not least the very name and concept - I’ve never really been sure what a good man is, far less whether I qualify for the label. Any doubts have now been removed. It appears that you can be a "Good Man" or a "nice guy" even if you’re a rapist.
Royse’s article was, not surprisingly, greeted with a storm of protest, with Jill Filopivic leading the charge. As opinions hardened and tempers rose, the editors responded first with an article in defence of Royse and then when that didn’t quell the storm, quite astonishingly, they published in which the writer admitted to having committed rape at least once while drunk and concluded that he would rather risk raping again than stop “partying.” There is not a shred of remorse, shame or self-awareness in the article, or any sense that the author even thinks what he did was particularly wrong. It is hard not to conclude that he had taken the first article as a vindication, confirmation that his act of rape was just a silly mistake. He’s still a nice guy - nice guys commit rape too.
Taken together the two articles could form an object lesson in how not to write or talk about rape, at any level and in any context. Like most journalists and writers who cover these topics, I’m acutely aware that an ill-chosen word or argument can have traumatic or damaging consequences, adding to problems rather than resolving them. Some readers have themselves been raped. Others will have committed rape or could at some point do so in the future. It is depressing that any of the following still needs saying, but recent events have proved it necessary.
It is always dangerous and rarely relevant to discuss a victim’s behaviour before a rape. A promiscuous history, flirting, dancing or dressing sexily might invite interest, they certainly don’t signify consent or invite rape. In her article Royse explicitly stated that the victim’s flirty and sexually charged behaviour led to the rape. That is disgraceful. Even worse is to actively dehumanize or demonize the victim, best illustrated by Royse’s line: “if something walks like a fuck and talks like fuck, at what point are we supposed to understand that it’s not a fuck?” When we remember it is a person, I would think.
Related to this is empathy for the victim, and acknowledgement of the vicious cruelty and traumatic consequences of rape. Neither of the GMP articles even attempts to offer this reminder. The victims are relegated to a supporting cast in a drama that is suddenly about how a rapist copes with the inconvenience of being described as a rapist. It’s well acknowledged that for human beings to inflict suffering on others, we first have to stifle our empathy, dehumanize and demonize our victims. How much easier is that when we write the victim’s suffering out of the story?
Rapists are not slavering beasts or monsters, most are not clinical psychopaths. They do indeed often appear to be perfectly normal people, even “nice guys”. It is important to acknowledge that plain truth without falling into the trap of portraying rape as a normal act. It is not, it is an aberrant, nasty crime committed by a relatively small proportion of men. I won’t dwell on the statistics, but the best evidence is that a relatively small proportion of men are rapists, most who are will rape repeatedly, and a small proportion of those will rape prolifically.
Even allowing for repeat victims, the proportion of men who will ever commit rape is almost certainly much smaller than the proportion of women who are raped. Rape is not normal, most men are perfectly capable of detecting and respecting consent, and those who do not respect it should never be allowed or encouraged to claim mixed signals or drunken confusion. Rapists are quite capable of concocting their own justifications. They don’t need them presented ready-made on a plate.