(CW: rape, rape apology)
In light of the Good Men Project’s most recent controversy, and the alleged gang-rape in Steubenville, there’s been a lot written lately pushing back against the idea that consent is complicated, and who can ever really know whether they’re committing a rape? It’s not their fault; they just misread signals, am I right?
Well, no, obviously not. And better writers than me can explain why. People are responsible for their actions, and our culture has handed men (and, to a different extent, women) who genuinely don’t care about consent an extremely convenient alibi that normalizes rape.
And yes, we have many, many people pointing to the fact that the perpetuation of rape myths actually encourages and fosters a culture in which more rapes happen, and in which rapists can pretend that they’re not rapists, or at least, that it really wasn’t their fault, anyway. The thing is, though, that the facts outlined in these studies and writing are somewhat at odds with the points made by the people that say that misread signals aren’t a real thing. If educating people about affirmative, enthusiastic consent (and generally fighting back against rape myths) actually does reduce the incidence of rape, is it unreasonable to assume that there were some people who genuinely misunderstood what constituted consent?
I’m inclined to believe that, no, people should know better. I’m inclined to side strongly with people like Cliff, who put the responsibility strongly with the rapist. But the suggestion that the effectiveness of anti-rape campaigns targeting men (like Vancouver’s Don’t Be That Guy campaign) should be chalked up entirely to the fact that the added rape myth push-back that these campaigns create serves as a deterrent to men who were deliberately capitalizing on rape culture to get away with rape, and that none of it has to do with people actually believing rape myths, and thus perpetrating rape without realizing it isn’t clearly correct.
My anecdotal evidence: I was in an emotionally and sexually abusive relationship for a number of years when I was younger. While there were clear instances of boundary violation that occurred during that relationship, cases in which my ex would do things to my body without warning (i.e. without even giving me an opportunity to object until it was too late), the aspect of our relationship that was most confusing, and in some ways, most damaging to me for years after I got out was the fact that (with one notable exception) any time sexual activity was occurred, I at least gave general consent (“yes, we can have sex now”). Ignoring the handful of times that he misused that consent to apply to activities I never intended it to, on a large number of occasions, those “yes”es were the results of emotional blackmail and just general bullying/refusal to take my initial “no” as the last word. But the thing is, (and we actually talked about this in a sideways way shortly after breaking up) he genuinely believed that when I said “yes” it meant not simply that I was giving him permission to use my body, but that I was actually turned on and that I wanted sex. How he thought that I his whinging got me all hot and bothered, I can’t tell you, but I actually do believe that that is how he perceived the situation.
So, is he an unbelievably selfish and self-involved douchebag who may have been genuinely unable to tell the difference between turned-on me and emotionally-exhausted me? Absolutely. Is he a rapist? Yes. Did he know that he didn’t have meaningful consent in those cases I’ve just described? I’m not so sure.
And to be very, very clear, I am not suggesting that this is somehow my fault. It’s entirely on him, and the fact that he bought in to the myths perpetuated by rape culture. The point I’m trying to make is that some people seem to genuinely misunderstand the concept of consent. Ozy Frantz recently wrote a post describing how this misunderstanding plays out in conversations around alcohol and consent. And this post actually gives me a frame from which to figure out where my logic might be going wrong.
It’s very important to note that in Ozy’s post, zie isn’t talking about how people’s misunderstanding of that idea that a drunk person cannot give meaningful consent causes them to commit rape; it’s actually about how the misunderstanding of what constitutes “drunk” causes people to reject the whole notion that drinking removes the possibility of consent, since tipsy people can and do consent. It’s about how unclear communication on the part of anti-rape activists is preventing people from letting go of rape myths around alcohol. Thus, I think it’s about the ways in which regular people (the ones who manage not to rape people) allow actual rapists plausible deniability around whether they knew what they were doing.
The way I understand it, then, is that the theory espoused by all of the writers to whom I have linked here (all people I respect and have been reading for years) puts people in a taxonomy as follows:
1) People who see through rape myths. These people have the power to bring more people over to their side through the power of education (Yay!)
2) People who do not (yet) question the rape myths that our culture perpetuates. These people are not themselves rapists, but do espouse and communicate views that enable rapists, and will often defend rapists by spouting rape apology, but are not actually at risk of committing rape themselves, because they actually care about other people, or something(?)
3) Rapists (and potential rapists who haven’t had a good opportunity to rape). These people deliberately take advantage of rape culture to get away with rape. They are aware, on some level, that what they are doing is not on the level, even if they do not define it as rape.
The theory suggests both that people can move from group 2 to group 1 through education, and that people from group 3 can be prevented from acting on their desires if the loopholes that they are taking advantage of are removed (i.e. if the group of people defending them and implicitly approving of their actions through rape jokes and the like). In this theory rapists are still just would-be rapists who haven’t been given the opportunity to rape, which is a little too deterministic for my liking. I think the lines (between these groups) are actually a little blurrier than we’re making them out to be.
I also realize that my entire theory is hinging on my own experiences, as out-lined above. And the thing is, if I simply stopped counting the times I was bullied into “consenting” as rape, all of this confusion falls away. Because the other instances I hint at are clear examples of sexual assault and rape. And either way, the ex is a rapist. But if those instances wherein I genuinely believe that he misunderstood my “consent” are also rape, then what does this do to the idea that this kind of misunderstanding doesn’t really happen, or is always deliberately constructed?
I suppose that you could say that the moment he continued to badger me after I said I wasn’t in the mood, he revealed himself as belonging solidly in group 3. He certainly failed to respect/acknowledge my feelings and needs as a general thing in all aspects of our relationship. But I still hold that this stemmed not from a genuine lack of concern for my well-being, but rather from a genuine inability to understand that not everyone felt the same way he did about everything. (Or is it an unwillingness? This is the crux of it, isn’t it? And I can’t answer that question, even though I would honestly prefer to define it as an unwillingness, since that would simplify things. Maybe I’m just not ready to go there yet.)
Maybe this whole exercise has just convinced me that the hole I perceived before I started writing isn’t actually there. I don’t know though. The idea that there is just a group of people out there who will commit rape if given an opening, and that’s just how it is, doesn’t sit well with me. The idea that these people can’t be educated out of that, that we have to rely on educating their enablers so that the openings disappear, just can’t be correct, can it? Is there something I’m still missing? Honestly, I’d appreciate input on this one. What do you think?
Edited to add: on further consideration, maybe the thing I was missing isn’t all that complex. The thing is that people who deliberately behave in the ways that rapists do probably can’t just be educated out of it with information – they probably need some kind of mental health intervention. And anti-rape activists can’t provide them with that. many feminists are, however, working toward reducing and eliminating the stigma around mental illness, and the barriers to accessing mental health assessment/care, which actually means that this portion of the problem is being worked on to some extent. (Also, in this model, the question of whether my ex was unable or unwilling to understand what he was doing to me becomes somewhat moot; whichever word is more accurate, he is not doomed to remain unable/unwilling – he just needs (needed? I don’t really know what his life’s been like in the meantime) to work on himself.)