Rapists are not a talkative lot. They don’t discuss the deed much, after they have been caught. And you might think this is because they feel remorseful, but often they don’t seem to know that they have done something wrong. Or they know that they have done something illegal, but the act itself is fine by them. They admit to nonconsensual sex “but not rape”. They admit to rape but not to blame: “I felt I was repaying her for sexually arousing me,” a man in one of the few studies says.
On a Reddit forum where, at the onset of the #MeToo revolution, my soul went to die, men wrote “from the other side” of sexual assault. Their accounts implied covert participation – “She just had this unusually sexual way of carrying herself” – or active reciprocation: “In my mind, at the time, she wanted it.” This man looked at the woman’s face and realised he had been mistaken.
A few things are striking about the comments: one is that desire – and I think this is true for women also – turns the sexual object into a fragmented object. When people are having sex, they can get a bit lost in it. We do not always look into our lover’s eyes, not all the time, so yes it is a good idea to check back with the entire person to see if your needs are still aligned. The sense of entitlement is, with the vengeful or narcissistic types, always breathtaking. This is something society does not encourage or allow in women, for which you might almost be grateful. Who wants to be like that? There is also the mechanism of blame, that magical projection machine. These men speak as though arousal comes from somewhere outside the self, and that it, even more strangely, continues to happen outside the self. There is no reality check. She started this. She wants this. It comes from her.
The courts don’t laugh at these projections, they magnify them. We have all seen women destroyed by a justice system that puts them on trial for being attacked. The courtroom discussion becomes all about the victim, her clothes, her “mistakes”, while the perpetrator remains a blank.
This gap in the argument is an odd absence that requires a lot of energy to maintain. This is why strange things happen in court: why a woman’s thong is waved by the defence, as in a case in Cork last year; or a woman’s silence during a gang rape is taken as a sign of her enthusiasm, as happened in a 2019 trial in Pamplona, Spain. A good part of female outrage, the years of #MeToo, has been taken up by raw disbelief. These courtroom arguments are a bit mad. They are also a distraction from the man in the dock. There is a kind of trick happening here.
Men do not just disappear in court, they disappear from the discussion, they disappear from the language we use. Rape is described as “a women’s issue”. We speak of “women’s safety concerns”, not “concerns about men’s violence”. We call it “an abusive relationship” as though the relationship were doing the abusing, or an “abusive home” as though the walls were insulting the occupants for fun. The notorious line “she was asking for it” is not so different to “a woman was raped”; both take the rapist out of the sentence.
Male agency is routinely removed from descriptions of male violence, and this helps men get away with it. I still can’t figure out the contradiction, though, that the violent assertion of male potency also involves a kind of vanishing act. It seems very self defeating.
The American theorist and activist Jackson Katz is one of the few men who states the obvious fact that men’s sexual violence is first of all an issue for men. He also says male silence about this so-called “women’s issue” is a form of consent. His remarks about the use of the passive voice hit Twitter in a week of renewed social unrest about sexual crime. “When you look at that term, ‘violence against women’, nobody is doing it to them. It just happens. Men aren’t even a part of it!”
In his popular TED talk Katz describes men’s ability to go unexamined as “one of the key characteristics of power and privilege”. We do not talk about men, because that is the way they like it. For Katz, a tendency to blame the victim is not about sex or even gender, it is just what humans do. “Our whole cognitive structure is set up to blame victims,” he says. Katz teaches a bystander programme, in which he urges men to interrupt other men who talk abusively about women. He wants us to know that this is not a call for greater sensitivity, however – he seems to realise how sensitive men can get when you ask them to be “sensitive” – no, this is a leadership thing, “because the typical perpetrator is not sick and twisted. He’s a normal guy in every other way, right?”
Well, how would I know? I can’t say if a perpetrator is a “normal guy” because I am not a guy, and the men who do know are saying nothing. I do think misogynists are “twisted” because of the way they twist the truth of their own psychology and I think some men are aware of this and some men are not.
Is that why society maintains a silence about rapists, because we secretly think that they are just “normal” guys, they are just “male”? It is possible that men worry this is the case and Katz wants to reassure them that their fantasies, their swagger do not automatically turn them into monsters. He is, very cannily, working with and not against male bonding, which has a big role in the formation of male sexuality. But he is also accurate to the fact that most rapists do not commit other crimes. In social terms, they can be anybody.
Most rapists do not end up in jail. The rapists who do end up in jail, according to one American study, are also more likely to have committed non-sexual crimes. Work within this cohort shows that convicted rapists tend to start young, have female-hostile peer groups, like rape-pornography (which is more than 80% of pornography), often report feeling rejected in some way and suffer from a lack of empathy.
The vengeful sentence “I felt I was repaying her for arousing me,” feels very familiar to women, who are long tired of the weirdness it contains. But the man who said it also seems to consider arousal to be a kind of punishment. It is not pleasant. It is unfair. The man who says, “This is her fault, she did this,” feels as though he has been acted upon. He is passive, perhaps unbearably so. This man is taking himself out of his own desiring; you might say he is obliterating himself.
If I were a man, I might want to put my self back into the discussion, I might want to do a reality check. But if I were a man, I wouldn’t be writing this because writing about rape, talking about rape, protesting against rape and being raped are all women’s work. This despite the fact that the weekend of protests in London was also a weekend during which footage was circulated online of an RAF recruit being sexually threatened by a group of his peers brandishing a piece of military hardware. In America the figures show that one in six men has been the victim of sexual violence of some kind, as opposed to one in three women, and that 99% of the perpetrators are male. The difference between the victims, sadly, is that society has long been happy to blame the women.