Rape: Is It Really All That Bad?
Rape is really confusing. I mean, how do you know if you’re raping someone? If they’re unconscious and you decide to have sex with them, is that rape? It is? Well, you could have fooled me. It’s just weird, you know — who even knows if the word “no” means “no,” or if the person you’re raping — er, just having consensual sex with — is observing Opposite Day?
Thankfully, someone is looking out for the poor, misunderstood rapists of the world. The Good Men Project, which describes itself as “a community of 21st Century thought leaders around the issue of men’s roles in modern life,” has decided to take a close look at rape. What they’ve found will shock you, if you’re unfamiliar with the site’s general Men’s Rights Advocate Lite bent. Alas, even if you’re familiar with The Good Men Project, you’ll probably be shocked; the posts are generally shocking. Indeed, this is the point where I offer a trigger warning for rape apology, victim-blaming and general awfulness.
“Nice Guys” Rape People
Did you know that not all rapists are monsters with fangs and leathery wings and prehensile tails? Some rapists actually present themselves as friendly fellows, quick with a joke or a light of your smoke, always willing to help someone out in a jam, unless they’re raping someone.
If you’re familiar with the concept of date rape — rape committed by a person who was seemingly nice enough for a victim to be friendly with, right up until they committed felony sexual assault — this may not strike you as particularly surprising. Alyssa Royse, however, has been thunderstruck by this incredible epiphany. I mean, she was a feminist, and yet her friend turned out to be a rapist! But seriously, folks, he’s still a super-nice guy. He feels really bad about it!
My friend, for instance, was genuinely unsure, which was why he called me. At the time, I was fresh from giving a rousing talk at SlutWalk, in which I very clearly stated that the only person responsible for rape is the rapist. I said that no matter what a woman is wearing or doing, no one has the right to touch her without her explicit consent. It was a great talk.
But it cannot undo generations of training in which the goal of getting dressed and going out is to get the guy or get the girl and hook up or get lucky. In this training, we are taught that in order to get the guy, we have to look sexy and sometimes have sex. The training has also taught men that the reason we dress up and look sexy is to “catch him”¯. We even use those words, as if our bodies themselves are the lure, and our sexuality the hook.
In this particular case, I had watched the woman in question flirt aggressively with my friend for weeks. I had watched her sit on his lap, dance with him, twirl his hair in her fingers. I had seen her at parties discussing the various kinds of sex work she had done, and the pleasure with which she explored her own very fluid sexuality, all while looking my friend straight in the eye.
Only she knows what signals she intended to send out. But many of us can guess the signals he received.
Yes, that’s right. This slutty slut sent out signals. Sexual signals. Fluid sexual signals. From a former sex worker. Obviously, no man could possibly read those signals as anything other than a clear desire to be raped.
But don’t get Royse wrong. This isn’t the woman’s fault.
This is not a “some girls, they rape so easy”¯ story. I promise. This is a “some signals, they read so wrong”¯ story.
Well, that makes it better. If the lady hadn’t protested too much, I might have thought that previous paragraph, in which the writer lovingly described how this harlot had been leading her innocent rapist friend on, was classic and obvious victim blaming. But there’s a two-sentence disclaimer here, so it’s all better.
Besides, it’s not like the guy rape-raped this former sex worker and slut, right?
On the night in question, there was drinking. A lot of it. I wasn’t there, but there was probably some drugging. There was music and dancing. At some point, people started clustering off into smaller groups, some of which turned sexual. My friend and this woman fell asleep together. And by all accounts, when she woke up, he was penetrating her.
Well. To hell with that guy.
Even if Royse’s friend got a clear go sign, and even if he and his victim went back to bed willingly and happily, at some point he crossed the line, clearly and unquestionably: when he decided to have sex with her while she was unconscious.
Incidentally, this is where I stop believing that this rapist was ever in doubt that he was a rapist. Most people who want to have sex want their partner to be responsive. A big part of sex is that it involves more than just you, after all; it’s really better if all parties are enjoying themselves.
That doesn’t mean you can’t wake up your partner for sex. It happens all the time. But waking your partner up for sex requires waking your partner up.
There are only two reasons to have sex with someone who is asleep. The first is that your partner has told you that he or she would like to be woken up that way, and gives you free consent to do so. The second is that you want to get sex going before your partner can stop you. In other words, you want to rape them.
To Royse’s credit, she acknowledges that yes, this was rape. But then she spends the rest of the column wringing her hands about mixed messages, and how it’s just so hard for men to know if they’re raping their unconscious partners.
To a large degree, my friend thought he was doing what was expected. And while he was wrong, weeks of flirting, provocative dancing and intimate innuendo led him to believe that sex was the logical conclusion of their social intercourse. Many people watching it unfold would have thought that, too.
Of course they would all be wrong. But if something walks like a fuck and talks like fuck, at what point are we supposed to understand that it’s not a fuck? Our binary language of “yes means yes” and “no means no”¯ doesn’t address the entire spectrum of both spoken language and body language, which mean different things to different people.
I would love for “no means no”¯ to work, but it doesn’t.
How do I know it doesn’t work? I know because my friend raped someone and didn’t even know it.
First off, I doubt that he didn’t know it. I think he knew damn well what he was doing.
But let’s say he didn’t, for argument’s sake. Whose fault is that? Yes, society is very good at sending mixed messages about sex. Men are pushed to be aggressive in wooing a mate. This is an unquestionably bad thing.
But no does, in fact, mean no, and it’s impossible to make it to adulthood today without at least hearing that consent has to be affirmative — that the absence of a no is not a yes.
Listen, I’m a guy. I’m well-aware of rape culture, and how pervasive it is. I joked about roofies as a younger man, even as I found the very concept abhorrent. I can well-understand how some men could use rape culture to justify their actions, to tell themselves that it’s okay that they drugged a woman and raped them. It’s still rape, though, and they know it.
For all her concern about the difficulties men face in trying to navigate this horribly difficult world, it’s actually pretty easy to avoid raping someone. If you don’t have sex with someone who isn’t both willing and capable of giving an affirmative yes, you will never rape anyone. If you decide to bend the rules — to have sex with someone who isn’t saying no because she can’t, because she sure seemed to want to earlier — well, then you’re a rapist.
Contrary to Royse’s assertion, this isn’t confusing. It isn’t hard. If a woman flirts with you, she hasn’t consented to sleep with you. She consents to sleep with you when she tells you that she wants you, now.
I sympathize with Royse to some extent. A man who seemed nice, who she considered a friend, turned out to be a rapist.
To some of you, it may sound ridiculous when I say that my friend is a really sweet guy. 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. With him, the conversations were painful and beautiful, and he understood. He claimed it, at least to me, and learned a hard lesson: he had committed rape. That “nice guys” can do that.
After the fact, he said all the right things, and acted like he felt really bad, and maybe he did feel bad that he got called out. I can understand the temptation to let him off the hook. It’s much easier to blame a friend’s failings on society than on his own recklessness and disregard for others.
What he did, though, was not remotely a close call. What he did was rape, and he did so in the clear light of day, after he had time to sleep it off. If he didn’t realize he was raping his partner, it was only because in his mind, he had devalued her so much that her consent was completely irrelevant; either way, he is a person who did a horrible thing, and frankly, nice is as nice does.
I suspect he knew what he was doing, and I suspect his contrition was as much about saving face as remorse; as often as not, rapists are truly unrepentant. As if to underline and highlight that point, The Good Men Project added in a post from an anonymous addict, who says that he’s raped at least one woman, and as many as six, but won’t stop because when you party hard, “you’ve accepted is a certain amount of rape.”
Where the Problem Lies
The Good Men Project keeps patting itself on the back, talking about how this is all so nuanced and difficult, and we can’t just say that rape is bad, because some rapists are friendly. “We cannot ignore this reality any longer,” wrote Joanna Schroeder, explaining why they thought posting addicts’ musings on rape made sense. “Dismissing all these folks as ‘bad guys’ only serves to feed the problem, because the reality of rape is that most often it does not look like what we think it does—a psychopath with a weapon and intent to do harm.”
That would be a brave stand, if we weren’t already aware that most rapists aren’t masked psychopaths. Most rapists are known to their victims, and 40 percent are considered friends. Moreover, far from being the confused, well-meaning guys that The Good Men Project claims, most rapists are fully aware that they are raping their victims.
There is always room for education, of course. We should continue to clearly and repeatedly articulate the idea that consent must be given affirmatively. We should continue to educate people about the risks of drug and alcohol abuse. And yes, we should be aware that most rapists are able to behave like decent human beings most of the time.
But when we spend our time talking about how confusing it all is — how it’s just so hard for men to know where the lines are, how alcohol makes it impossible to know whether you’re raping someone, how confusing signals can lead to rape — we do not make rape less likely, but more. We are handing excuse after excuse to rapists, who are able to tell themselves and others that it wasn’t really rape, because she was flirting, or because she was drunk, or because he was drunk or because it seemed like she wanted it.
Not raping someone is really, really easy. Most men manage to go their entire lives without raping anyone, and not because they spend their time trying hard not to commit rape.
If you view your sexual partners as human beings, you want their consent. Indeed, you know full well that if they’re happy with what’s going on, you will be too. For most men, and most women, this is not a difficult concept to grasp. There will always be those who choose not to seek out consent, of course — people who enjoy violating boundaries, people who choose to act without consent, people who choose to ignore what their partner wants. They are people, not monsters, and we should recognize them as such, but they are also rapists, always — and nice people don’t hurt others.