Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Debunking the Sexual Assault Monster Myth

This post is written by Kaethe Morris Hoffer, CAASE's Legal and Deputy Executive Director. Kaethe leads CAASE's Sexual Assault Justice Project, which represents individual survivors of sexual assault, including through prostitution, advocating for them through civil litigation and within the context of the criminal system. Kaethe has spent the last twenty years doing legal and political advocacy opposing sex inequality and sexual violence.

What I call the “monster myth” is a quandary we must acknowledge: while rape is a horrific act of unspeakable cruelty, most men who rape can rarely be described—even by their victims—as horrific, unspeakably cruel men.  If rapists actually embodied the evil of the act that they engage in, rape would be incredibly rare (instead of remarkably common), because girls and women don’t choose to be alone with—let alone date or get drunk with—men who are fundamentally awful, cruel, or horrid.  Sadly, most men who commit rape are guys who seemed perfectly safe to be alone with—guys who were previously good, nice, cute, kind.  It is a painful truth we must do a better job of confronting: girls and women aren’t fools: that so many can’t distinguish ahead of time between rapists and non-rapists is a sign that rapists and non-rapists are genuinely hard to tell apart. 

Following rape, many victims certainly come to see the man who raped them as a monster whose previous (or after-the-fact) good deeds and loving conduct were/are just false fronts.  But especially for girls and women raped in typical circumstances—which is to say by trusted men who don’t use much overt violence—this point of view is rarely adopted during the rape itself or even immediately after.  Rather, there is often a period of time both during and after rape in which the victim is painfully, crushingly, achingly aware of two things simultaneously—he is a guy who did and said all the things that are signs of a man being a good man, and he is forcing sex on her against her will.  Alone, in situations of extreme vulnerability, survivors are constantly being exposed to a truth that is vehemently denied by our society, our justice system, and even our anti-rape communities: nice men rape.

The first time that most survivors come face to face with rape, they are literally face to face with a man that they—oftentimes just moments before—found attractive and trustworthy.  They are looking at a person they had specifically thought was a “nice guy.”  Their efforts to prevent sex are being thwarted by someone their peer group would never describe as a monster.  For most survivors, the monumental crisis of rape is generally accompanied by the overwhelming mind-boggler that they were raped by a man they didn’t believe was capable of rape. 

Although rape exposes most survivors to the truth that rape is a horror mostly not committed by horrible men, the popular (if unstated) rhetoric of our country, which holds that it takes an awful person to do an awful thing, has a powerful grip on the popular imagination.  Especially for those who want very clear distinctions between “good” and “evil” people (like many in the criminal justice community), there is great anxiety about taking legal action against someone who would be difficult to characterize as monstrous.  The outpourings of sympathy for those identified as engaging in sexual assault, and rage at those who accuse them (see not just Steubenville but also DSK, Julian Assange, Al Gore, Bill Clinton, Kobe Bryant, William Kennedy Smith, etc) is evidence, I believe, of a primal commitment held by many to the belief that “good” guys don’t (or “can’t”) engage in sexual assault.

Because most survivors have actually lived the experience of having significant positive feelings for the men who forced sex on them, they are quick to see how other people would regard him as a “good guy.”  And because most survivors—like most members of our community—had previously bought in to the myth that only monsters are capable of rape, they are quick to see how other people will find it inconceivable that such a “good guy” would engage in rape.   Neither of these realizations, of course, is encouraging to a survivor considering going to the police—especially when the criminal justice system is guiltier than most of promoting the idea that bad things are only done by “bad” people. 

We must, of course, always promote public recognition of the horror of rape.  But we must simultaneously challenge the assumption that it takes a “horrible” man to engage in sexual assault (or even the corollary that engaging in sexual assault proves a man is “horrible.”)  I am sympathetic to the appeal of the belief that only horrible people do horrible things (or alternately, that doing horrible things proves someone is horrible), but it is, I think, a belief that is contradicted by the lives of survivors, and it is jamming up our country’s ability to hold men accountable when they force sex on women.

One of the ways we must support survivors is by refusing to imply that they were stupid or blind when they made choices that left them alone with their rapists—something we risk doing when we portray rapists as monsters.  And one of the ways we can highlight how rapists mostly aren’t monsters, is by calling attention to the fact—again and again—that men who rape are mostly just as nice and cute and attractive as the majority of men—a majority that doesn’t, ever, rape.

Perhaps the continuing failure of the criminal justice system to charge and prosecute rape is related to the fact that those of us in the anti-rape movement have been trying to promote the prosecution of rape without working to undermine the myth that it takes a horrible man to engage in sexual assault.  As anyone with even a limited appreciation for the reality of rape understands, rape as it mostly happens continues to be reported or prosecuted with incredible rarity.  As in the old days, rape mostly is prosecuted where it is socially easy to convince outsiders that the man is a monster.  Rapists who jump out of bushes or use significant violence or who have criminal records or who otherwise fit into preexisting stereotypes about what a criminal or a monster looks like: it is not difficult to convince police and prosecutors to charge these guys and try and sell a jury the idea that these men are monsters. 

We have to be upfront about the fact that most men who rape have lots of positive attributes.  Not fake good qualities—real good qualities.  A good sense of humor, gentleness with children or animals, intelligence, having the respect and affection of co-workers: these are qualities that men who engage in rape actually have—they are qualities that lead girls and women to make choices that leave them vulnerable to rape.  For as long as we deny these truths, or allow them to be denied by rhetoric that paints rapists as exceedingly unlike most men, we will be fighting an uphill battle.  The majority of men NEVER rape, but the ways in which they are specifically distinguishable from the minority who DO are difficult to discern—outside of the mostly private spaces in which rape takes place. 

The anti-rape community has long led the fight to insist that girls and women are believed when they report being raped, but perhaps we have been complicit in disbelieving them, by failing to deal with the other truth that survivors reveal: the truth that in addition to being capable of rape, perpetrators are capable of being kind, nice, cute, attentive, respectful, charming, smart.  In our brave work exposing and opposing the ugly monstrosity of rape, we must also be brave about acknowledging the reality that few rapists are ugly monsters.  Failing to tackle this hard task risks, I think, disserving the survivors we are trying to serve.

Learn more about CAASE's legal services for survivors of sexual exploitation. 

Creative Commons Photo by David Playford.

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