Whenever cases of heterosexual rape surface in the media the focus is firmly on the women involved. News pieces feature the victim’s biography, and the details of her assault. Public and online discussion still, sadly, questions the legitimacy of these women’s status as victims of a crime. Instead, the focus remains on what they were wearing, what they were drinking, where they had been walking or dancing, etc.
Many will remember the case of Daisy Coleman in Maryville last year. The 16-year-old cheerleader snuck out of her room to meet a friend of her brother’s, Matt, who picked her up in his car and took her back to his place. He and four of his friends gave Daisy shots of spirit in a glass labelled the ‘bitch cup’. Once unconscious, Daisy was raped by two of the teenaged boys and dumped in the snow on her doorstep. Once the story broke there were pictures and interviews of Daisy on screens everywhere, and even the most unqualified of people were making very personal assumptions about her and her life.
But where were the two rapists in all of the coverage? Where were their pictures, their interviews? Why weren’t people jumping to conclusions about their character?
One obvious reason is the prevalence of victim blaming or victim speculation. The underlying assumption is that it is more the responsibility of women to ensure they don’t get raped than it is the responsibility of men to ensure they don’t rape. For example, when asked her opinion about the case, champion tennis player Serena Williams said, ‘I’m not blaming the girl, but if you’re a 16-year-old and you’re drunk like that.’ (Just so you know, prefacing a statement with ‘I’m not blaming the girl’ does not in any way mitigate a victim-blaming statement).
There is also a public perception that rape affects women, therefore it is a women’s issue, not a men’s issue. On the one hand, this has rightly given female victims a platform and a voice and has foregrounded the importance of listening to women. On the other hand, it has also minimised men and their responsibility in public (and private) discussions. After a rape, the question generally asked is ‘Why did that woman get raped?’, rather than ‘Why did that man rape that woman?’ Such a mentality diverts attention away from what should be the loudest question in the effort to prevent sexual crimes: ‘What causes men to rape?’
Back in July 2012, Jezebel drew the online community’s attention to a Reddit thread of male perpetrators’ experiences of rapes and sexual assaults. The thread was started by a man who introduced himself as ‘a post-colleged age male who raped several girls through use of coercion, alcohol, and other tactics over a course of 3 years’. While its authenticity cannot be verified, the 1000-word piece seems too detailed and personal to be pure fiction (the post can be read at Uproxx).
In many ways, it was a groundbreaking case of a male community openly and publicly sharing their motivations and feelings about their own sexual crimes. While it did attract some vile comments (which have since been removed), it was still very revealing in terms of male tactics, motivations and reactions involved with rape.
In fact, there is a reasonable amount of research out there on this subject, despite how rarely it’s discussed. So here is a summary of the theories I found when I started researching why men rape; quotes used throughout are taken from Reddit thread above.
In September 2013, Partners for Prevention (PFP) released a report on sexual violence against women which involved over 10,000 men and the involvement of the United Nations Development Programme, the United Nations Population Fund, UN Women and the United Nations Volunteers program. This study concluded that men who experienced or witnessed sexual violence as children were twice as likely to commit similar crimes in later life. Absent or poor parenting can also indirectly affect young men’s sexual development and habits. One account from the report reads:
I was an extremely isolated youth who came from a broken home. My escape was the internet. At about sixteen I was exposed to a lot of PUA material, which (not having a father or mother really around) shaped my life up until I was about 20. Most of the material was very objectifying and sexually aggressive towards women.
Male sexual entitlement is the idea that men deserve sex from women; that a man’s ‘yes’ counts for more than a woman’s ‘no’. Many men who participated in the PFP report above and had previously committed rape said that they felt that they had the right to sex regardless of female consent. Male entitlement also extends to a sense of male ownership over certain spaces. The idea that public places belong to men subjugates women who enter theses spaces.
Lack of empathy for and objectification of women
The serial ‘East Coast Rapist’, Aaron Thomas, who raped over 20 women and is serving three life sentences, told The Washington Post ‘they [his victims] were objects. Whoever came down the street, an object.’ Of course, it is much easier to inflict pain on someone else when they have been objectified and dehumanised in one’s eyes.
Misinterpretation of women’s ‘signals’
For various reasons, men misinterpret female behaviour and find consent in that behaviour even when it is not verbally given. This can happen when women are just being friendly, or when they have previously consented to kissing, fondling or oral sex.
This girl gave me the ‘I’d fuck you’ look earlier, she invited me into her bed. What teenage girl would pass up the opportunity to be with a 22 year old guy? She MUST want it.
While Aaron Thomas said that his rapes weren’t all about power, there is a clear desire to dominate and control another person’s body involved in rape. In some cases, this is caused by a failure to emulate socially desirable masculine archetypes – strong, sexually desirable, confident, etc. Some men react to their own perceived inadequacy in relation to these ideals with aggressively sexual behaviour. It can also be related to a man experiencing rejection and thereby failing to control the romantic feelings and behaviour of women he likes.
Within male peer groups, the considerable pressure to be sexually active can push young men into assuming a predatory role.
I got peer pressured into hooking up with this girl. I kept saying I didn’t want to and my friends kept saying I had to lose my virginity … We were both completely wasted and go into a room. I was too drunk to get it up so I fingered her and ate her out but I could tell she wasn’t really into it.
While the status quo is steadily changing, many men still feel safe committing sexual crimes with the knowledge that their victims will not prosecute, particularly in cases of spousal abuse.
This one is a very moot point. For decades the dominant theory has been that rape is entirely about power and not sex, but I’m not sure we can entirely remove the sex from a sexual crime. Particularly in recent cases of teenage rape involving alcohol, like that of Daisy Coleman, adolescent male libidos seem to have played a part.
I was a freshman and hooking up with this girl who got naked in bed with me, then said no. I was extremely horny and already close to doing it, so I ignored her and did it.
According to the PFP report, half of the men who had raped did so for the first time when they were teenagers. Men who have previously committed sexual offences are more likely than the general male population to commit rape.
While the focus on women in public discussions about rape has given women a voice and encouraged victims to be taken seriously, it has centred responsibility on women and diverted attention from the basic question, Why do men rape women? I’m not sure this summary necessarily answers that, but the dialectic between villain and victim also prevents people from humanising male rapists and considering what social and personal forces they may be reacting to. I think rape needs to be reconceptualised as a symptom – a sign of an underlying problem – and we need to refocus the rape debate onto men and the male gender issues behind these crimes.
Australian women have about a 33 per cent chance of being sexually assaulted in their lifetime. We need to change those odds.