Like many a fresh-faced psychology student, I drifted into my first modules on forensic psychology and criminology wanting an answer to the question: why do people commit crimes?
The first lesson I learned has stuck with me ever since. In order to understand why people commit crimes, we first need to try to understand why most people don’t. Of course different schools of thought have different answers. Freud attributed it to the superego (famously described as that part of the personality which is soluble in alcohol.) Behaviourists, and their successors in cognitive theory and social learning, have constructed increasingly complex conditioning models of rewards and punishments. More recently evolutionary psychologists have pointed to a pro-social tribal instinct as an evolutionary survival mechanism. Whichever terms we prefer, the common theme is that we have, as a species, a powerful pull towards doing the right thing.
One of the strongest pulls in the human brain is conformity. For whatever reasons, human behaviour imitates and conforms with perceived social expectations, for better or worse. The experiments of Milgram, Sherif and Asch have crossed into popular consciousness, and in widely ranging contexts, from riots to totalitarian states, go a long way to explaining why apparently good people can do bad things.
One more recent adaption of this is social norms theory, which holds in part that behaviour is affected by estimations of its prevalence – the “hey, everyone is doing it” thought process. Heavy drinkers believe heavy drinking is more common than it actually is and the same goes for problem gamblers, domestic abusers and sexual offenders. The theory holds that if you can change the perceptions of social norms, you can alter behaviour.
The theory is very much a work in progress, and many academics (not to mention this blogger) remain dubious about the more ambitious claims of its proponents, but the evidence base is growing all the time and we can see the principles coming into action in various rape prevention schemes, which differ from traditional risk-reduction campaigns, in that they are squarely aimed at potential offenders rather than victims. Examples can be seen in the growing, overdue and very welcome move towards ‘Don’t be that guy’ style campaigns rather than the ‘Don’t be that girl’ campaigns of tradition.
Over the past couple of weeks, the Good Men Project has run a series of articles about men who have not felt sufficient pull towards the right thing. To be precise, they have raped. It began with Alyssa Royse’s now notorious piece entitled Nice Guys Commit Rape Too. I strongly criticised the piece here, as others did here and here, and in the face of criticism, and presumably in the hope it will act as a trump card in the argument, the GMP editors have made the extraordinary, offensive and entirely irresponsible decision to publish a piece by a self-confessed unconvicted rapist.
I believe that one of the most grievous errors of the original Royse piece was to imply that acts like that committed by her friend the rapist are so common as to be mundane. She confirmed this in the comments to my previous blog, when she suggested “it cannot be as simple as saying “he’s bad.” Because to say so would mean that at least 50% of the men out there are bad.”
Royse would have us believe that “at least 50%” would do what her friend did. I’m unclear whether she means that at least half of all men would rape a sleeping woman given the chance; or that at least half have in some way victimised a woman in a drunken muddle or fumble. I’m not sure which is worse. The former is wildly detached from any credible evidence of the prevalence of rape and normalizes the cruel act. The latter implies that what her friend did was not really any different to a clumsy drunken pass or an ill-timed arse-grab, and so minimizes it.
Bad and damaging though the Royse piece and comments may have been, the new article is unforgivable. From the headline to the conclusion, it is pretty much nothing but an object lesson in minimization and normalization. The title is “I’d Rather Risk Rape Than Quit Partying” and it is soon clear that the anonymous author is not really referring to his risk of being raped (although that is alluded to later), he is actually saying that he’s raped at least once and he’d rather risk raping someone else than quit partying. Gee, that’s big of you.
His point, such as it is, would appear to be that he moves in social circles where he and his friends regularly get wasted and have intoxicated sex, with varying degrees of inappropriateness, sobriety and clarity of consent. The argument is muddled in too many ways to list (I’m sure other blogs will fill in), but what I find most disturbing is that there is an absolute absence of remorse, shame or empathy for his victim. Even though his victim phoned him up, in the midst of a recovery programme (one can speculate how she ended up needing it) and told him outright he had raped her, he still didsn’t believe it. He says he only really feels like a rapist when he is “severely depressed.”
I’m guessing the editors at the Good Men Project thought that his story would illustrate the point that Royse was trying to make, even prove her right. What it actually did was instantly validate her critics. Here is a man who pushed a woman up against the wall and sexually abused her while his buddies cheered him on, and who still doesn’t think of himself as a rapist. Then along comes a respected, liberal gender politics website telling him hey, don’t worry, you’re not a bad guy, you were just confused. Nice guys commit rape too, you know.
I believe there is a moral imperative on anyone writing or speaking about rape (or any similar crime, for that matter) to consider how their words will be heard, read and interpreted by different parts of the audience. One part may be those with a professional, academic or political interest. Another is those who have been directly or indirectly affected, most importantly survivors of the crime. But another is no less important – those who have actually committed the crime, who may do so again in the future or, perhaps most importantly, those who may be at risk of doing so for the first time. With a vague knowledge of psychological principles, it should be easy to understand why responsible writing on sexual abuse should never demonize or dehumanize rape victims – phrases like Royse’s “if it walks like a fuck and talks like a fuck” spring to mind. It should be easy to understand why we must always stress and never forget the human cost, physical harm and emotional trauma caused by rape – something both the GMP articles do to a great extent. And we should never portray rapists as being just like every other guy when they are not, in one significant respect – they rape people. Not by accident, not out of drunken confusion, not as a result of ‘mixed-signals.’ They do it because they choose to force sex without consent. The Good Men Project have clumsily trampled over all of that.
A few months ago I wrote about the Reddit thread in which rapists admitted to and described their crimes. I was torn at the time as to the relative benefits and risks, but finally swayed by a post from my blogging friend gherkinette, who described how the thread had finally allowed her to realise that the attacks were not about her. “I came away finally seeing that it wasn’t something we victims had done. It wasn’t our hemlines or our flirtatiousness or taking a cab or having another chardonnay. It was because a certain type of man wants to rape.”
In thinking about the Royse piece, and now the anonymous follow-up, I’ve returned to the question raised then. How would the victims of rapists feel when they read the pieces? Would it help to make sense of what happened to them, in any way make them feel better about what had happened? And then imagine how rapists feel after reading the piece (and by any measure of probabilities, that is almost a certainty). Ashamed? Belittled? Determined to change their attitudes and behaviour? Or justified and excused?
I’m reluctant to suggest that the GMPs articles have actually made some future rapes more likely, but it would be foolish to ignore the risks. I would be much more confident in saying that rapists reading the piece or contributing to the site will feel assuaged, a little more at peace with their consciences, and a little bit better about themselves. Nice guys commit rape too, you know, and rape isn’t such a big deal. It’s not something important like giving up partying, now is it?
The Independent asked to republish this, but I ended up writing yet another piece, making a few more points, rather more concisely!