It would be deeply foolish to pretend to know exactly what is going through someone’s mind when they make a choice to commit sexual assault. No two attackers are the same, no two attacks are the same.
Even if you had the opportunity to talk honestly to a close friend who you knew had committed rape, and you could ask him why he did it, could you trust the answers? Even if he was trying to be completely honest and truthful with you, how could you know he was being entirely honest and truthful with himself? One of the most basic lessons of psychology is that people can go to enormous cognitive lengths to justify or explain our own behaviour to our own consciences.
Last week on the Good Men Project (and since reposted at xojane), Alyssa Royse wrote at length about her friend, who had raped a woman as she slept. The man was obviously very dear to the author, she talks repeatedly (and without ironic capitalization) about what a nice guy he is. Understandably, she is searching for an answer to the question, why did he do it?
I have no problem with that question being asked. Indeed at an individual, political and psychological level, it is a question I’d like to see asked a lot more. My problem is with the answer she gives.
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.
Royse goes to enormous efforts to insist she is not attempting to excuse or justify the rape, but to “understand.” Unfortunately the understanding she comes to is deeply, deeply flawed.
This is not a “some girls, they rape so easy” story. I promise. This is a “some signals, they read so wrong” story. And the fault is not hers, it’s ours — all of ours — for not explaining what these signals DON’T mean, even if we don’t know exactly what they DO mean.
No, it isn’t. The fault is not ‘all of ours’ it is his, and squarely his. In trying to understand her friend’s behaviour, Royse suggests repeatedly that he did not know that what he was doing was rape. She goes on to say:
There are two simple truths here:
1. She had every right to do everything she was doing and fully expect to be safe from rape. (She was right.)
2. He believed that everything she was doing was an invitation to have sex. (He was wrong.)
The problem is not that she’s a “slut.” The implications of that word make my brain shrivel when sprinkled with the salty insinuations that so often accompany it: that a woman who exhibits a fondness for her own sexuality is somehow inviting anyone who sees her to have sex with her.
The problem isn’t even that he’s a rapist.
The problem is that no one is taking responsibility for the mixed messages about sex and sexuality in which we are stewing. And no one is taking responsibility for teaching people how the messages we are sending are often being misunderstood.
I’d suggest that the second of her two “simple truths” is, almost certainly, not true at all. I simply cannot accept that any reasonably intelligent and informed man (and by the description I’m assuming this man is both) doesn’t know full well that just because a woman wanted to have sex with you earlier in the evening, or last week, or last month, does not mean she necessarily wants to have sex with you right now. People have the right to change their mind, to develop a headache, or to lose a mood – not to mention fall asleep.
In other words, he might not have been wrong to think her behaviour was an invitation to have sex. Even if it was an invitation to have sex, it was not an open-ended invitation to have sex at any time with no comebacks. The implication of Simple Truth Number 2 is that if someone has wanted sex with you at any point in the past, you can assume you have their consent to sex at any time thereafter. This is profoundly wrong and a deeply damaging suggestion to make.
Speaking as a man, and as a man who in younger years has done his share of getting wasted and falling into bed with people, I never needed to be told that sex without explicit (and immediate) consent is rape. When I am told that other men get confused by mixed messages and honestly imagine consent is there when it has not been given, I simply do not believe it. In a nutshell I don’t think many if any men are that stupid.
What was going through this man’s mind at the time he raped his victim? Of course I don’t know, but I can easily imagine several possible thought processes. One is that he knew he didn’t have consent but at that moment didn’t care enough to let that prevent him. Another, and I suspect this is the most likely, is that he knew he didn’t have consent but took a guess that if or when the woman woke up, she would consent, since she’d obviously wanted sex earlier. Perhaps he thought he could get away without her waking up at all, or that she would have no memory of it the next day.
Any of those (or perhaps a combination of those and other thoughts) would seem entirely credible to me. The only explanation on offer which I find laughable is that he honestly believed he had her consent to penetrate her while she was asleep – or in other words that he didn’t know he was raping her.
Royse’s article is titled “Nice guys do commit rape.” Though not the most objectionable component to this mess, this is the most prominent problem. Nice guys do not commit rape, but guys we thought were nice undoubtedly do. Coming to terms with the truth that a dear and close friend is a rapist cannot be easy for anyone, least of all a sex educator and Slutwalk activist. Nonetheless that is the truth here. The one simple truth is that her friend is a rapist and no amount of tortuous doublethink can shift responsibility onto cultural attitudes, mixed messages or accidental confusion. He became a rapist at the moment he decided to rape. Whatever we mean by ‘nice guy’, whoever a nice guy is, he is not someone who knowingly rapes.
In attempting to understand, in attempting to explain, Alyssa Royse has produced one of the most convoluted, extended exercises in rape apologism I have ever read.
[slight edit, original version stated that Alyssa identifies as a feminist, now corrected. See comments]