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When Anti-Rape Rhetoric Aids Misogyny


Although a few years old, today I came across this piece by Charlotte Shane in _The New Inquiry._ I highly recommend reading it, but be forewarned that it contains frank and rather graphic descriptions of rape. I will avoid graphic details here, but this will be an exploration of the points she raised. This is no doubt a difficult topic for many people.

Shane takes issue with this popular narrative about rape:

In our society, we recognize this as rape, an act of violence that in all its permutations (date, stranger, violent, anal, oral, gang) is understood to be the worst thing that can happen to a woman — worse than a serious car accident, worse than a protracted divorce, worse than the death of a parent. It is regularly equated with being murdered. It is life-shattering. It is soul-destroying. If you are a woman, you can never move past your rape; you can only “learn” to live with it, as though it is akin to abrupt blindness or a paralyzed limb. If it does not ruin you, it will at the very least change you forever for the worse. This is the only allowable truth about rape. There are no alternatives.

She finds this narrative restrictive and even damaging–women who do not feel this way about being raped or sexually assaulted are left to wonder if there is something wrong with them, if they were “really” raped at all. One is permitted to move on, to “survive,” but to always bear the irrevocable scars of the deepest, most heinous violation possible. To consider it merely an unpleasant (but not life-changing) experience is viewed as heresy, or even rape apologism.

As Shane notes, this attitude unnecessarily exacerbates the harm rape already inflicts, and also feeds into misogynistic notions of the motivations for and consequences of rape. Rather than restate her entire piece, I highly recommend reading it in full, and then proceeding with the rest of what I’ve posted here.

The way the rape of men, and prison rape in particular, are trivialized in our culture is a major plank of this critique. Men who are raped by women are virtually never taken seriously. After all, what straight man would be upset about getting laid? Men raped by other men are humiliated, made into the butt of jokes, but not generally considered broken beyond repair. Is this meant to suggest that men are simply stronger, that we bounce back better from such a trauma (if we even consider it one)? Isn’t that notion preposterous?

Even so, I can understand why the prevalent narrative about rape takes the shape it does. As a crime that has historically not been taken nearly as seriously as it should have been–and, indeed, one on which we still routinely fall short today–feminist rhetoric stresses the urgency of the situation. It is outlined an ongoing crisis. Most of us know the 1 in 4 statistic by heart. Much action is still needed.

But this inflamed, universalized approach to the problem leaves women who don’t identify with that narrative out in the cold. As a man, it is hardly for me to say how women should address other women about rape–Shane handles that deftly in her piece–but what I can do is speak to strategies for communicating about rape to men.

The obvious goal of speaking to men about rape is to reduce it. Unfortunately, simply telling men “rape is bad, don’t do it” is not terribly effective. It does little to counterprogram the messages of a society obsessed with masculine power, in which the number of women you can bed are a sign of alpha male status, and a culture in which it is still acceptable to suggest that a woman was asking for it because of how much she had to drink, or what she was wearing.

What has arisen over the past few years is a new approach: teach boys and men not to rape. Again, this is not literally telling men, “stop raping.” That doesn’t work: it doesn’t include any reasoning, and most people do not unilaterally obey unexplained commands given to them. Zerlina Maxwell’s five tips, linked above, are a great place to start. Summarized, they are:

  1. Teach men about legal consent. Know what is rape, and what isn't. Most importantly, if you have any doubts about whether a partner is consenting, _assume that they aren't._
  2. Teach men to see women as people, not sex objects. This one is, honestly, much harder to deal with. Casually reducing women to objects of sexual gratification is commonplace. To point to a timely example, October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and there is no shortage of problematic approaches to raising that awareness. There are the "save the ta-tas" bumper stickers, "save second base" t-shirts, and other displays that are more about preserving and showing off a part of a woman's anatomy rather than stressing her value as a human being. This is a campaign meant to help women, and yet it often tends to objectify them at the same time. It is a difficult habit to break as it is so deeply ingrained in our culture, but we must recognize it, point it out, and work to avoid it.
  3. Teach men how to express masculinity in healthy ways. Masculinity, as it commonly exists today, is narrow and repressive. Men are permitted to display only anger, strength, and power. Tender emotions, thoughtfulness, empathy--these are not valued. These warp men's attitudes, and influence how men view and interact with women. It is not a coincidence that a culture which identifies men as icons of strength and women as damsels or prizes to be won also produces rapists who see forcing themselves on women as a natural extension of that male power. Men need to be allowed to acknowledge and express the full range of human emotions, and to understand that women are capable of the same thoughts and feelings, as well--we aren't separate species!
  4. Teach men to believe women and girls who come forward. "Victim-blaming" is less acceptable than it used to be, but still alarmingly common. When a woman says she was raped or sexually assaulted, you only need to do one thing: believe her.
  5. Teach men about bystander intervention. Not raping anyone yourself doesn't let you off the hook. We must hold our friends and family members accountable, too. Like the DHS slogans say: if you see something, say something. I would add: _do_ something. If it is within your power to stop a rape from happening, why wouldn't you?

All of these points are part of the same overall strategy to redefine what it means to be a man, and how men and women relate to one another. Mutual respect, understanding, and empathy would go a long way toward eroding the toxic, patriarchal attitudes that enable rape and rapists. We, ourselves, must keep learning, and we must teach our children, too. Women have borne the consequences of and responsibility for rape culture for far too long, and it’s time for men to pick up the slack. Key to this is acknowledging that, however women choose to talk about their experiences with rape, it does not change the fact that it is wrong. Whether an individual woman sees her assault as the single worst experience of her life, merely a bad night, or anything in between, there is no excuse for a man to violate the autonomy of a woman’s body, any more than she should be free to violate his.