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The Question We Should be Asking is “Why do Men rape?”

Whenever cases of adult heterosexual rape surface in the media the focus is firmly on the women involved. News pieces feature the victim’s biography, the details of her assault and more and more women are coming forward to share their experiences and reach out to other victims. Sadly, public and online discussion also often surrounds the legitimacy of these women’s status as victims, what they were wearing, what they’d been drinking, where they had been, etcetera. 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, then gave Daisy five shots of spirits 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 Daisy.

But where were the two rapists in all of this? Where were their pictures? Where were their interviews? Why weren’t people jumping to conclusions about their character? One reason is the prevalence of victim blaming or victim speculation. The fundamental argument 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 women. This incorporates the idea that it is up to women to regulate male sexuality through the way they dress, the way they behave, etcetera. When asked her opinion about the case, world 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 to clarify, prefacing a statement with “I’m not blaming the girl” does not in any way mitigate a victim blaming statement).

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There is also a public perception that rape affects women, so therefore it is a women’s issue, not a men’s issue. On the one had, this has rightly given female victims a platform on which to voice themselves and has foregrounded the importance of consideration for these women. On the other hand, however, it has also silenced and minimized men in public (and private) discussions. The question generally asked is “why did that woman get raped?” not “why did that man rape that woman?” It goes without saying that this mentality diverts attention away from what should be the loudest question in the effort to prevent sexual crimes: “what causes men to rape?”

On the 27th of July, 2012, Katie J.M Baker from Jezabel drew the online community’s attention to a Reddit thread which shared men’s experiences of rapes and sexual assaults they had committed. The thread was instigated by a man who introduced himself as “a post-college 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 1,000 word piece seems too detailed and personal to be pure fiction (read it here: http://uproxx.com/webculture/2012/07/rapists-explain-why-they-rape-on-reddit/).

In any case, this was a ground breaking case of a male community openly sharing their motivations and feelings about their own sexual crimes. While it did attract some vile comments (and has since been removed), it was still very revealing in terms of male tactics, motivations and reactions involved with rape. There is also a reasonable amount of research out there, despite the relative public muteness on the matter. So here it is; a summary of the leading theories of why men rape.

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Family dysfunction

In September, 2013 Partners for Prevention (PFP) released a report on sexual violence against women which involved over 10,000 men and the cooperation from of the UNDP, UNFPA, UN Women and UNV. This study concluded that men who experienced or 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.

“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 entitlement

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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 who had raped 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 characterises women who enter theses spaces as free for the taking.

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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.” It goes without saying that it is much easier to inflict pain on someone else when they are objectified and dehumanised in one’s eyes.

Misinterpretation of female “signals”

For various reasons, men misinterpret female behaviour and find consent in that behaviour 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.”

Power

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 (e.g. strong, sexually desirable, confident, etcetera). 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 female rejection and thereby failing to control the romantic feelings and behaviour of women he likes.

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Peer pressure

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.”

Impunity

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.

Sexual gratification

This one is a very moot point. For decades the dominant theory has been that rape is entirely about power and not sex, however, I am inclined to believe that one can’t entirely remove the sex from a sexual crime. Particularly in recent cases of teenaged 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.”

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Learned behaviour

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?”. The absolute dialectic between villain and victim also prevents people from humanising male rapists and considering what social and personal forces they may be reacting to. In any case, we need to refocus the rape prevention debate onto men and male issues. We need to think of rape as a symptom so that we can properly address the underlying causes.

Annathea Curry is a First Class Honours graduate from the University of Western Australia, with a BA in English and History.  In a family of entomologists, psychiatrists, doctors, physiotherapists and engineers she is the literary exception.

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