Saturday, May 10, 2008

Rape as Rebellion?

Photo by Flickr user Captain Midnight, used under a Creative Commons license.

Why do (some) men rape?

It's not an academic question. If we knew why it happens, we might know how to stop it.

Figleaf is proposing that rape may be a form of rebellion against patriarchy. I nearly always agree with him, but I'm not at all convinced by this. He recognizes that it's a completely self-defeating form of rebellion, and he's not in any way excusing or condoning, just trying to understand it. But I think it's much more plausible that at least some rapists - not necessarily all - are motivated by resentment at feeling excluded from the perks of patriarchy. That's not at all the same as rebelling against patriarchy per se. (To stay within his frame of reference, I'll going to use the term patriarchy here, even though it's problematic, as I've already discussed, and I'd much rather substitute "male privilege" for it.)

One difficulty here is that it's folly to think there's a single motivation common to all rapists. Figleaf starts from Susan Brownmiller's assertion that rape is an act of violence. Brownmiller's work set the paradigm for virtually all feminist thought about rape since the mid-1970s, and it's been a highly productive lens. But I think her re-framing of rape as violence - crucial as that was in undermining the view of it as mere sexual deviance - can't capture the whole spectrum of possible motivations. Of course, rape always includes at least an implicitly violent component, even if it occurs while a woman is passed out and cannot possibly resist. But if we want to understand why rape happens, I think we need to think about the various meanings and motives that may lurk behind it. The urge to commit a violent act may not always be paramount.

To start what I consider the least important motivation, I'm willing to at least consider a possible role for biological factors, even though I'm skeptical of evolutionary psychology that claims men will try to spread their seed as widely as possible by any means necessary. After all, people created laws, religion, and ethics to contain our most destructive impulses, and men are just as capable as women of abiding by these basic principles of civilization. If biology alone is a suficient explanation, then why do the vast majority of men never commit rape? Still, since I'm trying to cast a wide net here, I'm willing to concede that there may be some biological predisposition. (I'm not willing to grant that testosterone accounts for this. The relationship between testosterone and aggression is by no means a simple linear one.)

Rape can be a form of male bonding, particularly in contexts like fraternities or bars. This is most obviously the case where gang rape occurs (and applies at least partly to the example figleaf cites). But male bonding can also be in play when a man commits an assault on his own but later brags about it to his buddies. There's nothing remotely rebellious about any of this. Participation in a fraternity gang rape, for instance, is a way to establish one's patriarchal bona fides, not to lash out against any system of privilege.

At least in a few instances, rape can be a way to get sex if a man perceives no other options. Prison rape is probably the most obvious example of this, but heterosexual men who feel that no woman would have them may also use this perception to justify rape. Again, I'm not saying this negates the element of violence, only that the desire for sexual release may be part of the mix. Rape as a means to sex is not rebellion against patriarchy - not in any form. Instead, it's rebellion against one's perceived exclusion from its privileges, and particularly from masculine sexual entitlement. This motivation is not about real needs, but about perceived entitlements.

Men may indeed be acting out resentments against individual women or against women as a class. Nearly two decades ago, I knew a man who'd recently been divorced. I had an experience with him that was not entirely consensual. Maybe I'll write about that in more detail some other day. But it was clear to me then, and it's still clear now, that he was acting out his anger against his ex-wife and his more generalized sense of sexual deprivation. The mix of motives here is similar to those guys who perceive no other sexual options, except here the man resents not getting as much sex as he thinks he's entitled to. Plain old misogyny plays into it, too, since resentments aren't necessarily limited to sexual ones.

Other systems of oppression may play a role. Insofar as men feel boxed out of the benefits of patriarchy, as figleaf suggests, we need to think about the intersection of different oppressions. A man who has experienced racism or classism or discrimination based on age or ability or any other "isms" won't likely to see himself as a beneficiary of patriarchy. He may harbor resentment that then gets turned against someone who's lower than him in the food chain. This can occur even when a man is not evidently oppressed; white, middle-class men may still feel cheated of the patriarchal privilege that they think ought to be their due. What counts is the perception. But again, this isn't rebellion against patriarchy per se, it's merely acting out against a feeling of not getting one's fair share of the patriarchal goodies.

But I think figleaf's on a much more productive track when he discusses entitlement:
The problem with the myth of (hetero) sexual scarcity isn't "stuff like this wouldn't happen if women just put out more." Because women *do* "put out" more than ever before without much affecting the myth, or it's consequences, one bit.

Instead the problem with the myth of sexual scarcity is that you wind up with a *climate* of wherein men feel not desperate for sex with women but *entitled* to whatever they can get. But it's a funny sort of "entitlement." Entitlement, no question about it, but an astonishingly alienated kind.
(The rest of his post is here.)
I think alienation enters into it because masculine sexual entitlement really is ultimately more about power than about pleasure; that's the common thread in all of the motivations that I just outlined. And that's why it's partly irrelevant if women say "yes" to sex now more than ever before - and partly just more infuriating to some men, who see their power slipping away.

The power to say yes encompasses the power to say no. And that poses a huge and fatal challenge to the very idea that men are owed sex. In the face of this challenge, men have a choice: either change their thinking and embrace enthusiastic consent as the prerequisite to sex - or simply take what's not freely offered.


This is the sort of post that really needs footnotes because a whole lot of other people's ideas flow into it. Here are the main ones. Sorry to be so nerdy but they aren't things I can just link to. If you were to read just one of them, I'd suggest going straight to Michael Kimmel at the end of the list.

On rape as violence: Susan Brownmiller, Against Our Will (New York: Bantam, 1976).

On evolutionary psychology: Randy Thornhill and Craig T. Palmer, A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000)

On male bonding and fraternities: Patricia Yancey Martin and Robert A. Hummer, "Fraternities and Rape on Campus," in Feminist Frontiers, ed. Laurel Richardson, Verta Taylor, and Nancy Whittier, 5th edition (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2001), 444–53; and A. Ayres Boswell and Joan Z. Spade, “Fraternities and Collegiate Rape Culture: Why Are Some Fraternities More Dangerous Places for Women?” in Men's Lives, ed. Michael S. Kimmel and Michael A. Messner, 5th ed. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2001), 167–77.

On masculine sexual entitlement: Michael S. Kimmel, "Clarence, William, Iron Mike, Tailhook, Senator Packwood, Spur Posse, Magic … and Us," in Men's Lives, 540–51.


John Pine said...

Are we biological machines? Is that all we are? When are we going to get some satisfaction out of spreading our seed all over the place? We (power-obsessed men) shall look down from the clouds and say "We did it! We spread our seed all over the place! Wow! What a lot of genes we've got knocking about down there! We survived! We propogated! We semi-cloned!

If we believe in this, what is it?...epiphenomenal materialism?... love is merely mechanical sex, sex is merely a deadly non-conscious power struggle in which both parties madly but unconsciously resent each other, then don't forget that there won't be any clouds to look down from because by that reasoning we'll be DEAD. I spread my seed, I survived, but I'm DEAD.

I couldn't care less about spreading my seed: I want some satisfaction while I'm actually around to experience it - and that doesn't necessarily mean non-stop sex.

It means being conscious and enjoying it. It means recognising that the conscious world is not a squeaking of the material wheel but something quite different that works in tandem with it (or perhaps as Berkley said, matter is spirit). Consciousness has features which are non-Darwinistic - altruism, wonder and love for instance - and if you actually experience any one of those, then evolutionary psychology and "all-that-matters-is-power" become a bit gauche.

Sungold said...

Hi John - We are most certainly not mere biological machines. We're moral beings, and thank goodness for that. Some of the more recent work in evolutionary psych does look at altruism, for instance. Unfortunately, the best-known ev psych work on rape is the material I cited by Thornhill et al.

I completely agree: Even if we did evolve in such a way that men tried to sire as many children as possible and women tried to enlist a single mate in raising a small number of children (as that body of research generally holds) - we are not the slaves of our genes.

So: here's to wonder and conscious experience, a couple of my ongoing obsessions, and part of what's been preoccupying me on this Mother's Day.