I’ve been reading various discussions about the gang-rape of a 15-year-old girl in California and the aftermath. (Warning: the article is intense and potentially triggering.) One constant, as with almost every such conversation, has been the mindset when it comes to rapists and abusers.
There’s a strong sense of us vs. them. How could they do this? How could the bystanders just watch? I’ve come across various theories–they were poor and desperate, they were in a gang, they were drunk…
We want our villains to be easy to identify, like on TV. We recognize the bad guys the instant they enter a scene, complete with foreboding music. We cringe as the poor victim is attacked, but we rest easy knowing we were smart enough to recognize the villain for what he was. He’s one of them. Because humanity is broken into two distinct groups:
There’s a clear boundary between the groups. That works for me, because it excuses me from having to worry about my own behavior. I’ve never gang-raped a girl. I’ve never beaten my wife. I’m safely in the “normal” circle.
It’s comfortable. The evil rapists and abusers are over there, and us normal folks are over here.
Unfortunately, the real world doesn’t work like that. People don’t fall neatly into categories. I’ve found it more helpful to look at behavior, like so:
There’s no “us” vs. “them.” No neat boundary separating good guys from bad. We all fall somewhere on the curve, and that position isn’t constant. Do you think the guys who gang-raped that girl woke up one morning and decided to be rapists? In most cases, it’s a behavior that changes over time, moving further and further to the right side of the curve.
One day it’s a shouting match with my girlfriend. Maybe I use body language to intimidate her into backing down. Eventually, when that doesn’t work, I grab her. Not hard enough to bruise, just enough to let her know who’s boss. A month later, I’ve stopped being quite so careful about the bruising. Step by step, my behavior becomes more abusive.
Likewise with rape. Maybe it starts by trying to pick up a girl at the bar. Trying to talk a woman into going home with you is just part of the game, right? If that fails, I can buy her a few more drinks to loosen her up. Then maybe a few more–it was her own choice to get drunk, right? Or maybe I just spike the drinks to speed things along…
Our society has strong attitudes about what it means to be a man. Real men are strong and in control. We go after the things we want. We’re assertive, even aggressive when necessary. We’re determined, and we don’t take no for an answer. Given all that, do you think it’s coincidence that men commit 95% of rapes?
How could they stand by, refusing to call 911 while a girl was raped in front of them? We’ve all stood by and done nothing at one point or another. Every one of us has heard someone making sexist comments and failed to call them on it. We’ve wondered if someone was being abused, but kept silent because we didn’t know what to say or how to ask.
If your response to all this is “But I’m not a rapist,” “All men aren’t rapists,” or the ever-popular, “Why do you hate men?” congratulations–you’ve missed the point. It’s not about you. It’s about recognizing that the “me” vs. “those people” approach doesn’t really work for understanding or ending rape and abuse.
Discussion welcome, as always.