…..We refuse to accept that nice guys rape, and they do it often. Part of the reason we havent accepted it is that its a painful thing to contemplate – far easier to keep on believing that only evil men rape, only violent, psychotic men lurking in alleyways with pantomime-villain moustaches and knives, than to consider that rape might be something that ordinary men do. Men who might be our friends or colleagues or people we look up to. We dont want that to be the case. Hell, I dont want that to be the case. So, we all pretend it isnt. Justice, see?

Actually, rape is very common. [….] Its so common that – sorry if this hurts to hear – there’s a good chance you know somebody who might have raped someone else. And theres more than a small chance he doesnt even think he did anything wrong, that he believes that what he did wasnt rape, couldnt be rape, because, after all, hes not a bad guy.

via Laurie Penny: Its nice to think that only evil men are rapists – that its only pantomime villains with knives in alleyways. But the reality is different – Commentators – Opinion – The Independent.

[emphasis mine]

Good post, keying off the author’s reaction to Julian Assange’s supporters defending him against rape charges.

And where it took me was to a conversation – many connected conversations, actually – between myself and a college buddy, Jack. He would tell me, all men look at every woman and assess her sexually, even if all it amounts to is “too old, too young, too ugly, too married” – whatever the result, his point was that men assess women sexually all the time. He suspected it was hard-wired, shaped by social attitude and custom, but hard-wired in essence. Fact of life, maybe a sad one, but something to remember when thinking about how men interact with women, and with the world around them.

His other point was that any man – and he included himself – is capable of rape. And that for most men, himself included, the sense of right/wrong, the breaking of a kind of  interpersonal social contract (this was an interdisciplinary political science program we were enrolled in, after all), the shear horror of hurting another person, keeps them from committing rape.

That was scary stuff to hear. I don’t know that Jack was right in every detail of what he spoke about, but I do think he was correct, essentially. At first it made me nauseous – and Jack knew that it would have that kind of effect on me. The first time we spoke of these things (I remember it well, sitting late at night in the common room at an lake-side academic retreat in the foothills of the Olympics) Jack was very gentle – I think he knew the effect on me and another woman sitting with us. But he wanted us to know – not to terrify us or impress us or some other twisted “guy” thing. He wanted us to know because he thought all women should be aware of that, but there were few women he could talk to about it. Mandy and I heard it in the sense I think he meant it: an offering on a subject that is too scary to talk about most of the time, something men don’t talk much with each other about, and especially scary for men and women to talk about together.

But we did. And Jack and I threaded that hard truth through many conversations afterwards. I’m still having that conversation, mostly within my own head, because there are few women, and fewer men, who want to talk about it.  Still, it resonates, because it holds truth, because it helps me think carefully about rape, not knee-jerk style as the tendency runs in us quick-assessment humans.

Thank you, Jack. Thanks for trusting me with that insight you have about yourself and other men.

Writing it, reading it there on the screen above, seems weird. I’m thanking this guy, who I’ve only had occasional contact for the last 3 decades, for telling me that all men have a propensity to rape? that all men assess women (or men) sexually all of the time? Well … no. I’m thanking him for being willing to talk deeply with me and any one else willing about something so essential to the subject of rape, but too threatening to talk about openly for most people. I thank him for being the catalyst that took a suspicion in the back of my mind, and pulling it out into the air, where it was still scary, but less threatening, somehow.

It’s one thing for a woman to tell another woman that she thinks all men are capable of rape. It’s another thing for men and women to talk about it together. It reminds me a little of how hard it is for an honest conversation to happen about white racism in a mixed race group of people – not impossible, and after all, we’ve been working on this one for a while, but still hard. White guilt confounds honest discussion about race – “but I’m not a bad person!” or “some of my best friends/ political activism/ church work/ reading/ musician/ actor/etc” just being the start of a whole line of defensiveness which can waylay a good conversation on race. Discussions about rape between men and women are a bit like this. Awkward, defensive, faltering.

But you have to start somewhere. The conversation that Jack and I started in 1984 seems a long time ago in some ways, very present for me in others. After the initial nausea came anger, resentment, and a lot of deep thought. I think the best thing I pulled from all that was the conviction that if all men are capable of rape, most men are capable of learning – and do learn – not to rape. And if we talk deeply, honestly about all kinds of rape, not just the stranger-in-an-alley version, we have a better chance of raising up successive generations of men who “get it.” Who don’t rape. Who don’t turn their eyes when other men rape. Who teach their sons and nephews and students where to draw the lines between their desire for sex or power, and actually harming someone.

Some hard conversations lead through dark places to hope, to gradual change, to better … human communities? well, whatever the lingo, to groups of humans who hurt each other less.  Maybe less and less as the millennia churn by.

A girl can hope.

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