As a man, you might have pressed or clicked on this article’s title a little bit harder than usual. Maybe you opened this tab thinking, “great, another misandrist bitch insulting us.” Truly, I am flattered by the attention—after all, isn’t this what women thrive off of?
More seriously, I am glad you are here, reading these lines. All jokes aside, we can all agree on the fact that sexual violence is a public health crisis. While men are not immune to rape, the topic of this discussion is male on female sexual assaults. As the most prevalent type of sexual crime, it highlights a pattern of which the dynamics are not clear.
Chances are, you define yourself as a “good person.” Perhaps you were outraged at the outpouring of #MeToo stories. You believe that rapists are evil—why? Because the opposite statement is socially unacceptable. Saying anything else will make you sound like you are defending sexual criminals, which is unthinkable.
Evil as a defining characteristic of sexual predators, however, it is not an accurate reflection of reality.
According to Kolivas & Gross (2007), 12.85% of women disclose being raped while only 4.7% of men admit to raping. Where are the perpetrators hiding, if not in plain sight? The perpetrators are good people, just like you. Have you ever stopped to think, “Was she into this as much as I was?”; “Did I go too fast?”; “Did I check up on her, make sure she was okay?”
We have been fed the lie that lack of consent is a clear no. But what does it actually look like? It looks like a drunk, high woman agreeing to sex and feeling violated when she wakes up sober. It looks like a girl being asked by her boyfriend over and over to have sex until she gives in and then feeling violated when she hears a similar story on the news labelled as “sexual abuse” by the media. It looks like a friend kissing her by unexpectedly and her returning the kiss because she doesn’t know how else to react, and, once again, feeling confused and violated. It looks like a one-night stand taking off her clothes despite her saying no, and then her having to leave before they have sex that she doesn’t want again.
The key phrase is, of course, feeling violated. There are two kinds of rape. Rape deemed as such by legal evidence, and the feeling of having been raped. Here, I am discussing the latter, which is tricky.
I started understanding the nuance when male friends disclosed stories to me that, if the genders were reversed, would qualify as rape. They told me very matter-of-factly, not seemingly affected. Now, dissociation is a thing, and they might have buried their feelings, but I am not in their mind to know that for sure. I do believe that part of the reason why they did not call their experience rape was because they did not feel violated and framed the experience as non-traumatic. Trauma, which can overwhelm the emotionally-driven parts of the brain, is partly socially constructed because the memory of an experience is only the way we perceived how it happened. Some men might be able to overcome experiences that would traumatize a woman with more ease because they have not been raised in a culture where their body is oversexualized.
When you initiate sex with a drunk person, you are taking a risk. She might feel fine or she might feel violated. It is tempting to blame her, accusing her of having regretted it and lying afterward as a result. But alcohol affects everyone differently. For some women who have been traumatized sexually in the past, alcohol creates an emotional space where she will behave recklessly and put herself in dangerous situations (for example, where she knows that a man will take advantage of her drunkenness) to trigger a dissociative high. It is completely subconscious, as well as a habit that takes years to break, with hard work in therapy. When you meet a girl at a party, you don’t know her past. You don’t know anything about her or how she will feel after you have sex. You are taking the risk because you are taking advantage of her.
Now, if you remember, I separated “law-breaking” rape from the feeling of violation. Sometimes, for example, in the case of child abuse or “stranger rape,” the two nuances overlap. More often, they do not, which is a reason why many women choose not to report their rape or sexual assault. It falls into a perceived “grey area.”
Nonetheless, this feeling of violation is real. A good analogy is when your house is broken into. If that has ever happened to you (I’m sorry), you know very well what I am talking about. The feeling of unsafeness, of being hyper-vigilant all the time, of feeling like a stranger in your own home. Well, your body is your sacred home, and when it is vandalized and ransacked, your spirit has nowhere to go. The perpetrator is using the body as a sex toy. You are not human anymore. You don’t even belong to yourself anymore. Your own body becomes an enemy and you’re forced to cope with that for your whole life. There is no point in being alive anymore, because nothing will ever feel safe ever again. It’s to the point that you cannot even trust that the ground will not crumble under your feet. This, by the way, is called PTSD by psychiatrists.
Try to prosecute on the basis of a feeling, no matter how real it is. It is impossible. This is why we have legal definitions of rape that sometimes just don’t fit survivors’ experiences.
Why do we pretend that we know how someone feels deep down? Why do we feel entitled to accuse someone of lying because she came forward years after or because the feeling of violation kicked in hours or days after?
Yes, it is complex; yes, it is murky. Because there are liars and they are people who cry rape for financial or social gains. But lying to ourselves just to be able to justify that “this is clearly rape” and “this is clearly not rape” is dishonest. The truth is that we don’t know and we will probably never know, because we weren’t there and we are not in the person’s head. It is truly difficult to deal with not knowing or not having an opinion. But, and this is my next point, if we want this world to be safer for women, we have to deal with this. By stepping away from the judicialization of rape and sexual assault.
Some, if not most, sexual offenders are selfish. They will refuse to listen, even if the woman is saying no and trying to fight him off “gently.” Why? Because women are socialized to be submissive and/or are scared to be on the receiving end of worse violence. Trauma survivors might suffer from learned helplessness and go along with it because they were taught that they are nothing but garbage whose only use is to satisfy men’s lust. Similar situations to their trauma might trigger a flight response—if they are lucky—but most likely they will just freeze, and their small attempts at resisting will be passed off as “playing” or just dismissed. If you think that her resistance does not matter or that she will end up enjoying it, you might be sacrificing her emotional well-being for a pleasure that will not last.
Consent is not easy. It takes a lot of communication, selflessness, listening and, most importantly, self-introspection. If you cannot respect someone’s body, you are not mature enough to have sex. Are you having sex with a person or a body? This is an important question that not many people ask themselves. It is also important to note that “males are more likely than females to perceive interactions in sexual terms and to make sexual judgments. (…) males seem to perceive friendliness from females as seduction” (Abbey, 1982) and that “for men, traditional attitudes toward women, hyper-masculinity, and lower social desirability responses significantly predicted perceptions of sexual interest” (Fisher & Walters, 2003). In other words, another important question to ask is: “In what ways have you learned to objectify women?” Sexual assault is the translation of a worldview in which men’s pleasure matters most. More than another human being. Check on your partners—before, during, after. Care for them. And if you don’t, you might want to ask yourself why you are having sex with someone you don’t give a fuck about.
After all, no one is a rapist. Until they are.