Recent events in the story of convicted rapist Brock Turner force the conversation about rape into a deeper understand of this complicated subject. It is a multifarious conversation, touching upon sex, consent, sexual differentiation, women’s equality, and college campus culture, among other things. But in many respects, it is the wrong conversation, full of false assumptions and askew stereotypes. It is also a conversation from which, as I hope to make clear, men cannot and should not be excluded.
Men as Victims of Rape
Rape is commonly presented in the conversation as a “women’s problem”; that is, as a crime only women suffer and only men commit. Sixteen percent of women, according to statistics gathered last March, experience attempted or completed rape, as opposed to only 3% of men — at least as far as the sources know. An estimated 95% of rapes on campus, and 60% of rapes overall, are never reported. Whenever we discuss rape, we almost take it for granted that men are only raped in prison.
This trope is false and misleading. As Hanna Rosin reported in Slate a couple of years ago, sexual assault against men is vastly under-reported. Men are almost as often victims of sexual assault as are women, and women are very often the perpetrators. The 2013 National Crime Victimization Survey found that 38% of the incidents reported were against men. Because the U.S. military is predominantly male, it should be no surprise that more than half of military sexual-assault victims are men. Last year, Huffington Post ran an article detailing male experiences of sexual assault on campus; one advocate estimated that as many as 1 in 6 males are sexually assaulted before the age of 18.
Precisely because all forms of sexual assault are under-reported, it is impossible to say for certain whether proportionally fewer male victims than female victims report being raped. At least part of the under-reporting problem for men, though, is the cultural emphasis on alpha-male machismo: men are discouraged from “whining”, and expected — by both men and women — to shut up, “put on their big-boy britches,” and get over any problems they may have. Also, our culture takes it for granted that men are irresponsible about when, where, and with whom they have sex. We find it especially difficult to believe that a woman could force a man to have sex against his will, due to the assumption that rape must involve penetration of the victim by the assailant.
Under-reporting also diminishes our knowledge of the incidence of same-sex rape. According to Men Against Abuse Now (MAAN), being assaulted by another female, especially a partner, can be more traumatic for women “because of the levels of trust, attraction, and love involved.” Gay males have greater difficulty finding help because of “attitudes that gay men are promiscuous or that rape is something that only happens to women”. And a study done by the CDC in 2010 revealed that women tend to be more physically aggressive and controlling than men in intimate partnerships. In sum, women are not the only ones affected by rape in our society.
Rape and Identity Politics
In discussing rape, it is still necessary as a matter of honesty to recognize that the problem is primarily one of men assaulting women. It should be clear, then, that to show the other side is not to attempt a tu quoque: Rape is intrinsically evil regardless of the sex or orientation of either perpetrator or victim. “Graver still is the rape of children committed by parents (incest) or those responsible for the education of the children entrusted to them” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2356).
Nevertheless, identity politics distorts our perception of the rape problem, with its them-against-us dialectic of oppressor and victim classes, privilege, power, and a “war on women”. The oppressor-victim dialect refuses to admit any degree of bi-directionality in discrimination, abuse, and stereotyping, because it shifts the spotlight away from the predefined victim class. Rape is about power; the victim class has no power; therefore, members of the victim class cannot rape, and members of the oppressor class cannot be raped. To bring male victims or female perpetrators into the question at all is to risk outrage: “It’s not about you; it’s about us!”
To acknowledge male rape is to acknowledge an inconsistency, or rather an ambivalence, in third-wave radical feminist thinking: the degree to which biology contributes to behavior. As was explained in a previous article in Catholic Stand, feminists are reluctant to admit to genetically-rooted differences in the way men and women think, feel, and behave; as one feminist put it, “… if there are biological differences in the brains of men and women, isn’t that then an argument to preserve stereotypes?” Yet rape is one of many instances in which feminists subconsciously foster male stereotypes and assume a biologically-rooted difference in behavior.
To be sure, there are men who are all too willing to give the stereotypes substance, such as Judge Aaron Persky and Brock Turner’s father Dan, to name only the most recent and most prominent. However, men have not been silent in their own anger and disgust with the absurdly light sentence the judge handed down and the idiotic apologia the father wrote. That we should even need a hashtag like #notallmen is a sad commentary in itself. And at least one woman offered her own boneheaded opinion denying that Turner’s action constituted rape; if there is one, there must be others.
Nevertheless, radical feminists tend to treat even their ideological allies as unindicted co-conspirators in violence against women. We men are not to speak at all unless it is in agreement; and yet we are condemned for our silence even when we do agree. After all, men are pigs, even when we are not misogynists. It does us no good to speak to an audience who has turned a deaf ear to us.
Blame and Prudence
Furthermore, what has been loosely called the “rape culture”, particularly on college campuses, cannot be fully understood and corrected without considering the degree to which sexual liberation and the “party culture”, the deliberate encouragement of alcoholic or drug intoxication at parties, contribute to the problem. But what passes for discussion or conversation in the public square, on any social issue, is too often less concerned with discerning the problem and finding a solution than it is with fixing or shifting the blame.
We are certainly correct to be concerned about victim-blaming. Victims do not force predators to prey upon them; no one “deserves” to be raped. For punishment to be just, or even rational, the law must assume perpetrators’ freedom of will, and must not concern itself with the prudence of the victim. If the perpetrator has no ability to choose between good and evil, then we punish perpetrators for doing what they cannot help doing, like punishing an asteroid for colliding with the moon.
However, to minimize so far as humanly possible the incidence of rape, we must talk not only of reducing the creation of predators but also of minimizing the risk of victimization. We do not live in an ideal world; nor will we bring about an ideal world by discouraging prudence — call it “good judgment”; call it “common sense”; call it what you will. That in an ideal world a woman would not have to worry about being victimized is irrelevant to the need for women to exercise caution in the real world where they live. A rape victim, whom I will call “Renee”, spoke right to this point:
… I don’t blame myself for his actions. But I do blame myself for mine. I suppose I feel that if you give someone the chance to take advantage of you, they are wrong for doing so, but then again, you shouldn’t have given them the chance. Years ago, I’ve grown up, it doesn’t define me. But I hate it when people act like there is only one possible outcome. If you give someone the chance to hurt you, and they do, then don’t be surprised. (Facebook conversation with author, 6/8/2016)
We cannot fully understand the “rape culture” without looking at the ways in which our society, in the name of freedom, discourages both men and women from exercising good judgment. Indeed, we cannot do so without bringing the modern concept of freedom — the ability to do whatever we please, without fear of consequence, without concern for others — into criticism. We must all be a part of the solution, because we are all responsible for the prevalence of the problem.
Solving the Rape Problem
Part of the solution, I think, is to recover an authentic culture of masculinity, in which men expect each other to protect and cherish women, and hold each other accountable for their behavior towards women. Such a culture need not presume an inferiority of women to recognize different biologies and their effect; equal does not mean identical. Rather, we must begin with presumption that men and women are inherently equal yet complementary to each other in their differences: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27).
Creating this culture requires that we shatter the epistemological bubbles created by identity politics. Ideologues are incapable of questioning their own presumptions, and inevitably accept, reject, or reshape facts to fit theories cast in concrete. Finding the solution to the problem of rape will inevitably require that we unlearn what we think we already know about sex, sexual bifurcation, and rape. This cannot happen so long as we strive to preserve the aprioristic dogma of identity politics.
If we are to have a “conversation” in any meaningful sense about rape, we must listen to each other as well as talk, without running each others’ words through ideological decoders. It must be a conversation — not a debate, not competing monologues, not a screaming blame-fest. Moreover, it cannot be a conversation for conversation’s sake, or an endless, narcissistic sharing of feelings and fears directed only towards affirming ourselves in whatever social or ideological role we cast ourselves. If the conversation is not dedicated to finding and implementing a solution, it merely perpetuates the problem.
Men have a stake in finding the solution to the problem of rape. We are not only perpetrators; we are victims as well. Whatever the solution is, we must consent to its implementation. Therefore, we cannot be relegated to the sidelines of the rape conversation as clueless, insensitive, irresponsible clods who cannot be trusted to tie our own shoelaces without female direction. Men must be allowed to speak, and women must be willing to listen without prejudice. For rape is our problem, too.