On Rapists

Charlotte Allen wrote a deeply problematic column on Slut Walks, Halloween costumes, and the need for women to stop confusing men into raping them by dressing sexy.

One of the many responses it inspired was this one, which contained some fascinating and important research on rape. Maybe it’s familiar to all of you, but it’s news to me– and I think it actually does call for some rethinking of various feminist claims (for example, about pornography making men *in general* not understand women’s sexual refusals). Here’s a bit of it:

Most rapes are committed by a single-digit portion of the population. They use the methods that produce the least evidence and are least likely to get them prosecuted: they use alcohol and fear rather than overt force, they target acquaintances rather than strangers, and they employ careful methods to test boundaries and select victims who are least likely to be able or willing to resist or seek redress. Each such serial rapist has an average of six victims.

What does that mean for Allen? Well, her theory is totally at odd with that. Careful, planning predators are not overcome with urges they can’t control. They don’t test and see, plot to isolate and intoxicate. That takes hours, or even days. That is the work of a cold, calculating predator. It means rapists are not just the average guy, and the average guy is not a rapist. It means that rape is not the result of miscommunications, and since it’s not the result of miscommunications, sending “mixed signals” isn’t the problem.

What is the problem? Well, in the first instance, the rapists are the problem. They need to stop raping people. But they’re not doing it by accident, so no program of education will make them stop. Instead, we as a culture need to clear the underbrush they hide in: the tangle of sexist crap and conventional wisdom that results in a practical inability to enforce laws against rape except in cases that fit a very narrow paradigm. Make no mistake, the culture is the problem.

16 thoughts on “On Rapists

  1. I do wonder about the reliability of some of the results – or, more accurately, about what we can infer from the results – of the Lisak and Miller study. They’re results based on men who both (i) self-identify as men who have engaged in (or attempted to engage in) non-consensual sex; (ii) are willing to admit this in an anonymous survey. I wonder whether serial predators are more likely to satisfy (i) and (ii) than others out there who have in fact raped people.

    It could well be that there are plenty of guys out there who have in fact engaged in non-consensual sex , but they don’t remember it as such (and so wouldn’t answer ‘yes’ to any of the L&M questions). Likewise, it could well be that there are plenty of men out there who have in fact engaged in non-consensual sex but won’t ever admit this (even if they themselves, in their heart of hearts, know that’s what happened).

  2. First allow me to say, after reading Allen’s article, it is a fail. Unlike others who have questioned the effectiveness of the “slut-walks” in a very respectful and understanding manner, Allen doesn’t.

    Second, it doesn’t matter if a woman walks around with nothing but a g-string on – no one has a right to say or touch her in any way nor should violence or harassment be excused through any type of “confusion” , period. The crux of the problem is of course the rapists. With that said, I think we can all agree that the issue is still vastly complicated.

    The sexualization and/or self-sexualization of women AND girls seems certainly linked to, not only, how men/boys view females but just as importantly if not more – how women and girls view themselves and allow themselves to be viewed.Keep in mind pornography is the most extreme form of objectification/sexualization (as distinguished from “erotica”).


    The Official Journal of the World Psychiatric Association (WPA) reported the prompting of WPA to resolve to, “explore wide ranging psycho-educational and socio-cultural interventions designed to change the
    objectification of women,” as objectification of woman has been found to be a “determinant” in violence against women. (Cite: Donna E. Stewart, The Int’l Consensus Statement on Women’s Mental Health and the WPA Consensus Statement on Interpersonal Violence Against Women, 5(1)WORLD PSYCHIATRY J. 61-64 (2006).)


    The Psychological Association’s (APA) 2007 Sexualization of Girls Task Force findings. The
    Task Force defined “sexualization” as occurring
    “…when a person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or
    behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics; a person is held to a
    standard that equates physical attractiveness (narrowly defined) with being
    sexy; a person is sexually objectified—that is, made into a thing for others’
    sexual use, rather than seen as a person with the capacity for independent
    action and a decision making; and/or sexuality is inappropriately imposed
    upon a person.” The correlation between the objectification of women and girls and women’s mental
    well-being was found to be stark in the Task Force Report; the detrimental effects are
    mental and physical, leading to results such as lack of confidence, depression and eating
    disorders. The APA report mentioned that studies have connected media exposure to
    encouraging sexist beliefs and acceptance of violence against women, stating that both
    males and females exposed to sexually objectifying images of women from mainstream
    media are more tolerant of rape myths, sexual harassment, sex role stereotypes,
    interpersonal violence, and adversarial sexual beliefs about relationships as opposed to those in controlled conditions. The Task Force charged the government with the responsibility of reducing these images in media and advertising. (CITE: AMERICAN PSYCHOLOGICAL ASSOCIATION, REPORT OF THE APA TASK FORCE ON THE SEXUALIZATION OF GIRLS, 2007, available at http://www.apa.org/pi/women/programs/girls/report-full.pdf )

    The above examples are taken from a paper I have spent much time laboring over, this is because after being a runaway teen and becoming homeless, I had an unfortunate first hand look at how women will be treated by men at its worst – in my personal experience it IS VERY MUCH the average guy who has may have a rapist lurking within.

    I don’t know if I missed it, but I don’t see where the facts/research is cited in the article the original post mentions? Please point me in the direction if I did miss it. If you disagree with me, by all means please state why and if you have sources please cite them. I am incredibly sincere about trying to figure out this issue as much as we can and in order to do that we must be okay with arguing back and forth, but do not discredit this research or my arguments by stating that I am making excuses for rapists – its reminiscent of blaming those who try to explain what makes one a terrorist by saying they are making excuses for terrorists. Just as we all know there is no excuse for blowing up buildings, there is no excuse for rape – but, shouldn’t we try to figure out what plays into these acts?

    As a woman who ran away from abuse as a teen from an Iraqi household only to run into more abuse where ever I went (despite being told that in American culture women are treated with more respect and EQUALITY – hardly the case I found out the hard way), the last thing I am willing to do is excuse it, I sincerely want to understand it in order to curb it. Understanding a critical issue from a holistic view is not excusing it – we can’t solve critical issues by only focusing on parts, even if those parts are the obvious largest part of the problem (i.e. the rapists). Excuse this incredibly long post, I am just shocked that as women we would not have an understanding that though a women should not be subject to harassment or violence no matter her actions or dress (or that Allen did a terrible job in her article) that this is not mutually exclusive with understanding that objectification and sexualization of women does in fact play into things. Its super complicated.

  3. ONE MORE THING, there is much evidence to support that the average guy can be and may just become a rapist, one such piece of evidence cited in the court proceedings of the Pornography Civil Rights Hearings:

    Research conducted at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), was discussed by
    psychologist Ed Donnerstein, (University of Wisconsin, Madison) during the
    Minneapolis Anti-Pornography Ordinance hearings. Donnerstein stated,
    “[Y]ou find again that normal, healthy male subjects say the following. If
    asked ‘What percentage of women do you know who enjoy being raped?’-
    think about the question for a second, think about the context of how this
    research is done-you find normal males, after five minutes of exposure to
    pornography, say 25 percent of the women they know would enjoy being
    raped. Secondly, what percentage of women do you know who enjoy
    being aggressively forced into sexual intercourse? Again, we are not
    talking about rapists, not talking about sexual deviants, [we are] talking
    about normal, healthy male college students at Manitoba, UCLA,
    Bloomington, and other places. [They say] 30 percent of the women they
    know would enjoy being aggressively forced into sexual intercourse. The
    most important question of all is questions that ask subjects, after [being]
    exposed to this material: ‘what is the likelihood that you would commit a
    rape if I guarantee that you won’t be caught.’ Think about that for a
    second. You are asking a normal, healthy male, ‘would you commit a
    rape after exposure to this type of material?’ And on a five point scale, you
    find that after exposure to sexually violent images, particularly when
    those sexual violent images depict women enjoying rape, up to 57 percent
    of those males indicate some likelihood they would commit a rape if not

  4. There are certainly plenty of rape victims who have nothing to do with eliciting their rape other than being known to the rapist. (There are a lot of studies that indicate that the majority of rapes occur under these circumstances.) Add to this the fact that until the past few decades forced intercourse between spouses was not legally defined as rape in many US states, and one begins to see how deeply entrenched are the effects of patriarchy within the private sphere. But that does not mean that pornography has no influence on male behavior—to believe that, you would have to believe that ideas don’t matter, that culture has no influence—rather, it seems to me to be an outgrowth of the very same patriarchal mentality and its more severe manifestations, such as those detailed by Gibson in “Warrior Dreams” and Klaus Theweleit in “Male Fantasies” (Männerfantasien).

  5. In regards to post 4: Enjoying sexual roleplay (e.g. rape *ROLEPLAY*) seems quite distinct from “enjoying rape”, which to me seems oxymoronic. If the sexual act is actually rape, then there are profoundly important non-enjoyable elements at work that prevent the act from being, in any meaningful sense, enjoyable for the victim. Donnerstein, then, isn’t referring to rape at all, just sexual roleplay. And although I’m unfamiliar with the whole of Donnerstein’s work, he strikes me as a poster boy for the “men just have these urges and can’t control themselves” camp – a position which usually disqualifies someone from further engagement, in my book.

  6. @ Jeff C: maybe I am misunderstanding what you are communicating, but if not it seems as if you misunderstood the question Donnerstein asked. To put into context, prostitutes have reported being told, as violence escalates, “I know you love this, I saw it in…” inserting whatever particular pornography.[CITE: CATHERINE A.MACKINNON, ARE WOMEN HUMAN p. 206 (2006)]

    So it is not role play he is referring to, he is referring to the idea that many men have a very screwed up notion (the many factors playing into it are certainly complicated, but here he is trying to measure the factor that pornography may play into this false understanding) that women enjoy force and may enjoy forced intercourse.


    I hope I am communicating this well, but the point is that Donnerstein is not referring to role play (which would as you say cease to be rape as it is wanted, very confusing how this plays out, but nonetheless if a women/man desires and encourages intercourse it is not rape – depending on what actually happens anyway and if they continue to desire it).

    Donnerstein is referring to rape that many men have in some totally horrifying manner understood that some women want even when they say they don’t and scream for help. Does that make sense? His point is to show the theater of the absurd, how terrible things can be, the terrifying notion that rapists may actually believe that despite a woman’s desperate pleas, fighting, and NO’s, she actually desires the assault.

  7. There are lots of thorny issues to work through with regard to those Donnerstein selections, but the one that really jumps out at me is the rather loose use of terminology, especially the slide between “rape” and “being aggressively forced into sexual intercourse”, as well as what appears to be a rather obvious equivocation on the word ‘rape’ between the application to sexual encounters and the application to depictions in pornography. Aggressively forcing one into sexual intercourse is sufficient for rape, but it certainly isn’t necessary. Figuring out when pornography depicts rape is no small chore. Different folks could argue particular examples all day. Of course, that’s a small selection, and I imagine Donnerstein isn’t that sloppy in his professional work. One must present things in a different way to a different audience.

    From the small selections here, I’m unclear on exactly what the literature is supposed to show. I’m particularly unclear on it because nowhere does Donnerstein discuss (in the selections provided) what seems to me to be obviously *central* to the discussion: CONSENT. Was rape defined in terms of (lack of) consent to the men participating in the study? Was there, in particular, a change in how men view issues of consent before and after viewing particular works of pornography? Was there some sort of procedure for deciding when a work of pornography depicts rape (and I shudder at the prospect of drawing up this procedure…I sure don’t want to be on the hook for that one)?

  8. By way of sharpening up that last bit, I’ll say that the lack of clarity comes in regarding whether the literature shows that pornography increases interest in “rape” (however that word is even understood by the men in the study…) or whether it just increases interest in certain kinds of rough sex.

    And all of it is rather orthogonal to the point the OP linked to: which is that what pornography depicts in these sorts of cases is actually highly irrelevant to what actually goes on in most cases of non-consensual sex. Most cases of non-consensual sex seem to involve men getting their date/acquaintance drunk and taking advantage.

  9. @ Matt Drabek: The study is showing that there is some link to propensity to rape (which, i guess wasn’t clear, is always defined as lack of consent – the question in law and social science usually revolves around what equals “consent”) and the viewing of violent pornography (distinguished from erotica as “…graphic sexually explicit subordination of women, whether in pictures or in words, that also includes one or more of the following; women are presented as sexual objects who enjoy pain or humiliation; or women are presented as sexual objects who experience sexual pleasure in being raped; or women are presented as sexual objects tied up or cut up or mutilated or bruised or physically hurt; or women are presented as sexual objects for domination, conquest, violation, exploitation, possession or use, through postures or positions of submission or servility or display; or women are presented being penetrated by inanimate objects or animals; or women are presented in scenarios of degradation, injury, torture, dismembered or truncated or severed or fragmented into body parts, shown as filthy or inferior, bleeding, bruised, or hurt in a context that makes these conditions sexual”.)

    Yes , this study and the follow-up studies are showing that pornography may change how men view issues of consent (for example, women who are raped – women who later file charges – are beaten and forced to smile throughout the rape, confusing the notion of consent – i.e. “Deep Throat”, if you don’t know please look into the pornography civil rights hearings). An interesting side study to bring up from 2009 showed how pornography may alter brain chemistry : Jeanne Shaw, Review of “The Porn Trap: The Essential Guide to Overcoming Problems Caused by Pornography,” 35:3 J. OF SEX &MARITAL THERAPY, 246-49 (2009).

    And yes there was a procedure, what you may find helpful is the original study from UCLA (by Neil Malamuth, Donnerstein only discussed the study as an expert witness for the hearings) http://www.sos-sexisme.org/English/exposure.htm ( I can’t find the whole in pdf for free online, perhaps you will have better luck), but you may find the most recent version of this work from Malamuth most helpful (from 2000) http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/comm/malamuth/pdf/00arsr11.pdf discussing “Pornography and Sexual Aggression; Are there reliable factors and can we understand them?” partly discussing the factor of how a relatively aggressive individual vs. a non-aggressive individual may play into outcomes, narrowing the field in a helpful manner. Other studies of course exist, but Malamuth has done the most longitudinal work in the area (if you use Google Scholar you can find much of his work from the 80s to the present on sexual assault). You must read the studies themselves, it would be hard for me in short (relatively lol) posts to answer your questions. Though I will grant that there is no way you will not have questions even after – again, its super complicated and we are just scratching the surface.


    A side point but I feel is very worth mentioning, when one is taken advantage of when they are intoxicated, please don’t confuse that with lack of aggression. The act in and of itself is of power and therefore aggressive by nature, further, just because a woman is intoxicated do not assume there is no struggle or that no acts of physical violence take place. If someone is intoxicated to the the point of being passed out, the act of rape is not only still aggressive but takes on a whole new nature. I don’t mean to imply that you Matt meant to say that, please don’t misunderstand me I assume you are a good person who thinks deeply or you would not be involved in this discussion :) and p.s. thanks for the discussion, such an important thing we should all be talking about and trying to figure out what we can!

  10. PJ: Thanks for the response! I think you’re absolutely right about the understandings of rape and aggressiveness and where those things are situated in the professional literature. But part of what puzzled me was whether or not the participants in the study understand these things, and whether that was accounted for in the studies themselves. A lot depends on the wording used when asking the subjects questions, and whether these definitions were read to the subjects, etc.

    So, while presumably all of us understand that rape is non-consensual sex and that it is aggressive by its nature, it isn’t at all clear to me that the average male (and hence the participants in the studies) understand these things. So, for example, if you ask of a male “would you rape so-and-so?” or similar sorts of questions, they might have something different in mind. And if you ask of the male “would you engage in aggressive so-and-so behavior?” the average male is probably going to have a very specific type of physical aggression in mind. These things could be especially clouded if the same male were presented with pornography that may or may not depict rape, but is represented by someone as depicting rape.

    It very well might be the case that the studies account for all of this, though. I was just pointing out that a lot of this stuff is left open by the selections above.

  11. Matt : I see what you mean, if memory serves me correct the studies do account for this, but now I will want to read over to make sure :) Let me know if you get a chance to read through before I do (your eyes being fresh to this may find it easier).

    And Thank You! Its so great to be able to discuss things that we all see differently and from different angles in a super respectful way – I always learn so much in these types of conversations and I have to believe it leads to the path of higher learning and better people.

  12. Having read Allen’s article, the linked critique of it, and a couple of other critiques to which *that* critique linked in turn, I have difficulty avoiding the conclusion that the content of Allen’s article, whatever its flaws, is being significantly distorted.

    The only portion of Allen’s article that Amanda Marcotte deigns to quote (one presumes it’s the most problematic part for her) is where Allen writes:

    “But the fact that rapists tend to target young women rather than grandmotherly types suggests that in the real rape culture (in contrast to the imaginary rape culture of some feminist ideology), the faux-hos of Halloween and their SlutWalker counterparts marching in their underwear — like a man walking at night with a bulging wallet — should be careful about where they flash their treasure.”

    Now, it’s certainly possible to offer reasonable critiques of Allen’s inference about rape motives and determinants, as a number of people have. (It’s also possible to adduce additional evidence to support it, as other people have.) But Amanda Marcotte is not focusing on that; rather, she wants to paraphrase Allen’s language in the following terms: “So, basically cover up you filthy sluts, or you have it coming when someone rapes you.”

    Thomas Millar, in the linked article, is a little more circumspect, as though he were aware on some level (as he should be) that the warrant for readings of the sort Marcotte gives to Allen is less than unimpeachable:

    “Charlotte Allen isn’t saying [outright] that women who dress in ways she disapproves of deserve to be raped … but it’s no accident that readers come away with that. … [S]he’s not coming out and saying it, but that’s the subtext that is clearly conveyed.” (I’ve done the reader the favor of omitting from this quoted passage Millar’s tendentious and gratuitous digs at Republicans and, I believe, traditional Christians, at least as he conceives of them).

    Indisputably, Millar is correct that Allen doesn’t “come out and say” the message he imputes to her (indeed, she comes out and says the opposite). I believe he’s also correct, but for reasons other than he supposes, that it’s “no accident that [certain] readers come away with” that message. Could it be that that subtext is being supplied, consciously or not, by readers predisposed to see that message in any assertions of a link – however weak, indirect, limited or non-accusatory – between the incidence of rape and the characteristics/behaviour of any of its victims?

  13. Nemo, surely it can’t be the case that Marcotte, Millar, and other readers are supplying the subtext you mention because they are predisposed to see “sluts deserved it” when they read, “x and x and x are characteristics/behavior of victims which are related to incidence of rape.” In fact, Millar explicitly addresses some characteristics of women likely to be targeted by rapists. For instance, rapists “target acquaintances rather than strangers, and they employ careful methods to test boundaries and select victims who are least likely to be able or willing to resist or seek redress.”

  14. Gorgonzola, I should have been more precise and specified the matter of dress that Allen was talking about.

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