Guest post: the White Knight Disconnect and the realities of rape culture

This is a guest post from Nina Funnell, an Australian sexual assault prevention advocate and educator. You might remember Nina from her Feministing Five interview last year.

Trigger warning: This post may be triggering for survivors of sexual assault and their
supporters.

Recently the internet was outraged by a deeply disturbing clip featuring a young man at a comedy performance who tries to regale his audience with an account of what can only be described as a sexual assault. According to his version, he turns up to a drunk woman’s hotel room as a supposed substitute for the male friend she was expecting, he invites himself in, and after she repeatedly asks him to leave he has sex with her. This is all meant to be funny. You can see the clip and read about the story here.

It took me a while to recover from watching this. As a sexual assault survivor and anti- violence advocate, this triggered many emotions not the least of which was grave concern for the current wellbeing of the woman. But when the emotions settled and I was able to take a step back I realised that what this piece of footage does is document and provide us with a very valuable, firsthand insight into how sexual predators justify their actions, and the cultural work that goes on around them to normalise, reinforce and excuse that behaviour. When it comes to understanding the mechanics of rape culture, this is one of the most illustrative texts I’ve come across.

To begin with the young man, now identified as Eric D Angell, uses a number of excuses to justify his behaviour; her age, her inebriation, the fact that his friends encouraged him to go over, her sexual interest in a co-worker, the fact she left the door open, the fact that she was supposedly stronger, the fact that she didn’t resist.

Except that she did.

Repeatedly.

All up (according to his version) she asked him to leave no fewer than five times. A couple things are clear from this;

1) Firstly, at no point has he listened to what she is saying or stopped to think about how intimidating and scary it would be as a woman to have a strange man turn up to your hotel room, let himself in uninvited, ignore your requests for him to leave, and pressure you for sex. There is a complete lack of empathy in him.

2) Secondly, while Angell has used many strategies to justify his actions it is also clear that he genuinely has no idea that what he has described would legally meet the definition of rape. None. Zero. Zip. After all, is no way he would talk about it
publicly, let alone brag about it while being recorded if he did.

So what’s going on here?

In my work with elite male athletes and college students in Australia this is something I have seen a lot of. Men who openly admit to having raped a woman who have absolutely no idea that what they are confessing to is an assault. I have spoken to many men who will outwardly profess to oppose rape, who then go on in the very next breath to admit to having committed an act which would legally meet the definition of sexual violence. I call this the White Knight Disconnect: men who claim they are appalled by rape (and even imagine themselves as a “white knight” who would defend women against rape) who are in fact committing acts of sexual violence in their private lives.

Like all of us, these men have been schooled in some pretty pervasive rape myths. They think that rape is something that happens down a dark alley involving a knife wielding man and a balaclava. They assume rape involves physical force and violence. They believe it must involve direct death threats. They imagine screaming women. The result
of this highly violent, stranger danger stereotype is that as a community we often have difficulty labelling and addressing acts of sexual violence which do not marry up with the cliché. And rapists themselves either fail to identify that their actions constitute rape or they do, but they find ways to justify their behaviour as legitimate.

And it’s not that difficult for them to do that justification-work when their mates are there to back them up. One aspect of this story which I think warrants particular attention is the role of Angell’s friends before, during and after the assault:

Before it they encourage him to go over to her apartment, even giving him the cab-fare. No one tried to dissuade him.

During the assault they are silent.

After the assault they seem to applaud him.

In his account Angell says “when I tell this story to my friends…” It is clear he has practised this ‘material’ on friends. And been celebrated for it. So much so, that he has no problem now sharing it with the world. In that sense, these friends have been complicit in this rape scenario as they have helped facilitate it and have actively normalised and diminished the seriousness of it afterwards. Through their actions his actions became socially condoned.

Sexual story telling that goes on in homosocial male spaces like pubs and locker rooms is one means by which men go about establishing a group-agreed upon set of norms, values and rules about sex. This is problematic for a number of reasons. Firstly these spaces are socially designed in such a way to exclude female participation. These spaces are also often overlaid with other tropes associated with heterosexual alpha-male culture including heavy drinking, sports and sometimes female nudity (such as in strip clubs or posters of nude women in car-shops etc). In these spaces stories about women (as sexual exploits) become the focal point and means through which men achieve heightened homosocial bonding, but integral to this process is the assumed absence of all female subjects and female viewpoints. This silencing of the female perspective is one of the ways in which rape narratives become normalised.

If we are ever to address rape culture we need to not only look at the actions and tactics that perpetrators use but we must also continue to address how cultural arrangements excuse and normalise that behaviour.

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11 Comments

  1. Posted September 9, 2011 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    The tough thing about this is that the men who are opposed to rape culture are often atypical and repulsed by this sort of homosocial bonding. It’s the so-called “manly men” who never look outside of their own proscribed gender roles that produce this sort of toxic stew. The issue is how to reach those men who have sold into this “frat boy” culture and who are uncomfortable at the very thought of having established masculine norms challenged.

    • Posted September 9, 2011 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

      I disagree that men who are opposed to rape culture are often atypical. The vast majority of men don’t rape and are opposed to it. The bigger issue is that most of those men have trouble identifying the more subtle aspects of rape culture, and have been socialized to view all kinds of problematic sexual interactions that are in fact rape as consensual sex. There are plenty of guys who are part of fraternities and who buy into traditional masculine norms in some ways, but are opposed to rape; just as there are non-stereotypically “manly men” who commit rape.

      I actually think that it’s not that difficult to reach men to get them to think more about rape and being opposed to it. The bigger issue is that there aren’t enough people and organizations who are working to reach those men. Many of the ones out there are doing a great or at least good job, but there are still so many more men we need to connect with.

      • Posted September 10, 2011 at 1:05 am | Permalink

        I agree that most men oppose rape, but most men and women (in fact, there’s a lot of evidence that *especially* women) have bought into rape CULTURE. Rape culture is not just “rape is good” but the culture that deigns women submissive and unable to effectively communicate a desire for sex (therefore needing to be coerced or convinced by a man with sexual prowess) and men as sexual beings that have little control over their impulses. This culture is promoted by Disney songs like, “Kiss the Girl” (women secretly want men to act, but can’t say a word) and pick-up artists (men who want sex need to use trickery to get it). I would say that rape culture is very common.

        You’re right about the need for increased understanding among men, but as a student who has seen frats and sports teams at school I would say rape is extremely common and that most people buy into the rape culture myths that make them think something like the scenario this man described is just “having sex” (‘scuse me, “ok sex”) and not rape because it wasn’t violent ‘enough’ to be rape. I think the OP was not saying all gender nonconfroming men were not rapists or that men who are gender conforming encourage rape, but that men who conform to gender norms are not typically questioning our sexual culture and a grim reality of the current sexual culture is that it leads to violence many times.

  2. Posted September 9, 2011 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

    “Sexual story telling that goes on in homosocial male spaces like pubs and locker rooms is one means by which men go about establishing a group-agreed upon set of norms, values and rules about sex. This is problematic for a number of reasons. Firstly these spaces are socially designed in such a way to exclude female participation.”

    Women have equivalent spaces. The problem is rape, not male bonding.

    • Posted September 10, 2011 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

      The problem is that men bond through telling stories of sexual “victories”, which often demean women, in these private spaces. This is not how women bond in “equivalent” spaces. In a women’s locker room or some other hyperfeminized work space (some female equivalent of a stereotypically hypermasculinized work space such as an autoshop or the military [notorious for rape and sexual coercion] like a daycare center or cupcake shop [read: sarcasm]), I have never heard women proudly discuss how they coerced a man to have sex or just kept making the moves when a man said NO until – damn – he just wore down and gave in. I have also missed any media representation of women behaving in this way in such spaces unless it was in a Judd Apatow film. So I would have to agree with the author that male bonding in unmonitored male-only spaces contributes to the norming of sexually violent behavior.

      • Posted September 10, 2011 at 9:04 pm | Permalink

        I suggest you check out some literature on homosociality before you make a statement like that, because your argument makes no sense, especially without any sort of reasoning other than “well women do it too!” (no, we don’t, at least not to the same extent). Male bonding is very important when it comes to how men treat women, because often it is centered around sexual exploitation of women or over-all misogynistic behavior and thoughts. In fact, it’s the principle that men will be more likely to want to please fellow men than women; therefore even if a man DOES pick up on rape jokes (or general misogynistic behavior) and disagrees, he risks ostracism.

      • Posted September 20, 2011 at 8:48 pm | Permalink

        What Judd Apatow movie are you talking about?

  3. Posted September 10, 2011 at 5:08 am | Permalink

    I am pretty sure the person who raped me doesnt understand what he did neither. Its impossible for me to watch the entire video. But thank you very much for this article.

  4. Posted September 10, 2011 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    Julia Serano wrote an essay in the “Yes Means Yes” anthology that talks about the reasons young men are liable to buy into the often perverse “heterosexual alpha male culture”. What’s important to remember, I think, is that a lot of young men are really turned off by so-called “male spaces” like locker rooms and bars. But for a lot of men, buying into aggressive male culture is the path of least resistance. In fact, men who don’t buy into more macho roles often face a more difficult time socially.

  5. Posted September 11, 2011 at 12:38 am | Permalink

    – Women have equivalent spaces. The problem is rape, not male bonding. — Maxwell

    – male bonding in unmonitored male-only spaces contributes to the norming of sexually violent behavior. — B Mac

    And who exactly is going to monitor this space? How does this point to a solution? This sounds like an attempt at solution by authority.

    Story is hugely important in any culture. Even at the point of a threatened rape, the story a by-stander anticipate will determine whether they step in to help or walk away saying “who am I to interfere”.

    This isn’t a question of monitoring. Single gender bonding spaces aren’t going to go away. There is no neutral uber group to “monitor” the relationship within these bonding spaces. The solution isn’t monitoring, but working from within to change the stories we tell and praise.

    One of the most powerful kinds of anti-rape training is by-stander training. Why? Because it empowers men and women who see rape for what it is to act according to their true feelings rather than follow a socially more powerful leader. It helps the average joe become a leader through his actions and change the stories we tell and live out publicly.

    • Posted September 11, 2011 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

      My argument isn’t that the spaces need to be monitored by some “uber group” as much as it is to refute the previous comment that male bonding in unmonitored spaces isn’t a problem. As long as men bond over sexual aggression and violence, it is a problem. And it happens most in “unmonitored spaces,” even with “enlightened” men present. I agree with you if rape is occurring in a public space where bystanders can impact events. However, most rape takes place in private spaces. When men begin to challenge each other in unmonitored spaces, things might begin to change.

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