The term “classic rapist” shows that people still don’t understand what rape is

dont-rapeWhenever someone makes the argument that one way to stop rape is to teach men not to rape, the response is usually some form of “but most men know that rape is wrong.” I don’t doubt that most men would say rape is wrong. I haven’t been out in the field to conduct a study on men’s attitudes toward rape, but we’ve had enough education around rape and sexual assault that it’s not hard to believe most men, if asked, would say rape is a bad thing. Great.

The problem is this — what do they consider rape? When the United Nations conducted a survey on sexual violence in Asia, “researchers intentionally didn’t use the word ‘rape’ in any of their questionnaires about Asian men’s sexual histories,” according to ThinkProgress, “Instead, they asked men whether they had ever ‘forced a woman who was not your wife or girlfriend at the time to have sex,’ or if they had ever ‘had sex with a woman who was too drunk or drugged to indicate whether she wanted it.’” If they had used the word “rape,” it’s likely that these same men who admitted to these non-consensual acts would have said they had never raped anyone.

We know that rape is bad. We know it’s something we shouldn’t do. It’s something that bad people do. We don’t want to be bad people.

And surely that’s progress, in some respect. Rapists aren’t heroes. Yay, us. But we have such a narrow cultural understanding of what rape is that we afford some rapists more latitude. That’s how we end up with terms likes “grey rape” or “legitimate rape” or “classic rapist.”

Yes, classic rapist. A judge in the UK is responsible for that one. Lee Setford, a British man, was convicted of raping a woman who was asleep on his couch and sentenced to five years in prison. But Judge Michael Mettyear had some sympathy for Setford, saying:

I do not regard you as a classic rapist. I do not think you are a general danger to strangers. You are not the type who goes searching for a woman to rape.

This was a case where you just lost control of normal restraint. She was a pretty girl who you fancied. You simply could not resist. You had sex with her.

Classic. Rapist. You know the kind. The man lurking in the bushes or dark alley, replete with ski mask and machete, waiting for unsuspecting women to grab hold of and take against their will. The bad men. Those real rapists. The ones born with the impulse to rape, pillage, and plunder with no regard for human life. You’re not one of those guys, the judge was essentially saying, so I feel bad for you.

So if this judge’s conception of what constitutes rape is this far off, do we really expect George Will or (other) teenage boys to have an accurate definition? And armed with half baked ideas about rape and sexual assault/violence, what is to stop them from (perhaps unknowingly) committing these acts? Recall Evan Westlake, a teen from Steubenville, who watched as Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond raped a girl and took pictures, and didn’t intervene because “Well, it wasn’t violent. I didn’t know exactly what rape was. I always pictured it as forcing yourself on someone.” In essence, that’s how the entire world looks at rape. 

This misunderstanding is dangerous in multiple ways. One, it obscures the way in which most rape takes place. Katie McDonough at Salon put it this way:

Want to see a “classic” rapist? Look around you. Most rapes are committed by a person known to the victim. Nearly 40 percent of rapists are friends or acquaintances with their victims. The sooner we erase the image of the shadowy man hiding in the bushes or stalking women in darkened parking lots from our collective consciousness, the better. Not because stranger rape doesn’t happen, but because this singular vision of sexual violence erases a majority of the crimes being committed.

It also means that we never put forth the energy to educate about consent and sexual boundaries, things that could actually prevent rape. We locate the problem over there when it’s staring us right in the face.

Not only, then, do men commit rape and never call it such, they can be raped/sexually assaulted without knowing that’s what it’s called. Remember Chris Brown’s (I know, I know) revelation that he had “lost his virginity” at age eight to a 14-year-old girl? Remember how some of us immediately called that rape, but for so many others, and Brown himself, it seemed to be a point of pride? So yes, we need to teach men and boys not to rape. First we have to teach men and boys what rape is. And maybe then some of those men and boys who have been raped/assaulted themselves will recognize it as such and come forth. Perhaps, then, they can heal.

And maybe, just maybe, no one will ever rape anyone.

MychalMychal Denzel Smith is a Knobler Fellow at The Nation Institute.

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One Comment

  1. Posted July 10, 2014 at 5:27 am | Permalink

    First we have to teach men and boys what rape is. And maybe then some of those men and boys who have been raped/assaulted themselves will recognize it as such and come forth. Perhaps, then, they can heal.

    And the women who raped/assaulted some of those boys and men don’t need to be taugt what rape is because…??

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