Heather N examines the ways in which rape culture is at work on rapists, as well as society as a whole and examines whether Predator Theory would cover the Steubenville rapists.
“No one is an unjust villain in his own mind. Even – perhaps even especially – those who are the worst of us.” – Jim Butcher, Turn Coat
One of the most common misconceptions about rapists is that of the “stranger rapist.” They are all male strangers in ski masks hiding in a dark alley, waiting to attack whoever walks by them first. Another common misconception is that when a rape is committed by someone the rape survivor knew, it is less serious. Sometimes, in such cases, the term rape is never even used when explaining what happened. Instead these instances are often explained away as a “misunderstanding,” between the rapist and the survivor, influenced by some combination of bad communication skills and alcohol. Predator Theory was largely developed in response to this misconception.
In 2002, Paul Miller and David Lisak published an article titled: “Repeat Rape and Multiple Offending Among Undetected Rapists” in Violence and Victims, vol. 17, no. 1. This is the study on which Predator Theory is built. Basically, what Lisak and Miller discovered, was that the majority of rapes were committed by a few men who were serial rapists. This was true regardless of whether these men knew their victims or not. According to the theory that has been subsequently developed based on this study, the vast majority of rapists are predators who purposefully and knowingly commit rape multiple times, targeting people they know.
There are a few issues with the study and the conclusions drawn, not the least of which is the fact that it only looked at cases in which cis men committed rape. However, rather than go into depth about the issues here, I’ll just link you to two articles that examine the Lisak and Miller study critically.* Instead, what I would like to discuss here is how predator theory and rape culture theory intersect. To do that, I’ll first have to explain rape culture.
Rape culture** is the collection of social narratives and norms that a culture uses to trivialize and rationalize rape. In “western culture,” some key aspects are assuming male aggression and the sexual objectification of women is the norm. The assumptions that men always want sex and “silence is consent” are also part of rape culture. The assumption that men can’t be raped is a part of rape culture. The use of alcohol or a short skirt as an excuse to rape is part of rape culture. Assuming “acquaintance rape,” isn’t really rape is part of rape culture. Doubting rape survivors because it’s easier to think of rapists as evil monsters is part of rape culture. Toxic masculinity is part of rape culture. Simply put, rape culture theory seeks to identify the various ways rape culture is perpetuated, such as those I just listed, and put a stop to it.
What’s perhaps most troubling about rape culture is that everyone unknowingly participates in it to some extent. When you make a comment about the inappropriate length of a women’s skirt, you’re participating in rape culture. When I joke that I prefer being a lesbian because most men are just too sexually aggressive, I participate in rape culture. When a gay man randomly grabs my breasts, not realizing his sexual orientation doesn’t make it okay to grab me, he’s participating in rape culture. When the media focuses on details of rapists’ lives and tries to make excuses for their behaviour, the media participates in rape culture. Chances are you don’t even realize you’re doing it much of the time.
So how does Predator Theory fit into rape culture? Well, toxic masculinity largely explains how our culture creates and excuses male predators. Beyond that, though, usually the argument I’ve seen is that rapists use rape culture in order to get away with their crimes. In much the same way a male rapist has used a woman to gain a sense of power by dominating her, a rapist uses rape culture to hide his crime and explain it away if he is caught. Rapists know that all the rationalizations and excuses of rape culture are bullshit, and they use that against us.
Remember how I said just about everyone participates in rape culture, and most people probably don’t even realize they are doing it? Well, Predator Theory argues that, except for toxic masculinity, rapists only participate in rape culture knowingly. They only perpetuate it on purpose, specifically to control their victims, any bystanders, and excuse their behaviour to the authorities if caught. However, this doesn’t explain all rapists. Not all rapists neatly fit the definition of a premeditating predator rapist. What about the rapists who are just as entrenched in rape culture as everyone else, so much so they’ve rationalized their crime to themselves?
One of the key problems with the Lisak and Miller study is that it only identified rapists who understood they had forced, or tried to force someone to have sex with them. In order to be classified as a rapist, those surveyed had to answer “yes” to one or more of the following questions (taken from pages 77 & 78 of the published study):
1. Have you ever been in a situation where you tried, but for various reasons did not succeed, in having sexual intercourse with an adult by using or threatening to use physical force (twisting their arm, holding them down, etc.) if they did not cooperate?
2. Have you ever had sexual intercourse with someone, even though they did no [sic] want to, because they were too intoxicated (on alcohol or drugs) to resist your sexual advances (e.g., removing their clothes)?
3. Have you ever had sexual intercourse with an adult when they didn’t want to because you used or threatened to use physical force (twisting their arm; holding them down, etc.) if they didn’t cooperate?
4. Have you ever had oral sex with an adult when they didn’t want to because you used or threatened to use physical force (twisting their arm; holding them down, etc.) if they didn’t cooperate?
Another issue with the above questions is that they only consider “sexual intercourse” and “oral sex” as rape. That ignores a whole host of other sexual acts that, even legally, are considered rape. There was also a problem I wanted to talk about with question 2. It asks if the respondent had ever had sex with someone “even though they did no [sic] want t.” In order to answer “yes” to this question, the rapist would have to recognize that the person they had sex with hadn’t consented. But considering rape culture uses alcohol and intoxication as a rationalization for excusing rape is it not possible that some rapists have done the same thing? And how about all the other rationalizations rape culture perpetuates?
Back in July 2012, someone posted a question on Reddit directed to rapists. It asked, “Reddit’s had a few threads about sexual assault victims, but are there any redditors from the other side of the story? What were your motivations? Do you regret it?” I’m not a psychologist, so I’m not going to try to analyse all of the answers. However, some of the answers were quite interesting, highlighting just what these rapists were thinking while they committed their crime. One of the answers that struck me was this, “Now, I remember exactly what I was thinking at the time. This girl gave me “the look” earlier, she invited me into her bed. What teenage girl would pass up the oppertunity to be with a 22 year old guy? She MUST want it. I tried again, and slid my hands over her body.” That, right there, is rape culture in action. He didn’t think of the young woman he was with as an actual human with agency; he thought of her as a collection of assumptions about what a “teenage girl” must be. He put a higher importance on what he, as an individual, wanted than on making sure that the girl was consenting.
Presumably at some point he realized that he was sexually assaulting the girl, or he wouldn’t have answered the Reddit question. But did he realize he was assaulting her while he was committing the crime, or after? And does he realize it, but continues to rationalize it away as not really rape? Does he recognize that he raped the girl he was with, or does he just recognize that other people would (in his opinion, incorrectly) identify it as rape? Were he to take Lisak and Miller’s survey, would he answer “yes” to any of the questions? Does he recognize that he forced that young woman to have sex with him? Or does he still think that she must have wanted it? That she gave him “the look,” and that makes it all okay? And of course it isn’t okay; he raped that young woman, but how aware is he of that fact? Predator Theory doesn’t really adequately explore or attempt to answer any of these questions. “He was a predator,” is about as nuanced an answer as, “he was an evil monster,” in a lot of ways.
From what I’ve read of the Steubenville case, it is obvious that the two teens convicted earlier this week, Mays and Richmond, were predators. What’s more, they were obviously heavily influenced by toxic masculinity. They drove Jane Doe from party to party, digitally penetrated her, urinated and/or ejaculated on her, and took pictures and video which they shared with their friends. The point of all this wasn’t sexual gratification; it was domination over another human being. As this article explains, humiliation was the point. These boys knew, without a doubt, that they were violating Jane Doe. They were predators, they knew it, and they were proud of it. However, did they realize they were rapists?
A series of texts from the immediate aftermath of the rape reveal something quite interesting. Mays clearly recognized that he violated Jane Doe; when one of his friends texted that she looked like a “dead girl,” he agreed saying “LOL, she couldn’t even move.” He even has the gall to text Jane Doe’s father to say he “never tried anything forceful with her,” and he was “sorry for all the trouble this has caused you.” That is clearly an attempt to convince Jane Doe and her family not to go to the police and to think it was all a misunderstanding. Remember the misconception I mentioned earlier that “acquaintance rape” can be explained away as a lack of communication and consuming too much alcohol? This was a blatant attempt to convince Jane Doe and her father that was all this was.
However, there is also this text from Mays to one of his friends: “I shoulda raped now that everybody thinks I did.” This isn’t a text of denial to someone who could potentially report him to the police. This isn’t a statement of remorse or regret to a friend; there is no remorse or regret there. This isn’t even bragging about what he did to a friend; this is bragging about what he thinks he should have done.
What this is, is Mays texting someone to say he doesn’t think he raped Jane Doe. He violated and humiliated her, and he shows he would have no qualms about raping her, but he doesn’t realize that’s exactly what he did. He doesn’t understand that digitally penetrating her and ejaculating on her is rape. How could he not? Well, rape culture defines rape as a stranger jumping out from the bushes and forcing his penis into the woman’s vagina. And that’s not what he did, so he doesn’t think it counts as rape. In this moment, Mays is just as influenced by rape culture’s very limited definition of rape as everyone else.
Now in this case, Mays is clearly a predator. If he had been made aware that what he was doing was rape, that wouldn’t have made a difference to him. However, considering Mays didn’t even realize what he was doing was rape, how many of the others who participated in violating Jane Doe didn’t realize they were participating in rape by using force? If some of these boys had realized that not only were they violating and humiliating Jane Doe, but they were raping her, would they have stopped? Had some of the bystanders realized that Jane Doe was being raped, would they have been more likely to step in and put a stop to it, despite the bystander effect? How many of the other participants in Jane Doe’s rape can be classified as “predators?”
These are questions that a strict application of Predator Theory doesn’t adequately explain. According to Predator Theory, everyone who participated was probably a predator. This clearly fits for some of them, specifically the young man who made the video tape laughing at how Jane Doe had been raped. However, Predator Theory doesn’t allow for the possibility that some of the participants had rationalized their behaviour to themselves by unconsciously invoking rape culture. How many of them didn’t think of themselves as having been forceful because they didn’t fit rape culture’s definition of using force? How many of them knew that they did not have consent from Jane Doe?
Am I saying that rapists who commit “acquaintance rape,” or “date rape,” are probably victims of rape culture, and that with better communication and less alcohol, they wouldn’t be rapists? I most certainly am not; that would simply be perpetuating the myth that Lisak and Miller set out to dispel in the first place. (Though, I do think that there are cases where bad communication about sex and consent contribute to instances of sexual violation).
What I am saying is that in some cases, a rapist is just as influenced by rape culture as the rest of us, and might not even realize s/he’s dehumanizing his/her victim, even though s/he is. And what’s more, even in cases where a rapist is knowingly violating and dehumanizing his/her victim, s/he still might not even realize that what s/he is doing is rape. That’s how deep rape culture runs; even predator rapists might not realize they are rapists.
* Side note: There was a recent study done in New York City that examined the difference between the number of self-reported sexual identity and sexual behaviour. Their methodology involved randomly calling people within a specific region, and randomly speaking to one adult in the house. They asked questions in such a way as to try to get respondents to divulge the most information. I’d really like to see a survey about rape conducted with a similar methodology. The near anonymity of a phone conversation and the random nature of the respondent selection pool would make for interesting results, I think.
** Rape culture theory mostly explains many cases of men raping women and some cases of women raping women. The assumption that men always want sex (part of rape culture) explains some cases of women and men raping other men. However, rape culture theory does not explain every case of rape that does not involve a male rapist and a female survivor. This is particularly true in the case of a rape that involves a trans* individual.