Heather N investigates the ways in which calling rapists “evil” prevents us from making the changes necessary to prevent rape from happening.
This is a Tumblr post about a convention panel with the actor, Misha Collins, best known for his role as Castiel in Supernatural. He was verbally harassed at a convention in Las Vegas to such a degree he became visually flustered and uncomfortable. The women in the audience cheered on those who harassed him.
This is a popular photo about the new Pope. This is the YouTube video of Romney’s 47% gaffe. Here is an article about America’s huge prison population. This is a video of Sarah Palin calling Obama a socialist. This is an article about the sexual harassment game known as “fat girl rodeo.” Here is an article about a man who was gay bashed in California.
What do all of these stories have in common? Dehumanization. Our culture is thick with it. When Mikey Partida was beaten in California for being perceived as gay, the assailant wasn’t thinking of Mikey as an actual human being. All he cared about was that he thought Mikey belonged to a group he hated: gay men. When Misha Collins was verbally harassed in Las Vegas, the women who harassed him were blind to Misha’s reaction to those comments. At that moment, he wasn’t a person in their minds; he was a celebrity and as such he wasn’t expected to react as an actual person. When I laughed at that picture of the Pope, in that moment Pope Francis I was no longer a person. He was a symbol for a religion I have a lot of issues with, particularly with regards to accumulation of wealth and LGBT rights.
All those above examples don’t have the same effect on the individuals that have been dehumanized or to society at large. My laughing at a picture of the Pope is hardly comparable to the assault of Mikey Partida. Also, all of these instances of dehumanization are informed by specific cultural dynamics surrounding these specific issues. Celebrity culture and homophobia, for example, are more different than they are the same. However, they still stem from the same problem of failing to recognize another person as a person. I think it is this dehumanization, this lack of recognizing another individual’s personhood that is an underlying cause of a lot of our social problems.
This is perhaps most evident in instances of mass violence and rape. Perhaps this is because physical violence and violation are the most extreme and explicit ways in which we dehumanize one another. When someone violates another human being’s bodily autonomy, the only possible explanation is that for some reason they no longer considered that other person an actual person. As a Facebook friend said in a conversation about the Steubenville rape case: “If those guys could learn to truly see women as they see themselves, then they may be hard pressed to rape.”
Now here’s something that’s strange to write: we also dehumanize rapists. That is probably difficult to read; it’s damn sure difficult to write. It’s true, though. In fact we dehumanize all criminals. In general mainstream society often doesn’t talk about rapists as though they are human. Instead we talk about them as though they are something else altogether. We talk about how rapists are monsters and absolutely evil, as though they are the boogie men hiding under the bed. They aren’t, though; they’re people.
My immediate reaction to the knowledge that we dehumanize rapists is, “so what?” After all, they have committed horrible crimes; what’s so wrong with considering them absolutely evil? Well, my answer comes in multiple parts. The first would be to point you to the article back at the top of the page about America’s imprisoned population. Treating convicts as though they are not people helps lead to a society that has no qualms with imprisoning large chunks of their population. Of course rapists deserve to be imprisoned; I’d argue for a lot longer than current sentencing allows in most states. But still, treating rapists as non-human because they are criminals only contributes to a culture which treats all its criminals as subhuman.
What’s wrong here is that considering rapists as unknowable monsters actually prevents us from accurately identifying rapists. In Steubenville, two young men took an unconscious woman from party to party and repeatedly raped and urinated on her. When people in the town were confronted with this, a lot of them reacted with, “but they’re good boys. They couldn’t have done this.”
In spite of all the evidence, there are still people who cannot believe that two football-playing ‘normal’ boys could have raped anyone. They went into denial, they made excuses, they victim-blamed and tried to convince themselves that “silence is consent.” In fact, in order to reconcile their dehumanized vision of what a rapist is with the reality that their neighbours had committed rape, these people from Steubenville end up dehumanizing the victim. If we are unable to recognize a rapist when s/he’s our neighbour, then we are also unable to recognize a victim of that rapist as such.
Dehumanizing rapists actually prohibits us from effectively combatting and preventing rape. A week ago Zerlina Maxwell went onto Hannity’s show on Fox to talk about rape prevention. Hannity’s response to her was that “evil exists in this world,” and we should be teaching women to protect themselves from it. Hannity’s invocation of “evil” serves only to dehumanize rapists and turn them into something unknown and inexplicable. If rape is inexplicable, then we can’t do anything to truly prevent or change it. That is essentially giving up our responsibility as a society to prevent would-be rapists from committing rape.
What’s more, if we treat all rapists as though they are unknowable monsters, we run into a wall when we try to explain how and why people rape. How does someone explain evil? You can’t, and there’s the problem. So in order to understand why people rape, we need to start with the acknowledgement that the people who commit rape are human beings. They are human beings who have dehumanized their victims to such an extent that they have justified the violation of their victim’s bodily autonomy. So it is with that in mind that we can address the big question: what biological influences and cultural narratives have contributed to this dehumanization?
I’m by no means the first person to come to this conclusion. Others have expressed similar ideas, some more effectively than others. Julie Gillis wrote a great blog post about the underlying cultural narratives that contribute to sexual violation. I’d argue that the concept of rape culture arguably starts with the acknowledgement that rapists are people and does much to explain the vast majority of rapes committed by men to women. Though, of course, it doesn’t explain everything.
Perhaps that is the larger conclusion to draw away from this: there is no single cause of rape. There is no single reason that will explain why all rapists have committed their crimes. There is the underlying current of dehumanization and power, yes. A rapist positions him/herself in a position of power over his/her victim. Beyond that, however, there are too many variables to come to one, single explanation. Everyone, from Ghandi to Charles Manson, is influenced by cultural narratives, biological influences and individual experiences in vastly different ways.
Why would we expect anything different from a rapist?