Trigger Warning for descriptions of sexual assault, discussion of rapists and rape culture.
Assuming you are not a survivor (us survivors can picture very specific faces in most cases), what do you think a rapist looks like? Are they “other” somehow from you? Maybe you’re white and you picture rapists as people of other races. Maybe you picture some cartoonish sociopath off of a TV show. Maybe you picture someone poor, someone you consider unattractive, someone who “can’t get a woman otherwise.” Maybe the theme song from Special Victims Unit plays in your head when you imagine a rapist. Maybe you’re not sure what a rapist looks like, but you’re certain that they are all inhuman monsters, somehow different from the rest of us.
Of course, that’s all bullshit. A rapist can be anyone. A rapist can be any gender. A rapist could be the person you fell in love with and married. A rapist could be the TV dad you grew up admiring. A rapist could be that brilliant director you love so much. A rapist could be a hot, rich, young porn star who has all the consensual sex he could ever ask for. A rapist could talk about consent and use social justice language all day long and even believe in what they say…right up until they want to use another person for sexual acts without their consent.
Because that’s the big difference. That’s the only way you can tell someone is a rapist. They don’t wear signs. They don’t warn you on the first date. They don’t tell you, “Two years down the line when you’re really comfortable in this relationship and can’t imagine living without me I’m going to rape you.”
A rapist is just someone who disregarded another person’s lack of consent or inability to consent to sexual contact and violated them. That’s all. That could be anyone.
Yesterday adult film star Stoya accused her co-star and former boyfriend James Deen of assaulting her:
I’ve admired James Deen for several years now. He’s the kind of guy I like to look at. I find his performance hot as hell. He said all the right, feminist-y sounding things. He got praised for embodying “consent culture.” And at this moment I cannot see a single reason not to believe Stoya. I support her in speaking out. I hope she’s able to heal. I hope she isn’t made a target of harassment and threats because of her disclosure, as so many survivors are.
Just because someone is a sex worker, just because someone is or was in a relationship with their attacker, just because someone has had all kinds of sexy sex with all kinds of people, doesn’t make it not-rape when someone violates their consent. And, yes, maybe there are times (entirely unlike the horrific experience Stoya describes above) when it’s not clear if someone has given consent or not, or if they’re capable of giving consent. Well, there’s an answer for that:
Understand that if you go forward with initiating sexual activity not knowing if consent exists, you may or may not be raping someone, but you have proved beyond a shadow of doubt that you are willing to rape someone. Black areas make you a rapist, grey areas make you willing to rape.
If we think of rapists as monsters, as something you are instead of something you did, we’re actually supporting rape culture. Because anyone can shrug and say, “Of course I’m not a rapist, rapists are monsters,” and then happily ignore the ramifications of their actions when they hurt someone.
This excerpt from the novella A Bride’s Price by my friend Sarah Christian is about another kind of crime, but it nails this concept exactly:
Despite what stories had been saying since the dawn of time, evil wasn’t interesting. It didn’t often come from a place of sadism and seeking to cause harm. It was just selfish. Stupid. Short-sighted. They hadn’t meant to kill Karl—and Kit believed them when they said it—they just hadn’t been too concerned about him at all. In a way, that was far more terrifying than wickedness being born out of dreadful philosophy. People could go through their lives without wanting to kill just for killing’s sake, but all of them at one time or another would just not care too much about what happened to somebody.
That’s how it felt when I was assaulted. He wasn’t a monster. He wasn’t cackling in sadistic glee over violating my bodily autonomy. He just didn’t particularly care about me as a fellow human being. “People as things. That’s where it starts,” as Granny Weatherwax said.
How does rape happen? When we turn our eyes away from someone in trouble. When we don’t ask if someone is all right with what we or someone else is doing to them. When we want to “loosen somebody up” with a few drinks so they’ll do things we know they wouldn’t normally consent to. When we pretend we don’t hear safewords. When we decide our comfort, our desires, our fantasies, matter more than another person’s safety.
Rapists look like somebody who stopped caring just long enough to hurt someone. And that can look like any of us.