Or, Thoughts on rethinking rape advocacy to rapists

Most people think of rape as a VERY BAD THING.

Most people also believe that only VERY BAD PEOPLE do VERY BAD THINGS.

The trouble is, most people don’t think of themselves as VERY BAD PEOPLE.

Ergo, the following thinking:

“If rape is a VERY BAD THING, and I’m (clearly) not a VERY BAD PERSON, whatever I have done sexually cannot be rape because (as is quite clear) I’m NOT the kind of person who would do something as monstrous as raping someone.”

(Note: “Most people” includes any kind of person: raping, raped, or advocating.)

Where does this leave us?

It seems to me we need to think about, how do we educate people on rape without simultaneously accusing them of being rapists (even when they have raped)?

It’s hard to get people to change their minds on an issue at the same time as you’re accusing them of embodying it. “You’re a thief!” doesn’t go well together with, “You should stop stealing.” The instinctive self-defence that kicks in when we are accused doesn’t tend toward learning.

It’s even less likely to get people to change when you’re accusing them of an identity. I can change from doing something dumb, but if I am myself dumb, then what hope is there? Navigating this balance would be freakishly hard to do, I know. And it may not even work.

But, just maybe, it might?

People are likelier to be open to accepting they’ve done bad things if they can be persuaded that we don’t think of them as bad people. Heck, that applies to me myself. And you, I imagine. If I did it, there’s hope. If I am it — what then? I can change an activity; can I change an identity? That’s why, I think, the label of “rapist” (and of “racist”?) is so avidly resisted with a resistance that’s almost primal.

OluTimehin suggests in the Facebook post this article first took shape in:

A valuable approach might be defining rape as a thing people do rather than a thing people are (i.e. “this thing you did was a rape” rather than “you’re a rapist”), especially in cases where the issue is (mostly) a lack of understanding about consent and autonomy instead of deliberate predatory behaviour. It has happened many times to my hearing that people will admit to having raped someone as long as you call what they did anything but rape.

She makes an important point here. There’s a difference between deliberately predatory behaviour and ignorance of the nuances of consent and autonomy. I am male, and like many (if not all) males, I have had to learn about these issues. But there was a time I did not know. And there are many males who still don’t know.

And, yes, many females too.

Not that this ignorance is an excuse. The point here is not to excuse anyone. Rape is rape, and the pain and wounds it leaves are real. No reasoning on the perpetrator’s side should be allowed to undermine that.

The question is, how do we stop potential perpetrators from becoming actual ones? And how do we reeducate the ones with a history?

Those who have raped should experience justice accordingly (although the difficulty of this in reality is well-documented). Those who are deliberate predators should be stopped. Those who are ignorant, though, can be potentially made to see differently. But there must first be hope held out that people can change in that way.

And yes, there are again nuances. It’s common for predators to claim ignorance. And it’s not uncommon that ignorance itself is rooted in a deliberate refusal to face the realities of consent and rape enough to educate oneself about them. If I eat all the food in the pot, I could well claim ignorance that two others had yet to eat. But I could also have simply asked before I ate it. And even if I honestly didn’t remember, the food has sha finished.

But I think we can agree that a number of people simply don’t get consent and rape.

OluTimehin acknowledges the difficulty of this issue (emphases mine):

My question is, is it valuable or advisable to talk about consent in abstract ways without naming rape as what it really is? Should people’s feelings/comfort take as much priority as equipping them and others with the skills to establish healthy sexual boundaries? I do think distinctions should be made between people who are serial offenders and who target vulnerable people, but that’s a whole other kettle of fish and I’m unclear how that would work in practice. After all, rape is rape is rape. Eish.

The questions are valid, and they are not easy. Here are my own thoughts.

Is it helpful to talk abstractly about consent? I don’t think so. We can’t properly discuss an issue if we stay pussyfooting around it.

Should we then simply call it rape? I think so. It is what it is. (“Sexual assualt” and “sexual violence” are also useful.)

Should we give priority to people’s feelings and comfort over equipping them with the knowledge and skills to establish healthy sexual (and other) boundaries? I strongly believe we shouldn’t. The conversation is not an easy one, but avoiding it is not the answer. And let me make myself clear here:

The point of not attacking people is not to protect their feelings.

The point is to enable an environment conducive to conversation and (hopefully) change. You shouldn’t be withholding expressing your feelings of frustration because you’re trying to protect theirs. No. It’s like waiting for a friction-free moment to have a sensitive conversation with someone: you’re not (hopefully) being circumspect because you’re afraid of them blowing their top. You’re being circumspect because you don’t want to merely have a self-expression party. You want to move things forward.

This, by the way, is why I‘m bothered when advocates label others “rapists.” They’re welcome to their self-expression, of course, but self-expression is not necessarily advocacy. Plus, flinging the word “rapists” can actually water down its monstrosity: it turns it from a useful descriptive term to a merely derogatory one.

Take that from an advocate in mental health, where diagnoses keep getting turned into derogative labels. (I also worry that this is happening — or has happened? — to the word “racist” by the way. In fact much of this post can be applied to the conversation—or lack thereof—around racism.)

A second point. It doesn’t help to think it’s simple and obvious and any fool could understand consent if they wanted. That might be true, but again, you don’t win people over by calling them fools. (Except we really don’t care about winning them over.) Plus, if it was that simple, we wouldn’t be having this whole argument. Any discussion that begins with the idea that, “Anybody can see this,” is not really a discussion. It’s low-key intimidation: “Agree with me or prove yourself less than the average person.”

A word on advocacy

Advocacy, is I think, pretty much about trying to get the ear of people who you know would shout you down, maybe even take you out, if they got half a chance. But if there’s anything I’ve learned from advocating for mental health, it’s that you often have to remind yourself that unless you want to simply preach to the choir (who no doubt could use the preaching), you need to learn to speak to the other side too. And that — gulp — will often actually include learning other side-speak.

Freakishly hard. And often thankless, from both the other side and our own.

And yet the fact that advocacy is difficult should not, I think, be a reason not to keep trying. It’s hard to get through to one another as human beings, but what’s left if we gave up completely on the possibility?

(One can always simply try to take over from the other side, I guess, but if human history is anything to go on, you can pretty much expect that to culminate in a reversal of roles — like switching sides at soccer half-time.)

Understanding this has given me new respect for people like MLK, who seemed to have mastered this delicate balance of fighting without humiliating, and listening without surrendering.

This post started life as a response (two long comments) to a Facebook post on rape, by OluTimehin.

Published by Doc Ayomide

I’m a medical doctor with specialty training in psychiatry, and I love thinking and writing about what it means to be human.

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