Rapists are more than monsters, victims are more than victims

Steubenville Rape
There have been a few conversations going on online this week about what is and isn’t rape, who is and isn’t a rapist, and the Steubenville rape case and the HBO show Girls have been at the center of these conversations.  Obviously, the two are not equivalent in terms of moral weight, but they both illustrate the complexities of sexual relationships and ways in which people we care about can be perpetrators of crimes.

We tend to agree that “no” means “no”, but what about non-verbal non-consent?  What about inability to consent?  What about coercion?  When are these things rape?  What are the terms we have for things that are not OK, but we’re not sure if they are “rape”?  What does it mean if someone we like does them?  What does it mean to label someone we know a “rapist”?

The episode of Girls in question depicted a man relapsing into his alcohol addiction and doing things to his girlfriend sexually that she was very uncomfortable with.  It was a very graphic depiction, even for HBO, that some are calling rape.

The scene is incredibly uncomfortable, but a major contributor to the discomfort comes from the fact that the audience likes Adam and he’s doing something the audience doesn’t want him to do.  Is it rape?  Maybe not, but it’s definitely coercive and abusive.  Is it possible to acknowledge that he did it and still like him?

And then there’s Steubenville.  The level of outrage at the treatment of Jane Doe seems to be matched by the level of concern for the future of these poor boys who had such promising futures.  Leaving aside for a moment how deeply troubling the discourse about promising futures is, as though Jane Doe’s future hasn’t been damaged or was less promising because she was woman who drank and had sex, there’s something worth examining about the concern being shown for these 16 year old boys being sent to prison.

They are, after all, just kids.  Stupid kids who kidnapped and repeatedly violated a woman in need of medical attention, but entitled 16 year old kids who spent their entire lives being told they could do no wrong and worked very hard to succeed at their chosen passion.  They are not just horrible rapists, there is more to them than that, but they are also rapists.

The thing about rapists, though, is that it is never the case that “rapist” is the only term that can be used to describe them.  As easy as it is to demonize and vilify someone who commits a rape, the reality is that most rapists are friends or family of their victims.  This is one of the tragedies of the crime — “rapist” often attaches itself to people who were already “friend” “star-player” “hero” “love-interest” and “protector”.

Add to this how ineffective, violent, and, yes, full of rape our prison system is, it’s really no wonder that people are sad that two boys have been condemned to that experience when they weren’t, up til now, labelled by any of the other labels that normally go with that.  Instead of jumpstarting conversation about how we could fix the justice system or the moral complexities of dealing with young criminals, we instead have a fight about how Jane Doe is the real victim (she is), how these boys chose their own futures by committing the crime (they did), and how they should be punished so much more.  What, exactly, does punishing them more accomplish?

I think there has to be a middle ground that says rapists are people and deserve some level of sympathy and the chance to make amends and have a future.  And if we allow for that possibility, the possibility of forgiveness and a justice system that, yes, will convict rapists, but will also offer them help rather than just punishment, more victims who knew their rapists first as friends, lovers, family, and heroes could come forward with what happened knowing that three-dimensional people would be dealt with in three-dimensional ways.  Perhaps we could then see rape victims as more than just victims, not just virgins and sluts, but three-dimensional people who had been victimized but were so much more than that.  Dehumanizing rapists has the effect of distancing ourselves from the chilling reality that people who have raped aren’t uncommon, making them just monsters makes it that much harder for us to accept that “normal” people who are accused may well be guilty.

I am furious, absolutely furious, about how Jane Doe is not being treated as the victim, but the young men are.  I am furious that there are no consequences to the other young men involved who did nothing to stop the rape and, instead, filmed and photographed the violations.  I am furious that there are people who think that she deserved it because she was drunk.  There are so many things to be furious about.  But I am also furious that these boys are being sent to a prison system that will, in all likelihood, make them worse and possibly get them raped.  And I am furious that our need for moral black and whites means that many women will never come forward because they don’t want that to happen to someone they care about, even if they are a rapist, and they don’t want to spend their lives being defined as victim when that often has so little to do with their futures.

Rapists are more than monsters, victims are more than victims

23 thoughts on “Rapists are more than monsters, victims are more than victims

  1. 1

    An integral part of trying to combat rape culture is fighting against the idea that rapists and child molesters will get what they “deserve” when they go to prison.

    The problem of rape is not solved by more rape. “Corrective rape” is not acceptable – not when it’s used to “cure” homosexual women, and not when it’s used to punish perpetrators of sexual assault. Once you allow that rape is an acceptable thing to do to someone, all that’s left is subjective judgments about who does or does not deserve it. And that is rape culture.

    What, exactly, does punishing them more accomplish?

    I’m the first to acknowledge that the U.S. criminal justice system is not perfect. But I can tell you what NOT punishing them accomplishes: it simply serves to reinforce rape culture. It shows others that behavior that should be considered unacceptable and illegal is not so bad. It treats these guys like 97% of all other rapists – the ones that never see jail time. The ones who are never held accountable for their crimes. The ones who are never forced to face the consequences of their actions and choices.

    I don’t believe that individuals should be sacrificed to prove a point, but neither should individuals get a pass for disgusting and illegal actions.

    I think there has to be a middle ground that says rapists are people and deserve some level of sympathy and the chance to make amends and have a future.

    If this is at all possible, it’s clear that we’re not even close to that yet. Far from being demonized, most rapists are protected by rape culture and the pernicious myths it perpetuates. From what I’ve read of the reactions to this (surprising) conviction, these guys have not even fully understood what was wrong about what they did. And I would only accept the idea that rapists deserve any kind of sympathy or opportunity to make amends IF they demonstrated real remorse and understanding and only IF their victim was even open to their attempts to make amends. This is a failure of society to teach these guys that women are not objects or playthings, and this is a grave failure. I’m all for apportioning the blame appropriately. But they should not go unpunished, even though our system is imperfect.

  2. 2

    I basically agree with everything here, with one note: In fact the young maen in this case aren’t being sent to “prison.” They were sentenced as juveniles and will go into juvenile detention, not an adult prison. Not nice places either, but there is more of a focus on rehabilitation rather than punishment.

    The other important thing to note is that the Ohio AG is convening a grand jury to look further into the circumstances around the case; http://www.cleveland.com/steubenville-rape-case/index.ssf/2013/03/ohio_attorney_general_will_con.html

    Just a side note, that article mentions that the people investigators have interviewed include the high school principal, superintendent and 27 football coaches.

    Does any high school really need 27 football coaches…!? How about replacing just one of them with an ethics coach?

    1. 2.1

      Of course they need 27 football coaches. In a lot of those little Middle American towns, the established religion isn’t Christianity, it’s football. I’m sure that some research would turn up a case or two where members of the jockocracy literally got away with murder.

  3. 3

    Punishing them accomplishes removing them from society so that they cannot rape other women. And judging by their bragging and their attitude toward their own sexual assault, they most certainly would have raped again. Consider their potential future victims.

    The kids are being treated as juveniles, which means we already recognize they have more room for rehabilitation than adults, and they will have a comparatively mild prison sentence. While prison rape is currently epidemic in the adult prison system, I have no idea how prison rape is in the juvenile detention system.

  4. 6

    I think the biggest problem with this controversy and others like it is that they don’t acknowledge the broader social realities that create these events.

    When we say that these men should be able to have a future someday if they are rehabilitated or whatever (if that’s possible) we’re also asking other people to trust them in the future, which is something I can’t do, at least in this case. The risks outweigh the benefits by a large enough margin.

    The other broader social factor (which you touched on) is that rapes don’t occur in a vacuum. These guys were treated by their coaches and their whole communities that Steubenville was their playground, and they could do whatever they wanted, yes. But they were also raised in a culture that protects rapists and facilitates rape by dehumanizing women. Every film where the wise old man tells the male protagonist not to give up on his pursuit of a girl who shows no interest in him, every car blasting “Bitches ain’t shit” into the street, every venue that permits Chris Brown to perform at it, etc. etc. etc. contributed to this event, and the countless other events like it. Anyone who hasn’t been actively opposing rape culture bears some responsibility for every rape that happens in this country.

    I don’t think we can recover these young men. Mostly because it’s just unreasonable to ask any woman to live or work with them. But throwing them in jail and then acting as if the problem is solved is just as silly as throwing our collective sins on a goat and banishing it to the desert.

  5. 7

    “I think there has to be a middle ground that says rapists are people and deserve some level of sympathy and the chance to make amends and have a future.”

    No there does not and no there is not, and this falls under the heading “rape apologist.”

    “but what about non-verbal non-consent? What about inability to consent? What about coercion? When are these things rape?”

    Always. Every time. They are rape. What part of “consent” and “rape” do you not understand?

    1. 7.1

      The point is that all of those things are rape, even though they tend to feel very different to people and we have to talk about why they feel different and why it’s hard to think of someone we like as a rapist.

      And thinking that dehumanizing rapists is wrong doesn’t make me a rape apologist anymore than thinking the death penalty is wrong makes me a murder apologist or thinking that torture is wrong makes me a terrorism apologist.

  6. RH

    I think you make some excellent points. This is even more apparent with ‘sex offender’. We don’t talk about rapist in the x degree etc. And people do feel very differently about inability to consent and coercion than they do about forcible rape. Even though they are the same thing.

    However, I have an issue with calling the 16 year old defendants kids. Just as rapist isn’t a very precise label kids is very imprecise and has a connotation that runs to the younger less responsible end of the age spectrum rather than ‘teenagers, youth, or some other label’. For me this is an especially large issue because they were so close to the line where we would consider them adults, and the behavior was nowhere near the point where a reasonable person could consider it acceptable.

  7. 9

    Here in Muncie, Indiana, a girl was raped in her high school rest room, reported it to the principal… and the principal told the kid to go home! The principal did not call the police. And… he didn’t get fired! He did get arrested and convicted of failing to report a crime, but the state court of appeals overturned the conviction: http://www.wthr.com/story/20878141/court-overturns-muncie-principals-conviction-in-rape-case The boy did get convicted, fortunately, but it was a shameful, shameful case. I think “rape culture” is a silly term because it misuses the word “culture.” The good ole boys in power relate to each other and don’t relate to women. Rape is just one of the times when they favor a could-be-me over a never-could-be-me.

    1. RH

      This is why every jurisdiction should have well crafted mandated reporting laws.
      I say well crafted because it would require a report to the police, or an on site licensed psychologist, not a ‘troubled teen’ center, or a higher up.

  8. 10

    “Does any high school really need 27 football coaches…!? How about replacing just one of them with an ethics coach?”

    Excellent point! Just another shining example of the extraordinary FAIL that is our ‘culture’ and I use that term loosely. Where in the name of hell are we getting our values? 27 goddamned coaches but Nimrod and Dipshit haven’t enough of a clue between them as to what’s right and what’s wrong when it comes to how to treat a young lady passed out from too much booze. Indeed, for them, poor miserable bastards that they are, they think it’s all a big joke. And take pictures. And then start distributing those pictures. Sympathy for these two? I think not. I think not and in the strongest possible terms.

  9. 11

    Hi there,

    Thanks for your courageous and thoughtful post. I think it takes a lot of moral integrity to try and uphold the rights and dignity of all people, even individuals who do evil things. Much has been said about the evil which was committed, however I haven’t read anyone else talking about how we can move forward in a constructive way. So I commend you not only for your values but also simply for your courage on such an emotionally charged issue.

    Here’s a couple of my thoughts, springing forth from the eloquent launching pad you have set in place:
    1. People commit horrible, disgusting, evil acts in violation of other individuals’ rights every day. Yet we don’t culturally dehumanize drone operators or foreign dictators (or even domestic ones, for that matter) – in fact we tend to treat them as larger than life historical characters, glorifying their realpolitik actions and brushing over their horrific human rights abuses.

    Why the distinction?

    Simple – it’s all about sex.

    Sex is the most regulated, culturally policed element of human existence. Nothing else we do will be as scrutinized and morally judged as our sexual behavior.

    It is this cultural attitude which created homophobic sodomy laws, which are only recently being repealed and only in a few countries, bit by bit (much of the world still criminalizes any homosexual acts whatsoever, under pain of death).

    It is this same attitude which created slut-shaming and the idiotic paradox of women’s sexuality – you must somehow be both a virgin and sexually experienced to be appealing! Yet you can’t have sex outside marriage, but if you don’t then you’re absurdly old-fashioned! Take a look at tabloids in any supermarket and you will see this insane obsession with women’s sexual habits, attacking them for ANYTHING they decide or don’t decide to do with their sex lives.

    And it is this same cultural attitude, ***NOT*** a healthy respect for individual rights and women’s bodies, that denounces rapists as monsters. It’s not that people suddenly care about women’s rights, or anyone’s rights. It’s that ANY sexual activity, whether consensual or non-consensual, is considered “immoral” if it happens without the sanction of the church through the official title of “marriage”. No one who rapes their wife is ever denounced, at least not widely or consistently. Only those who rape “children” or “strangers” are dehumanized, because they’re acting outside the norms of the sexual paradigm of state and church sanctioned behavior.

    That’s why we have a sex-offender list, yet we don’t have a list for serial killers, vandals, embezzlers, or other criminals. Even though parents should be at least as concerned about those other violent types in their neighborhoods, only the “rapists” are still treated like criminals after they serve their sentences.

    So, unfortunately this dehumanization has nothing to do with respect for women, in my view. It only has to do with the policing and “normalizing” of sexual behavior. Given this tragic reality, I absolutely agree with you that people will continue to deny rape that happens among relatives, partners, or acquaintances, since “only monsters are capable of rape”. Obviously this attitude does no service to women or any potential victim of rape, who are far more likely to be assaulted by someone they know than some shady stranger on the street.

    2. You have hit on some sad truths about our criminal justice system and the fact that it does nothing to correct or prevent rape from occurring. I have a couple of thoughts on this subject:

    I believe that rather than write laws for people to break (i.e. criminal law), government should exist for the purposes of mediating/arbitrating conflicts among citizens (i.e. civil law). Here’s the difference – Suppose a man John rapes his co-worker Jane. Normally, John may or may not be prosecuted, depending on how corrupt the prosecutor and the police department may be. If John is prosecuted, then there are hours and hours of humiliating graphic testimony and presenting evidence, all to show whether or not John broke some law written by a bunch of misogynist pricks in some capital city. What does Jane get out of this experience? Usually nothing. John may or may not have a fine (which goes to the government, not to Jane) and may or may not serve jailtime (which again does absolutely nothing to remedy the situation of Jane). NOW, imagine a lawsuit instead of a criminal case. Jane sues John for violation of her rights. The ball is in her court, so to speak – she doesn’t have to worry about which criminal laws around which to frame her case. All she has to do is focus on her own experience and how her rights were violated. If she succeeds, she can receive monetary compensation both in the present and sometimes into the future. Now he’s paying HER, the victim, for what he did to her – THAT’s the accountability that we need to see from all people who violate others’ rights, whether through rape, theft, or other uses of force. THAT’s what going to teach men WHY rape is bad – it’s not bad because the state says so, it’s bad because it violates the rights of another human being. That’s why the legal proceedings should only be between the two individuals, not between the rapist and the state (rendering the victim practically invisible).

    In the Steubenville case, a legal advocate should have sued EVERY CONSPIRATOR in this disgusting abuse on this woman’s behalf. She should have received compensation directly from each pig who was responsible for the acts that night, not just the physical violation but as you mentioned the men who failed to report the abuse, as well as those who photographed the abuse for their own sick recreation.

    3. As a staunch individualist, I absolutely agree with you in your observation that no one is “just” a monster, anymore than anyone is “just” a victim. We all are capable of greater things than abusing others, and our inherent capacity for goodness shouldn’t be dismissed even when we do something very wrong. I myself have done things which are very wrong, and I challenge anyone to point their fingers at others without acknowledging their own mistakes. Most of us have done bad things. We aren’t necessarily monsters as a result, though we are each responsible for our individual actions.

    That having been said, where does one draw the line? For example, I don’t feel ashamed of calling the late Joseph Stalin a monster. He massacred millions of Soviet subjects and led most of his nation into poverty, starvation, and forced labor. He WAS a monster, if anyone ever was. Yes, I’m sure once upon a time he was a nice little boy, and he was probably just misunderstood or whatever (epic sarcasm). But I don’t feel ashamed overlooking what good qualities he may have had. He was a horrible, evil human being. Similarly, I have no trouble calling these Steubenville creatures vile, disgusting, anti-human wastes of oxygen. I have no sympathy, no remorse, and no kind wishes for them. I wouldn’t promote anyone abusing them in return because it doesn’t solve anything, but I couldn’t care less if they are never happy again, if they never enjoy the “promising lives” they think they deserved. It is too late for me to care about their feelings, about their potential anymore. Call them monsters, I say! — Not because their abuse was sexual in nature, but because it was heinous, despicable, inexcusable abuse.

    I hope you take my comments as further explorations of your well-considered points, not as criticisms. Again, I can’t say enough how I admire your handling of this heart-breaking story.

  10. 14

    I wasn’t going to engage but I can’t help myself:


    You can sue someone who has criminally harmed you. Your suit does not restrict their freedom in any way, nor does it provide that person with services to change that person’s attitudes, behaviors & choices such that the person won’t harm others.

    There is a need for both a criminal system and a civil system, and, fortunately, we have both. You’re arguing either/or when we already have both/and. While certain VAWA related provisions on suits and compensation were struck down, the right to damages exists entirely independently of VAWA.

    More on demonization and punishment later.

  11. 16

    Really great post. I think you hit on one of the key issues as to why rape seems to stick out. We don’t want to see people(or characters) do things we don’t like. Rape cases (can)leave more doubt in the minds of some, ways to rationalize it away so they didn’t do something we don’t like.

    When someone we truly think of as a good/great person, or someone we love does something terrible, the first reaction is almost always disbelief. “I can’t believe you would do such a thing.” With many crimes, the evidence can be so clear cut, it breaks us down much faster. We always search for reasons it can’t be what it is. In cases like Murder, robbery, drug use, the hard evidence can prove it very clearly(the bullet was fired from your gun, you have no alibi, you have the stuff stolen from their house, you were found with drugs on your person).
    Yet in cases of rape(that don’t involve use of force/a struggle), the hard evidence can prove that they had sex, but leaves a grey area in terms of the crime that has to be filled in by the victim. People who know and like the rapist will naturally want to believe that they didn’t do it, or that it wasn’t rape, part of this rationalization usually includes that the victim is mistaken or lying, as those are often the only two possibilities(if you want to believe that there was no rape).

    That is part of what makes this example so shocking. It is literally on video! Very sad.

  12. 17

    Your message is hypocritical nonsense because the Guy Fawkes icon is anti-authority. But what you want is for authority to regulate people’s sex lives in an effort to affect the culture of others.

    In “V for Vendetta”, V does all kinds of antisocial things – break-in, assault, murder – as acts against authority. Rape is forbidden by our laws and culture. So if you want to do the “We’re From The Internet”, Guy Fawkes routine, the logical thing to do would be to go rape someone, take a stand against social authority telling us that it’s not okay.

    It’s no coincidence that the climax of the comic is V raiding a media studio. People are being brainwashed by the hypocritical propaganda, and through word and deed he breaks their delusion.

    But that’s not you. You’re not an anarchist, you’re an authoritarian. You want to tell other people what thoughts and actions are and are not okay.

    You don’t want freedom. You want to crack down on the freedom of others.

  13. 18


    Are you seriously suggesting that ensuring people’s rights to person, by preventing rape and breaking down rape culture/enablement, is “authoritarian” in any common sense of the term?

    I should also note the following:
    (1) It should be fairly clear from the photograph that Ashley (the blogger) does not appear to be the person posing with the sign (that is, she is not the one arrogating to herself the ‘V’ persona).
    (2) You should, perhaps, familiarize yourself with the phenomena of ‘co-optation’.

    Finally, I might add that the topic of this post was Ashley’s ambivalence at the sort of dehumanization that both the perpetrators of rape and their victims can suffer, and her discussion of how categorizing perpetrators of rapes as monsters can cause others to let perpetrators off the hook as a result of the cognitive dissonance caused (e.g. if rapists are monsters, then John Doe’s teenaged son can’t be a rapist, because he’s no monster, that sort of thing).

    How, exactly, is that at all related to your claim that Ashley is authoritarian?

  14. 19

    You are trying to use an ends-justify-the-means argument:
    “If you don’t approve of [insert means], you’re in favor of [insert abomidable end here]!”

    However, the ends do NOT justify the means. It doesn’t matter how good your cause is, or claims to be; if your means cannot be defended on their own merits, then what you are doing is evil, and like all evildoers, you’ve chanced on a convenient excuse.

    Next, this isn’t about Miller – no need to make this personal – this is about the argument the argument she makes. About the means she suggests employing towards her stated end.

    The means are inherently authoritarian in that the stated goal is to enforce a way of thinking. To attempt to enforce a way of thinking is the modus operandi inherent to authoritarianism: control action through controlling thought. Crack down on free discourse in favor of the preferred values and ideas of the powers-that-be. All contrary opinions, ideas, etc, are wrong, because the central premise of authoritarianism is that the [cultural] authority is inherently infallible.

    Your argument is also Begging The Question: you argue by way of a rhetorical question, built around an implied assumption: in this case, that “rape culture” is real.Talking about something, repeating a term endlessly, whether it’s “Jewish conspiracy” or “tooth fairy” doesn’t make it real.

    The reasons why “rape culture” is not real are twofold and have already been examined:
    1. Because all Western societies consider rape a serious crime against law, society and morals
    2. Because rape in the Western world is driven by psychopathology and not culture

    Whether Miller is the person with the sign or not is irrelevant. She chose to put the picture in her article, because she thought it was relevant, and the sign corroborates her position. You are trying to narrow the argument to a personal one, because examining it in its full breadth reveals its inherent contradictions. In doing so, you also make an “in the same breath” fallacy: you claim that the argument isn’t authoritarian, and that the person claiming it isn’t isn’t making it anyway! So if the guy with the sign is corroborating your opinion, then why are you trying to argue that his opinion isn’t yours anyway? Again, it looks like you’re tilting at windmills because your argument isn’t good enough to stand on its own merits.

    Finally, the weakness of your argument is further underscored by the pedantic and patronizing way in which you deliver it: repeatedly insulting the presumed ignorance of the contrary opinion (“perhaps, familiarize yourself…”), or resorting to mockery (“are you seriously…”, “how, exactly, is that at all..”) rather than simply making your case in a matter-of-fact way.

    You don’t get to opt-out of the style of intelligent discourse just because you think, or want to say, your opponent is ignorant. If that is what you believe, then let the facts speak for themselves; instead, you base your argument on style over substance.

    If you have to resort to ad hominem and obvious logical fallacies, your argument clearly just isn’t very good.

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