“I despise rapists. For me you’re somewhere between a cockroach and that white stuff that accumulates at the corner of your mouth when you’re really thirsty.”
I would like to talk about rape. I think it is an interesting topic because it incites a lot of violent invective and really lays bare our antiquated values regarding the commodity-status of female sexuality. Mostly, I think it is misunderstood because like so many things in our society, it is reduced to a self-contained problem with people arguing various causes without an understanding of causality itself.
I guess the best place to start would be right in the thick of it, with the hotly contested issue of whether certain women invite rape by their demanour, clothing, etc… My simple answer to this would be “no,” but I think it is more complex than that simple response. To say that a woman stands a greater chance of getting raped because she is wearing a short skirt makes her the prime cause (which she isn’t) and also negates a few important factors such as where she is, time of day, how many people are around and very significantly, the disposition of nearby males.* I’m sure there are more factors but these few are the ones that occur off the top of my head. When we look at a single occurrence of rape, indeed any single occurrence of anything anywhere, we are faced with the reality that it is a product of many factors working together in unison, and each of those factors have a traceable causal origin as well. This illuminates two things for us: first of all it is very difficult to rightly say that one factor is the cause of anything; and second, we too may be subject to factors beyond our control which may lead us to do things which we might not normally do. This can be an uncomfortable thought for some people because noone wants to think they are capable of “evil.”**
Dr. Richard C. Lewontin makes a very clear distinction between causes and agents in his series of lectures called Biology as Ideology: The Doctrine of DNA. I will borrow his example of asbestos, which he points out has been wrongly called the cause of certain cancers. We find that when we leave the existing industrial mechanisms in place and simply ban a substance, industry is only too eager to greenlight a new, untested, potentially carcinogenic substance which has not yet been regulated. If the workplace cancers persist from other carcinogens, can asbestos really be said to be the cause of workplace cancer? No, rather it is an agent or factor in the causal chain which can at most contribute to an outcome. To call an inanimate object a cause is to fetishize it and endow it with a malice that simply isn’t there.
Similarly, to call sexy clothes on a woman the cause of rape does not take into account the larger causal mechanisms which lead to interpersonal violence, and again fetishizes the inanimate skirt, If you want any more proof that neither asbestos or sexy clothes are causes in and of themselves, consider all the cases of cancer and all the cases of rape:
Have all the cases of cancer involved asbestos exposure? Certainly not.
Have all the cases of rape involved sexy clothes? I don’t know the stats, but again I feel confident saying “no.”
Simply removing a causal agent will not eradicate an outcome.
But here’s the rub: while we can’t say that asbestos is the cause of cancer, we can say that certain types of cancer will not occur without exposure to asbestos. Similarly, we can say that certain rapes would not have happened absent provocative clothing. Please note that this is not the same as naming sexy clothes the cause of rape, nor is it excusing the rapist.*** I hope this distinction is clear because very often we get confused about causes and causal agents/factors. I know I have written about this distinction before but it bears repeating. Funnily enough, you often see the rudiments of causal thinking expressed in the arguments of firearms advocates who say, “guns being banned would not reduce violence, only (maybe) school shootings. This is correct in the same way that saying, “banning asbestos reduces asbestos-related cancer, but does not eradicate cancer,” is correct. In all these cases, whether we are talking about banning guns, regulating asbestos, or dressing more modestly so as to avoid rape, we are not actually dealing with the causes, but the agents.
So, Regarding Rape, What Are the Causes?
I don’t know. But I have an idea. This line of reasoning might sound familiar to anyone who has dabbled in my blog before so bear with me. We must look at rape in the broader context of interpersonal violence. It’s really tempting to look at it as somehow separate and removed from other forms of violence, but in reality, its not special.# There are no “special” forms of violence: If I murder a black man it is violence. However, if I murder him while wearing a white hood and screaming “Nigger!” it is still the same violence. Certainly it is more salacious and might sell a few more papers but ultimately the violence has been done either way regardless if our different skin tones factored into the equation. Now, notwithstanding the fact that men can also be raped, women are the primary victims of rape just like it is generally visible minorities who are the primary victims of hate crimes. And while these added layers of selection and profiling again make the story more salacious, we should not lose sight of the fact that when you reduce these things down to their essential parts they are still violence, no more or less offensive than one white male being violent toward another white male.
Violence is violence.
I only hammer this point home because I think that when you correctly place rape in the broader context of violence in general you can actually understand how to deal with it a little better. For rape to happen, indeed for any violence to happen, it has to be reinforced by our society. Someone (the aggressor) has to be getting something out of it, because our society reinforces competition, segregation, differential advantage, and jockeying for power. Sure, society teaches us love and fellowship and good citizenship, etc., but it reinforces the aforementioned competitive qualities.
Now my twelfth-grade religion teacher once told us that rape is a crime of power, not sex, and I think there is some truth to that. Certainly it sheds some light on rape if you, like me, are inclined to view our society as a constant struggle for power and advantage, I think most, if not all interactions in our society can be reduced to some kind of power struggle, and while that may sound overly cynical and Machiavellian## consider some of the common day-to-day relationships we have:
DOM VS. SUB
Alpha Male Betas
The State The Person
These relationships are just a few of the commonplace, accepted forms of power dynamics (struggles really). I don’t even want to go into the aberrant romantic relationships where one partner is whipped or, in more extreme situations, scared of their partner.
Moving forward with this assumption of constant power struggles we can see that there are many ways in which to gain the “so-called” upper hand; be physically stronger, be more persuasive, be better looking, have more money, prove someone else wrong, embarrass another, make people laugh. All of these actions will elevate your status relative to others, and in some cases directly put someone down relative to you. But the acceptance and social acclaim we feel for these actions make them worthwhile even if someone else has to get punked for us to look good.
Conversely, if we are those individuals that have just gotten punked, or lost face/honour/etc…, there is a desire to want to restore that face or honour. The feeling of shame is terrible and it is interesting to watch people in a social situation who have been put in this position try and qualify themselves to others and regain the favour of the group. So powerful can this feeling of shame be that it can actually make people act violently in search of retribution. (*If you think about it, this whole shaming/retribution cycle was really the driving force behind the Charlie Murphy True Hollywood Story about Rick James).
“The prison inmates I work with have told me repeatedly when I ask them why they have assaulted someone that it was because “he disrespected me.” The word disrespect is central in the vocabulary, moral values systems and psycho-dynamics of these chronically violent men. I have yet to see a serious act of violence that was not provoked by the experience of feeling shamed and humiliated, disrespected and ridiculed, and did not represent an attempt to undo this loss of face no matter how severe the punishment. For we misunderstand these men at our peril if we do not realize they mean it literally when they say they would rather kill or mutilate others [or] be killed, than live without pride, dignity and self-respect.” -James Gilligan, Social Pathology (Quoted by Peter Joseph)
If I may be so bold as to suggest that the causes of prison violence may also underlie the violence outside of prison, and if furthermore you may be so bold as to accept that proposition, I think we might have a workable hypothesis for what causes all interpersonal violence in the world, not just rape. And really why should we discriminate when it comes to different degrees of violence IF we can deal with it all in one fell swoop? That’s a big “if”, but I maintain that it is possible if we stop looking at things in the current piecemeal fashion. Corny as it may sound, we gotta start thinking holistically, or at the very least stop looking at things within the common frames of reference and applying the same tried and ineffective solutions.
The problem of rape is not to be addressed by narrowing our focus to rape and rape alone; certainly it will not be solved by the passing of new laws or well-intentioned marketing campaigns
which only serve to perpetuate duality (us vs. them). No rather than a dualistic perspective (which if you think about it is the foundation of so many of our obsolete societal perspectives -i.e. venus vs. mars, good vs. evil, demo vs. repub, coke vs. pepsi) we need a unified one. We need to critically examine our society and find the common thread which condemns us all. We need to have a knowledge of history and historical precedent but also be careful not to let our past & present conceptions shape our future projections.
Finally I would like to say that we’ve tried approaching rape and female equality from an isolated perspective for long enough. Frankly, progress has not moved quick enough for my tastes where it has happened at all. Female voting and the ability to work seemed like victories but were merely accommodations, much like the “victories” blacks got in the southern US during the 1960s and 70s. In reality, women’s suffrage and women’s lib only served to afford women the same level of servitude afforded only to men up to that point. I recognize these movements for their temporal importance and their necessity at the time. But now we can do better – we must do better.
**I don’t think there is such thing as evil, just right and wrong. But evil is a good word for to make a point with. (sic.)
***”Excusing” the rapist should be a moot concept if any of this causality jibber-jabber is sinking in.
#The intent here is not to marginalize any victim so lets set a benchmark. Either no form of violence is special or all forms are special and all the victims are special cases. I am inclined to think the latter. Try telling a victim of a crime that their experience isn’t a special case. Of course it is, even if its just a statistic to you.
##I’ve never used the word, Machiavelli or any of its derivatives in my writing before. Feels good, man…