Why the ‘nice guys commit rape too’ conversation is not helpful

What is true, researchers have found, is that cultural opposition to rape myths makes men less likely to commit assault, and acceptance of those myths makes sexual assault more likely.

This piece first appeared in the Guardian, by :

When do we get to stop calling someone a “good man” (or, for that matter, a “good woman”)? And how do we actually stop rape?

Those are just two of the questions being raised by the internet argument du jour, which started when the website the Good Men Project put up a post by writer Alyssa Royse titled “Nice Guys Commit Rape Too.” The gist of Royse’s piece is that one of her friends – a nice guy, she says – raped a woman in their social circle. The man admits that he penetrated the woman while she was sleeping, but says he was confused by the “mixed signals” the woman sent him. She apparently flirted “aggressively” and touched his hair and talked about her own sexuality, which made him think that she wanted to have sex with him.

He waited until she was asleep and could not consent to put his penis inside of her. In the piece, Royse contended that this nice guy is a rapist, but an accidental one who was simply confused by society’s mixed-up views on sex and sexuality.

Feminists, including myself, pushed back on Royse’s narrative. In response, the Good Men Project doubled down (and then tripled and quadrupled down). Good Men Project editor Joanna Schroeder made the decision to publish, under the cover of anonymity, the firsthand account of an admitted and unrepentant rapist who enjoys his hard-partying lifestyle and says he has “accepted a certain amount of rape as the cost of doing business.” Then they put up several more posts justifying the decision to publish the Royse piece and the rapist’s narrative.

When women and men who have dedicated their lives and careers to anti-rape work pointed out the fact that we have some pretty good scholarly sources that look at why men rape, the Good Men Project editors responded by attacking the scholarly sources. Some GMP writers quit the site in protest. Other GMP editors and writers joined forces with Men’s Rights Activists to lash out at feminists and anti-rape activists on Twitter and other social media.

Thankfully, a few of the GMP’s content-sharing partners decided they no longer want to be affiliated with a site that supports the publication of anonymous unrepentant rapists and defends the actions of rapists as complex or unintentional.

So why am I writing about a relatively insular blog fight in my Guardian column? Because it sheds light on just how toxic our culture is when it comes to rape and sexual assault – and how we can fight back.

We actually know quite a bit about why men rape, and especially about the kinds of rapes that the media often calls “date rape” or “acquaintance rape” – rapes where the perpetrator knew the victim, or at least ran in the same social circles. Academics, researchers and sociologists have done in-depth studies on sexual assault and found that it’s actually a small number of men who commit large numbers of acquaintance rapes. Most of those men intentionally target intoxicated women. They socially isolate them, ply them with alcohol to incapacitate them and intentionally push their boundaries to make them vulnerable.

These repeat rapists are more likely to have rigid views of gender roles and are more angry at women than the non-rapist men. They perpetrate their crimes intentionally, but use our social narratives about rape to avoid prosecution.

“These are clearly not individuals who are simply in need of a little extra education about proper communication with the opposite sex,” says David Lisak, one of the researchers. “These are predators.”

And yet, we still image acquaintance rape as “grey” or “murky” (two of the adjectives used by writers at the Good Men Project). There’s a social view of rape as a “he said / she said” situation, especially when alcohol is involved. Two people get drunk, the thinking goes, and they make bad decisions, or he didn’t know she wasn’t consenting, or she regrets it in the morning and “cries rape”.

We pick apart all of the victim’s actions: she was drinking too; she was dancing provocatively; she went home with him; she’s had sex before; she has a sexy photo on Facebook. While we’re able to situate stranger rape clearly in the category of things done by predatory bad men, acquaintance rape is often discussed as a sort of mistake made by a nice guy who just did the wrong thing.

That dynamic is on display yet again in Steubenville, Ohio, where members of the high school football team are accused of sexually assaulting a young woman at a party. The woman was intoxicated and alternately passed out or was unable to stand up. Throughout the night, the players allegedly penetrated her with their fingers, laid her naked on the floor, carried her limp body from party to party, flashed her breasts and urged others to urinate on her. Photos were taken and shared with friends, which launched a police investigation.

In response, the town has rallied around the players, and it appears the school has done very little. The blogger who brought national attention to the case is being sued and blamed for creating local discord (apparently, it’s not the rape itself that rocked the boat, but having the nerve to talk about it). One of the volunteer football coaches, 27-year-old Nate Hubbard, told the New York Times that “the rape was just an excuse, I think,” because:

“What else are you going to tell your parents when you come home drunk like that and after a night like that? She had to make up something. Now people are trying to blow up our football program because of it.”

The head coach, Reno Saccoccia, is no better. He refused to suspend any of his players despite the serious allegations of groping and stripping an intoxicated young woman, and taking and disseminating sexually explicit pictures of her, because, he said, they didn’t think they did anything wrong. The police chief in charge of investigating the case complained of the national attention, saying:

“Everybody wanted to incriminate more of the football players, some because some of the other schools in the area are simply jealous of Big Red.”

Family members of the accused young men say that they didn’t do anything wrong and were “just in the wrong place at the wrong time”.

Attorneys for the young men are also quick to rely on the narratives that place blame on the alleged victim. One of the attorneys, Adam Nemann, told the Times that the girl was able to consent because she was able to remember her cellphone code after the alleged assault. He also added that she had posted comments and photos on Twitter and Facebook, which, he says, demonstrate she was sexually active and “clearly engaged in at-risk behavior”.

Apparently, you can’t be raped unless you’re a virgin.

The narratives on display in Steubenville and at the Good Men Project mean that rapists aren’t adequately prosecuted. They allow us to think that “real” rapists jump out of the bushes, while the men who rape many women they know are decent guys who are just confused. And unfortunately, it’s often women, like the female writers and editors at the Good Men Project who penned and published several of the articles at issue, who do the covering-up for these men.

It’s a handy psychological defense mechanism to think that if you just don’t do the wrong things – if you don’t get too drunk, if you don’t send “mixed signals”, if you wear the right clothes – you’ll be safe from assault. Unfortunately, that’s not true.

What is true, researchers have found, is that cultural opposition to rape myths makes men less likely to commit assault, and acceptance of those myths makes sexual assault more likely. In social groups where there is wide acceptance of rape myths – for example, the beliefs that acquaintance rape is a problem of communication or “mixed signals”, that rapists simply can’t control their sexual urges, that women often lie about rape, or that women invite rape upon themselves by their actions or manner of dressing – rape proclivity is higher. When men internalize rape myths, they are more likely to commit rape or see rape as more acceptable.

When men perceive these rape myths as being widely-accepted social norms, their rape proclivity increases. When men believe their peers are using coercion to “get” sex, those men are more likely to engage in the same behaviors. But when men see that rape myths were challenged or not accepted, their rape proclivity decreases.

In other words, challenging rape myths means less rape. But when writers, cultural figures, media-makers or individuals perpetuate the idea that rape is a grey area or that acquaintance rapists are “nice guys” who are just confused or that women somehow bring rape upon themselves, that enables rapists and feeds their propensity to rape.

Which is exactly why feminists get so angry when posts like the ones at the Good Men Project are published, or when people defend predatory men as “nice guys”. Actions have consequences, and how we write and talk about these issues matters. As well-meaning as the authors and editors might be, and as much as they insist they just want to “have a conversation about rape”, when they inject “grey rape” and victim-blaming into the narratives and when they publish unrepentant rapists who believe that their actions are common, these publications are unwittingly – or, I would argue, negligently and irresponsibly – enabling rape.

It’s not just the Good Men Project or the town of Steubenville, Ohio. Those are simply the examples that came up today; rape culture is so pervasive that if you ask me tomorrow, I’ll be able to direct to you several others. Buying into social myths about rape is world-wide phenomenon. Every day, conversations are had and articles are published that feed into these myths. Every day, adherence to these myths gets rapists off the hook. Every day, they groom more men to rape.

Challenging these myths is an effective anti-rape strategy, as groups like the wonderful Men Can Stop Rape know. So we must challenge these myths. We must support organizations and media outlets that challenge them, and pull our support from the ones that don’t. We must challenge rape myths in our social circles and in our day-to-day conversations, and we must do so regularly and consistently.

Almost everyone says they want to decrease the sexual assault rate. Feminists have been working for years to do just that, and if crime statistics are any indication, we’re succeeding. So, let’s do what actually works. It might not get you as many page views, but that’s about the only excuse left.