Earlier this week a woman was attacked in the park where I regularly walk. It was a bright, sunny day, and at 9:30 a.m. there were lots of people in the area jogging, biking, or walking their dogs. None of that stopped the assailant from snatching a lone female off the trail, dragging her into the bushes, choking her into submission and trying to rape her. Luckily two women intervened and the attacker ran away, but how audacious is that? What is going through the mind of someone who brazenly grabs and abuses a woman in the bright sunshine with all kinds of people close by? What is going on in the minds of the many men who sexually assault women, and why is it so common?
We have to first look at the role of society in the formation of the male psyche to try and answer this question. The term “rape culture” was invented in the 1970s by second wave feminists. Rape culture refers to the widespread and generally ignored abuse of women which is largely due, in feminists’ eyes, to a pervasive misogyny and sexism in the culture at large. The coining of this term marked the first time rape was framed as an act of violence rather than one of sex, i.e. it is a show of dominance and not an attempt to feel sexual pleasure. There are many components to rape culture such as widespread police apathy in handling cases, stigmatization and blaming of rape victims, and that tired old chestnut that rape is inevitable because men are naturally aggressive. There are also a lot of misconceptions that support this culture, like the pervasive idea that most rapes are random when in reality an estimated 2/3’s of women who report assaults know their attacker. Recognizing this statistic would force society to acknowledge that the vast majority of rapists are not sociopaths or outliers, but rather just regular guys, many of whom claim to love the girl or woman they raped.
The widespread acceptance of misogyny and rape culture takes many forms. In 2010, Yale’s Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity, known simply as DKE, made national news. During the fraternity’s hazing ceremony that fall they paraded their shirtless pledges to the Yale Women’s Center where they proceeded to chant, “No means yes, yes means anal!”, “F**king sluts!”, and “My name is Jack, I’m a necrophiliac. I f**k dead women and fill them with my semen.” The fraternity was not closed for this, but rather was banned from associating with Yale for five years. DKE’s charter was reinstated in 2016 and almost immediately two women came forward with accusations that they had been raped by the fraternity president. He was subsequently suspended for three terms by the school’s administration for “penetration without consent”, but the attacks were never reported to law enforcement. More than a dozen other women reported to campus authorities that same year that they had witnessed or experienced nonconsensual sexual contact with DKE brothers since 2014, including kissing, groping and sexual assault. In other words, the so-called punishment of not associating with the college for five years had absolutely no effect whatsoever on the sexually abusive and misogynistic behaviour of DKE members. As an interesting aside, both Bush men who would go on to become president were members of this very fraternity.
Rape and sexual crimes are also normalized by television. “Law and Order SVU”, which deals exclusively with this issue, is in its 21st season, and stories about rape and abuse are so commonplace that they appear even in comedies. I occasionally watch the sitcom “Mom” which revolves around a group of female alcoholics who attend the same A.A. meeting. I caught an episode the other night wherein a man who had raped one of the main characters 16 years previously comes to a meeting. The victim leaves as soon as she sees her assailant, and it is later revealed that she never reported the crime. She made her living as a stripper at the time, and was drunk and stoned when the assault occurred. These things taken together made her feel that she would not be believed. The show ends with her speaking at the next meeting where her attacker is in attendance. She reveals the assault to the entire room, although she does not point out the perpetrator, and goes on to say she needs to make amends. She did not tell authorities after it happened and therefore owes an apology in case her assailant went on to abuse other women. The rapist looks more and more shifty as her speech continues, and he eventually leaves the room. So, the victim shows contrition and the criminal gets off scot free. The show’s ending felt like the writers shrugging their shoulders and saying, “That’s just the way things are. What are you gonna do?”
The massive proliferation and easy availability of pornography featuring scenes of female abuse and degradation has also contributed to rape culture. I watched a documentary last night called “Generation Wealth” which deals primarily with American society’s obsession with affluence. One of the people interviewed in the film is a woman who calls herself Kelsey. Kelsey is originally from a small town in Kansas and came to L.A. in her early twenties seeking fame and fortune. Unable to find a decent paying job anywhere else, she soon began acting in porn. Kelsey is very petite and small-breasted, and when she had her pubic hair removed, at the advice of her agent, she looked like a 12 year old girl. There is a huge market for porn featuring pre-pubescent girls, a chilling reality in and of itself, and Kelsey began to have some success. She garnered fifteen minutes of broader fame when she came forward as one of the women Charlie Sheen hired for sex and paid with cocaine. Kelsey liked the notoriety this encounter afforded her and consequently consented to be in a film she was assured would make her timelessly famous. She was placed naked on an inclined plane in the middle of a stark white room, and 58 fully dressed men, one after the other, came forward and ejaculated on her face. That’s it. No story, no pretence of affection or sensuality – just an extremely young looking woman repeatedly getting semen shot in her face.
So many questions sprang to mind as I thought about this film in retrospect. How did a man even come up with this idea in the first place? Who were all those men who were sufficiently aroused by seeing a helpless, naked woman-child that they could ejaculate on her face in a sterile room with a bunch of other people watching? How is it that not a single man there, not one member of the crew or any of the 58 men who were masturbating, thought at any point about Kelsey’s welfare and stopped the proceedings? Did they even view that helpless woman as a fellow human being? Who are the many thousands of men who have since watched this film, and do I know any of them? Kelsey did start to get more offers after the movie was released, but found she could no longer perform in pornographic films without crying. The whole thing left her profoundly depressed and, feeling worthless and that she would never recover, she attempted suicide. When last the filmmaker talked to Kelsey she had a minimum wage job at a tanning salon and was living in what looked like a unit in a storage facility.
I think it’s pretty clear that rape culture does exist and consequently almost certainly plays into the thinking of men who sexually assault women. The other two elements which must feed into this behaviour are nature and nurture – how much aggression towards females is hardwired in males, and how much is learned. I am not a biologist or psychologist so I cannot speak with any authority to the former, although I do have some observations about the latter. I recently found a very interesting exercise in empathy for men proposed by a little known American author named A.R. Moxon. Moxon asks his male readers to image a world where men being kicked in the testicles is as commonplace, and treated in the same manner, as women being raped. He writes,
“I chose nut-kicking because there isn’t a man alive that doesn’t understand what a nut-shot is, and, with very few exceptions, none who would ever want it or seek it out or go out ‘asking’ for it. Most importantly, no man confuses getting kicked in the nuts with sex. It’s very clearly violence even though it involves sex organs. The idea of growing up in a society where getting hoofed in the balls is normalized behaviour, systematically if tacitly allowed by a complicit society, and frequently confused with a pleasurable activity like sex, would rightfully be horrifying to any guy.”
The analogy is not perfect, but it is pretty good. When asked why he chose to write this Moxon said,
“Speaking on the societally macro-level, empathy has been largely a one-way street when it comes to gender roles and dynamics. In my experience, women are empathetic toward men, while men tend not to be particularly empathetic toward women. Put another way, women have to think about what men are feeling as a matter of survival. Men aren’t in a similar situation, and so, if they don’t want to, they don’t. And, by and large, we don’t want to.”
It makes sense to me that a lot of the dismissive attitude many men have toward rape, and the entitlement rapists feel in attacking women in the first place, has to do with a lack of empathy. Some of that, I’m sure, is evolutionary. Early man needed to be aggressive and dominant to get a mate, and then to protect their clan. We are currently a long way from prehistoric times, yet men continue in these uncivilized ways and then let themselves off the hook out of sheer apathy. I believe this is why victim blaming is so common in cases of sexual abuse and rape.
I think the way males are raised is partly to blame for their lack of empathy as well. Boys are told not to cry from a very early age. “Big boys don’t cry” morphs into “Suck it up” and “Be a man” as males get older. I cannot count the number of times I saw little boys on the schoolyard doing everything in their power not to cry even though they had clearly been physically injured or emotionally slighted. There is a cultural perception that crying is feminine and therefore a sign of weakness. This notion is patently ridiculous as well as insulting to females. Crying is a physiological response to external stimuli, and to assign it any meaning beyond that is just silly. It would be like contending that laughter is inherently masculine and thus an indication of strength. Acknowledging, accepting and expressing one’s own pain is how one learns to have empathy for oneself. If society tells males for their whole lives to push that feeling down, and that experiencing emotional pain in the first place makes them less masculine, then how can they be expected to feel empathy for others?
I would argue that media legitimizes and minimizes this lack of empathy. Actually, the thoughtlessness of men is often made into a joke on comedy shows. There are myriad examples of male TV characters forgetting birthdays, anniversaries and other events important to the women they purport to care for, and in the end getting off with impunity because “boys will be boys”. These slights are consistently downplayed and lampooned when they happen to wives, but not when the character’s friends, or particularly their children, are hurt in the process. Then the man will be contrite and make amends. The not so subtle lesson here is that women should expect to be treated poorly, to have their priorities and feelings dismissed, and men aren’t accountable for this ill-treatment because clearly that’s just the way they are and actually it’s kind of funny.
Men are also let off the hook in many shows when they do not pull their weight at home. Let’s say the character is responsible for taking out the garbage, and although he has acknowledged that this is his job, he consistently doesn’t do it. The woman is now put in the position wherein she has to repeatedly ask him to please just put out the trash, both because this is not a task which can be ignored indefinitely without obvious negative consequences, and because he said he would. Now the man starts to complain that she is being a nag, “Get off my back. I said I would do it!” He thus turns his lack of empathy and laziness around to effectively make the woman into the bad guy. This behaviour also puts women in a constant cost-benefit analysis about the chore in question. Is it more annoying and hurtful to look at the evidence of the man’s lack of care and cooperation for an extended period of time, or to just bite the bullet and do the job herself? This trope plays out over and over on TV and, if what my friends tell me is true, in a great many real households as well.
These ongoing, often daily skirmishes clearly illustrate just how lacking in empathy men can be. They are content to allow women to constantly pick up their slack on the home front even though many women work full-time. Women still do an average of an hour more housework a day than men according to a study I found published in The New York Times just last year. There is a subtler indication of lack of empathy here as well. Women get righteously angry when men do not share the load, but they also get hurt. It feels like a personal slight to women when despite explaining over and over how much it would mean to them to have a particular chore done, men simply never make it so. Maybe men have insufficient empathy to grasp how happy it would make their wife or mom if they just took ten minutes out of their day to clean the kitchen or set the table or whatever the task might be. It is equally possible that men actually do understand how much that small gesture would mean to a woman they love, and, as A.R. Moxon suggests, they still simply can’t be bothered to do it. How truly dismissive of women’s feelings is that? Also, men risk being derided and called “pussy whipped” if they do what their mothers, girlfriends or wives ask of them. Being empathetic and kind to a woman is perceived as weakness by many men – a perspective I think falls squarely in the category of toxic masculinity.
The attacker in my park was caught later that day, but now I, and probably most other women who enjoyed the park alone, feel insecure about walking there. Rationally I know that makes no sense, but emotionally and psychologically I simply do not feel safe there anymore. The woman who was attacked was so badly injured that she had to be airlifted to a hospital in Toronto, and last I heard is still in critical condition. I posted on Facebook when I got home from the park the day of the attack, alerting other women to what had happened. Some of my female friends responded with concern, many said that they never walk on paths alone, and one recounted that a woman had been raped in her neighbourhood just last week with the assailant still at large. Regardless of how they initially reacted to my post, every one of them at some point expressed outrage that this had happened yet again, but also a bone-numbing fatigue to which I immediately related. We are just so tired of being victimized, of being afraid, of being invalidated and unheard, and of good men not standing up for us.
I found the incident in the park very upsetting, and that’s why I chose to watch “Mom” and the documentary about wealth earlier this week. I was trying to take my mind off what had happened, but then the former show dealt with a rape and the latter featured a young women being horribly abused by the pornography industry. Rape culture is simply ubiquitous. A man I know mentioned that globally more men are raped than women, but so what? This isn’t a contest. Besides, who is doing the raping? While we’re at it, which gender makes up the vast majority of serial killers, mass shooters, terrorists, torturers and heartless despots? I am trying very hard not to become a misandrist, the clinical term for a man hater, but I have to say fellas, as a group, you are making it very difficult.