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Sunday, July 29, 2012

Reddit's rape thread

I had a whole blog post written about the Reddit thread discussing what it's like to be a rapist, and now I don't like it. It was supposed to be about the psychology of assigning moral responsibility to rapists and rape victims, but ended up being preachy and not scientifically supported to my satisfaction. So, in the trash can it goes. As I usually do when something like this happens, I'm going to try and walk it back and distill it into a simple list of observations. If I do this and still end up sounding preachy, well...I apologize.

1. That thread is very likely filled with a lot of deception. The very thing which encourages people to come out and actually admit to doing something horrendous like rape-- anonymity-- also allows them to tell a story with no truth in it whatsoever if they want to. So there are doubtless at least a few people in there getting their chuckles by telling a lurid and shocking tale that is also 100% fabricated.

2. Nevertheless, I don't think reading it is a complete waste of time because even a person's totally made-up characterization of a rapist is interesting. It's interesting to see if they agree with the characterizations given by those who claim to be victims (who are also posting in that thread), and because a person who fabricates a story of what it's like to be a rapist is likely telling you what he would in fact do and think if he decided to ever become a rapist.

3. The mentality of a perpetrator of rape, like the mentality of any perpetrator, is worth knowing about. It's disturbing to learn, but necessary to understand. We must always listen to the explanations of victims, but when the victims are the only ones allowed to explain then we end up verging into the myth of pure evil-- the perpetrator's motivations are simplified (must be hate/desire for power) and isolated (must be deliberate and malicious) in order to maximize his responsibility. That isolation is a problem if it turns out to be mistaken, because as I wrote last month, you can't really discourage people from doing something that they don't view themselves as doing to begin with.

4. The self-proclaimed rapists and attempted rapists in the Reddit thread generally (with some major exceptions like this) describe themselves as realizing what they were doing and how wrong it was after the fact, unless they realized actually during, and had to stop themselves when they finally grasped that their female partner wasn't willing. The closest they come to admitting malice is stating bluntly that the comfort and wishes of their partners weren't any sort of priority for them-- they simply disregarded them in favor of getting what they wanted.

5. That disregard is where the term "rape culture" begins to make sense for me. A rape culture is a culture in which women's desires generally, but especially their desires regarding sex, are not regarded. Unfortunately most of the things I could say about this are prone to misinterpretation, by both people who agree and those who disagree, in the same way that statements I make about what it means to be a feminist can be misinterpreted. For that reason I don't place a lot of stock in whether someone brands him or herself a feminist or not, or thinks "rape culture" is a fitting description for a phenomenon existing in the United States or not. What matters is whether we're talking about the same thing. Do we have a culture in which women's desires are commonly dismissed or viewed as subordinate to men's desires? Yes. Does that mentality enable rapists to rape? Most likely, if their own descriptions of their motivations matter and are accurate. That's minefield #1.

6. Minefield #2 is the characterization of rape victims, which goes right to the heart of why rape is wrong. Even the word "victim" is repudiated by some people, at least as a permanent status, because they reject the idea that the rapist continues to have power over them. A commenter on Salon's article discussing the Reddit thread remarks:
As a social worker, I don't find this comment/pronouncement [a description of a rapist being a cheerful, happy person who has traumatized a woman for life] particularly useful. These women are survivors, not victims. Some have moved on from the trauma by not making it the main narrative in their life story. 
This working through does not diminish the culpability of the perpetrator, and more importantly, it does not trivialise the gravity of the crime. 
What it does suggest is that women don't have to make trauma central to their identity. Yes, it will inform who they are and affect them, but laymen and observers must refrain from condemning women to a life of suffering by not making 'damaged forever' forecasts. These include such misguided statements as, "She will never recover", "It's going to ruin her life" or "People never get over that kind of thing". 
At the risk of sounding glib and simplistic, I am reminded of the quote “Life is ten percent what happens to you and ninety percent how you respond to it.”
To which another commenter responds:
Let me guess - you blame the ones who haven't "moved on" for their suffering, because they are obviously simply choosing to "make [the trauma] the main narrative in their lives." 
As both a child abuse and sexual assault survivor, and as someone who suffers from chronic complex PTSD as a result: SCREW YOU. 
Yes, it is great when a survivor can heal adequately enough to "move on," but the timeline for that is different for every individual, and your severe lack of empathy on that point makes me think that either, a) you are lying about being a social worker, or b) you are one of the terrible social workers of the world. 
I can't help but sympathize with that. Whether the (supposed) social worker does in fact blame women for not recovering from their rapes or not, the perverse attempt at self-empowerment that allows a person to describe those women who have recovered from a rape as having done so "by not making it the main narrative in their life story" certainly doesn't make a clear distinction there. I think it's possible to both congratulate and respect the work a person who was raped has done in order to improve her perspective on life and possibly grow as a person without suggesting that such an effort is both a) universally possible and b) merit-based, but the second commenter clearly doesn't view the first as having done that. A rape victim is responsible for how she deals with the attack to the extent that she continues to have an obligation to be a moral person, but expecting her to be her own therapist and "fix" herself does, in fact, both "diminish the culpability of the perpetrator" and "trivialize the gravity of the crime."

There's a simple alternative to this, of course, and that is to not pretend that the damage of being raped is exactly the same for everyone. We don't need to do that in order to avoid adjusting our view of the severity of the crime, any more than it's necessary to say that child molestation isn't such a bad thing because some children who have experienced it grow up to be well-adjusted adults. If you follow "how you respond to it" far enough around the circle of responsibility, you find yourself right back at "what happens," since there is a point at which your response is simply a thing that happens. In failing to acknowledge this, doctrines of self-empowerment play a cruel joke-- while trying to emphasize the ability to be happier by asserting "This is within your power," they implicitly endorse the corollary, which is of course that if you fail to become happier that is also your fault. And that, as you might expect (and see in the second comment), tends to provoke some bitterness from people who are not happier.

7. Because of this thread on Reddit, fantasy author Jim C. Hines (whom you may remember from his awesome blog post in which he tried to pose like the women featured on the covers of books like his) decided to cancel an author Q&A session he was going to do for Reddit readers. I don't blame him, though I wish he hadn't. As many Redditors have pointed out, even if the "how rapists think" thread has no merit whatsoever and all who are involved in it should be ashamed (which I don't believe), it hardly represents the community as a whole, much less the portion who were looking forward to his answering questions about how books. Hines is fully aware of this, but says that in canceling he wants to attract the attention of people who can "make a change" at Reddit. Unfortunately, I think he has simply made the change of providing Redditors with one less non-rape-related topic to discuss than they had before.

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