Not long ago, a friend of mine shared a post about the problem of rape on college campuses. And in the comments, a male friend of hers – someone I didn’t know – responded, “If I ever meet a rapist, I’ll probably end up in jail for beating his ass.”
This sentiment is common.
And on first glance, it sounds like a positive, if violent, thing to say. It implies that this dude hates rape so much, he’d kick the ass of any rapist he met. So why did it make my stomach drop?
Why did I spend the next fifteen minutes trying to figure out if, and how, I could challenge this man on what he’d said? Why am I now writing this article (which I decided was a better option than picking a fight with a stranger on a friend’s wall)?
Even though the intent is good, threatening to assault rapists usually does more harm than good: It doesn’t prevent rape, it doesn’t help survivors heal, and it plays along with some common misconceptions about rape and rapists that actually make it harder to prevent and report sexual assault.
For this piece, I’m going to focus on assault committed by men against women, mostly because I suspect that’s the scenario that men have in mind when they say “If I met a rapist, I’d punch him.” But let’s not forget that people of any gender and orientation can be both perpetrators and survivors of sexual violence.
So if you’re a man who thinks or says things like “If I ever met a rapist, I’d punch him,” I sincerely appreciate that you’re trying to be helpful. And I will appreciate it even more if you’ll journey with me through the reasons why this kind of thought isn’t actually helpful (and the one case where it could be!) and things you can do instead.
1. You Have Definitely Met a Rapist
My friend who originally posted the article responded to that man saying, “You have probably already met a rapist, Dave*.”
And Dave responded, “Actually, yes I have. And I ended up in jail.”
So, great. Dave has personal history to back up his assertion that he’d kick the ass of any rapist he met – sort of. But here’s the thing I would have liked to say:
You’ve met more than that rapist, Dave. I can almost guarantee you that at least once in your life, you’ve not only met a rapist, you’ve shaken his hand. You’ve laughed at his jokes. You’ve told other people he was a good guy.
See, I’ve known a few rapists. And every single one of them had friends and good jobs and nice girlfriends or wives. All of them had people who thought they were upstanding and funny and cool.
Before I found out they had sexually assaulted someone – or before they sexually assaulted me – I thought they were cool, too.
People who commit sexual assault don’t just materialize, monstrous, out of the shadows when they’re ready to attack. They have normal lives – and often, they’re quite charming, likeable people. Most people who meet them have no way of knowing what they’ve done.
You can’t tell who is a rapist from the way they talk or the causes they support either. Plenty of people talk a big game about feminism and consent, and nobody would suspect that they don’t actually care about the consent of the people they happen to want to be sexual with.
All that is to say that you don’t know who is and isn’t a rapist, unless you know their personal life very well (and sometimes not even then). Saying “If I ever met a rapist, I’d punch him” reinforces the idea that rapists are easily identifiable.
And why is that a problem? Because survivors have good reason to fear that they won’t be believed.
We need to really accept that a great, funny, together guy is just as likely to be a rapist as anybody else. Until we do, survivors won’t feel safe reporting what happened to them – because so many people will side with the rapist saying, “Him? No way!”
It’s hard to accept that even people we think of as great, nice, awesome people can be rapists. But that’s not even the hardest truth when we look at the realities of rape.
2. Rapists Don’t Always Think of Themselves as Raping
Our culture is anti-rape so long as we’re talking about strangers jumping out of the shadows and attacking the “perfect” victim. But in other situations, our culture prioritizes many things above sexual consent.
We prioritize seeming smooth over the potential awkwardness of directly asking for consent. We prioritize not disappointing a horny person on a promising date – so after a certain point in the date or in making out, we think one person has a right to expect sex of the other. We prioritize women’s politeness and attentiveness to men’s needs over their ability to say what they want and need.
Because of these misplaced priorities, it is terrifyingly easy for us to violate someone’s consent and believe that what we did was normal and fine.
Almost no one who is a rapist thinks of themselves as one. But in a study of college students, 6% admitted to “having sex with someone who didn’t want to” using force, threat of force, or drugs/intoxication. That’s a clear definition of rape, even if the perpetrators didn’t call it that to themselves.
Even people who mean well and don’t go out planning to have sex with someone who’s unwilling can violate someone’s consent. We tell a lot of lies about what consent actually means in our culture. Silence doesn’t mean yes. Visible arousal – an erection or wet vulva, for instance – doesn’t mean yes. Being in someone’s bedroom late at night doesn’t mean yes.
Sometimes a person takes any of these signs, or similar things, to mean they have a green light, and don’t bother asking, checking in, or looking for better signs of nonverbal consent. Often, it works out okay, because the other person really was willing.
But often – much more often than you or I would like to think – it’s not okay. The other person goes home traumatized because their consent was violated.
The awful truth is that it doesn’t matter what was going through the rapist’s head. It doesn’t matter whether they knew they were violating someone’s consent, or were just so focused on their own desire that they didn’t bother to ask. The survivor can be just as hurt in either case.
And this is a problem for all of us.
Most sexually active people have, at some time or another, had sex without verifying that they had their partner’s consent. Maybe we’ve been lucky and not hurt anyone so far. But just like someone who drives drunk and has been lucky so far, that doesn’t mean it’s responsible or okay to keep doing it.
When we see rapists as evil monsters, we make it harder to think about the ways we need to improve our own consent practices. To really help prevent rape, we need to change ourselves and our culture, so that it becomes normal to prioritize consent over everything else in a sexual situation.
3. Threats Don’t Help Survivors
Here’s the exception I mentioned above: Sometimes it makes me feel good to hear my close male friends talk about how much they’d like to hurt my rapist. Because I know and trust them, it can be comforting to hear how angry they are about the way I was hurt. And sometimes their anger creates a safe space for me to express my own.
However, these are men I know very well, and I can trust that if I said, “Hey, your anger isn’t helping me right now,” they would back off and ask what I needed instead.
When the same threats come from someone I don’t have that close relationship with, it’s the opposite of comforting.
Having been a victim of male violence, hearing more male violence often makes me afraid, even if it’s supposed to be in my defense.
I’m not saying there’s never a time and place to get physical in defense of someone. But attacking a rapist won’t undo the damage he’s already done. And I don’t feel great knowing that a man close to me feels that it’s okay to assault someone’s body in anger or revenge.
Sometimes it even feels like my body and my pain are being used as an excuse for men to unleash their anger on someone else. And the very last thing I need, as a survivor, is someone else using me to meet their own needs. If you say you’re doing something “in my honor,” I’m gonna need you to check with me to make sure it’s really making me feel honored.
I’m not even going to start on white men who use “in her honor” as an excuse for racist violence. Do. Not. Do. That.
If you really want to help rape survivors, we (mostly) don’t need more violence.
What can you do instead? Every survivor has different needs, and the best way to help is to ask how. But in general, most of us need at least three things:
- To be believed
- To be given safe social space where the perpetrator won’t be present or talked about
- To be allowed autonomy and respect as we figure out how to recover
It’s true that these aren’t as exciting and movie-worthy as punching someone in the face. I don’t think it’s because they’re easier though.
It takes a lot of courage to say, “That guy isn’t invited to my house any more; he assaulted my friend.” As soon as you stand with a rape survivor, you are in for some of the crossfire of the lies, gaslighting, and scorn that we get every day.
But if you really want to be strong for women and fight for us, this is what we need. These are the heroes we need: the men who will stand by us, believe us, and accept the social consequences that come along with it.
When I started telling people I had been raped, I was afraid that they would question and disbelieve me, because it wasn’t “the right kind” of rape. I was afraid they would accept my rapist’s account of what happened and tell me I was making a big deal out of nothing or just trying to get attention or revenge.
I was especially afraid that the men I was friends with would do this, because of all the things I mentioned above. They knew him. He was a normal guy, not some monster in the shadows.
It felt so good when the men in my life just believed me, offered their support, and stopped inviting him to parties that I was going to be at. It helped me start believing that I was worthy of being treated with respect and dignity – and in that way it helped me on my road to healing.
In the fight against rape and sexual assault, we need male allies. We need you because you’re a great deal of the population – and you have a lot more social power than we do. We need you because some men will listen to you when they won’t listen to women. We need you because men get sexually assaulted, too, because rape isn’t just a women’s problem.
I’m an attempted ally myself to many groups: people of color, disabled people, and transgender people, to name a few. When I want to help these groups, I have to listen to what they say is helpful, not just do whatever seems like a good idea to me.
And I need my male allies against sexual violence to do the same thing: listen to what I (and other survivors) say is really helpful in fighting rape and sexual assault.
I’m so thankful for the ways men in my life have already done this. They promote good consent when they’re talking about their sexual relationships, especially with other men. They keep examining their own consent practices. And they listen to what the sexual assault survivors in their lives have to say.
That makes me feel a million times safer than threats of violence against my rapist ever could.
Ginny Brown is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism, as well as a speaker and educator specializing in sexuality and relationships. She writes for various publications and has her own blog here. She lives in the Philadelphia area with her poly family and three cats. Follow her on Twitter @lirelyn.