men, masculinities and gender politics

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What’s your problem, lady? Can’t you see that I’m no rapist?

The other day I was doing a rather unpleasant home remodeling project. Tired of the heat, tired of the noise, and tired of the dust, I burst out of my front door, out into the fresh air, out into the bright sunshine.

And when I did this I scared the heck out of a woman who happened to be walking by on the sidewalk. She had an instant look of fear in her eyes.

Immediately realizing that I had scared her, I tried smiling at her reassuringly. But still she stared at me wide-eyed as she hurried on.

She did not smile back.

Whoah! What the heck is her problem? I was smiling, for goodness sake! And I had absolutely no intention of harming that woman. How could she not know that?

Hell, I don’t even look like a rapist!

Heck, I was even smiling!

What a rapist looks like. Let’s face it, I do not look like what the world often thinks of when we think about the sort of guy who rapes women. After all, I am -- and I’ll just say it -- white. I am clean cut. The house I am working on is in a “nice” neighbourhood. I have a professional job. I am married. I have a kid. And I’m a relatively attractive guy. I mean, I’m no Matt McConaughey, but then again, who is? (Other than Matt McConaughey, of course.) But it’s not like I’m the type of guy who would need to rape somebody in order to get some action.

So why in the world would this woman who was walking by ever have a reason to be scared of me?

Well, it turns out that in the real world -- rather than in our stereotypical rape scenario -- it is exactly guys like me who rape, who assault, who harass, and who molest. All the damn time.

And the sooner we get that fact through our thick heads, the sooner we can make some progress on confronting the epidemic of rape, and the safer we will all be.

Real world. Real rape. Any discussion of the realities of rape needs to acknowledge just how terrifyingly common it actually is. It is estimated that 25% of women will experience rape or attempted rape during their lifetime.

But I think that rape is a heck of a lot more common than that. As I wrote in another blog post called “Toward a More Valid Definition of Rape” (http://billsprofeministblog.blogspot.ca/2012/04/toward-more-valid-definition-of-rape.html), we need to understand that there is a ton of sexually coercive behaviour going on all around us all the time. That there is a lot of “sex” that is occurring without meaningful consent (i.e. consent that is given without fear, without confusion, without pressure, and without manipulation).

And when we back out a little further and look at rates of sexual harassment, unwanted sexual touch, street harassment, unwanted leering, flashing, indecent exposure, etc., then I think we are nearing almost 100% of women in “modern” society who have experienced sexualized invasions of their personhood.

And who is doing all this stuff? In Europe and in European-dominated societies like North America, Australia, and New Zealand, it’s most often men who look a hell of a lot like me.

Race: There is a long, tragic history (especially in the United States) of black men being falsely accused of raping white women. This paranoia of the “Black Rapist” and the fabricated need to protect “the white lily of southern womanhood” was the cause of countless brutal lynchings of black men during the 19th and 20th centuries. And it is true, some rapists are black. And some of those black rapists do happen to rape white women. Such rapes -- like any rape -- are terrifying and dehumanizing for the woman who is raped. But the vast majority of rapists are not black, and the majority of those rapists who are black happen to choose black women as their targets. Throughout the world, most of the rape that occurs happens when a man assaults a woman of the same ethnicity that he is. Inter-racial rapes are very rare.

And when we think of inter-racial rape, we tend to think only of black (or Latino or Native) men raping white women. We tend not to think all that much about white men raping black or Latina or Native women -- although the raping of women of color by white men has been a regular occurrence ever since Europeans first started colonizing American shores. And during slavery times it was pretty much just the way things were... the master or the overseer would come by the slave quarters for nightly assaults on the women there. And the rape of Native women by white soldiers was a common part of the wars waged against Native American/First Nations people.

So, in European-settled lands, if you need a picture of what an “average” rapist looks like, picture a white guy.

Decent grooming. And don’t be picturing a disheveled white guy with filthy teeth, lice-ridden hair and bad body odor, either! Unless that’s the type of guys you hang out with. Because the vast majority of rapes occur when a man assaults a woman who is known to him! The man who is most likely to rape a woman is the man who looks like one of her friends. Because he probably is one of her “friends.” Or one of her neighbors. Or her co-worker. Or her boyfriend. Or her husband. Or her family member. Since most of us still socialize most often with people who resemble us culturally, most rapists will resemble the women they target. Hippie rapists rape hippie women. Businessmen rape business women. Occupy Movement guys rape Occupy Movement women. Male soldiers rape female soldiers. Most rapists target women in their immediate environment.

Of course some men rape women who are not like them. But the vast majority of rapes occur close to home. Or in the home. Or at work. Or in a university residence. Or in a bedroom at the house where the party is. Or on a date.

In “nice” neighborhoods. The rate of sexual assault survivorship seems relatively even across classes. Poor women get raped. Rich women get raped. The rate for rape on university campuses is nearly 25%. That’s right! Almost one-quarter of female undergraduates will experience being raped -- usually by another student. Many female students have a higher chance of being raped than they do of making the Dean’s List. (Although the Dean’s List itself is also full of survivors of sexual assault -- young women who have managed to succeed academically despite the sexual brutality to which they have been exposed in our institutions of higher learning.)

So, yes, this woman walking through my “nice” neighborhood -- filled as it is with grad students and a lot of university graduates -- probably has as much to be wary of as she would in any other neighborhood in my city.

And married, family guys rape too. Just because a guy is married does not mean he doesn’t rape. He might rape the babysitter. He might rape a friend. He might rape his neighbor. He might rape his coworker. He might rape his wife. He might rape his kids. Marital status is no guarantee against perpetration. That “super dad” you always see at the park playing with his kids may be a very, very different person behind closed doors.

Good-looking guys rape. And good-looking guys rape too. They don’t do it because they are hard up. They do it because they want to have sex at that moment and she doesn’t. They do it because they don’t care what she thinks or feels about the whole thing. And sometimes they do it just to put a woman in her place. To show her who is the boss. Because they want to. Because they can.

And some rapists smile. I tried to reassure the woman who was passing by that I meant her no harm. I tried to do that by smiling. But of course a man’s smile is no guarantee that he will not hurt a woman. Perhaps the clearest depiction of this brutal reality is the brilliant and heartbreaking “Project Unbreakable” website (http://projectunbreakable.tumblr.com/ ). On this powerful and shattering site, survivors of sexual assault are photographed holding posters that bear the phrases that their abusers used while assaulting them. These statements include:

“God made you especially for me.”

“This is what magic is.”

“I care about you.”

“Don’t you love me?”

“You’re even prettier when you cry.”

If you haven’t done so already, I urge you to visit this powerful website. The woman who created it, and the survivors who are pictured there, are all incredibly brave.

And that woman walking by does have a problem. Yes, that woman whom I scared the other day does indeed have a problem. But it’s not her problem, specifically. And it is a problem that all of us need to solve. And that problem is that we ignore the fact that there are rapists among us. We fail to understand that in our very midst there are men who have taken advantage of a woman by force. Or by getting her drunk. Or by drugging her. Or by intimidating her. Or by manipulating her. Or by using emotional extortion. Or by continuing on when she changed her mind. When she said “no.” Or when she said “yes” only because she was so afraid of what might happen if she refused.

We fail to understand this brutal reality because these guys do not look like a stereotypical rapist.

That woman’s problem – and all of our problem – is the fact that most rapists look a whole lot like me