I was listening to the radio and a man called in. He was commenting on the horrific (I don’t have words anymore to describe these things) incidence of a young woman gang-raped by 38 men. He was objecting to calling these rapists “men”. He said it made him, as a man, embarrassed and we should find another word for them.
Embarrassed is a start, I suppose. A kind of “Dudes you’re bringing the side down”. But actually his suggestion is problematic. His attention is on his own credibility as a man versus on the loud rampant prevalence of sexual violence and misogyny the world over, and how to eradicate it. He calls in to a radio show to charge the station with a different way of referring to men who rape versus charging himself with the task of hunting down these men (he might be surprised he doesn’t have to go very far to find them) and dealing with his “side”. Underneath his comment, he seemed to be saying “As long as I’m not associated with this we can proceed”.
Perhaps I’m being unfair, I was driving and had not the time, in that moment, to call in and begin the debate. I didn’t have the chance to engage with him and completely understand where he was coming from. And the nature of radio is that he spoke for a few short minutes and then was gone. But he raised something that I found hard to ignore.
I couldn’t quite place it but his comment seemed to live (while perhaps in a different neighbourhood) in the same city of thoughts and beliefs that have 38 men gather to rape a young woman. Line up and take turns. I can hear some of you shouting at me for suggesting this. I’m not saying this man was a rapist. I’m saying that his response was so shocking to me, where his attention was placed (on himself and his reputation rather than the brutalised girl and the male perpetrators) so bizarre that I couldn’t trust him to be someone who understands how and why misogyny, sexism and violence against women plays out. And without this understanding (or even an acknowledgement of this lack of understanding) who’s to say he hasn’t been or couldn’t be a perpetrator himself. I drove that day and, as this man spoke on radio, I wanted to call in and shout at him. We’d just, in our respective spaces, listened to the same news bulletin. It had stopped my breath and brought tears to my eyes, insane anger, helplessness and uselessness. I was thinking about what we can do, what I can do. About the kind of world we live in. I was talking to whatever gods are still with us. Then he called in and though I couldn’t call back I shouted at him from my driver’s seat.
“But they are men!” I said, glaring at the radio dial. They are men, who go to work and hang with the boys. Some of them are married, some have children. The argument to term them differently in order to single them out as “monsters” or “others” will do nothing except save the good name of men by revoking these men’s male membership. The incident was monstrous and – I regret to tell the man on the phone – the perpetrators were men. You wouldn’t spot them in a crowd of other men. They don’t bare their teeth and spit green. Their eyes aren’t necessarily bloodshot. Rapists don’t walk around with the letters on their t-shirts. It would be useful if they did, but they don’t. In fact many rapists, embedded as they are (together with the rest of us) in a culture of misogyny, patriarchy and male entitlement, don’t know that’s what they are. And as a consequence, some will be phoning in to radio stations suggesting that the “real rapists” (other rapists) not be allowed the honourable title of “man”.
When daily incidents of misogyny, rape and violence against women and girls happen and we look at a picture of our world it’s easy to notice that we’re in so much shit. I’m suggesting that one of the reasons so little shifts is evidenced by this “well-meaning” man’s phone call into a radio station. He was presenting a distraction camouflaged as a strategy. His method for dealing with these rapists and these situations was basically to not deal with them. Turn them into monsters from a Grimm’s Brothers tale and there is nothing to do but pray and try and avoid monsters. It’s one of the biggest myths – there is no avoiding a rapist. The sooner people who advise women to wear longer skirts and turtle neck tops, to not walk down alleyways at night, to not visit bars; the sooner they understand this, the nearer we might be to “getting somewhere”.
I remember having an infuriating discussion with two men. It had started innocently. They were confused and wanted me to explain something. “How is it”, they asked, “that a husband can rape his wife?” It took me a while to understand what they were asking. When I requested clarity they gave it. They were asking: How can he rape her? They are married, sex is a part of the agreement. He’s not a stranger to her, how can a wife accuse her husband of rape?
These were “good guys”, the kind that’d be horrified hearing a clip of news that tells them 38 men gang-raped a teenager. One of them liked me, we were dating. My blood curdled. They could call in and say, those monsters shouldn’t be called men. But they were also suspicious of any wife claiming rape by a husband, the notion was preposterous to them.
In the minds of most, rape is still something done by monsters. Rape is rape when committed against a victim who fulfils the intricate web of requirements for a young helpless girl innocently minding her own business. But rape stops being rape when it’s committed against a woman…in a strappy blouse…standing on the side of the road…at 2am…waiting for her next client. In such a case the rape is questionable, the victim somehow complicit. And, suddenly, the monstrosity of the perpetrator is alleviated.
This is why we keep circling the problem. I was once discussing sexism and sexual violence with a male friend and before I knew it he was declaring how good he was, how he could never do these things and so on. I wondered if he could hear himself. If he realised how counter-productive such declarations were.
I understand the need to separate oneself from horrific acts. It’s a human need that we all have. A primal coding to preserve a certain image of oneself and avoid another. Some white people do it when it comes to racism. How to separate themselves from this terrible (and socially embarrassing) description typically associated with their kind or, at the very least, the majority proportion of their ancestry. As I said it’s a start but we also need to work past it. The man who called in can acknowledge his embarrassment, the need to want to separate himself from such heinous acts but he also needs to see that this doesn’t solve anything, it only absolves him.
I once heard of a man who’d said the most honest thing. In a forum discussion on rape, as the definition of rape got spread out into all its dark and cloudy corners, he began to understand that he might be a rapist. Or if he wasn’t already he couldn’t say for sure that he would never be one. Within the greater more important cause of eradicating misogyny and sexual violence, the sacrifice it must have been to his ego to publicly declare this gave me goose pimples. You see that is the beginning of responsibility. It is the exact opposite of suggesting rapists are not men, it is the realisation that the majority of rapists in the world are men, and that you are a man too.