Meet The Predators: But Which Ones?

by Cara on November 17, 2009

in misogyny, patriarchy, rape and sexual assault, violence against women and girls

Trigger Warning for discussions of sexual violence

Last week, Thomas wrote a post at Yes Means Yes, called Meet The Predators, about recent studies which found that many rapists will admit to rape so long as the word “rape” is not actually used. It’s a great post, and important information to have — I’m particularly interested because I’ve seen similar statistics from the ’80s quoted numerous times, and was literally thinking a day or two prior to Thomas’ post that someone should do a new study and provide anti-rape activists with updated and reliable data. I’m also far from the only one who is interested, as I’ve read at least half a dozen posts about it all over the feminist blogosphere.

But in all those posts, I’ve noticed a concerning silence. Admittedly, it’s entirely possible that I’ve missed the post(s) where someone else said what I’ve been thinking, but I also feel that I’ve read a fairly good sample. And not once have I personally seen anyone explicitly mention that we’re only talking about a certain kind of rapist here.

What kind of rapist is that? Primarily, the kind of rapist that uses physical force. In the first study Thomas quotes, 6% of respondents answered yes to the following questions:

(1) Have you ever been in a situation where you tried, but for various reasons did not succeed, in having sexual intercourse with an adult by using or threatening to use physical force (twisting their arm, holding them down, etc.) if they did not cooperate?

(2) Have you ever had sexual intercourse with someone, even though they did not want to, because they were too intoxicated (on alcohol or drugs) to resist your sexual advances (e.g., removing their clothes)?

(3) Have you ever had sexual intercourse with an adult when they didn’t want to because you used or threatened to use physical force (twisting their arm; holding them down, etc.) if they didn’t cooperate?

(4) Have you ever had oral sex with an adult when they didn’t want to because you used or threatened to use physical force (twisting their arm; holding them down, etc.) if they didn’t cooperate?

In the other study, 13% of respondents admitted to rape or attempted rape, and “61% of the reported attacks were intoxication-based, 23% were overt force alone, and 16% were both.”

And what I notice is that we’re talking about a very limited view of rape. We’re not talking about rape based in coercion. We’re not talking about rape where the victim was unconscious, but not intoxicated. We’re not talking about rape based in power difference, where the victim never had the real choice to say no. We’re not talking about rape where the victim said no — or simply didn’t say yes — and the rapist did whatever the fuck he wanted anyway. We’re also not talking about rapes completed with objects, or fingers, or even, it would seem, about anal rape.

I will admit that a big part of the reason why this concerns me is because I feel rather ignored by these studies and the response to them, as a rape victim whose rapist did not use force, an overt threat of force, or alcohol or drugs to gain my compliance. Even though I don’t at all believe that it has been intentional or malicious, I feel as though I, and the many, many survivors like me, have been discounted, pushed aside, and told, when it’s quoted that 6% to 13% of men who participated in these studies are rapists, that our rapists aren’t real rapists. And that’s an extremely hurtful and damaging message that we tend to get an awful lot as is.

But putting my own personal feelings aside, I’m also generally concerned about the narrow definition of consent, and about the fact that we’re still so regularly seeing people define rape as only committed through force, threats or incapacitation. I spend an awful lot of time trying to get people to step outside this misogynistic frame of reference — the idea that our bodies have not been infringed upon unless we have been physically injured somehow, that our words and our autonomy alone do not mean much. And so I really, really hate seeing it reinforced.

And I’m concerned most of all because of what this means for the numbers. Yes, 6% and 13% of men who took part in the respective studies admitted to rape. But that doesn’t mean that only 6% to 13% of the participants were rapists, not only because some men may have lied, but because they could only answer the questions they were asked. While I’m in no way suggesting that these numbers aren’t useful or important, I am suggesting that we need to be clear on what exactly they are.

What this study gives us is not an estimate of how many men are rapists, but an estimate of how many men are rapists who employ force or intoxication as tools. Had these men been asked a wider range of questions, we have no idea what the numbers would be. But I’d bet my life that if 6% of men answered yes to the four questions listed above, the number would go up at least a couple of percentage points if you asked them if they had ever used force to sexually penetrate an adult with any body part or object, if they had ever performed a sex act on an adult after they had been told to stop, or if they had ever performed a sex act on a person who was not awake at the time, to only name a few examples.

And that is a terrifying thing to think of indeed. The kind of thing that will keep me up at night, tossing and turning. With 6%-13% being an already extremely chilling figure, it’s in fact the kind of thing so scary that I can easily forgive others for not even wanting to consider it long enough bring it up in their own blog posts. But I still think that it needs to be brought up.

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{ 15 comments }

1 thedrymock November 17, 2009 at 1:23 pm

THANK YOU, Cara. This is exactly what I keep thinking about these stories. I can’t figure out why no one else has pointed this out.

2 Feminist Avatar November 17, 2009 at 1:50 pm

There is an older study which asked men whether they had ever pressured women into having sex [rape but of course they didn't use the word for the purposes of the study], that is using nagging or emotional pressure, and I think it had similar results to other studies (although I think 6-13% is slightly lower than the studies done in the 80s suggested- don’t know if that’s good or bad). I’ll need to find it again.

I think it is difficult for researchers though to be able to frame quick questions which convey rape as sex forced through differential in power relationships- for example, how do you ask someone whether he has ever managed to have sex with a women because he has greater power due to colour or class or family position/relationship? Would the rapist even recognise himself as having a power differential with such a person (because we can also presume that not all relationships between people with different social backgrounds are rape)? I suppose we could use video scenarios and then ask men if they have ever behaved like that- but these situations are often much more subtle and complex than could be conveyed within the framework of a research test.

Plus, the vast majority of these studies are done amongst college students, so they are not reflective of broader social experiences or the opportunities for rape that might come with age, rising social influence or parenthood.

But, I agree that the lack of work in this area is something to be concerned about and something that at least researchers like me do give some thought to.

3 Courtney L November 17, 2009 at 2:03 pm

Thank you for bringing this up. I have been bothered by these posts for the same reason.
I was assaulted by a boyfriend when I was 14. Because he only penetrated me with his fingers, it took me 20 years to feel comfortable calling it rape. (And sometimes, I still pause before using that word to describe what happened to me.) I’m certain that he would not consider it rape and that many people would agree with him. Data on attacks like these would be very useful in helping to change the culture that excuses such behavior.

4 sokari November 17, 2009 at 5:04 pm

The point made by Feminist Avatar on the use of power – race, class, position, family status – is an extremely important one that is consistently missing from any rape studies – the Jacob Zuma rape trial in South Africa comes to mind here. However I agree that to get such information would be extremely hard as most men would be (I imagine) reluctant to admit they use their “greater power” to force / coerce a woman into having sex.

5 Cara November 17, 2009 at 5:24 pm

Yeah, I agree that the question of power would be a very difficult question to word — there’s a reason that while I included it in my list of methods of rape that were not covered in the study, it wasn’t included in my short list of suggested and simplified questions at the bottom of the post, and it’s because I couldn’t quite think of how to word it, either!

At the same time, while I concede that it would be very difficult to get many men to recognize when they have used their power to coerce someone into sex (I say many, because I imagine that many others not only recognize it but actually get off on it), I’m unsure whether they would be reluctant to admit it if the proper wording could be found. The reason is that many men are apparently willing to admit to engaging in intercourse through physical force, which it seems to me would register with more people as falling under the category of rape and therefore bad than would engaging in some sort of sex through coercion based on greater power.

I also concede that it would be difficult to ever conduct a study that covered the bases of every rape that has ever been committed. But, I still argue that it’s important to a) cover as many bases as can be covered, and b) acknowledge shortcomings where they exist. It also seems most glaring to me that the very subject of verbal non-consent alone was not touched on at all. The wording above presents rape, yet again, as existing only when a victim is physically forced through either incapacitation or brute strength, rather than when the victim has not consented. If those bases had been covered, I’d still feel compelled to point out the ones that weren’t, but at least would feel less like we’re reinforcing an archaic definition of rape in which the victim has to be kicking and screaming, or physically unable to, for it to “really” be rape.

Courtney — it always both chills me to the bone and makes me feel a little less alone when someone tells a story of rape that mirrors my own. As you’ve told yours here, it mirrors mine almost exactly — the only difference being that it took me 10 years instead of 20.

6 preying mantis November 18, 2009 at 8:51 am

I imagine that these guys get focused on because they’re engaging in what most people can agree, at least in the abstract, is rape and they are, as a group, responsible for wildly disproportionate amount of violence against women and children. If the sociologists and the criminal justice system can come up with a way to stop these behavior patterns from developing or identify and apprehend offenders earlier, they’ll have spared a lot of people a lot of harm.

On the other side of the coin, the behavior they engage in is something a fair number of people don’t want to recognize as rape in specific cases. Because of that, they end up contributing individually to society continuing the tendency to frame acquaintance-rape that doesn’t involve an actual beating as not-really-rape.

If we can just move that window and get people en masse unwilling to give those rapists a pass–to recognize lack of consent as rape and to call it that–I have no doubt that we’ll have come a long way towards getting people to recognizing the sort of rapists not covered in the study for what they are.

7 Thomas MacAulay Millar November 18, 2009 at 12:46 pm

Cara, excellent post. The research in this area is sparse and limited. As you say, some of the limitations are real difficulties in design, while some of it is just that very few studies of undetected rapists have been done. I hope that, with McWhorter confirming Lisak & Miller’s research, there will be greater interest in expanding research into this group and that there will be better answers in a few years than there are now. As of today, I think we can only conclude that the existing research is an undercount and that we can’t really say much about the prevalence of what is not captured.

8 abyss2hope November 18, 2009 at 6:22 pm

Cara, you make excellent points about rapes that aren’t covered by these surveys. Non-consensual sexual behavior is so normalized that if boys and men will admit forcible rape they will also admit to other strategies and practices.

On FaceBook someone created National grab an ass day event, scheduled for tomorrow 20K+ “attending” http://bit.ly/RFR3G

I reported this event to FB as promoting violence.

9 Nat November 20, 2009 at 4:53 am

Thanks for the article Cara, and I completely agree that it would be great if they included all forms of rape in this research.

On the topic of power, I think the most power most men will admit to having is that of pure brute power and quite frankly I actually don’t think they understand the inherent power they have outside of the strength of their muscles.

When I speak with men about privilege, they really don’t understand what I mean. When I give them examples like being brought up to be afraid of walking alone and not trusting people because of your gender; when I mention constantly second guessing intentions because of messages, intentional or not, aimed directly at you for life; and when I mention the constant battle to tune out the images and advertising that belittle my gender, they just look bewildered…even the good guys.

They really don’t understand the plum hand they were dealt by chance with their gender. Getting people to understand this is key to ending rape.

10 the_quilter November 22, 2009 at 10:17 pm

I have read your column very carefully and I have never heard of a case of rape (of an adult) where there isn’t a threat of physical violence used. Can you give me an example of what you are speaking of so that I can understand better?

11 Cara November 22, 2009 at 10:39 pm

The Quilter,

Rape occurs whenever a person has sex with another person who has not meaningfully consented. Thus, if one partner says no, or to stop, or that they aren’t comfortable, or that they ought to slow down, pushes the partner away, etc., and the other partner continues anyway? Even without hitting the first partner, or restraining them, or threatening to? That is rape. Period. Rape is not (only) sex achieved through force or the threat of physical force; it is sex achieved without one person’s freely given, non-coerced or pressured agreement.

From your comment, I gather that you need some very basic information about rape. For that, I would suggest this article as a starting place.

12 Thomas MacAulay Millar November 25, 2009 at 4:13 pm

I discuss the limitations Cara outlined in this post, and some more in-depth Lisak research, here.

13 Janet December 1, 2009 at 12:17 am

Hard to read but I think it was something I needed to hear. Its amazing how few people understand how rape could occur without violence. Even having been in that situation its hard to explain.

14 softestbullet December 1, 2009 at 9:42 am

Thank you so much.

I absolutely think men would admit to coercive/power-differential rape. They already do, all the time. An example that comes to mind is that article about the “trend” of (straight, cis men penetrating women) anal sex, where all these men were interviewed saying things like, they liked doing it because they knew she didn’t like it or want it.

15 Vee December 5, 2009 at 6:55 am

I just–thank you for this: Rape occurs whenever a person has sex with another person who has not meaningfully consented. Thus, if one partner says no, or to stop, or that they aren’t comfortable, or that they ought to slow down, pushes the partner away, etc., and the other partner continues anyway? Even without hitting the first partner, or restraining them, or threatening to? That is rape. Period.

Three months ago, a friend of mine told me something had happened to her. And she wouldn’t call it rape (she’s a legal student, and as such somewhat hung up on the legal definitions), but I recognized the way she was talking about it (I am somewhat of an inofficial peer counselor). She told him it hurt and she asked him to slow down and he kept going. Until I read what you said, I couldn’t articulate why something in me didn’t agree with how she was describing it as not being rape.

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