Warning: This post is about sexual assault. Please exercise self-care and skip this post if you need to.

photo by L. Marie

When I’ve had discussions about sexual assault, invariably there will be a comment along the lines of “Obviously rape is terrible crime and anyone who would do something like that is a monster!”  In fact, I’ve made that statement several times myself. And while I stand by the first part of that sentiment – rape is horrifying- I’m beginning to rethink the “monster” part of it.

I’m no linguist. At times I struggle to articulate my feelings accurately. Invading someone’s personal space and/or imposing yourself on someone else’s body offends me on a very fundamental level. It’s just wrong.  Yet the statement “sexual assault is wrong” seems insipid. I don’t feel it conveys the strength of my conviction.  And that feeling of linguistic inadequacy motivates my desire to verbally dehumanize the rapist. When I say “Sexual assault is SO wrong that all rapists forfeit their right to be considered people” it’s a dramatic declaration that makes it clear I have no tolerance for that kind of shit.

Yet I can’t help but wonder. When I label all rapists as monsters am I hurting more than I am helping?

Am I indirectly contributing to our collective habit of victim-blaming? We constantly warm people – especially women – to be careful. We remind to them that they need to be ever-vigilant that they need to be aware of who’s around them. When a woman is assaulted, we decry the assault but we also wonder – if she’d been paying closer attention, wouldn’t she have noticed something was amiss before the assault? If a rapist isn’t a person like you or I, surely there was some sign, some clear indication of badness.  There must have been a least a subtle difference in the way this person walked, talked, dressed, looked around the room. Because that’s not a person. That’s a rapist.  Surely there was some kind of rape-y clue the survivor carelessly overlooked.

Also if we assume that all rapists are evil people who rape because they enjoy being indiscriminately violent, the concept of convincing people to not rape becomes almost futile as a prevention strategy. You can’t reason with someone who is, in essence, a sociopath. And the alternative becomes preventing rape by putting the onus on people – again women in particular – to avoid being raped.

Meanwhile, the reality is that a majority of people are sexually assault by someone that they know. Not only someone that they know but in many cases, a partner, a friend, a date or some other person that they like. They are assaulted by someone that other people like. Possibly by people that you like or I like. People that we assume could never rape anyone, because they’re really funny or intelligent or kind to animals or a great parent or a brilliant artist. And rapists don’t have good qualities. Rapists are just bad.

We may underestimate the power we have to influence people’s behaviour. Not by insisting that women avoid being alone, lock themselves away at night or keep their eyes perpetually peeled for rape-monsters. But by insisting that consent is a non-negotiable even if it’s awkward, ineloquent or we think it might lead to a “no”. Especially if we think it might lead to a “no”. Because a rapists is a person. A person who has done wrong. But still a person. And perhaps, more importantly, a person can avoid being a rapist. A person can choose not to assault anyone. What’s more, I think that you and I can influence that choice. And for me, maybe that influence starts when I change my words and learn to say “Rapists are people who chose to do wrong.”



  1. Rick says:

    I’ve only recently become acquainted with the phrase “Don’t be THAT guy.” (used in an essay about men who get women supremely drunk and then take advantage) I liked that phrase just because, as you say, rapists aren’t necessarily easy-to-spot thugs waiting with drool and a black bandit mask. They could be someone who, up until 20min ago seemed perfectly nice or even someone you’ve known for a long time. It’s not perfect, but I felt goes further to trying to dissipate the “grey area” in a world where everyone’s looking for EVIL GUY = BLACK COWBOY HAT ways of simple recognition.

  2. Bre says:

    This isn’t so much a comment on this post, although your insight into this is really very interesting (as always)… but I did want to leave a little note to say that I always enjoy reading your posts, even if I don’t get to comment all the time. You do get me thinking about topics/issues that I might have never dedicated time to and I love that!

  3. Chelsea says:

    I think humanizing rapists is extremely important in both avoiding victim-blaming and preventing assault. The Lisak & Miller study (http://yesmeansyesblog.wordpress.com/2009/11/12/meet-the-predators/) indicates that a significant number of rapists will self-identify as long as you don’t use the word “rape”; this is simply because the cultural narrative has influenced their understanding to such an extent that in the absence of kicking and screaming they don’t see what they did as sexual assault.
    And we actively socialize people against kicking and screaming. “Jesse took your toy at preschool and wouldn’t give it back? We don’t hit or scream, Kai. We ask politely and if that doesn’t work, we go and get a teacher.” … for years and years. But someday there will be no teacher to run to. See Fugitivus’s post on the topic: http://www.fugitivus.net/2009/06/26/another-post-about-rape-3/
    This socialization happens in the other direction, as well. Should we be so surprised that our young sports superstars (for example) have a hard time processing a rejection when they have been treated like little deities for the past decade of their lives? Told that nothing can stand in the way of their desires if they just try hard enough?
    We also socialize people with sexist ideas like “men always want it”, so women grow up not even able to conceive of the possibility that they could be rapists. It should then come as no surprise that columnists in publications like Cosmo or Jezebel openly advise disregarding a man’s nonconsent without realizing that they are advising their readers to commit rape (http://goodmenproject.com/noseriouslywhatabouttehmenz/oh-jezebel-no/). But that’s the sad state we’re in.
    It is important to remember that very few people are the villains in their own stories, and even if they do see their actions as wrong, often they have a backstory used to justify things to themselves (and, when necessary, to others). The common thread in a lot of such stories is pain, rejection, and disillusionment. When you feel that the world (or women as a group, or men as a group, or etc.) has been unwarrantedly cruel to you, eventually it feels possible to be cruel in return. So we need to help people reconceptualize what constitues cruelty. Is rejection cruel? What about rejection after leading someone on? (Note that many convicted rapists will cite “mixed signals”.)
    I watched Megamind this weekend and was struck by how fruitful an opportunity it presents for discussions of rejection and consent with a child. [SPOILERS] Both Megamind and Titan become villains after a painful rejection–Megamind by his childhood peers, Titan by the woman he desires. I watched Titan’s storyline unfold with horrifying familiarity. His story arc follows the familiar progression from Nice Guy (why don’t you love me?) to Pick Up Artist (now I have the ideal traits for you to love me!) to Predator (what do you mean you still won’t love me!?). If I had a kid, I’d be asking them to consider at what point Titan turned away from the path of heroism, why, and what he might have done differently.

  4. Jasmine says:

    Good post.

    I think that socially, having people think of people who commit rape as monsters must make it harder for a victim to come forward if their attacker is well-respected – more fear that they wouldn’t be believed because the offender is viewed as a good person, and self blame “He’s not a monster, I must have done something to provoke him”

    It’s important for people to think about how their words affect other people, not only in a direct, immediate sense (a lot of my acquaintances use ‘gyp’ without thinking anything of it, it’s just part of their lexicon. I have friends within traveller communities, and it makes me want to scream.) but on a broader scale as well.

  5. Tweepwife says:

    I think this is a very important post. It is so critical that victims understand that perpetrators don’t come with a tag or a neon sign that they “should have seen”. Sexual crime is committed by brothers, fathers, husbands, sons, neighbours, mothers, teachers, etc. PEOPLE. Hindsight often offers clues but that’s why its 20/20. It’s also critical for our understanding of prevention. The person most likely to harm you sexually is someone you know and someone you trust. And that person needs to also know that just because he or she does not have horns on their head or some monstrous ID tag, their behaviour is unacceptable, violent, abusive, and criminal. Changing our language is the beginning of changing everything.