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