Rape is a horrible crime that has lasting effects. Thus far, prevention efforts have concentrated upon making victims responsible for their own safety. This is not only ineffective but unconscionable. It’s time for real rape prevention, and that involves ensuring that men decide not to rape.
I know at least one rapist personally. And, I’d be willing to bet, so do you. Contrary to what a lot of people think, victims usually know the people who rape them. In other words, rapists are not generally scary men who jump out of the bushes, but instead are our friends, neighbors, coworkers, dates, and sometimes even our relatives.
The rapist I knew was a fellow student at my university. John (not his real name) seemed like a nice guy. He was good-looking, friendly, and participated in a number of campus organizations. I liked him until I started hearing the stories. The most egregious tale came from a girl who lived in my dorm our first year. She inexplicably dropped out of school that year, only to return the following semester. She later told me that John raped her while they were on a date and it took her a while to recover. Shortly thereafter I heard the same story about John from another girl, and then a third told me about how she had considered John a good friend until the night she barely escaped after he turned violent. None of them knew about the others’ experiences.
Rape is a horrible crime, one which leaves the victim feeling both physically assaulted and emotionally violated. Although the physical wounds heal, the emotional ones can last a long time. I have counseled a number of women who have not been able to enjoy a sexual encounter since they were raped. Others were able to enjoy physical intimacy again, but they were forever changed.
I’ve heard people try to equate rape with a physical beating but the two are not even close to the same thing. A physical assault could never be done with gentleness and it is not something that (one hopes) happens on a daily or weekly basis. Rape, though, is a mimicry of what should be a pleasurable experience. Moreover, unlike the aftermath of a physical assault, it is expected that rape victims will engage in that same experience (sex) but with the hope of a different feeling and result. So not only has the rapist given pain but he (and rapists are men over 90% of the time) possibly has taken future pleasure as well.
Despite the terrible consequences of rape, it happens all too frequently. It’s also one of the few crimes in which victims can be disbelieved and treated harshly by the justice system. Sometimes victims even are told that they deserved what happened to them because they (pick one) didn’t fight back/fought back, were asking for it because of what they were wearing/how they were behaving/what they were doing, or because they were too vulnerable. And believe me, women have gotten the message.
Even though men also get raped, our society views it as a woman’s problem and thus, it is up to us to prevent it. That is why many, if not most, women have what is called a ‘rape schedule’ — the ways in which we alter our daily lives in order to limit our chances of sexual assault. We walk only in pairs after dark, lock our car doors at intersections or avoid certain places when alone at night. In other words, our freedom is limited by the possibility of experiencing assault. As Jessica Valenti put it, “There is no public space for women; the whole world is a prison where you have to be constantly aware at all times that you’re a potential victim.” The same is not true for men.
Some people still believe rape is about sex. It isn’t. Rape is used as a tool of war and conquest and it is a way to actively oppress another human being. Rape is not about pleasure; it is about pain. Most importantly, rape is and always has been about the need for power and control. And that need is not something from which you can actively protect yourself, particularly when it is a demand from someone you know.
How do you protect against the friendly face? How are you supposed to be vigilant towards someone like John, who is already woven into the fabric of your daily life? How are you to know that the person you laugh with, talk to or simply think is charming is someone who will turn violent without more than a moment’s notice? You can’t. That is why constant watchfulness is not an effective solution to rape prevention.
When I told my boyfriend about all the stories I’d heard about John, he was appalled. He thought that someone needed to go talk to John, that he needed to be informed that what he was doing was rape. Since John was such a nice guy, my boyfriend was certain that he didn’t realize he was hurting all these women. My response was that John absolutely did know what he was doing was rape and that was why he was doing it. However, while I still believe he was wrong about John’s intentions, I realize now that my boyfriend was right. Someone needed to talk with John because the only solution to rape is that men stop doing it.
Rape may be a complicated issue but the method of prevention is not. We must teach everyone, especially boys and men, that sex without consent is not acceptable. All of us have the right to bodily integrity and, if this is disregarded, then the fault lies with the violator. And the only way that this message will be heard is if everyone — again, most especially boys and men — starts stating it, repeatedly and with emphasis. We should no longer be afraid to insist that people stop doing horrible things, and put the blame exactly where it belongs.
Instead of discouraging my boyfriend from talking to John, I should have advocated for it. It would have been even better if the message had come from a group of guys and girls, so that John would have known for certain that his behavior would no longer be tolerated. But we didn’t. And the cycle of violence probably continued. We need to do better; it’s the only way things will change.
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