Schrödinger’s rapist and the banality of evil
Posted on October 11, 2011
I wrote a piece for Comment is Free last week on Facebook’s refusal to take down their now infamous pro-rape pages – Facebook is fine with hate speech, as long as it’s directed at women; an article which garnered 600+ comments on CiF, and which provoked some quite furious debate across the Internet.
Unfortunately a lot of that debate centred around one particular sentence I used in the piece, rather than on the bigger, more important issue of Facebook’s willingness to condone and promote rape culture. My choice of phrasing also attracted some considerable abuse, with LibbyT at Harry’s Place accusing me of writing “disgusting hate speech” and “filthy sexist libel”, and commenters at my very favourite website (yes, that one, the one I referred to in my piece An occupational hazard) describing me as a “spitefull [sic] unrapeable fuckpig” and discussing the notion that “It doesn’t say much for her then that with 3.4 billion rapists on earth, she hasn’t had a cock near her in decades.”
Keyboard warriors up and down the land (and beyond) took to their computers in droves demanding that I either retract my statement or issue some kind of apology to the millions, nay billions, of men I’d managed to offend. Others meanwhile asked (reasonably politely) for an explanation of the point I’d been trying to make.
So what the fuck did I say then to provoke such headlines as: Cath Elliott says that ‘average men’ are potential rapists looking for an excuse?
Well, here’s the ‘offending’ sentence:
“rapists don’t rape because they’re somehow evil or perverted or in any way particularly different from than [sic] the average man in the street: rapists rape because they can.”
And here it is in context:
“What Facebook and others who defend this pernicious hate speech don’t seem to get is that rapists don’t rape because they’re somehow evil or perverted or in any way particularly different from than the average man in the street: rapists rape because they can. Rapists rape because they know the odds are stacked in their favour, because they know the chances are they’ll get away with it.
And part of the reason rapists get away with it, time after time after time, is because we live in a society that all but condones rape. Because we live in a society where it’s not taken seriously, and where posting heinous comments online that promote sexual violence are not treated as hate speech or as content that threatens women’s safety, but are instead treated as a joke and given a completely free pass.”
Note in particular that I said “rapists rape”, not “men rape” or “average men rape”, or indeed “all men would rape if they thought they could get away with it”…..
Anyway, here are some alternative discussion threads where the majority of posters understood exactly the point I was making:
Pharyngula: Someday, maybe social media will apply their rules consistently
Mumsnet: Facebook supports rape?
Shakesville: Recommended reading
Unusually for social media these days I would say for all those pieces I’ve linked to above: do read the comments! In particular this one on the Pharyngula thread from Louis:
“I see (at least) two possible readings:
1) “…rapists don’t rape because they’re somehow evil or perverted or in any [OTHER NON-RAPE RELATED] way particularly different from than the average man in the street…”
2) “…rapists don’t rape because they’re somehow evil or perverted or in any way particularly different from than the average man in the street [BECAUSE THE AVERAGE MAN IN THE STREET IS NOT PARTICULARLY DIFFERENT FROM A RAPIST]…”
I think the author meant 1). This is standard, unexceptional Schroedinger’s Rapist type stuff, and obviously I agree with it. It’s the same as saying the average rapist doesn’t deviate wildly in (for example) appearance from the average man in the street. Observably, horribly, trivially, unfortunately true. The fact that the poor phrasing allows for a reading of 2) is the problem I think people are hung up on. Reading 2) is pretty simply accessed from what the author wrote, after all if A is not much different from the average B, then the average B is not much different from A, it commutates. I think it’s the wrong reading, but I can see how people got there because I bloody nearly did too!
In other words, I don’t think the author of this piece, or the paragraph under question, is wrong (far from it) if what I think she means is what she actually means.”
Yes Louis, I did mean exactly what you thought I meant. In fact I went onto the CiF thread (somewhere around comment 35) as soon as I realised people were misreading/misinterpreting what I was saying and clarified:
“What sets rapists apart from the average man in the street is precisely the fact they’re rapists. The point is they don’t have two heads or horns or wear dirty macs or fit into any other kind of stereotype we might have of sex offenders.”
Which still wasn’t enough for some people, so for those who continued to have difficulty understanding, I went back on later and clarified again:
“I didn’t say they were the ‘same as’ I said they weren’t ‘particularly different from’, and they’re not, apart from one key thing – the fact that they’re rapists!
I’m actually surprised that so many posters here seem to think rapists are some kind of special alien-like breed, easily distinguishable from everyone else. Well they’re not. As someone else has pointed out in the thread, they’re brothers, fathers, uncles, neighbours and so on, ordinary men in just about every way except for one – they’re prepared to commit this heinous crime whereas the vast majority of other, decent men are not.”
Which still wasn’t enough for some, but there you go.
The term ‘Schrödinger’s rapist’ was first coined by Phaedra Starling in this guest post at Shapely Prose a couple of years ago – Schrödinger’s rapist: or a guy’s guide to approaching strange women without being maced, and as Starling rightly points out:
“I bet you don’t think you know any rapists, but consider the sheer number of rapes that must occur. These rapes are not all committed by Phillip Garrido, Brian David Mitchell, or other members of the Brotherhood of Scary Hair and Homemade Religion. While you may assume that none of the men you know are rapists, I can assure you that at least one is. Consider: if every rapist commits an average of ten rapes (a horrifying number, isn’t it?) then the concentration of rapists in the population is still a little over one in sixty. That means four in my graduating class in high school. One among my coworkers. One in the subway car at rush hour. Eleven who work out at my gym. How do I know that you, the nice guy who wants nothing more than companionship and True Love, are not this rapist?
When you approach me in public, you are Schrödinger’s Rapist. You may or may not be a man who would commit rape. I won’t know for sure unless you start sexually assaulting me. I can’t see inside your head, and I don’t know your intentions.”
Which is a similar point to the one Rebecca Watson was making when all The Privilege Delusion stuff kicked off.
And the point is, that apart from the fact that they’re rapists, rapists don’t rape because they’re somehow evil or perverted or in any way particularly different from the average man in the street…..
And the other main point is about rape culture, and the normalisation of rape culture (as illustrated by Facebook’s unwillingness to take action against pages on its site that promote and condone rape). Because rape and sexual violence are endemic in this country: and they’re not endemic because there are loads of men like John Worboys roaming around unchecked (although the failure of the police to listen to and believe women and to catch men like Worboys, certainly has a role to play in all this), they’re endemic because our (rape) culture gives ordinary/average/otherwise normal men the message that when a women says no she means yes, and that when she’s wearing ‘revealing’ clothes or she’s pissed she’s actually ‘asking for it’ or ‘up for it’ or whatever other crass phraseology you want to use. And some men take that message on board and then act on it.
In other words, ordinary/average/otherwise normal men do rape. Not all of them do. But lots of them. Too many of them. And to pretend otherwise, to pretend that actually rapists are somehow distinct from ordinary/average/otherwise normal men is not only dangerous, it’s actually victim blaming. Because if it was only ‘evil’ men who committed rape, if rapists weren’t ordinary/average/otherwise normal men, then the question would have to be – why didn’t she know? How could that rape survivor not have known that that ‘evil’ ‘perverted’ man with the big flashing neon ‘I’m a rapist’ sign on his forehead was a rapist?
So, in summary then no, I’m not going to apologise for what I said in my CiF piece. Because as someone else on the Internet has said recently, “I’m only responsible for what I say, not what you understand.”
Or indeed as this person said on their Tumblr about the whole ridiculous furore:
“Pardon me if I can’t hear the sound of you not raping over the sound of you being outraged over the wrong thing.”
The Rape Crisis National Freephone Helpline is open from 12-2.30pm & 7-9.30pm every day of the year: you can call them on 0808 802 9999
You are amazing. Thank you for your work, and for dealing with the legion of idiots who live on the Internet.
I am *furious*. I posted a comment on that thread, telling a little story about how my male flatmate who always found rape a trivial silly thing worth a snigger and a joke, while not a rapist himself, was first in line to shake my rapist’s hand and buy him a drink ‘for putting me in my place.’
That post was deleted by the moderators. The ones threatening you were not. Talk about rape culture in action…
Thanks for your support bugbrennan, it’s much appreciated.
gherkinette – I read your comment, and like a lot of people on that thread I thought it was a really valuable contribution to the discussion. I’m completely baffled as to why it was deleted, and I’m not surprised you’re furious about it.
LOL Cath, you may as well have gone for broke and done “all menz rape”. At least you’d be getting flack for a reason. 😛
Oh for God’s sake, this one was so easy. Rapists are just like normal people because there is no “criminal type” with shifty-eye chromosomes and special bumps on their head, it’s not Victorian England, we all know this.
I needed less than a second to work out what you meant by that. I don’t think I even batted an eyelid reading it. Clearly two things are going on: 1) the internet isn’t particularly concerned with any of the details of what feminists say because it’s quite obvious what they think anyway and 2) The internet is an idiot.
By the way, is Harry’s Place actually still liberal at all any more? Or has it now transferred all its operations to abusing anyone left of Glenn Beck?
Thanks for this Cath – and thank goodness someone has the courage to talk about these issues… Having spent some years working on a Rape Crisis helpline, I can tell you of the overwhelming sense of relief that women and girls get through the acknowledgement that it wasn’t some kind of ogre who had raped them; but someone they had trusted…someone who they worked with, someone who taught them or was their pupil, someone who they’d come to care about.. etc etc… just any guy… And there was even some solace in knowing that their perpetrator’s behaviour wasn’t unique/unusual/extraordinary…it was just the typical behaviour of sexually violent men… I’m sure I don’t need to run through the long list of professions of the men who raped their daughters, wives, sisters, friends, partners.. but suffice it to say, there weren’t many professions that weren’t covered.
Thank you for all you do, Cath. It was predictable that legions of commenters were going to get the wrong end of the stick (when does this NOT happen?) but what you said is completely true.
I think the problem here is that IMO being a rapist *does* make you “particularly different” from the average man. They may only differ in one aspect, but it’s a pretty big one.
So it’s easy for me to see how someone (not necessarily being an idiot, just someone who doesn’t know you, doesn’t know your writing, and hadn’t heard this argument before) might have got the wrong end of the stick. Before the clarification that is. After that then you can feel free to call them idiots.
i completely agreed with your article, with the para and am so glad as ever that you are speaking out about rape culture, the fact that rape happens everywhere, every day, and that most of the time, rapists get away with it.
i think people deliberately misunderstood your para because they don’t want to face up to the fact that rape culture exists, and that their denial of rape culture continues to allow men to rape and get away with it.
Cath, sorry, we’re talking at cross purposes here.
When I inquired about your CiF post in the “Too Much…” thread Promoting rape and ‘telling a rude joke’ are not the same thing, I wasn’t referring to your CiF ATL piece that spawned so much, er, discussion…
I was referring to your below the line comment (which I pointed out in the aforementioned discussion), of 26/10/10, wherein you appeared to condone and make light of sexual violence.
The kind of thing, in fact, that you were objecting to ATL.
(Too many links – I’m bound to have fecked something up!)
Hey Cath, every women on the planet knew what you meant because we fully understand that any man is a potential rapist until he proves otherwise, which makes things a bit scary for us when negotiating our way home at night. It is only the men who simply refuse to accept this point that made a decision to hijack the thread so the real point got lost. Good post.
Well done for constantly plugging away, Cath. Idiots who pounced on this phrase as ‘evidence’ of ‘your’ ‘belief’ that ‘all men are rapists’ (my sarcastic quotes finger is very tired now) are obviously arguing in bad faith. They know exactly what you mean, they just want any excuse to spew revolting threats and insults in your direction. They’re more invested, more angry, about the phrasing of a feminist activist’s words describing the problem of rape than about the actual issue: tens of thousands of rapes being committed every year, just in the UK. It’s ludicrous.
Anyone who invests time in policing your words (because they’re too ignorant or hair-trigger-misogynist to work out/find out what you mean) rather than giving actually a toss about rape is a shitty human being.
Thank you for continuing you writing, despite the people who don’t, or who choose not to, understand. The world would be very different if rapists had a tattoo or a scar to set them apart. A big part of the reason they’re so dangerous is that they are just normal people who decide to rape. I know it’s a hard thing to understand from the point of view that it’s terrifying, but people should be able to grasp what you meant regardless.
Thanks for posting this article and the original one, Cath. I recently ran a workshop in which I asked women to draw stereotypical rapists and actual ones. They were all very well informed, one woman even drew a boyfriend with a box of chocolates as the ‘real’ rapist! Your point about rapists I think is that they look ‘normal’ and could be anyone; boyfriend, friends, husbands, sons etc. It is an important point to make as awareness really needs to be raised against the stereotypes which are quite dangerous. People are quick to misunderstand because they want you to say something ‘wrong’ so they can ‘prove’ you’re an evil baby-eating feminist.
I thought the article was great but bowed out of the arguing when it became clear there were a lot of brick walls masquerading as people! Yours are the only bits of the guardian I’ll read now so thanks for keeping on 🙂
In fact – the whole thing illustrates once again then when something is said or done that is seen as ‘against’ men the outrage is immediate – torrents of more hate speech while simultaneously insisting we are over-reacting prudes with no sense of humour.
Much love x
Thank you for writing about these important issues. Keep holding men’s feet to the fire. You are obviously making many men uncomfortable with issues they wish would just go away.
Stephen: I think the whole point of the article is that it’s not men’s feet she’s holding to the fire, just rapists and a society than hums and haws before condemning them.
I am honestly surprised that anyone would read that article and come away with the impression that you claimed ‘average men’ are potential rapists looking for an excuse. It makes me think that those who twisted your argument in such a way were looking to cast your words in an uncharitable light. By deliberately misinterpreting your article they could then go on to dismiss your argument, thus dismissing the idea of rape culture and sexism.
At least this proves your article must get under people’s skin if they are willing to distort your words so badly. I have nothing but admiration for you Cath.
Alex: Yes, to explain further. In this case I feel it is a men’s problem, mass discomfort. Men who look for excuses to stand passively by looking desperately for insults against men, their bogus challenging of wording and their attack etc. All this instead of some real introspection which would demand some genuine action on the men’s part to actually do something to help clean up the current rape culture.
Hold their feet to the fire! The more they complain and squirm the deeper they feel it.
Stephen: I’m guessing from your name you’re a man so it’s a bit weird that we’re discussing men in the third person.
Alex: I never thought about my use of tense, and I would hazard a guess that I am subconsciously trying to distance myself from the men whose position embarrasses me deeply.
Which is why I’m not sure about your use of the word “men”. Either you want to hold mine and your feet to the fire on this issue, in which case you should be using ‘our’, not ‘your’, or you feel you’re aware of the issue already and your feet are warm enough thank you, in which case you need to find a term that doesn’t include you.
Members of privileged groups trying to fight that privilege use the third person all too much in my view. On one hand we want to separate ourselves from Rich White Men because we don’t like how we run the world, on the other we see things in terms of Rich White Men because we can’t imagine anyone other than ourselves having agency.
Aside from that, it rather exonerates the people who make excuses for rape but aren’t men. If we do live in a rape culture, we all live in it. Nobody exists outside the system.
Alex: Semantics is not my interest. This is all way off topic. I am disengaging now.
Fair enough. We are eating up a lot of comment space.
I totally agree with Cath’s main point, that rapists look like no different from the average man.
I still don’t like that sentence, but for a different reason. I can’t agree with “rapists don’t rape because they’re somehow evil”
because to rape is in itself evil. I believe men must be pretty evil to rape, and they are certainly evil after doing so.
This doesn’t mean that they will “look” any different from the average man. This has always been the case, evil never shows up as “evil”, not even in stories.
That said, I would never hold this against Cath. Or anything else she wrote for that matter, because I know where she stands.
This is important: even if she had written something that was entirely wrong, you know what? She’s allowed to make mistakes. She’s a writer, not a Goddess, and to expect perfection from writers is akin to silencing them.
So, keep up the writing, Cath. You are raising issues that society desperately needs to see.
My wife bought the original article to my attention and my first reaction was that it did indeed mean that all men are rapists. After reading the explanation I’m sure that wasn’t what you really meant , but I’m stil wondering how a person who’s meant to be a serious communicator failed to communicate. While you quite rightly fight your corner I don’t get the feeling of any contrition on your part and I certainly don’t see any apology. A little humble pie goes a long way with us potential rapists.
It take courage to stand up to rape culture and to Facebook Cath! And, no, I find very few men get this. All I know is, I would rather be in women only groups anyday given a choice. I’m tired of even thinking about some average joe out to rape… there is absolutely no point in women not being on guard. Facebook should be ashamed of itself. And the guys who are outraged really can’t stand the thought that women see “ordinary” men as dangerous, because I believe they are, and their comments prove just how men think collectively about this subject. They want to be able to “get away” with stuff, or have the option to do so.
To all the men who react with such hysterical comments I have one question. What are you men doing to challenge/hold those men accountable who do commit and/or condone rape and male sexual violence against women? Are you men all meeting together to engage in a mass public protest action condeming those men who continue to commit male sexual violence against women? No you are not instead you are all bleating ‘she’s being cruel to us poor men’ – ‘she’s telling lies about us respectable men who believe it is our innate right to have sexual access to any woman whenever we demand. ‘
Clearly Cath has stirred men’s thoughts but as usual the men are refusing to stay silent and actually listen instead they are all declaiming and blaming one woman for daring to tell the truth. Namely there are many, many men who do commit rape but believe it is not rape because the woman didn’t resist/she was unconscious blah blah blah – the male excuses/justifications are endless. However it is a fact most men who commit male sexual violence against women including raping women are not demons and they do not wear horns on their heads. What all these male rapists have in common is a belief in their pseudo male sex right to any woman/girl and that means they are entitled to rape the woman/girl because it is not rape merely men’s right of sexual access to women/girls 24/7. That is the meaning of living in a rape culture and a male supremacist one.
It seems fairly clear to me why people would object, in all fairness:
“rapists don’t rape because they’re somehow evil or perverted or in any way particularly different from than the average man in the street”
So, the implication is that average men are not ‘particularly’ different from rapists. I agree with the point you make about Harry’sPlace – not a site known for objective discussion. But it’s still clear why the sentence is affronting. There are major differences between rapists and average men – some of whom are of course victims of rapists in their own right.
“part of the reason rapists get away with it, time after time after time, is because we live in a society that all but condones rape”
I don’t believe that we do: it’s taken very seriously, and I think there’s a latent danger in claiming it isn’t – that victims will believe their claims will not be taken seriously; and may not report crimes. All told, i think some criticism of your article was valid.
But I still agree that Facebook should have removed the jokes about rape – and it is highly questionable why they were not.
Cath, by the time I read your [[CiF]] article there were already 500+ comments, and the sheer number of those comments that were taking you to task for that easy-to-interpret sentence rather discussing the ethical failures of Facebook or the wider problem of rape culture was truly a thing of wonder. Especially after you’d commented early on to clarify and expand on what you meant. Fascinating and striking bulk example of the bias against hearing what a woman is saying, and of deflective reactions to avoid dealing with the problems she’s addressing. It was a great article, you articulated and contextualised the problem with Facebook’s stance on this issue perfectly, thanks.
However, “average men” is a grouping that includes both men who have committed rape and men who have been raped (most by other men), and men who have neither committed nor been subjected to rape; it is not a grouping that does not include men who have committed rape. That would be quite an arbitrary distinction, because the idea of “average” does not hold any particular association with the perpetration or not of sexual assault. You seem to be using it in a way that does – so, what are those major differences you cite? Genuinely interested to understand what you perceive them to be.
Trying to perpetuate this distinction and distance between “average men” and “rapists” is in fact part of the larger problem, and is exactly what Cath’s talking about. She is, to repeat this for the umpteenth time, not saying that all “average men” are rapists. What do we all mean here by “average men”? We’re all using this term in much the same way I think, as a useful and loosely defined shorthand for men in general, though there might be underlying unspoken exclusionary assumptions about what kind of attributes the average man does or doesn’t have – e.g. that he’s heterosexual for example. I’d argue however that the main assumption about “average” as Cath and the rest of us are using it in this context is that it means not appearing or overtly acting in socially unconventional or disturbing ways. The “average man” in this sense is not marginalised or criminal or homeless or strange or obviously mentally unwell or socially isolated or overly aggressive or angry or anti-social or expressing strange beliefs or has strange habits etc etc. The “average man” has friends and a family, is socially integrated, probably has or has had a job, is likeable, articulate, respected in his social circle, has unremarkably conventional masculine interests and pastimes, appropriately affectionate to his partner and kids if they have any – stuff like that.
Another aspect of the idea of the “average man”, is that I suspect that you, Rich, and the [[CiF]] commenters taking issue with Cath, identify with/as “average men”, attaching the meaning “someone like me” to it, or “like me and my male friends and colleagues”. Therefore it’s fairly understandable why you all take affront at the idea that a man who commits rape could be “someone like me” – but assuaging your sense of discomfort about that is so not the real priority here.
The problem with excluding men who have committed rape from our idea of the grouping of “average men” is that, as Cath says, men who have committed or are prepared to commit rape do not have devil horns or other easily distinguishable features. They are more likely to appear and act quite unremarkably, indeed may be likeable, charming, and appear trustworthy – all attributes that both facilitate the people they assault being drawn into a vulnerable situation with them, and that means that their victims have a harder time being believed and supported. Most rape survivors already knew their attacker, who in many instances was a friend, colleague, partner, or acquaintance – someone in their work, social or family circle. And what the original Schrodingers Rapist post that Cath links to articulates so brilliantly is the general wariness that women feel when approached by “average men” they don’t know – for one thing, women are in fact told so much to be careful and wary of men, and for another, lots of women have learned from their own experiences of “average men” who’ve been intrusive and pushy and not taken a hint, in both minor and major ways. This is our reality.
In short, appearing to be an “average man” – even being a likeable and popular man – says absolutely nothing about whether or not that person is prepared to force himself on someone else sexually. That’s not saying that all such men will, it’s saying that we can’t know and, more importantly, that to imagine that such men inherently won’t is a mistake.
Many complaints of rape are already not taken seriously. That’s a consequence of the “rape culture”, not a consequence of discussing it. A lot of lip service is paid to the awfulness of sexual assault, but there’s a culture of disbelief within the criminal justice system and the wider public that means that too many victims are discouraged, disbelieved and are not supported and do not get justice (as Cath has recently written about and provided lots of relevant sources). Many victims already do not report being assaulted – reported rapes are much lower than the frequency of rape that surveys about it produce.
The idea of rape culture is that there are wider, subtler ways in which our culture actually supports and normalises sexually coercive behaviour. For example, the old but still surprisingly current “romantic” dramatic trope of a female character resisting a heroic male character who is pursuing, restraining, blocking or pressuring her in some way and then giving in. Or the common heteronormative conceptualisation of sex that it is something that men must “get” from women, or that women provide to men. Or the very common visually objectifying display of women’s bodies in all kinds of contexts and media, in ways that men’s bodies are not typically presented. Or a massively popular and influential social media site deciding that intimidatory language that evokes sexual assault is something they are ok with tolerating in their space. I could go on.
The problem is that much of this is just seen as “normal” of how we as society regard gender, sex, and sexuality – but it’s unequal, oppressive and destructive, and obstructs effective tackling of the problem of rape. The “rape culture” approach to discussing the problem of sexual assault serves to take it beyond the limitations of the usual victim-blaming and the idea of aberrant perpetrators. It’s good that lots of “average men” want to distance themselves from men who commit rape – but you need to also be active in becoming aware of and challenging the diversenormalisations of sexual coercion, and listening to womens experiences and supporting them.
Ignore the brackets around “CiF” – just unwanted formatting by the application I was composing the comment in. Link that doesn’t appear to work is https://toomuchtosayformyself.com/2011/09/09/disparities-in-rape-crime-figures/
Other illustrative manifestation of a rape culture – that those Facebook pages not only are tolerated by the site but get hundreds of thousands of user “likes”; of course not every who “liked” them has committed or will commit rape – but they all (apart from those who’ve “liked” in order to be able to challenge and engage critically on those pages) apparently think the messages of those pages are somehow funny (I wish I could hear some of them attempt to explain what’s humourous about those pages). People who might work in criminal justice, who might serve as jurors, who might work in other capacities where they will encounter survivors of rape, and who might have friends or family members who are survivors and need their support. Great.
The only thing I can think of here is that a far greater number of average male rapists are running around out there than we ever imagined. They’ve gotten away with this for decades, and that they are the ones outraged when women finally catch on to this. It is the rapists actually derailing the thread, and they fear getting caught, they fear a world where women know that any man could be a rapist. There’s no way to tell at all, no way. The only way women can be sure they will not be raped at a party, is for no men to be at the parties.