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:
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