Guilt by Association

How exactly am I supposed to react when I hear about the particularly brutal gang rape and murder of a 23 year old medical student in India?

There is, of course, the obvious stuff. There's horror, sadness, and anger mixed together. There's also a certain amount of incredulity. I like to give people the benefit of the doubt and I have a hard time imagining that anyone is capable of this kind of thing.

If I'm honest with myself, there's a kind of smugness too, because you think that sort of thing doesn't really happen here. And, to be fair, it doesn't - at least, not on the scale on which it happens in certain other parts of the world. I think it's fairly non-controversial to say that being a woman in Canada or the U.S. is safer than being a woman in India.

That being said, every time something like this happens, articles will be written about how the situation in North America isn't actually all that great. Soraya Chemaly, whose blog I follow, can usually be counted upon to write something to this effect. People start pointing out that virtually all violent crimes, rape being just one of many examples, are committed by men. Words like "patriarchy" started getting bandied around.

My visceral reaction to this kind of talk is to be defensive. It's usually some variation of "Not all men are like that". I'm simply being honest - I understand that this completely sidesteps the point. I've never met or heard of a woman, self-described feminists included, who actually thinks that all or even most men are rapists. The point isn't that most men are rapists, it's that rape is a symptom of the power dynamics in our society. It's a symptom of how boys are brought up. It's a symptom of (dun dun dun)...patriarchy.

Like I said, I've been defensive about it. I'm guilty of having made arguments like this:

People lock their doors at night, and when they go on vacation. People lock their cars and their bikes when they are left unattended. People do this, even though people have a right not to be burgled. People do this even though theft is 100% illegal.

One could further say that, if you do leave your bike unlocked and unattended, and it's subsequently stolen, that the blame lies squarely with the thief. An undefended bike is not an invitation to have it stolen.

That being said, I lock my doors at night. And I suspect you do too.

I used to be quite proud of that analogy. But I've slowly come to realize that it's a) not helpful and b) faulty.

The problem isn't that the analogy isn't true. The point isn't that there aren't a myriad of ways that women can defend themselves against would-be rapists (the equivalent of locking one's door at night). The point is that, in a rape case, the discussion always seems to shift to ways that the victim could have prevented the assault - on blaming the victim.

Greta Christina's has this to say on the topic (she was commenting on the "Don't Be That Guy" campaign in Edmonton which shifts focus on the perpetrators of sexual assault, rather than the victims):

The problem with [an analogy] like that is that it feeds the "blame the victim" mentality. One of the biggest problems in rape culture is that many rape victims blame themselves, and sometimes don't even think of what happened to them as rape since they were "asking for it" - which (a) adds to the trauma of their rape the unnecessary guilt over having caused it, and (b) means they don't press charges.

In a campaign like this one [the "Don't be that guy" campaign in Edmonton], that message will probably come through anyway - in a way that doesn't blame the victim.

This becomes clearer when you try to imagine my hypothetical burglar going on trial. I don't pretend to know how real trials operate, but I'd be very surprised if the unlocked state of your door counted as a viable defence for the thief. The analogous aspect in a rape case - the woman's choice of wardrobe, for example - often does get brought up at rape trials, and often does count as a viable defence for the rapist.

I used to also belt out variations of "All rapists may be men, but your chances of getting raped are still tiny". I used to say this, until I came across a study which basically found that 6% of male college students admit to having committed a rape at some point in their lives.

Now, my first thought when reading about this study was not that 6% was a high or a low number, but rather "Who in their right mind would ever admit to rape?". Interestingly, it turns out that if you actually use the word "rape" - if you come right out and ask the subject "Have you ever raped someone?", for example - the chances of him admitting it are all but zero. But if you choose your words with care, if you avoid the "r" word and ask, for example, something along the lines of "Have you ever had to forcibly hold down a woman while having sex?", then the act becomes easier to concede.

My second thought was "This is good, right? 6% is pretty small. That means that 94% of men aren't rapists. That's excellent news!". And I was feeling pretty calm about it until I realized that 6% is about 1 in 20, at which point my blood started running significantly cooler. I don't know why 6% should seem like such a small number, while 1 in 20 should seem like such a big number, but there it is. And that's just the guys who copped to it.

1 in 20. The mind boggles. Take a moment or two and let it sink in. How many men do you think you saw on your way to work today? How many men did you see at your local bar? Do you think it was more than 20?

Not 1 in 1000. Not 1 in 100. 1 in 20. That's not quite the deviant behaviour I was hoping for.

This number changed a lot for me. Even if you think that rape statistics are exaggerated, even if you think that "6% of college boys are rapists" is a much more realistic statistic, that still means that 1 in 20 college boys are rapists. That still means there's a good chance you saw a rapist on your way to work today.

So, no, I have not yet met the woman who thinks that all or most men are rapists. But I can imagine that knowledge of such a statistic, even on a sub-conscious level, would, at the very least, colour her interactions with the opposite sex. And I can imagine that her default attitude towards men, in the absence of any other information, might be one of caution and suspicion.

I mean, guys, wouldn't you feel the same way? What if you were confronted with a study that found that 1 in 20 women have admitted to mutilating their partners' genitals while they slept? Do you think the women on the subway on the way to work would start to look a bit different?

It's definitely unfair. Most men are perfectly fine people, and they're all paying the price for the actions of a relative few. But, seriously, what is one supposed to say? That 1 in 20 is good odds? Go out, have some fun, and know that the chances are really quite decent that you won't get raped? Honest.

I'm angry. I'm angry that the default, baseline, subconscious stance the average woman has towards the average man is that he might be a potential rapist. I'm angry, not because it's a paranoid attitude to have, but because it isn't.

And I guess I also feel a bit of guilt by association. I belong to a gender, many of who's members seem to have a specific knack for doing very bad things.

If there are any women who actually read this blog: I'm sorry. I'm sorry you get leered at. I'm sorry you have to avoid certain neighbourhoods at night. I'm sorry that you apparently get pushed out of buses. I'm sorry about this guy. And this guy. And this guy. I'm sorry that, in any discussion of rape, the conversation always seems to swerve back to you.

It sucks. I'm just...sorry.