“Legitimate Rape” and the Good Men Project

By now you have probably heard about the Good Men Project’s recent putting its foot in its mouth on the topic of rape. If you haven’t, Grace has a good summary with a list of posts written on the subject. What it comes down to is this: The Good Men Project has started discussing the role partying, alcohol, and drugs play in rape, which is good. However, instead of focusing solely on the necessity of consent they are spending time talking about how “nice guys” can get confused by alcohol and “accidentally” rape someone and the supposed “mixed messages” both women and society send men. In other words, the Good Men Project writers are portraying rapists as victims while simultaneously turning blame on the actual victims. This is bad.

What I want to do here is place what the Good Men Project is doing in a bit of historical context. I think that to understand what’s going on here you have to understand that the feminist movement has actually expanded the definition of rape. For example, several centuries ago a sexual act did not meet the definition of rape if it was not forcible. Similarly, marital rape was not recognized because it was presumed that by signing a marriage contract a woman was agreeing to be always sexually available to her husband. Furthermore, when a woman accused a man of raping her, her own sexual history and degree of purity was often seen as extremely relevant. As a chief justice in England said in the seventeenth century, “In a rape case it is the victim, not the defendant, who is on trial.”

In other words, Todd Akin’s comment about “legitimate rape” didn’t come out of a void. Throughout history, rape has often been narrowly defined. A master having sex with his slave wasn’t committing rape, because she was his property. If a woman didn’t put up enough resistance, that wasn’t rape either (this is why the Old Testament holds that a woman can only be raped in the countryside, because if she’s raped in the city she must not have yelled or resisted enough.) And women who are raped and take public or legal action have often found their own purity on trial, as whether they are sexually active or how many sex partners they have had is seen as somehow relevant to their case.

A victim of “legitimate rape” is sexually pure, properly demure, and wears white gloves. A victim of “legitimate rape” screams for help, fights her attacker, and must be forcibly constrained.

Feminists have worked to change how rape is defined, and they have been largely successful. Rape is no longer required to be forcible and marriage no longer obligates a woman to be always sexually available to her husband. Today we see rape as any sex that takes occurs without consent. It doesn’t matter whether the victim is sexually active, whether she (or he) has had multiple partners, or whether there was sufficient resistance offered. All that matters is whether or not there is consent.

Why is all of this relevant to the Good Men Project? The writers at the Good Men Project have been suggesting that, what with Well, quite simply, all this talk of “gray rape” isn’t new. In the first piece on this topic, GMP blogger Alyssa wrote about a friend who had sex with an unconscious woman, a woman who literally could not consent to sex (and, for good measure, had not consented to having sex before she she fell asleep). And yet, Alyssa portrays him as a “nice guy” who simply mistook the woman’s flirting – and her admission that she had worked as a sex worker – for consent. Alyssa insists that she isn’t saying this interaction was not rape, but she also says that the woman was sending her friend “mixed messages.” She was dancing. She flirted. She admitted to having put in time as a sex worker. She wasn’t pure and demure enough, and not being pure and demure, apparently, sends “mixed messages.”

The Good Men Project’s highly problematic discussion of rape simply follows Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” comment as the latest terrain in a struggle over both the definition of and the responsibility for rape. Feminists want the definition of rape to revolve solely around consent. Todd Akin and the Good Men Project, in contrast, think it’s important to talk about there being different types of rape. Todd Akin thinks some rapes aren’t “legitimate,” meaning presumably that some women are “asking for it” by dressing or acting just so. The Good Men Project writers, for their part, think it’s possible for men to get confused and “accidentally” rape women without meaning to. In either case, a woman’s “purity” or lack thereof, as well as their “proper” behavior or lack thereof, are seen as relevant to a discussion of rape.

From what I understand, the Good Men Project has a sizable audience. The Good Men Project started out as a well-meaning attempt to redefine and redesign masculinity in our increasingly egalitarian society, but somewhere along the way things have gone amiss. I would like to hope that the Good Men Project’s leadership will learn from the criticism they’ve received on this issue and move in a more positive direction. Until then, however, I’m filing their fuzzy conversation about rape away in the same category with Todd Akin, which ought to serve as a wake up call by itself.

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Mark

    The Everyday Sexism project have posted “Top tips for a safe night out” which I think really illustrate this point. https://twitter.com/EverydaySexism/status/279765375858667521/photo/1

  • http://tuibguy.com Mike Haubrich

    Maybe I am an oddity. I always had this rule that sex is one of those invitations that requires an active affirmative answer. Anything else is wrong.

    • Karmakin

      And believe it or not, that’s what the article was about, strangely enough. It’s about why, in our culture, we don’t really have such a rule and as such it actually ends up “rewarding” people, so to speak, who ignore said rule, which of course encourages this behavior.

      I really don’t see how this is downplaying in any way shape or form the problem of rape. In fact I think it’s taking it pretty seriously. Saying it’s wrong on the outfront, and trying to start a discussion of what we can do in order to stop the problem of grey rape. I personally have my own opinions on the subject…that like you said, we need overt, enthusiastic consent combined with a sex-positive society where people feel open and free to give said consent. (The latter, is where we’re falling down right now IMO)

      But thinking that all rape is coming from an oppressed/oppressor or a power differential point of view…the problem is what if that’s not true? If it’s not true then it requires an entirely different response than if it is. What if a lot of rape is caused by this sort of misunderstanding of gender roles/expectations and social cues? Why isn’t a good idea to try and change our culture to try and fix this? Why is that being a rape apologist?

      • Pteryxx

        But thinking that all rape is coming from an oppressed/oppressor or a power differential point of view…the problem is what if that’s not true? [...] What if a lot of rape is caused by this sort of misunderstanding of gender roles/expectations and social cues?

        Because those statements are not in conflict. Toxic gender roles explicitly include a power differential by conflating woman-ness with being a passive object or target, and man-ness with being an active initiator and owner.

      • RowanVT

        But how come the onus is always on the *woman* to change? Don’t be a tease. Don’t wear revealing clothes. Be modest. Nothing about telling a guy “Hey, think with your brain, not your penis.”

      • jemand

        I think there are two kinds of rapists.

        Sadistic rapists for whom active lack of consent is a FEATURE, not a bug, and the whole POINT.

        And opportunistic rapists for whom it is about having sex with someone, and the consent is *absolutely irrelevant* to their purposes.

        I think by “oppressed/oppressor or a power differential” rapes you are referring to the first kind, which I think are perhaps rarer… and getting snowed by the guys who perform the second kind and use as cover that they were just “confused” by “gender roles” or “social expectations.

        No. They’re not confused. They get consent. They don’t care. They don’t WANT lack of consent, they don’t get OFF on it, they just don’t care one way or another and will use whatever socially acceptable phrases you give them that will allow you to “explain” their behavior long enough for them to keep doing it.

  • Karmakin

    They are very much in conflict actually. There’s a huge difference between passive gender roles/expectations and active exploitation of demanded power differentials. And we can have a very real debate on which thing is which, but the truth is that they require entirely different responses.

    On this issue, active power exploitation probably would work best with a “name and shame” campaign, while dealing with passive gender roles/expectations requires a change to those roles/expectations, which can be difficult especially when most people seem to enjoy them. (Note. I’m not one of those people, and I think they should be changed. Most people disagree with me, however.)

    Or in short, it’s a very real problem that a lot of women WANT to be the target.

    • Alex

      Um, did you seriously just say that women want to be raped?

      I’ve been around people that were passed out before, and somehow I’ve managed not to rape any of them. It actually wasn’t hard at all. I don’t think it is at all difficult to not have sex with an unconscious person. Plus, even if we’re talking about a woman who has absorbed unhealthy messages about sexuality and think that it’s inappropriate for her to ask for sex so she pretends to be asleep, hoping the guy will take advantage of her, it’s STILL on the guy to, ya know, NOT TAKE ADVANTAGE OF HER.

      I mean I don’t even get what you’re saying, if you want to have sex with someone then they aren’t raping you, if you don’t consent to sex with them then they are raping you, and if you don’t want to be a rapist then make sure the person you’re having sex with wants to have sex with you. This is not a difficult concept. Don’t have sex with unconscious people, this is not rocket science.

    • Anat

      WTF do you mean by: Or in short, it’s a very real problem that a lot of women WANT to be the target.
      ???

      • Petticoat Philosopher

        Yeah, it wasn’t all THAT bad until he got to that part. I’d really like to hear that one explained…

    • http://www.facebook.com/lucrezaborgia lucrezaborgia

      Is this the “all women want to be pursued” bullshit?

      • Kate Monster

        The thing is, even if it were true–even if all women DID want to be pursued–it still wouldn’t justify nonconsensual sex. “I want you to chase me, flirt with me, hit on me, ask me out, beg for my number, etc.” is not the same thing as “I want you to have sex with me.” Pursuit is not the same thing as assault. The idea that someone takes the idea that women want to be the object of flirtation rather that its instigator (a premise that is in and of itself untrue) and decides that it means that it’s totes okay to have sex with someone who’s unconscious or who says no, or who struggles or who seems uncomfortable or scared is just so ludicrous to me. How do you make that leap? How to you turn “women want to be wanted” and turn it into “women want to be assaulted”?

        I don’t comment hardly ever, but this is just to ridiculous to ignore.

      • http://abasketcase.blogspot.com Basketcase

        Kate – you are SO right here, and I agree entirely. PURSUIT IS NOT THE SAME AS ASSAULT.
        I admit, I would have liked my now-husband to do more of the pursuing when we started dating, but he was shy. The fact I wanted him to take an interest, flirt with me, make me feel interesting? Did not mean I wanted to sleep with him RIGHT NOW. (Of course, this is something we have overcome inside our relationship!)
        But why is it that some people think that “playing hard to get” = “no means yes”? For me, playing hard to get is more about “I want you to prove you are interested”!

    • Rosie

      Even if there are some women who don’t like to give explicit consent (I personally think this is a straw-woman, but I suppose they might possibly exist somewhere), I think at that point it’s on the man to say, “well, I’m not going to go any further until I KNOW you want to do this”. If she wants to have sex with him badly enough, she can get over her cultural baggage enough to say “yes” in a convincing manner.

      • http://www.facebook.com/lucrezaborgia lucrezaborgia

        It’s pretty easy:
        Person #1: “Sex?”
        Person #2: “Sure!/Yes!/Hell yeah!”

      • Twist

        There’s still an awful lot of people who see women who do the pursuing, and even women who consent too readily, as being too forward (and as such, probably sluts *eyeroll*). I’ve met otherwise progressive men who were really put off by the idea of women approaching them in a bar, for example.

        One of the most memorable claimed that a single woman approaching a man in a bar and offering him a drink is ‘advertising her availability’ to every man in the bar, and as such can’t complain if someone other than the man she originally approached ‘takes her up on the offer’. Now that’s got to be one of the most disgusting things I’ve ever heard, even if I charitably assume that ‘takes her up on the offer’ means hit on her, and not rape her. I mean ‘advertising her availability’? Come on!

        We have to discourage the “no means maybe”, playing hard to get attitude when it comes to dating because it teaches men from an early age that no can be changed to yes if they only try hard enough. Again, I know men who don’t take an initial ‘no’ when asking a woman out as a defeat at all, just a normal part of the interaction before she eventually succumbs. One man told me that if a woman says yes the first time he asks, he loses interest because she’s obviously desperate.

        We ought to start educating that no means no and yes means yes when it comes to dating as well as sex, rather than ‘no’ meaning ‘try harder’ because if someone’s already been taught to disrespect a no, they’ve been taught that consent isn’t all that important and that transfers to a sexual situation. I wouldn’t trust someone who didn’t respect my ‘no’ when it comes to a date, to respect my ‘no’ when it comes to sex.

        There also needs to be an emphasis on teaching both women and men that it’s ok for women to pursue, and it’s ok to say yes! Get rid of this whole playing hard to get nonsense, and any ‘confusion’ goes away.

        (Note: I don’t agree that men rape because they are confused about what consent means. I do think that there are men who use it as a cover. Take that cover away and they have to confront what they actually are. )

      • Leigha

        I think that any time two people who aren’t in a relationship where they’ve had sex numerous times are getting ready to have sex, there should be verbal confirmation from both parties, i.e. “You sure this is what you want?” “Yes, you?” “Yep. Let’s do this.” There’s too much of a possibility for misunderstanding/misinterpreting (since you likely don’t know them very well), or for someone changing their minds but being reluctant to say so. Once you’ve been together for awhile and had sex enough times to feel comfortable with it, you can be a little more lax and assume (for the most part) that the other person will say something if they don’t want it, though if you know that’s a problem for your partner, you should be careful to make sure they’ll do so. Also, in that vein, just as you say more emphasis should be placed on allowing women to say yes, I firmly believe more emphasis should be placed on allowing men to say *no*. Too many men feel they are expected to always want sex and to refuse the opportunity is unmasculine and shameful. Most of these men would likely not say they were raped, but they very likely will regret the encounter (and I know of more than one guy who has had that experience).

        I think there are SOME men who rape because of unclear definitions of consent, but I don’t think it’s the norm. Regardless, if emphasizing what consent means can prevent even a small number of rapes, it’s worth it.

    • Pteryxx

      Karmakin, consider this comment on the other thread: (my emphasis)

      A few months ago, I was talking to some family friends of my husband — young men who are in their late teens/early twenties, in college, and generally intelligent and well-brought-up people, people who had grown up idolizing my husband as their big brother. I don’t remember how we got on the subject of consent, but we did. Both young men were unsure of how to ask for consent, because it went against everything that they’re supposed to be: confident, in control, experienced, invulnerable. To ask consent would make them vulnerable — to ridicule, to lowered expectations, etc.

      And my first response, in my head, was, “you’d be willing to rape because you’re not willing to possibly be embarrassed for a moment?”

      Asking consent = yielding control. Control.

      http://www.patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism/2012/12/the-good-men-project-and-accidental-rape.html/comment-page-1#comment-58864

  • Chris

    I was raped twice while under the influence of alcohol. This caused me to feel guilty as if being 18 and not knowing what Everclear was was my fault and so over consuming said punch at a frat party was my fault. (we were instructed to bring our own BIG cup with us…) I never reported my rape, dropped out of Stanford the next quarter- due to finances and depression- and went home and made another *bad decision* due to said depression- from the first rape that I hadn’t yet acknowledged and got roofie’d by an acquaintance who then raped me. When I told my mom, she didn’t believe me. (she has since apologized) So I buried the memory for years. It was a decade before I was able to realize that I wasn’t a *slut*- that I was raped. Society was not supporting me in how rape is viewed or in how I saw myself. Now I consider myself a rape survivor and try to educate people about rape. Many are very surprised to hear that I went thru this as they see me as a very strong woman.

  • Danielle

    I honestly didn’t have a problem with the original “nice guys” article. I didn’t feel that she was at all justifying the rape. When she mentioned the flirting, dancing, talking about sex work, I didn’t think she was blaming the victim. She was blaming the social constructs that make those implicit cues of consent.
    I don’t necessarily like the black and white categories, but I can see the value in analyzing the rape motives of “good guys” in the sense that there is a set of potential rapists who are more likely to be changed. The type of rapists with serious personality disorders and no conscience probably cannot be stopped, because they don’t care. There are potential rapists out there who really do not want to be rapists, who really could be stopped by changing social attitudes and education on consent.

    • Petticoat Philosopher

      How educated about consent do you need to be to know that a person who is unconscious is incapable of giving it? We can file that one under “duh,” I think.

      And acknowledging a “a set of potential rapists who are more likely to be changed” is very different from saying that NON-potential, ACTUAL rapists are “good guys.” I’m the first to say that many rapists are not monsters, that that idea is extremely harmful, and that many men who have picked up rape culture’s attitudes about sex and consent that can make them potentially harmful to others can be possibly be reached by effective education campaigns that provoke them to re-think those attitudes. But it’s a big jump to go from there to saying that a man who rapes an unconscious woman is a good guy. Maybe he has enough of a conscience to feel bad about being a rapist but he didn’t have enough of one to, you know, NOT BE ONE. He may not be a monster,but that, in my mind, pretty clearly disqualifies him from the “good guy” category. We can set the bar for “good guy” a little higher than that.

  • Angela

    Yep. If a woman is raped because she’s too drunk to consent then it’s her fault because she was drunk. If a man has been drinking and rapes a woman it’s NOT his fault because he was drunk. The alcohol MADE him do it. No one would accept drunkenness as an excuse to rob banks, murder, DUIs or any other type of crime? Why is rape any different. Or if someone’s passed out drunk is that an open invitation to take off with their wallet and phone? As long as they don’t tell us to stop then it’s reasonable to assume that they WANT you to take their stuff, right? No more ridiculous than assuming that incapacitated women WANT someone to have sex with them IMO.

    • TheSeravy

      While it doesn’t excuse theft, I won’t be surprised if my wallet/phone was stolen by a passing opportunist if I was unconscious and that, unfortunately, is the argument used to excuse rape (e.g. nice car in bad neighbourhood).

      The major difference with rape is that this is a person in question. Not some inanimate object. Stolen cell phones, cars and wallets are inconveniences and are replacable. What rape demonstrates is a complete disregard for the humanity of the person who was raped.

      The premise of the GMP is good but just poorly executed.

    • ButchKitties

      Studies have shown that this “nice guys who are drunk get confused and rape by accident” trope does much more harm than good. What is leads to is guys getting drunk for the express purpose of preemptively absolving themselves of responsibility for sexual assault. This attitude of “it’s not rape if I’m drunk, too” is especially pervasive on college campuses.

      • Twist

        It makes no sense to think that one should be absolved of responsibility for crimes committed while drunk anyway. If someone gets behind the wheel of their car and kills someone while drunk, I think most people will agree that it is a crime equally deserving of punishment as if their careless driving while sober caused a death. And it’s not like the two are equal – drunk or not, killing someone with your car is almost always going to be an accident. And I just don’t see how you can rape someone by accident. I mean, there’s no way I could be so drunk that I could sexually assult someone without realising that I was doing it without being unconcious first, thus making it impossible to sexually assult anyone anyway. Is anyone capable of being so drunk that they no longer understand the words “no” or “stop”, or no longer understand that they can’t just stick their penis in anyone they like, while still being physically capable of actually having sex?

      • Leigha

        I can’t reply to Twist’s comment because of the level of indentation, but I’d argue that most people would feel that someone who killed someone while driving drunk is MORE culpable than someone who did so while sober, because they made the reprehensible decision to drink and drive. I’m not certain that carries over to drinking and having sex, though, because most people don’t consider that unethical. Though that gives me an interesting thought…the most common rebuttal to the idea that being drunk means one can’t consent is what happens if both parties are drunk? If we really pushed the idea that drunk people can’t consent, to the point where drinking and having sex was viewed as morally reprehensible, then the “I was drunk” argument would not only go away but turn into a case of shooting oneself in the foot.

        Probably not going to happen, though.

  • Emma

    If the goal of the campaign was to EDUCATE well-intentioned men who honestly don’t realize they’re committing rape (e.g.: a campaign along the lines of “You may think this means she wants sex, but…”). This is something different.

    • Raped woman

      Oh, bullshit. Men know when they are committing rape. I told my rapist over the course of several months that I was not interested in a sexual relationship with ANYONE. Shortly before he raped me, I told him not to sexualize me and to think of me as another guy, not a woman. He waited until he saw me walking out of a bar, thought I might be drunk, and then he blitz-attacked me. He has tried many different stories to come up with the right excuse, and he has convinced even many of his female friends that he is a “nice” guy and I was the aggressor. He is enjoying my pain and humiliation. Don’t try to tell me men rape accidentally – they just don’t care if you want them or not, because a woman’s desire or lack of it is considered irrelevant. It’s all about “scoring” and bragging to your buddies about “getting some.”

      • Notreligious

        “Don’t try to tell me men rape accidentally – they just don’t care if you want them or not, because a woman’s desire or lack of it is considered irrelevant. It’s all about “scoring” and bragging to your buddies about “getting some.” ”

        This just needed to be said twice, because it exactly covers “nice guy” rape.

        We also need to realize that rape is so common, typical men do it. Its not usually the product of some deranged sociopath, but the simple lack of care about another persons wants, needs, or bodily autonomy. You can be the “nicest” person in every other way, but if you see women as just some thing to get off on, and there for your use, you will end up raping someone. I have been raped twice, and both times the guy wanted what he wanted, and my wants were completely irrelevant. It was like being a human blow up doll, really. Pretty sick if you ask me.

      • Leigha

        Your experience (awful though it was) does not eliminate the possibility of men who really do have a skewed view of consent and who would never knowingly rape someone. Admittedly, any situation which falls into the so-called “grey area” would necessarily be ambiguous, and people should probably err on the side of caution in ambiguous situations, but people don’t always make good decisions. Without doing any real study on the issue (not that it would be possible to do so anyway), I would imagine that the majority of rapes involve a man who knows deep down that what he’s doing is wrong but manages to convince himself that it isn’t via twisted logic, some rapes are done by men who deliberately set out to commit rape, and some rapes are truly an accident or misunderstanding. All of the men, regardless of motive, are at fault for their actions, just as a person who shoots someone is at fault whether they planned to do so or did so accidentally. But just as some shooting deaths can be prevented by educating people on gun safety, so can some rapes be prevented by educating people on what constitutes consent (and what doesn’t).

        I hate to say, I think the huge emphasis on the phrase “no means no” has actually had a negative effect in some instances. When I was in high school, they tried to convince us that not only does no mean no, but yes means yes–in other words, lack of refusal is not sufficient consent. The fact that they felt the need to clarify this tells me that the traditional “no means no” leaves a bit of room for ambiguity–”She didn’t tell me to stop, so she must have wanted me to continue.” Now, if a woman is willingly making out with a man and, when he moves towards sex, she makes no indication that she doesn’t want to, can we TRULY expect him to think that maybe she didn’t and maybe he didn’t get adequate consent? I would argue no, but if she didn’t want it and didn’t feel she could say no for whatever reason (being bombarded with the idea that it’s wrong to “lead him on”, for instance, or even being sufficiently naive that she didn’t fully realize what was happening until too late), the consequences are the same for her. To her, what happened was rape, even though he had no way of knowing that was a possibility. That’s why I firmly believe that (especially if two people haven’t had sex before, or have done so only a couple times), everyone should verbally agree that they do, in fact, want to do so–not just in advance, either, but also right before beginning to have sex (since people can and do change their mind, and should not feel obligated to do something they’ve changed their mind about).

        At any rate, regardless of how common (or uncommon) it is, it IS possible to rape someone without meaning to. It’s also possible for something to seem like rape from the outside but not be viewed as such by the person themselves. Neither absolves them of responsibility, but it happens.

  • Mikey

    You might be interested in the current anti-abuse campaign being run by the UK government – it’s pretty hard-hitting, and I’ve been impressed by what I’ve seen so far – especially the non-victim blaming anti rape clip.

    http://www.thedrum.com/news/2012/03/05/sex-abuse-awareness-campaign-unveiled-clegg

  • Rilian

    What if you sort of did consent? like, begrudgingly, because its your fiance and they wont shut up about it and they say they need it and its not fair if you dont and maybe they’ll leave you if you dont and maybe that would be a good thing, but you dont want to uproot your whole life and maybe you can deal with this … Then is it my fault?
    And, why is it that if a drunk man and a drunk woman have sex with each other, it is said that the woman’s consent didn’t count so she was raped, but it isnt also said that the man’s consent didn’t count and therefore he was raped? Not only is he still responsible for his choice to have sex, even though he was drunk, but he is also considered a rapist. What’s up with that double standard?

    • Kim

      In the case where you said both partners consented and both were legally drunk, being drunk wouldn’t negate the consent (assuming neither has passed out). Where it DOES negate consent is when one partner is drunk (or unconscious) while the other is sober (or conscious). As for the example with the pushy fiancee…one partner has been saying no, and the other partner didn’t accept that answer. If the one partner said yes just to shut the other partner up, it might not legally be rape, but there is still the coercion there, especially with threatening to leave. That kind of relationship is controlling, and very unhealthy. While it might not legally be rape since the one partner technically said yes, I would wonder how safe that partner felt with saying no. If they thought they would be hurt for saying no, again, their consent would be negated.


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