Rape is “Normal”

By Robert Jensen

Published in Counterpunch · September, 2002

[This article appeared as “Men’s pleasure, women’s pain: A dangerous sexual ethic is woven into cultural fabric,” Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star, September 1, 2002, pp. D-1, 3.]

It is not surprising that we want to separate ourselves from those who commit hideous crimes, to believe that the abominable things some people do are the result of something evil inside of them.

But most of us also struggle with a gnawing feeling that however pathological those brutal criminals are, they are of us — part of our world, shaped by our culture.

Such is the case of Richard Marc Evonitz, a “sexually sadistic psychopath,” in the words of one expert, who abducted, raped and killed girls in Virginia and elsewhere. What are the characteristics of a sexually sadistic psychopath? According to a former FBI profiler who has studied serial killers: “A psychopath has no ability to feel remorse for their crimes. They tend to justify what they do as being OK for them. They have no appreciation for the humanity of their victims. They treat them like objects, not human beings.”

Such a person is, without question, cruel and inhuman. But aspects of that description fit not only sexually sadistic psychopaths; slightly modified, it also describes much “normal” sex in our culture.

Look at mass-marketed pornography, with estimated sales of $10 billion a year in the United States, consumed primarily by men: It routinely depicts women as sexual objects whose sole function is to sexually satisfy men and whose own welfare is irrelevant as long as men are satisfied.

Consider the $52-billion-a-year worldwide prostitution business: Though illegal in the United States (except Nevada), that industry is grounded in the presumed right of men to gain sexual satisfaction with no concern for the physical and emotional costs to women and children.

Or, simply listen to what heterosexual women so often say about their male sexual partners: He only seems interested in his own pleasure; he isn’t emotionally engaged with me as a person; he treats me like an object.

To point all this out is not to argue that all men are brutish animals or sexually sadistic psychopaths. Instead, these observations alert us to how sexual predators are not mere aberrations in an otherwise healthy sexual culture.

In the contemporary United States, men generally are trained in a variety of ways to view sex as the acquisition of pleasure by the taking of women. Sex is a sphere in which men are trained to see themselves as naturally dominant and women as naturally passive. Women are objectified and women’s sexuality is turned into a commodity that can be bought and sold. Sex becomes sexy because men are dominant and women are subordinate.

Again, the argument is not that all men believe this or act this way, but that such ideas are prevalent in the culture, transmitted from adult men to boys through direct instruction and modeling, by peer pressure among boys, and in mass media. They were the lessons I learned growing up in the 1960s and ‘70s, and if anything such messages are more common and intense today.

The predictable result of this state of affairs is a culture in which sexualized violence, sexual violence and violence-by-sex is so common that it should be considered normal. Not normal in the sense of healthy or preferred, but an expression of the sexual norms of the culture, not violations of those norms. Rape is illegal, but the sexual ethic that underlies rape is woven into the fabric of the culture.

None of these observations excuse or justify sexual abuse. Although some have argued that men are naturally sexually aggressive, feminists have long held that such behaviors are learned, which is why we need to focus not only on the individual pathologies of those who cross the legal line and abuse, rape and kill, but on the entire culture.

Those who find this analysis outrageous should consider the results of a study of sexual assault on U.S. college campuses. Researchers found that 47 percent of the men who had raped said they expected to engage in a similar assault in the future, and 88 percent of men who reported an assault that met the legal definition of rape were adamant that they had not raped. That suggests a culture in which many men cannot see forced sex as rape, and many have no moral qualms about engaging in such sexual activity on a regular basis.

The language men use to describe sex, especially when they are outside the company of women, is revealing. In locker rooms one rarely hears men asking about the quality of their emotional and intimate experiences. Instead, the questions are: “Did you get any last night?” “Did you score?” “Did you f— her?” Men’s discussions about sex often use the language of power — control, domination, the taking of pleasure.

When I was a teenager, I remember boys joking that an effective sexual strategy would be to drive a date to a remote area, turn off the car engine, and say, “OK, f— or fight.” I would not be surprised to hear that boys are still regaling each other with that “joke.”

So, yes, violent sexual predators are monsters, but not monsters from another planet. What we learn from their cases depends on how willing we are to look not only into the face of men such as Evonitz, but also to look into the mirror, honestly, and examine the ways we are not only different but, to some degree, the same.

Such self-reflection, individually and collectively, does not lead to the conclusion that all men are sexual predators or that nothing can be done about it. Instead, it should lead us to think about how to resist and change the system in which we live. This feminist critique is crucial not only to the liberation of women but for the humanity of men, which is so often deformed by patriarchy.

Solutions lie not in the conservatives’ call for returning to some illusory “golden age” of sexual morality, a system also built on the subordination of women. The task is to incorporate the insights of feminism into a new sexual ethic that does not impose traditional, restrictive sexual norms on people but helps creates a world based on equality not dominance, in which men’s pleasure does not require women’s subordination.