Dec 122012

[trigger warning for discussion of sexual violence]

Shortly before (but unrelated to) my post about men’s non-concordant physiological response to sexual violence, the Good Men Project posted an article called Nice Guys Commit Rape Too. (SIDENOTE: Some writers, when discussing this issue, choose not to link to the original article so as not to give more traffic to the site. I’m linking here because my academic background recoils at the idea of not citing an original source when it is so readily to hand. Feel free NOT to click it.)

It describes a situation very much like the one my friend described, of a guy raping a woman who was not conscious.

Inevitably, it raised controversy, and GMP upped the ante by posting a response by the “Nice Guy” in question. The title of that article is “I’d Rather Risk Rape Than Quit Partying.” (Linking again, despite the fact that title feels like link bait, like this whole thing is constructed to amp up pageview-driven ad revenue. I feel kinda gross writing about it myself, participating in what feels like a deliberately constructed controversy. But. The science in me wants to talk. So.)

I read Ally Fogg’s Independent article about the GMP thing, in which writes of the second article, “It is hard not to conclude that he [the rapist] had taken the first article as a vindication, confirmation that his act of rape was just a silly mistake. He’s still a nice guy – nice guys commit rape too.”

In another blog post about the topic over at In These Times, Lindsay Beyerstein offers an instructive allegory about the first article. What if…

The woman ordered a pizza and announced her intention to share it with the guy, but she fell asleep before the pizza arrived. Should he, a) Wake her up for pizza, or b) Shove some pizza in her mouth while she’s sleeping?

If Alyssa’s friend can grasp the basics of sleep, he can understand why it’s not okay to penetrate a sleeping person, even if they were totally excited about having sex before they fell asleep. Alyssa should ask herself why her supposedly nice friend didn’t wake the girl up, if he was so sure she wanted sex.

(Alyssa is the author of the original article.)

The phrase Mr Fogg and Ms Beyerstein may be looking for, the one that hammered against my skull when I read their articles, is “cognitive dissonance.”

Humans are not merely capable of holding two mutually exclusive beliefs, they are GIFTED at it.

We should pay fewer taxes and also fund schools and roads more.
Every gay person is going to hell – except my kid.
Rape is never the victim’s fault – unless the perpetrator is a nice guy, in which case she must have asked for it.

The reason the perpetrator can view his actions as just a mistake, and the reason he didn’t ask, is his gifted management of cognitive dissonance. He’s able to believe both that he is a nice guy and that he can have sex with an unconscious woman, by fabricating a story out of rape culture, including the invisibility of the woman’s trauma.

“I’m a nice guy and I want this, so it can’t be a big deal.”
Or “I’m a nice guy and I do this all the time, so it can’t be rape.”
Or “I’m a nice guy, which means I never intend to hurt anyone, so if she says she’s hurt, she’s over-reacting.”

His cognitive dissonance – indeed, our cultural cognitive dissonance – says he shouldn’t be held responsible for raping someone – an act described by Richard Trembley as the most violent crime a person can survive – because he’s a nice guy.

One thing that original article got right: we live in a culture that weaves a rich tapestry of beliefs and attitudes from which perpetrators can fabricate their convenient truths. “Rape isn’t a big deal. It’s not rape if she doesn’t kick and scream. If she makes me want her, that’s what she gets.”

(Typing that was GROSS.)

We’re all enmeshed in the fabric in rape culture, yet very few men rape (PDF). The robes of a rapist are sewn by hands that are narcissistic and lacking agreeableness and conscientiousness (more here). No, no, rape is not an accident. Rape is not a mistake. Rape is specific and deliberate. It is a choice that makes perfect sense when it is dressed as sense; strip it bare, though, strip it of rape myths and victim blaming and gender stereotypes, and all you have is a felon.

I don’t mean to say that he’s actively constructing this narrative; only that he holds two mutually exclusive beliefs and, when called upon to tie them together, has material ready to hand.

Men who are “high risk” for perpetrating are generally resistant to prevention intervention, which is why the bystander model is so important and so powerful. We need someone to say, “DUDE, don’t have sex with that girl who’s asleep.”

But can we intervene directly with the 5% of men who are perpetrators? Assuming we can even identify them, what works for addressing cognitive dissonance? Motivational interviewing is one promising strategy. MI creates an environment where a person places their dissonance in front of their own eyes, and it holds the person in a space of curiosity and and non-judgement while they attempt to resolve the optical illusion before them. For so many reasons – not least to avoid of the agony of remorse – a perpetrator will attempt and attempt again to resolve the illusion with their own shortcut. Is anyone else thinking about _1984_? 2+2=4, it’s right there in front of them, all the evidence, but they BELIEVE it’s 5… it can’t be 4 because if it’s 4 that would mean… no, it’s got to be 5.

Sorry about all the mixed metaphors. Rape culture is hard to write about. You should have seen the horrible Ghost of Christmas Present metaphor I axed, jeebuz.

emily nagoski

  23 Responses to “the phrase you’re looking for is “cognitive dissonance””

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  1. What exactly is “rape culture”? I’ve heard people talk about it, but no one has ever really explained it.

    To be honest, it sounds like an over-exaggeration or hyperbole about some perceptions of human sexual behavior. I don’t support rape in any way, shape, or form. I don’t know anyone who would support rape. I don’t really get how we’d have a rape culture.

    • So, when I was an undergraduate, I had a conversation with a guy I practiced judo with that might work as an example. Nice guy, totally respectful of me and all the other women in the dojo, not a flag waving feminist but definitely not misogynist, in my experience. Who knows how we got on this topic of conversation, but at some point he says something along the lines of, essentially “I think if a girl is fooling around with a guy and they get past a certain point, she has to have sex with him.” I am both surprised and frankly, pissed, and tell him in no uncertain terms that if she says no- at any point- he has to stop (I hope I was more eloquent than that, but I doubt it). I’m fairly certain I didn’t say “or else it’s rape,” but that’s what I was thinking. I’m pretty sure that he wasn’t thinking of his opinion as being, essentially “if things have gotten past a certain point with a girl and she says stop, I can just rape her because she “wanted it,” even though she withdrew consent.”

      Although I don’t have any other specific examples, I’d bet that his opinion was pretty common- even if most of the guys who held it would, in fact, stop if a girl said no. And I doubt that most of them would be able to identify that opinion as supporting rape, either. But I would call a culture that can support that sort of opinion a “rape culture,” even if not one of the people holding it could identify it as supporting rape.

      • This is foreign to me. I don’t know anyone who would have that opinion, but it bugs me when people think that their experience must be representative of what happens to everyone. Maybe rape culture exists.

        From my sexual encounters with women, I’ve generally been in the driver’s seat, so to speak. I never felt pressured to do anything that I didn’t want to do (other than self-pressure, but that is a different topic). I never pressured anyone to do what they didn’t want to. However, I’ve never been with a man. I don’t know if my behavior is normal. Maybe “rape culture” exists in spheres where I don’t really spend much time. I don’t know.

        • My second sentence might read differently that what I intend. I’m trying to say that just because I haven’t experienced something doesn’t mean that it isn’t common. Maybe rape culture exists, but I just haven’t really had any hard encounters with it.

          • Hi G,
            I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume that you are a straight cis guy since you identify yourself as male and say you’ve never been with a man. As to your first question what is rape culture. Essentially rape culture is the culture which makes assumptions about male and female interactive behavior that help support justifications for rape. I’m pretty sure you’ve encountered at least some of these things at least once. Things like “men can’t help themselves” are part of rape culture. Things like women shouldn’t wear short skirts are part of rape culture. Things like he couldn’t possibly have raped her because he does such and such nice thing are part of rape culture. Do any of these things sound like things you’ve heard before?

      • Would Fifty Shades of Grey be a part of rape culture? Everyone is consenting, but there are some violent overtones, female submission, and male aggression.

        • There are many non-consensual parts of 50 Shades. That one of the main characters is allowed to push the other beyond agreed-upon limits is not OK. BDSM in and of itself is not a part of “rape culture” as long as consent is promoted. Outsiders’ perceptions that anything bad that happens to a person who agreed to certain acts was deserved, however, IS a part of rape culture.

      • Thanks Irene. Glad I refreshed the page before pulling up that link.

      • The Good Men Project is such a joke.

        • Why do you think that the Good Men Project is a joke?

          • Because despite their purported mission, they run, on a consistent basis, articles that show a fundamental misunderstanding of how patriarchy hurts men and oppresses women. GMP is feminism-lite on its good days; a lot of the time it’s straight up apologism and fucked up stereotyping. Better resources for being a good man are all over the internet–this may not have been the case when GMP started, but it is certainly the case now. So yeah, the joke? Is that actual good men are lightyears beyond the pathetic stuff GMP is peddling.

    • You’ve gotten some great replies here, but I’ll just add my two cents. This is from a report I wrote a year or two ago:

      Rape culture is “a complex of beliefs that encourages male sexual aggression and supports violence against women … a society where violence is seen as sexy and sexuality as violent” (Buchwald et al. 1993).

      In a rape culture, men are granted permission to use alcohol as a weapon against women, to incapacitate them and then have sex with them. Explicit videos are available online of men engaging in sexual acts with women who are intoxicated to the point of stupor or even unconsciousness (Lisak, 2011) That is rape culture, where the felony-level violent crime, punishable under the law by 20 years in federal prison, is videoed, posted on the internet, and celebrated as erotic.

      One example: recently an 11 year old girl was raped by 18 men over several hours, and the event was videotaped and posted on the internet, which is how the crime was discovered. The New York Times (McKinley, 2011- reported this way:

      The case has rocked this East Texas community to its core and left many residents in the working-class neighborhood where the attack took place with unanswered questions. Among them is, if the allegations are proved, how could their young men have been drawn into such an act?
      “It’s just destroyed our community,” said Sheila Harrison, 48, a hospital worker who says she knows several of the defendants. “These boys have to live with this the rest of their lives.”

      And later:

      Residents in the neighborhood where the abandoned trailer stands — known as the Quarters — said the victim had been visiting various friends there for months. They said she dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s. She would hang out with teenage boys at a playground, some said. (McKinley, 2011)

      Thus, the community declares and the New York Times reports, an 11 year old girl had it coming, and now the perpetrators, between 19 and 27 years old, are left with the residual torment. That is rape culture.

      In this environment, not only will sexual assault continue to occur, but those who have been assaulted will not come forward, report the assault, seek medical assistance, or pursue justice through the legal system, because all of those systems – medical, forensic, legal, etc – are embedded in the rape culture, which holds the survivor responsible for her own attack and frets over the rights and future happiness of the perpetrator.

  2. You are on fire here. Sparkling aphorisms abound and moral courage too, Thank you.

  3. Just a brief thing… the second article is not by the ‘nice guy in question’ but by a separate totally different guy, because siting sources *correctly* is also a thing.

    NOTE: all those articles are abhorrent, just saying they are two different guys, and only one identified (or was identified) as a nice guy.

  4. makes some excellent, excellent points.

  5. I’ve written extensively on rape and rape culture. In this post, I give many examples of rape culture, g, including quotes from the previously linked Rape Culture 101 Post at Shakespeare’s Sister.

    Thank you, Emily, for this excellent article. I will be sharing it and linking to it from my own blog today. Thanks to FB sharing in the B.E.D. group, I was led here.


  6. ¨But can we intervene directly with the 5% of men who are perpetrators? Assuming we can even identify them, what works for addressing cognitive dissonance?¨

    Rape culture, general misogyny and the patriarchy coddle the type of cognitive dissonance that you are talking about in your post. They protect it, like an egg crate around eggs. They make it easier for men who hold this type of cognitive dissonance to go through their entire lives without ever addressing it.

    As it is, I think working towards dismanteling rape culture and the patriarchy are just as important as direct interventions.

    Great post. Thanks!

    • Some of those 5% of men are not reachable for they actually enjoy causing pain or forcing sex without consent.

      But for others in those 5%, we might be able to remove the cognitive dissonance in their minds, and make them understand that the only real consent is enthusiastic consent.

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