Garden-variety cultural sexism lays the foundations for extreme violence against women, according to a study published this month in the journal Psychology of Violence. Which means that in educating teens and college students about consensual sex, ideas about women as “gatekeepers” and men as captives to their high libidos need to be the first notion to go.
Researchers at Georgia State University drew these conclusions from analyzing a 2012 Reddit thread. In July of that year, a poster commented, “Reddit’s had a few threads about sexual assault victims, but are there any redditors from the other side of the story? What were your motivations? Do you regret it?” The Georgia State academics saw the anonymous confessions that followed as a rare chance to study “the interpretive lens perpetrators use to justify their actions.” They found that the stories perpetrators tell themselves blend shocking violence with familiar “sexual scripts,” such as the expectation that men will initiate sex and women will demur.
The Reddit discussion in question, dubbed the “ask-a-rapist thread,” was predictably controversial when it originally appeared. Some rape survivors objected to the idea of a forum where perpetrators could air their “regrets” and expect consequence-free catharsis. “The thought that my rapist is PROBABLY a redditor and could very well be getting patted on the back RIGHT NOW by HUNDREDS OF PEOPLE for relating how rough raping me was for him is making me literally nauseous,” one commenter wrote.
The researchers—who narrowed the original 12,000 posts down to 68 first-hand accounts, all made in the first two days and therefore “less biased by media-generated interest”—acknowledge the limitations of their dataset, starting with the impossibility of fact-checking the anonymous narratives. But they also took the uncomfortable tone of the thread—the sense that “many respondents seemed to be disclosing something that they felt remorse or confusion over”—as a sign that the responses might be uniquely candid glimpses into rapists’ unguarded selves.
The researchers tried to divide the justifications they found into categories: victim blaming, objectification, biological essentialism (the idea that men “are just horny” and “can’t help it”), and outright hostility toward women. But they found that these thought processes blurred together. One man wrote that he forced his partner to continue having sex with him even though she was having traumatic flashbacks to a previous rape because his “hormones were going insane,” and she “wasn’t a person anymore just a path, a tool, a means to an end.” In his story, researchers saw the symbiosis of essentialism and objectification.
They also watched these culturally supplied narratives turn into excuses for men to blame their victims. One man abdicated responsibility with the explanation that “[a]n erect dick has no conscience,” shunting some of the blame onto women by writing that “[m]ost girls don’t really understand how horny guys are… how guys will rationalize what they do.” (In a creepy turn, the same man vowed to sit his daughter down for “a very frank conversation on male–female relations” when she was old enough to be warned.) The researchers wrote about another man who badgered his girlfriend to have sex until she stopped physically and verbally resisting. He was surprised to find her crying afterward in another room, but even then, he wasn’t sure how much of the fault to assume: “It was as much my responsibility to ensure good communication as it was hers. … She (albeit nonverbally) implicitly consented to something she felt she had no choice but to consent to. She was wrong and she did have a choice, but if she didn’t realize that in the moment then what difference does it make?”
The justifications for the most brutal rapes existed on a continuum with their less-violent counterparts. A respondent who raped an incapacitated colleague so that she limped the next day described “[using] her as my personal fuck-box … she was just dead weight. … I just wanted to finish so I started jackhammering.” Though he’s set apart by his chilling lack of remorse (“Anytime we mentioned that night again I’d just be like ‘ugh, fucking girl puked in my room’”), the underlying coupling of objectification with sexual entitlement is all too familiar. Another man described the sick, private tradition in which he anally raped his wife once a year. Like the idea that “an erect dick has no conscience,” and by extension that a man’s conscience has no jurisdiction there, he presented the yearly rape as strangely insulated from his true feelings: “She doesn’t mention it after, ever, even if I joke that I enjoyed raping her. I like the experience so I repeat it every year… but I very much love her, just doesn’t seem like the inner emotions match what I physically want.”
In a way, the researchers agree with the Reddit thread’s original critics: that allowing rapists to craft narratives in which the crime is inevitable, or the victim is to blame, helps them to “protect themselves from shame or negative self-evaluation… which in turn reduces the likelihood of modifying their behavior.” The takeaway from the study, then, is that the appearance of pernicious sexual scripts is never too small or seemingly jocular for concern.