Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Brain on rape.

Look, I get it. You trust your brain. I trust my brain. Our brains have served us well in our lives. Wherever we are, we wouldn't be there without our brains. Our brains understand things. When an object is coming toward our head, our brain knows to duck, often before we do! Our brain understands subtle body language and facial expressions that I would never notice. But, sometimes we need to show our brain who's boss. We need to say "no brain, I know you think it's like that, but it's not, it's just not." Sometimes, our brain is so used to being right that it thinks it's better than facts.

For instance, my brain thinks sex is about sex. This is so simple, that my brain is really convinced it's correct on this one. So when my brain hears about a rape, it thinks "that guy must have really wanted to have sex with her." Wrong brain! You see, my brain is not a rapist (thankfully), and so it doesn't really understand how rape works, or why it happens. So my brain might think, maybe that rape wouldn't happen if the victim hadn't been so sexy looking. Because, (my brain figures) then the rapist wouldn't wanted to have sex with her so badly. But, wow, just wow, brain, that's all kinds of wrong. It's factually incorrect. So, sometimes, we have to tell our brain to take a backseat. Us, as a society, we have to take charge, and use facts to over-ride our brain. It doesn't always work, and it's certainly not easy. But in policy and public discourse, it's essential.

Take, for example, the fact that someday I am going to die. Both my brain and I agree on this fact. We, however, disagree on the method of my death. I'm fairly certain that I will die of heart disease, stroke or maybe a car crash someplace near my home. My brain on the other hand is pretty sure I will die in an airplane crash, an armed robbery or from a spider hidden in my shoe. I told you before, sometimes my brain is an idiot. So when a plane goes through some turbulence, my brain makes sure that I'm good and scared, because I'M IN A FLYING TUBE OF METAL! Yet at the same time, my brain will let me shovel bacon cheeseburgers into my mouth like they're tic tacs, without so much as a tiny bit of adrenaline. What's up with that brain? And, really, this isn't a big deal. I'm capable of making decisions in my life. It requires work, and effort, and knowledge, and ordering salad instead of fries (and recognizing that an iceberg lettuce salad with thousand island dressing isn't much better than fries). The real problem emerges when we all start talking together, and making decisions together, as a society and a culture.

You see, it's fine for me to grab the armrest of an airplane with a deathgrip every time the airplane I'm in adjusts its flaps, but if I insist that billions of dollars be shifted from heart disease research into increased airplane safety, well, that's not fine. That's not OK brain! It would result in more people dying, probably me among them.

So, on rape. I get it. Guys, and people closely related to guys, are scared that AT ANY MOMENT some slutty lady will seduce him and then, upon realizing that other people will judge her for voluntarily having sex, accuse him of rape. Then his life will be over. Sure, it's a pretty scary scenario. Your word against hers. It would also be pretty scary to fall from the sky in a giant metal tube. And, here's the thing, the trump card your brain can always play: It does happen! It happens. So no matter what kind of facts we throw at our brain, it can always point this out. But, it's a brain trick. The fact that something is technically possible, doesn't really do us any good in addressing whatever it is we should be addressing.

The facts on the issues of rape are clear. But so many people's brains don't like them. Rapists don't rape for sex. They rape as part of violence, dominance and power. They choose victims based on opportunity. Does that mean they sometimes pick victims who are dressed provocatively? Yes. But it is because the provocative dress or behavior provides an opportunity, not because they it inspires the rapist to want to have sex with that person. Our brains might not get it, but it's how it works. Often, this opportunity is increased because society will assume that that person was "asking for it." The person will know society will assume this. The person will be less likely to report the rapist. Because of us. Our brains' belief that rape is about sex actively empowers rapists to get away with rape. Bad brain! So, we must have the ability to look at reality, and say 'no, brain, that's not right."

Even if we wanted to lower the number of false rape accusations. Lets just pretend that is our priority. Then why are we attacking women for slutty behavior? Aren't those attacks *the exact reason why we think women make up rape accusations*? So now our brain has us both empowering rapists AND incentivising women to accuse innocent young men of rape. After all, if they don't accuse the first guy of rape, then we will use the fact she slept with that first guy so willingly as an example of how she's being stupid by increasing her risk of being raped, because she's a slut.

Our brain says rape is about sex, and then says that therefore sluttiness leads to rape, which results in us empowering rapists to get away with it, AND we creating the very environment that causes our brain to imagine that women are out there "crying rape" all the time. (Guess what brain? They're not! Repeated studies show that false rape accusations occur at the same rate as false accusations for other crimes.)

Back to the airplane analogy. Our rape situation is even worse than redirecting all our heart disease money to excessive airplane safety. It's more like redirecting all our heart disease money to making airplane flaps not make that scary noise. More people will die of heart disease, and, at the same time, just as many airplanes will crash. Because our brain doesn't understand why airplanes crash. Our brain is stupid when it comes to airplanes! We have to spend time to learn about airplanes before we know how they work!

Intuition serves us well in many areas of our lives. Sexual assault is not one of them (neither is airplanes). So, yeah. It takes a lot of work and a lot of knowledge to tell our brains to shut up.

Sexual assault is very real. Somehow this is true despite the fact that we have been slut shaming for quite awhile. So it's time we look at the facts, and tell our brains who's boss.


  1. I don't have too much to add, but I wanted to start with an article I found.

    Yes, it's 20 years old and short, but I think it crystallizes the kind of factual research that you're talking about, and I'm going to expound on it slightly. Especially Type 2, because I think that's what you're focusing on here.

    Type 1 is relatively easy to dismiss: this is the rapist as mentally ill; essentially similar to a pedophile as much as a criminal. The definition there is of someone who specifically experiences arousal at the concept of rape. Psychological conditions are not easy to diagnose, nor are their causes obvious, but generally, this case seems to have little to do with the social world and more to do with brain disorder. Type 4 is also essentially a sociopath, whose problems are personal. These rapists rarely earn any supporters, and are going to attack when attacks are available.

    Types 2 and 3 are more complex, and I think they're hard to completely divorce from sexuality. They act not based on psychological disordering but on social conditioning: their sense of entitlement or superiority, their misogyny, and their social constructions of their sexuality.

    Type 3 rapists are acting on nigh-psychotic rage, which is definitely a product of certain imagined wrongs. Clearly based on society (and likely, various forms of sexual rejection) but still not fundamentally based in sexuality, so much as a tight nexus.

    Type 2 rapists apparently fundamentally construct rape and sex as interchangeable. They don't believe that consent is meaningful, or rather, they don't believe that it's something subjective, to be given or refused. The article describes them as misinterpreters, meaning here they will seize on a number of things as expressions of consent.

    I think this is where "slutty clothing" might come into play, as a possible misinterpretable expression of consent. But there's no reason to think it stops there: surely, any expression of friendliness, attraction, or tolerance could be "misinterpreted" as consent. So if all positive interactions could be categorized as provoking these rapists, we would be forced to tell people if they didn't want to get raped, they ignore all with a cultivated air of pure hostility. It's an abjectly absurd requirement, and proves that our societal focus should be on perpetrators rather than victims.

    Tied to this–and further evidence of the importance of focusing on rapists instead of victims–is the reasoning that keeps "yes or no" from entering this rapist's view of consent. These assailants see masculinity as a desire of conquest, and femininity, therefore, as a desire to be conquered. Therefore women *can't* verbally consent to sex, because it would be unfeminine. Instead, they're expected to resist, but not too much, if everything goes according to plan. Given how meaningless "not too much" is, rapists in this mode will easily ignore resistance. There is an enormous amount of culture pressing in this direction: rapists don't come to this opinion by momentary epiphany. It's buried in everyone who asks for a return to 50s values, where women are "gatekeepers" of sexuality, and are supposed to say no, and then submit, instead of consent. It's not just in culture aimed at men either, of course: women are often given these messages even more consistently, both directly and in media.

    This culminates when they're told not to wear slutty clothes, because rapists will come after them. This furthers a game of conquest and signalled submission, because it asserts that fundamental point: you can be deemed to consent simply by engaging with the world.

  2. great points all around. It's an issue that seems so clear. Shift the focus in rape on the perpetrators. The resistance to this kind of shift is, in and of itself, significant evidence of exactly what Themistocles is saying in the first comment.

    It's even more frustrating when realizing that the slutty clothes things is complete bullshit on its face. The existence of rape in countries where women are entirely prevented from dressing slutty, shows that teaching young ladies to "behave" really does nothing to prevent rape.