Bachelor in Paradise is hardly anyone’s idea of a model for healthy relationships, but the reality TV show got a bit too real when allegations of sexual assault derailed production last week. "It’s just every day in Paradise," a fellow show contestant told Vulture.com this week. "It wasn’t anything unusual that one could possibly see happening there." Nevertheless, producers announced this week that, after an investigation, the show is back on track. Meanwhile, “America’s Dad” Bill Cosby escaped a conviction on sexual assault charges last week as a judge ruled a mistrial in his much-publicized case. The case is likely to be retried in as soon as four months, but still, the verdict is out whether Cosby will be held accountable for a record that clearly indicates a pattern of sexually predatory behavior over many years with many women.
What’s going on? Is this some sort of new cultural phenomena unleashed in recent years?
Hardly. The sad fact is, rape is normal. Not normal in the sense of ‘good’ (a social norm that we should uphold) or ‘inevitable’ (a product of biology that therefore can’t be changed) but normal in two other ways: (1) Women’s experiences of men’s sexual aggression are so common as to be statistically normal—that is, it happens to most women; and (2) these patterns indicate that the behaviors are an expression of the underlying sex/gender norms of the culture, not violations of those norms—that is, the culture does not openly endorse rape but does endorse a dangerous conception of masculinity/femininity that invites men to be sexually aggressive.
Rape is a vastly underreported crime; most women who are raped do not go to law enforcement agencies, and therefore, crime statistics tell us little about the prevalence of rape. But the feminist movement’s activism against men’s violence led to research based on women’s experiences rather than on crime reporting, and those studies have found varying rates of rape and other forms of assault.
On a global scale, 30 percent of women over the age of fifteen have experienced “intimate partner violence,” defined as physical, sexual, or emotional violence, based on data from eighty-one countries. The rate in North America is 21 percent. A recent review of the data by researchers concluded that in the United States, at least one of every six women has been raped at some time in her life. Much of this sexual violence is directed at young people; in the National Violence Against Women Survey, slightly more than half of the 14.8 percent of women who reported being raped said it happened before age eighteen.
Those statistics address acts that meet the legal definition of rape, but women and girls face a much broader range of what we can call ‘sexual intrusions,’ sexual acts that they do not request and do not want but experience regularly—sexually corrosive text messages and calls, cyberbullying, sexual taunting on the streets, sexual harassment in schools and workplaces, coercive sexual pressure in dating, sexual assault, and violence that is sexualized. In public lectures on these issues, I list these categories and women’s heads nod, an affirmation of the routine nature of men’s sexual and sexualized intrusions into their daily lives. I sometimes tell audiences that I have just completed an extensive study and found that the percentage of women in the United States who have experienced some form of sexual intrusion is 100 percent. Women understand the bleak humor—no study is necessary to confirm something so routine.
If we describe rape as “sexually invasive dehumanization” to capture the distinctive nature of the crime, then let’s ask this difficult question: How much of everyday life do women experience as sexually invasive dehumanization on some level? This “cumulative impact of living with sexism” is often unexamined, as Jessica Valenti wrote for the New York Times:
“Walking on the street, tweeting, working—just living—while female shapes who we are and who we think we can be. When a high school teacher asked me on a date just a few days after I graduated, I wasn’t traumatized… When I receive a rape threat via email, my life’s trajectory does not shift. But it would be silly to believe that who I am today isn’t in part created by the distinct combination of those moments.”
This doesn’t mean all women are accosted every day, of course. But can this dehumanization become so ‘normal’ that it is difficult to recognize our collective capitulation to the underlying norms?
Here’s one story about normalized sexually invasive dehumanization: After a class in which the subject of sexism and sexual violence had come up, two first-year students linger to talk with me. Both have pledged a sorority at the University of Texas, and they want to discuss the sexual politics of that social system. I ask whether they ever talk among themselves about the sexual threats they face at fraternity parties. They look at me with that “adults are so out of touch” expression and say that of course they understand the risks and are aware of the ‘tricks’ that fraternity men use at parties, especially the endless flow of alcohol. “But we have a strategy,” they tell me. “We always go to those parties as a group, and we never leave anyone behind.”
I pause to consider the appropriate response from an older male professor, wanting to be honest but not overly critical. I tell them that the only other context in which I have heard the phrase “we never leave anyone behind” is the military.
“In your social lives, you have adopted a rule that soldiers use to express their commitment to each other in war,” I say. “At parties where you are supposed to be having fun, you have to act as if you are on a battlefield.” I do not enjoy saying that, they do not enjoy hearing it, and we are all quiet for a moment. It is important, but not always easy, to recognize what is “normal” in our culture.
Love Is a Battlefield
Why do those young women have to treat a fraternity party as a battlefield? If the answer is not that all the men in fraternities are deviant psychopaths who want to hurt women—which clearly is not the case—then the question leads us to examine how ‘normal’ boys and men are socialized in the United States. As with any other social question, there is no single answer that applies to everyone; again, we search for patterns in socialization to help explain patterns in behavior. From the research available and my own experience, here is the pattern I see, and have experienced: Men generally are trained through a variety of cultural institutions 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. Throughout the culture, women are objectified and women’s sexuality is commodified. Sexual interactions are most sexy when men are dominant and women are subordinate; power is eroticized. Boys and men are told all this is natural, just the way things are—and always have been—between men and women.
In a culture in which sex is often portrayed—especially in porn—as the taking of pleasure from women, rape is an expression of the sexual norms of the culture, not a violation of those norms. Rape is both nominally illegal and completely normal at the same time, which is why many men often do not view their own sexually aggressive or violent behavior as aggression or violence—to them, it’s just sex. That’s why some men who commit rape often also condemn rape, which they see as something other men do.
Rape is about the fusion of sex and domination, about the eroticization of control. When we are stuck in “an endless debate over whether rape is about sexual gratification on the one hand, or a display of power and dominance on the other; sex accomplished violently, or violence accomplished sexually,” as one writer puts it, we obscure the uncomfortable reality that in our world today the two are intertwined, not just in rape but in much of ‘normal’ sexual activity. Yes, men who rape seek a sense of power, but men also use their power to get sex from women, sometimes under conditions that are not legally defined as rape but involve varying levels of control and coercion.
If this analysis seems far-fetched, think about the ways men in all-male spaces often talk about sex with women, such as asking each other, “Did you get any?” From that perspective, sex is the acquisition of pleasure from a woman, something one takes from a woman, and men talk openly among themselves about strategies to enhance the likelihood of “getting some,” even in the face of resistance from women. I remember that phrase from the high-school locker room, along with the strategies for getting sex that boys discussed. It didn’t matter that I was a short, thin, effeminate boy who wasn’t getting any and wasn’t eager to be in sexual situations that intense—I was being socialized, learning what it meant to be a man having (or, at least, seeking to have) sex.
When I was a high school student, the phrase “f*** or fight” was dispensed as advice: If you wanted to have sex with a girl, drive out on a deserted country road on a date, turn off the engine, put your car keys in your pocket, and tell her, ‘f*** or fight’. I don’t recall any classmate ever recoiling in horror from the joke; instead, we all laughed. I also remember laughing when boys reminded each other not to get too emotionally involved with girls by stating the goal was to “find ’em, feel ’em, f*** ’em, and forget ’em.” This bravado masked tremendous insecurity, of course, but it indicates that we understood masculinity as demanding that we hide that insecurity and cover our fear by bonding around imagining the sexual use and abuse of women.
I’m not in locker rooms much these days and rarely in any all-male setting where such banter might be traded, and as a result my street slang is a bit outdated. So, I was taken aback when watching a recent Hollywood movie in which one man asked another, in reference to a conventionally attractive woman, “Are you hitting that?” Men today think nothing of inquiring about whether another man is in a sexual relationship with a woman by asking, “Are you hitting that?” The verb is aggressive, and the object is an object, not a person. All of this, and much more, is what feminists mean when they describe the contemporary United States as a “rape culture.”
When seen in this context, the allegations of what happened on the latest Bachelor spinoff make a lot more sense, don’t they? What happened may not be normal as in OK or even legal. But for many men and women it’s all too normal, and many cultural pressures—on both men and women—have brought us to this fallen paradise.
The good news is that feminism and pro-women movements provide a way to understand, and resist, these cultural norms. Women have long come together in such efforts, which produced the first rape-crisis centers and domestic-violence shelters more than four decades ago. We can join them. We can speak out against sexual exploitation when we encounter it in our day-to-day lives. We can oppose pornography, which turns women into objectified bodies for men’s sexual pleasure, alienating men from women and men from themselves.
As a man, I found feminism is not a threat to men, it’s a gift for us. More and more men are seeing that feminism is not only a movement for justice for women, but a route to finding deeper and richer connections with other men and women. Whatever we can or cannot accomplish in the coming decades, we can try our best to live according to the values we claim to hold and to make changes where we can.
Robert Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his website, http://robertwjensen.org/.
Photo Credit: Josh Blanton