[Content Note: Rape, Sexual Harassment]
[Repost Note: This is a repost of an article that previously appeared on Shakesville.]
It happens every time there's a rape trial given national attention or an incident of sexual harassment highly publicized within a community: people start churning out dating guides purporting to teach men how to find sex without resorting to rape. And these "dating guides" have always bothered me, but it took an in-depth conversation with Liss for me to really understand why they irk me so much. This post is a product of that conversation and her collaboration, and is posted here with her permission.
I understand the good intentions behind these guides, I really do. More often than not, the authors reference the idea that we need to teach men not to rape (rather than disseminate "rape avoidance tips" centering on victim behavior and victim-blaming narratives) and feel like a post on how to date and/or hook-up without raping would be a positive contribution to that effort. But I also think that such guides, published in direct response to a very public incident of rape or sexual harassment, stand to do more harm than good. Allied persons inclined to speak to men about the value of consent-seeking need to be aware of the harm of writing them in explicit response to specific acts of sexual violence.
The guides ignore the actual current narrative in favor of a fictional one. The posts I've seen in the wake of the Steubenville rape case have largely centered around not sleeping with women who are awake-but-drunk -- a narrative that obscures the fact that the Steubenville rape victim was unconscious. The posts I saw in the wake of Rebecca Watson's elevator encounter largely focused on how and when and where to pick up women -- a narrative that ignored the fact that Rebecca Watson had explicitly and publicly stated that she didn't want to be picked up at all. These guides are wrenching real narratives away from women in order to tell a different story with a completely different context, and that's appropriation.
The guides reinforce the narrative that rapists don't know what they are doing. Some rapists are not aware that what they are doing legally constitutes rape. But most do. When we talk about "teaching men not to rape", we are not saying that rapists do not understand consent, but rather that rapists are not taught to respect consent -- as well as to respect the humanity of the women they might otherwise choose to rape. The framing that rapists are cultivated to deliberately dehumanize their victims and override their consent in a way that needs to be systematically addressed by comprehensive socialization and education is fundamentally different from the framing that rapists are just "clueless dudez" who need instructions on how to get laid in a safe and satisfying manner.
The guides reinforce the narrative that rape is a misunderstanding. Similar to the above, when these "how to get laid, rape-free" guides lay out in painstaking detail how to not 'accidentally' rape someone, the narrative that rape is one big misunderstanding is reinforced. The Steubenville rapists knew they were raping an unconscious woman, even if they didn't choose to apply the word 'rape' to the situation -- and guides which elide that fact in order to present rape as this exceedingly confusing and "gray area" situation where reasonably people can be completely baffled about consent and active participation is harmful to rape victims by suggesting that reasonable people can disagree about the validity of her rape.
The guides elide the reality that for most rapists, rape is not a bug, but a feature of sexual interaction. Again: teaching men not to rape is more than just teaching them what rape is. Teaching men not to rape means teaching them to see women as fully human and entitled to their bodies and boundaries, and teaching them that masculinity isn't about force and sexual gratification isn't about power. These are things that can be taught, but they are rarely things that will be taught in a dating guide. What can be taught in a dating guide is the false narrative that men are solely motivated by sex and that the rapist will give up his raping ways once he finds a sure-fire method for getting consensual sex.
Almost all rapists have access to consensual sex. Some rapists have access to consensual sex from their victims. The availability of consensual sex has nothing to do with the rate of rape, and these guides obscure that reality. The Steubenville football star rapists didn't rape an unconscious girl because they literally could not find any consensual sex and had to resort to rape instead, and it's terribly wrong to pretend otherwise.
The guides invisible women with prior intimate relationships with their rapists. Framing rape prevention within the narrative of a dating guide elides the fact that many rape victims have existing intimate relationships with their rapists. I had prior sexual interactions (including, in one case, a long-standing established sexual relationship) with my rapists. My rapists were not confused about my consent or about my boundaries; instead they allowed me my consent when it was convenient for them so that they could maneuver me into a position where they could override my consent without repercussions. Teaching these men to respect my boundaries might have prevented my rape; teaching them how to have consensual sex with me would not have prevented my rape because they already had that.
The guides entrench patriarchal entitlement to women's bodies. Too many of these "how to win consensual sex so you don't need to rape!" guides read like pick-up artist instructions. If we frame rape as something that happens only when consensual sex is unavailable, then we enter the misogyny-laden twilight zone where shirts like "Stop Rape. Say Yes." are made. Not all women want to be picked up. Not all women want to be flirted with. Not all women want to have sex with the specific man reading the dating guide du jour.
When these guides read like an encouragement that the man on the other side of the computer screen can have anything he wants and without having to resort to rape, it ignores the fact that he can't have "anything" he wants because sex with me is not on the table. He almost certainly can have sex with someone, but he equally certainly cannot have sex with anyone. Yet because these guides implicitly suggest that all women are available, and that all women are attainable, they entrench patriarchal entitlement to women's bodies. "You are available; therefore you must be available to me" is actually in fact a very common rape justification -- it simply cannot be salvaged for use in rape prevention.
The guides imply that Not Being A Rapist isn't a good enough reward. When we teach men not to rape because women deserve bodily autonomy and boundaries, then men learn not to rape because rape is wrong and it makes them a bad person. When we teach men not to rape because it's not necessary and there are lots of other, more valid ways to get sexual gratification, then men learn not to rape because they'll be rewarded if they don't. You don't get cookies for not being a rapist. Nor should you. The dating guides that dwell on the male author's experience and how awesome they were for not giving in to the temptation to rape are particularly guilty of this, because too often they seem to be suggesting that there's something laudable about choosing not to rape.
Choosing not to rape isn't a laudable act. It is a necessary-but-not-sufficient part of the bare minimum needed in order to qualify as a decent person. And yet dating guides which suggest that men questing for love on a nightly basis are brave and courageous and awesome for not raping women with alcohol, drugs, coercion, and/or fear are a major part of the rape culture problem by normalizing rape and elevating not-rape as something unusual and special and going-the-extra-mile. And this, too, entrenches the idea that men are entitled to womens' bodies: this idea that men are owed "reward sex" on the grounds that they haven't raped anyone lately.
The next time a rape trial is given national attention, or sexual harassment splashes across the headlines, or sexual violence is publicized long enough and loud enough and sensationally enough for everyone to weigh in on the issue for a few short days, please do not write a how-to-get-laid-without-raping guide. Please. Do teach men not to rape by teaching them that all women are people, that consent is crucial, that boundaries are a human right, that active participation is sexy, and that rape of any kind and for any reason is not condoned by you. But don't "teach" them how to avoid raping women by getting consensual sex from them instead, because you're not only missing the point, you're part of the problem.