Is There A Rapist-In-Waiting In Every Guy?

Dale Green's family thought the military had been good for him — until he was convicted of raping a 14-year-old Iraqi girl and killing her and her family. His family doesn't understand, but science blogger Greg Laden has a hypothesis.

Green's aunt told the court at his sentencing hearing:

"I don't know. We did not send a rapist and murderer to Iraq," Ruth said. "I don't know how he got there, but that's not what we sent."

Laden suggests that, in some way, Green's aunt might be right.

Men, by and large, have a rape switch. All men are capable of rape. Most men are enculturated in a way that reduces rape, and in some societies it is probably true that most violent rape is carried out by individuals who are reasonably labeled as pathological. In other societies, this is not so true. In post war societies such as those described in some of these links, or any society in a state of war, rape becomes routine. The rape switch is flipped to the on position as a matter of course. Most men who were in combat in Viet Nam raped. Similar circumstances have been documented for other wars.

Laden argues not necessarily that society makes men rapists, but that it keeps most men from raping under most circumstances. When taken outside of the bonds of normal society, men become increasingly more likely to rape.

Laden adds:

"The switch" is a term I first heard from Victoria Brandon, who wrote a term paper for me on this in 1993. The basic idea of a switch would be supported if more or less randomly (though age biased, likely) selected men, put into a certain situation, tended to commit rape on a much larger scale ... or more exactly, a much larger percentage of the men rape under those circumstances ... than would ever be predicted based on anything anyone knows about these men before or after the circumstances prevail.

In other words, when all the young men stay home, they are mostly not going to rape anyone. In contrast, when the same exact men go off to war, an alarming percentage of them rape. Switch off, switch on.

I can see Laden's point, though I think he gets a little lost. Laden is suggesting that the human aversion to violence against humans is something inculcated in us, rather than something innate, and is tied into normal social boundaries. When, in a time of war, those boundaries are eroded and, in particular, when trained to ignore them in order to more effectively kill other humans, all the various aversions to violence are eroded, making men more likely to ignore the social strictures against rape.

My problem with the argument is more likely its corollary: if there is no innate aversion by men to violent, non-consensual sex, then the pleasure derived from or urge to engage in mutually pleasurable, consensual sex is potentially not innate and is rather a learned goal. Given that there is an increasing amount of data that shows that female orgasm may well play a role in conception, I wonder about this theory.

My other concern is that it ignores, to a degree, the role society plays in inculcating and reinforcing rape culture. Laden uses this quote from Sharon Tiffany's and Kathleen Adams' article Anthropology's "Fierce" Yanomami: Narratives of Sexual Politics in the Amazon:

Imagine a society in which one woman in every three is raped, usually by a man she knows, consider the consequences of living in a society where one third of all women are beaten during pregnancy and 35 percent of women using emergency medical facilities are battered . Since we are anthropologists, readers may mistakenly think that these appalling data were collected in an exotic society, an distant world where it is presumed that unpredictable and threatening behavior is commonplaces. Indeed, our friends and colleagues inevitably ask if it is safe for us to travel alone to remote and problematic places which presumably do not enjoy the law and order of civilization.

They are, of course, talking about the United States. It's tough to say that men have a rape switch (or a violence switch) that is off when we live in an incredibly violent society that, at a minimum, tolerates horrific levels of violence against women.

Laden's hypothesis rests on one basic assumption about the definitions of "rape" and "sex."

I really do not think homicide and rape are even remotely the same thing. I do not believe that rape is simply an extension of violence. Yes, it is violent, and yes, understanding either in the context of the other is useful, and yes, they can have similar social meanings (but often they do not). But conflating rape as a form of violence that just happens to involve the sexual act is a very very big mistake. Having said that both are behaviors that I assume are socially controlled and psychologically potentiated. Both are behaviors that are liable to switch-like behavior.

In Laden's definition, rape is fundamentally about the achievement of sexual gratification through non-consensual sexual behavior, mostly heteronormative. That is, certainly, one way to think about it — but it doesn't explain male rapists that rape men; it doesn't explain the use of objects in rape; it doesn't explain rapists that fail to achieve sexual gratification through rape (either through object usage or because of castration); it doesn't explain many varieties of rape that fall outside the standard ideas of stranger- and acquaintance-rape. Laden's explanation for a rape-switch lies in the idea that rape is first and foremost about sexual gratification when, for enough rapists, there isn't any orgasm involved. This is why other theorists define rape as separate from sex and define the sex act as a means to a different end, rather than the end itself. That might be a useful definition for many reasons, including understanding why a guy like Green, given a tremendous amount of power and littler oversight, chose to exercise it in the most brutal and destructive way that likely didn't provide him with simply sexual gratification.

Aunt Says Iraq Tour Changed Ex-soldier [Lexington Herald-Leader]
A Rape In Progress [Greg Laden]
A Rape In Progress, Part II [Greg Laden]
Is There A Rape Switch? [Greg Laden]
"Rape Switch Hypothesis" Still Going Strong: US Rape Stats Evaluated. [Greg Laden]