Somewhat worse than not helpful.

Chloe at Feministing recently wrote about the latest anti-rape social marketing campaign in Edmonton, Alberta, which seeks to discourage rape with messages aimed at men, saying “Don’t Be That Guy.”  She heralded this campaign as one that targeted perpetrators, rather than victims.  But as several people have already pointed out in the comments, a hortatory appeal to the conscience of serial rapists won’t directly dissuade them, because they tend to be psychopaths.  Professor David Lisak wrote about this on the subject of sexual assault on campus:

[Undetected rapists] tend to be serial offenders, and most of them commit a variety of different interpersonal offenses. They are accurately and appropriately labeled as predators.

This picture conflicts sharply with the widely-held view that rapes committed on university campuses are typically the result of a basically “decent” young man who, were it not for too much alcohol and too little communication, would never do such a thing. While some campus rapes do fit this more benign view, the evidence points to a far less benign reality, in which the vast majority of rapes are committed by serial, violent predators.

This less benign reality has potentially significant implications for how universities deal with sexual violence within their community. Prevention efforts geared toward persuading men not to rape are very unlikely to be effective.

So given what we know, I don’t know why feminist writers such as Jaclyn Friedman encourage an appeal to the rapist’s better nature:

[I]f we want to raise awareness about the links between drinking and rape, we should start by getting the word out to men that alcohol is likely to impair their ability to respond appropriately if a sexual partner says “no.”… Similarly, we should be teaching men that the best way to avoid becoming a rapist is to seek positive consent, as opposed to just leaving it up to a woman to say “no.”

And the idea that “sexual predators aren’t monsters, they’re people.” (at 1:05)

If you define “monster” as someone with little or no empathy, who targets vulnerable people, and who is accurately and appropriately labeled as a predator, then most rapists are monsters.  I’m not trying to imply that Jaclyn Friedman is being deliberately obtuse.  But if we want social marketing campaigns to ameliorate the problem of sexual assault, we need to start with an accurate idea about who is committing the vast majority of rapes.  And it isn’t “your average guy” committing these crimes.

This is important to keep in mind, because the message of Edmonton’s “Don’t Be That Guy” campaign will be lost on serial rapists.  To make matters worse, campaigns such as this convey an anti-sex message absorbed to the detriment of  good men.  Some readers may react to that last sentence with eye-rolling.  But the problem of audience mismatch isn’t unheard of when it comes to feminist activism against sexual assault.  And the idea that men need to be taught the best way to avoid becoming a rapist is not only insulting to men, it’s entirely ineffective against the psychopathic sexual predator.

It has been said that rapists poison the well, meaning they create an atmosphere of mistrust that makes it more difficult for good men to meet and connect with women.  But what’s also true is that poisoning the well is a deliberate strategy of predatory men.  After all, if a serial rapist is at a party or a nightclub, the last thing he wants to see are non-predatory men who are sexually confident, socially skilled, and at ease with women.  It’s much better for the predator if good men are mired in guilt and self-doubt, question their own sexual desirability, and never gain confidence with women.  And if men who are shy and inhibited withdraw from the social realm for fear of doing or saying something inappropriate, from the predator’s point of view that’s even better.

Do I think Edmonton’s “Don’t Be That Guy” campaign, by itself, is going to have an awful effect on men?  No, but there is no mistaking that these ads portray male sexuality as frankly predatory; you cannot urge a man not to rape without communicating that he’s capable of the same.  And so this kind of campaign, which proceeds from the premise that average men need to be taught not to be rapists, contributes to a culture that narrows the range in which a man can express his sexuality, to the detriment of the sexually isolated man, but not so much to the detriment of the predator.

Now, you might be thinking, “Come on!  If a young man is sexually inhibited, that’s unfortunate, but don’t blame his shyness on social marketing campaigns by feminists.” And to this I would say that there are many reasons why a particular man may be shy and lack confidence, and of course it would be absurd to lay it all at the door of feminist advocacy in the area of sexuality.  But messages do matter.  And bear in mind that in the eyes of many men, there is a very strong subtext to messages against sexual misconduct, and it’s a subtext that can be emotionally destabilizing for the sexually isolated man.  That is:  “Women have sexual power and are sexually desirable; you don’t and you’re not.”  And while this subtext is not in itself the cause of a man’s social inhibition, it will tend to lower a man’s confidence in the absence of a positive message to the contrary.

The absence of positive messages about men’s sexuality is often overlooked by feminists, and in Balloons and Bubblegum I mentioned the need for such messages for college men.  I don’t know precisely what that “positive message” would look like.  But we should start from the obvious premise that it’s easier create a better sexual culture if there are a greater number of sexually confident men, and rather fewer men who are self-flagellating and guilt-ridden.  And we need to ditch the notion that inducing sexual guilt in men initiates a salutary process of self-exploration, when in fact it tends to lead to self-centeredness, sourness, and isolation.

As for Edmonton’s “Don’t Be That Guy” campaign, there are much more effective ways to fight rape.  This campaign may have targeted the perpetrators, but the message wont hit the target audience in an effective way.

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5 Responses to Somewhat worse than not helpful.

  1. Marle says:

    The reason for such ad campaigns as this is that women cannot stop rape, and many rapes cannot be prosecuted due to sexism and that often there is little evidence in rape cases. So, they’re fighting rape by trying to appeal to the only people who can stop it.

    I don’t think all rapists are absolute evil. Some of them are genuinely confused about sex and consent. You point out yourself that there aren’t really any positive models of male sexuality. Too many models of male sexuality are about getting sex with whatever means. Some men, raised with male sexuality as conqueror model and the idea of “no means no” as rape, honestly don’t understand that if she doesn’t say “no” she might not be consenting, which this ad campaign hits on with “just because she isn’t saying no, doesn’t mean she is saying yes.” I think that’s important for young men to know, and in our overuse of “no means no” we have missed that.

    I do think that it’s very important to create positive models of male sexuality, though it might be a little weird for an anti-rape campaign to take on. But even if feminists do take on positive male sexuality (which I think blogs like “Yes means Yes” and others try to) will the young men even listen? The internet allows everyone to divide up into their little corners and ignore everyone else. With websites like 4chan and others catering to the most entitled male sexuality, will young men in large numbers ever listen to feminists?

  2. David says:

    Thats a good question Marle. Personally the way in which I think that traditional feminist spaces alienate men, I think the answer is no. The majority of feminist writers and thinkers speak from a female perspective. Culturally speaking, feminist thought speaks to experiences that are different than that of most men. Moreover, areas like women’s studies in colleges are dominated by women. Most men from their perspective have no reason to even be interested in women’s studies or feminism in the first place.

  3. athene says:

    Actually – a positive campaign targets the bystanders. Getting everyone involved equally – men and women – to stand up and speak out about rape. How often does an acquaintance rape occur where numerous bystanders saw signs that something was wrong?

  4. Pingback: Consent Matters « Radical Bookworm

  5. I have mixed feelings about this campaign. I do like that it targets behaviours rather than telling survivors how to avoid being raped. However, the frequent portrayals of the campaign as “finally telling men not to be rapists” is more than a little minimizing to male rape survivors. Further, it does give the impression that only men commit rape and that they are all going to be rapists unless taught otherwise. Consent campaigns are an improvement, but I take offense at the concept that I have to be taught not to be a rapist. When I was the age of the target demographic – I was being raped – by a woman who used alcohol she bought to drug me. I’m not a statistical anomaly, more than simply a deliberately ignored demographic. Consent is not a gender issue, regardless of how some may wish to paint it for their own purposes.

    The woman who raped me BOUGHT my drinks for me and spiked the second one before doing what she wanted and then blackmailing me into silence. Of course, I’ve been told by both men and women that I must have wanted it, was at fault for drinking with a woman I didn’t know, men can’t be raped, women can’t be rapists and every other victim-blaming tidbit you can think up.

    Someone never told my rapist “Don’t Be That Gal.” 20 years, countless panic attacks, years of lost sleep, and thousands of dollars in therapy bills could have been avoided if she’d cared about consent herself. How many women violate the consent of their partners regularly, only to get away with it because female on male rape is considered a big joke, or worse – that he was asking for it (i.e., erections = consent, men can’t be raped, men always want sex).

    Somedays I hate her and other days I reserve my stronger emotions for those who make excuses for people (not just men) who violate consent and do what they want, when they want, without regard to the damage they leave behind.

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