Rape is "Normal"
It is not surprising that
we want to separate ourselves from those who commit hideous crimes, to
believe that the abominable things some people do are the result of
something evil inside of them.
But most of us also struggle with a gnawing feeling that however
pathological those brutal criminals are, they are of us -- part of our
world, shaped by our culture.
Such is the case of Richard Marc Evonitz, a "sexually sadistic
psychopath," in the words of one expert, who abducted, raped and killed
girls in Virginia and elsewhere. What are the characteristics of a
sexually sadistic psychopath? According to a former FBI profiler who has
studied serial killers: "A psychopath has no ability to feel remorse for
their crimes. They tend to justify what they do as being OK for them.
They have no appreciation for the humanity of their victims. They treat
them like objects, not human beings."
Such a person is, without question, cruel and inhuman. But aspects of
that description fit not only sexually sadistic psychopaths; slightly
modified, it also describes much "normal" sex in our culture.
Look at mass-marketed pornography, with estimated sales of $10 billion a
year in the United States, consumed primarily by men: It routinely
depicts women as sexual objects whose sole function is to sexually
satisfy men and whose own welfare is irrelevant as long as men are
Consider the $52-billion-a-year worldwide prostitution business: Though
illegal in the United States (except Nevada), that industry is grounded
in the presumed right of men to gain sexual satisfaction with no concern
for the physical and emotional costs to women and children.
Or, simply listen to what heterosexual women so often say about their
male sexual partners: He only seems interested in his own pleasure; he
isn't emotionally engaged with me as a person; he treats me like an
To point all this out is not to argue that all men are brutish animals
or sexually sadistic psychopaths. Instead, these observations alert us
to how sexual predators are not mere aberrations in an otherwise healthy
In the contemporary United States, men generally are trained in a
variety of ways 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 and women as naturally passive. Women are objectified
and women's sexuality is turned into a commodity that can be bought and
sold. Sex becomes sexy because men are dominant and women are
Again, the argument is not that all men believe this or act this way,
but that such ideas are prevalent in the culture, transmitted from adult
men to boys through direct instruction and modeling, by peer pressure
among boys, and in mass media. They were the lessons I learned growing
up in the 1960s and '70s, and if anything such messages are more common
and intense today.
The predictable result of this state of affairs is a culture in which
sexualized violence, sexual violence and violence-by-sex is so common
that it should be considered normal. Not normal in the sense of healthy
or preferred, but an expression of the sexual norms of the culture, not
violations of those norms. Rape is illegal, but the sexual ethic that
underlies rape is woven into the fabric of the culture.
None of these observations excuse or justify sexual abuse. Although some
have argued that men are naturally sexually aggressive, feminists have
long held that such behaviors are learned, which is why we need to focus
not only on the individual pathologies of those who cross the legal line
and abuse, rape and kill, but on the entire culture.
Those who find this analysis outrageous should consider the results of a
study of sexual assault on U.S. college campuses. Researchers found that
47 percent of the men who had raped said they expected to engage in a
similar assault in the future, and 88 percent of men who reported an
assault that met the legal definition of rape were adamant that they had
not raped. That suggests a culture in which many men cannot see forced
sex as rape, and many have no moral qualms about engaging in such sexual
activity on a regular basis.
The language men use to describe sex, especially when they are outside
the company of women, is revealing. In locker rooms one rarely hears men
asking about the quality of their emotional and intimate experiences.
Instead, the questions are: "Did you get any last night?" "Did you
score?" "Did you f--- her?" Men's discussions about sex often use the
language of power -- control, domination, the taking of pleasure.
When I was a teenager, I remember boys joking that an effective sexual
strategy would be to drive a date to a remote area, turn off the car
engine, and say, "OK, f--- or fight." I would not be surprised to hear
that boys are still regaling each other with that "joke."
So, yes, violent sexual predators are monsters, but not monsters from
another planet. What we learn from their cases depends on how willing we
are to look not only into the face of men such as Evonitz, but also to
look into the mirror, honestly, and examine the ways we are not only
different but, to some degree, the same.
Such self-reflection, individually and collectively, does not lead to
the conclusion that all men are sexual predators or that nothing can be
done about it. Instead, it should lead us to think about how to resist
and change the system in which we live. This feminist critique is
crucial not only to the liberation of women but for the humanity of men,
which is so often deformed by patriarchy.
Solutions lie not in the conservatives' call for returning to some
illusory "golden age" of sexual morality, a system also built on the
subordination of women. The task is to incorporate the insights of
feminism into a new sexual ethic that does not impose traditional,
restrictive sexual norms on people but helps creates a world based on
equality not dominance, in which men's pleasure does not require women's
Robert Jensen is a professor of journalism at the University of Texas at
Austin and co-author of Pornography: The Production and Consumption of
Inequality. He can be reached at
September 4, 2002
Rape is "Normal"
by Robert Jensen