By now, people are familiar with why men rape. Yes it is for power and control, it is a means of exercising masculine entitlement and privilege and it is a means of displacing vulnerability. For me, the more interesting question is: How do men rape? How is rape enabled within our homes, communities and societies? How are we all complicit and “allow this to happen”? It is hard questions because we have to confront ourselves as we try to understand the men that commit this crime. The men who commit this crime, we know them. They are our friends, they are our fathers, they are our lovers, and they are our grandfathers. It is our intimate connections that make this crime more difficult to understand, and unexplainable at times. While these men are often called monsters, are labelled notoriously dangerous, hypersexual, barbaric and evil, we know them. They are also loving, trustworthy, affectionate, attentive, kind and generous.

So if, and when sex offenders cannot be dismissed to the margins of society, how do we understand them and explain their behaviour. Some might say … do we need to understand them? I argue that we need to understand how they commit the crimes of sexual violence to better respond, address and eventually eradicate sexual violence. Sex offenders are primarily men. Yes there are women who commit crimes of sexual offences, but they are in the minority. Being a man, is based on masculinity as a social construct, a gendered practice and a performance and is pivotal to understanding and eradicating sexual violence. How do male, sex offenders understand and mobilise their masculine identities and inherent privilege and power to commit acts of sexual violence?

The politics of identity has been reduced to gender identities in explaining sexual violence, and hence the complexity of power goes unacknowledged. So when we say men rape for power, what do we mean? Power (more often than not) is a technology of influence, an alliance or control. It is not one-dimensional, and therefore not only gendered. Power is multifaceted, hence the need to speak about intersectional masculinities. Intersectional masculinities means that social categories of identity and social difference are interwoven and integrated to produce multiple relations of power. This means that masculinities are raced, sexualised, classed and “being a man” intersects with age, culture, religion etc. Power is operational within a matrix of oppression. We are all sometimes powerful, and at other times powerless. Politically it has been important to emphasise patriarchal male power in explaining sexual violence, to contrast the popular reliance on psychological explanations and individual pathology. However, analytically we need to do more work.

“Causal explanations” to understand rape and sexual violence are reductive and simplistic … for example, it is because of poverty, or it is because they are unemployed that men rape. These categories are often drawn from quantitative studies that rely on demographics for “locating” men who rape and is descriptive but not necessarily analytical. How does power operate through these categories of identity, which identities have more power than others, and in which situations or environments can identities be used to mask violence?

Identities are authorised as legitimate practices of personhood yet some identities are more valued than others. Some identities have more authority than others. Sex offenders know this. It is this vehicle of authority (and value) that sex offenders use to develop a relationship of violence. For example, authority is located in family roles. They know that through the practices of fathering or “being a family member” or an uncle from next door, you are less likely to be recognised as a sex offender. A family member raping and/or sexually assaulting another family member is incomprehensible and followed by a profound sense of disbelief. As a society we are so attached to and invested in discourses of family as loving, caring and protective that relationships of violence are so easily overlooked or silenced. The practice of masculinities becomes authorised and therefore legitimate and sanctioned power. The gender roles of fathers, grandfathers or uncles etc are roles inscribed with authority. These “family” roles are sanctioned by society, through policy and practice.

Authority as a discourse of legitimacy is further mobilised through identities of class, age, culture and religion (to name only a few). There are countless descriptions of identity categories that are invoked when men commit acts of sexual violence, for example men using money to “lure” and groom women and girls or of older men manipulating young women or of men using culture and religion to justify violence. These identity categories are vehicles that get used to create conditions that enable the violence; it creates conditions where power is disguised and where inequality persists. And so, when we encourage men to be men, and boys to be boys, when advertising constantly plays on “man-size” chocolates or deodorant for “men who want to be men” or there is the need to protect men from seemingly the onslaught of a changing gendered society we become complicit in practices of masculinities that are harmful and dangerous and that re-inscribe power in destructive ways.

We become complicit in a patriarchy that entrenches masculine entitlement and privilege. We become complicit in a world that separates race and class and it is made to seem that these categories of difference exist in isolation and have nothing to do with each other and have no ability to affect power inequalities in the real world. Let us not be threatened by the words and language of feminisms that advocate for a shared power, and to recognise the trappings of our own “gender” and lastly, that encourages us to own our responsibilities to end sexual violence.


  • Benita Moolman is a postdoctoral fellow and researcher within the Human and Social Development Unit at the Human Sciences Research Council.


Benita Moolman

Benita Moolman is a postdoctoral fellow and researcher within the Human and Social Development Unit at the Human Sciences Research Council.

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