Discussions about rape and rapists often seem to end up in the declaration that rapists are monsters. They are evil beasts who prey on women and children. Often they are spoken about as sub-human, or not human at all, they are animals.
For starters the discourse of rapists as monsters has the effect of bracketing rapists from the rest of society. Understanding rapists as monsters, we are inclined to look for biological explanations for their actions, in the same way we might look for why certain breeds of dogs are more violent than others. That or we start looking for psychological explanations for rape, trying to understand what makes each rapist “tick”.
But seeing rapists as monsters, or as a separate category of people, means that we miss the very simple observation that rapists are men. Look at cases of rape and you will find that rapists inhabit every aspect of the social spectrum: across cultures, age categories, languages and racial groupings, you will find there are rapists. The single unifying characteristic that all rapists have in common is that they are men and as such we should be looking at men and masculinity when accounting for rape.
True, there are many many men who don’t rape, and I’m not saying that all men are rapists. What I am saying though, is that the most common factor when looking at rapists is that they are men. Rapists are not monsters, and in a country like South Africa where rape is so common, they are certainly not social anomalies: they are an all-too common feature of our society. For as long as we see rapists as separate from society, they will remain “freaks” that live “out there”, when the reality is far closer to home: as we know rapists are more likely to be fathers, brothers, uncles or friends, than they are to be strangers.
So how then can we look at rape through the lens of men and masculinity? I’ll try keep it short. Masculinity, or manhood for the sake of simplicity, is not something that boys are born with. Born with a penis, yes, born with masculinity, no. Having a penis relates to biological characteristics, while masculinity relates to social identities, which are not inherently tied to biology. Social identities, like masculinity and femininity, are developed over time and through certain performances; playing rugby, drinking beer and shaking hands firmly are examples of masculine performances*.
Obviously the content of these performances varies widely from culture to culture and in different contexts. In some cultures it is acceptable for men to wear clothing that closely resembles a dress, while in others such behaviour would be ridiculed, the dress-wearing men called “sissies” or “fags”. What’s important is that these behaviours are not universal or immutable — they are always open to negotiation.
To cut a long story short I would argue that the act of rape embodies much of what is associated with (a particular version of) masculinity: power, virility, domination, sexual prowess, control over women. Rape then can be understood as an extreme performance of masculinity by men who feel the need to reassert their masculinity when it is called into question. Rape is an act in response to a perceived “crisis of masculinity”, and an attempt to overcome that crisis by re-enacting what it means to be a man, in order to become a man.
Now in South Africa, I would argue that there are many instances where men may feel emasculated. For example, the high rate of poverty and unemployment mean that for many men traditional notions of “men as the provider” are simply unattainable. Add to this the relative empowerment of many women, and it’s easy to see how some men may be experiencing a crisis of masculinity in one way or another.
The point is that these men are not monsters. They are a part of society, and a product of society. Their feelings of emasculation and the motivations for rape are socially constructed and enabled. Their actions can be seen as a symptom of the way masculinity in South Africa has been constructed, and the meanings we have attached to “being a man”. As I argued above, what it means “to be a man” is not set in stone; we can find other ways to perform masculinity, and its these performances and forms of masculinity that must be encouraged.
However this is not to argue that men who rape are not accountable for their actions. Sure, they are products of society, but they are also individuals. Rape is an act carried out by choice: a man makes a choice to rape or not to rape. When we think of rapists as monsters we take this aspect of choice and agency out of the equation, as if rape occurs by instinct or by some animal drive. No. Rapists are not monsters, they are men, and tackling the issue of rape begins with us looking at what it means to be a man in South Africa.
*For more on this thinking, a good place to start is by looking at some of Judith Butler’s work.