Press "Enter" to skip to content

Rapists are not monsters, they are men

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.

I disagree.

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.


  • Mike is a young environmentalist. He is also very interested in issues relating to consumerism, consumption, and the capitalist system in Africa. Mike also has his a worm farm, rides a bike to work, and doesn't own a television. He loves reading, going for long runs, and is humbly learning to surf.


  1. Herman Herman 22 September 2010

    very interesting outlook. and by your very argument of why men rape you are proving that they do not feel human. I feel the same way. to force sex upon another being is not right and should not ever be left unpunished, yet sending a rapist to jail will leave him feeling like less of a man and thus he will probably do it again. the cure for rape is serious torture, not castration or death just hours and hours of professionally done torture. but that is my opinion

  2. Elmarie Elmarie 22 September 2010

    What a great, though provoking article. Labelling rapists as monsters separates this criminal act from the gender male as if it has nothing to do with the way they have been socialised. Hopefully articles like this will lead to debate and discussion among men about their role in the family, the community and society in general. Keeping in mind that we do not have to cling to traditional roles, but still appreciating the value that men, those who engender good morals and values, self respect and respect for women, an appreciation for the positive contribution they could make to society as fathers, husbands, brothers,etc.

  3. X Cepting X Cepting 22 September 2010

    Interesting fresh viewpoint on a growing problem. I quite agree with you and have always thought that the whole masculine versus female construction can do with a makeover. Rape is an act of violence against another person just like any other. Perhaps all acts of violence are rebellions against feelings of disempowerment? (psychology not my field, just an observation from observing violent people). Perhaps to cure violence in society we need to address re-empowering all people, male or female.

  4. hilly hilly 22 September 2010

    Nope, rape in the true sense is an act of violence and has little to do with sex. Compare it to the weird kid in class that enjoys setting animals on fire. To tortue defensless persons/objects. And the same act of violence is committed by all sexes. But I agree people should look at what it means to be a man in south africa, should men be seen as men by their ability to physically manhandle other objects? and should we be concerned about our sexual place in society in the first place?

  5. The Creator The Creator 22 September 2010

    All quite valid points. However, I wonder if you are altogether accurate in assuming that the othering of rapists really implies that they are inhuman. Unless I’m much mistaken, what’s scary about rapists, like so many other kinds of monsters, is that they walk and talk and act like men — until they unbuckle their belts.

    Maybe it’s more accurate to say that they are men who have become monsters as a side effect of the process of masculine development.

  6. Garg Unzola Garg Unzola 22 September 2010

    I don’t think that any individual’s actions can be explained by social construction. The ways in which any individual responds to social construction are biologically determined, otherwise straight people would not be able to have gay children and vice versa. Men are masters of their own fate and not some end of a society assembly line. It’s the other way around: society’s product is a result of individual characteristics.

  7. Siobhan Siobhan 22 September 2010

    Rape is an act of violence. Rape is a weapon of war. So-called ’emasculated’ men have never actually attained ‘manhood’ which consists of far more than exercising the penis. FFS, who ’empowered’ women to alter their lives? Certainly not men. And not androcentric women. Women who finally took off the blinders of their socialisation and began to think for themselves, reclaimed the power that all humans are entitled to: the right to self-determination.

    No one can be ‘dis-empowered’ without his or her co-operation. Power begins in consciousness, the awareness that our lives are in our hands and it is for us to make something of them. The ‘middle class’ did not just magically appear in the world. The vast majority of middle class people are descended from very poor people who wanted something better for their children and consequently worked, scrimped, saved and encouraged their children to study and excel as a means to the end of escaping poverty.

    No matter how poor one is, however, there is never an excuse to abuse another human being and certainly not to abuse someone smaller and weaker by the use of physical force. Rape is a crime no matter the circumstances and there is no excuse for it.

    Organised rape, as in the DRC where hundreds of men attack a village to rape as many women and children as possible, is a form of genocide and utterly debased.

    Rapists may not BE ‘monsters’ but that is how they behave.

  8. X Cepting X Cepting 22 September 2010

    @hilly – Yes! Watch the movie “Red Dragon”. It is almost a textbook case. Your comment made me remember it. The answer are there and old, we must just get off our buts and learn from history.

  9. Robard Robard 22 September 2010

    “Having a penis relates to biological characteristics, while masculinity relates to social identities, which are not inherently tied to biology.”

    Huh? There is a very good biological reason that aggressiveness is considered a typical male trait, namely the presence of relatively larger quantities of testosterone among males than among females. And everything objectionable about masculinity relate to aggression, right? The fact that some males are extremely docile and some females rather aggressive is simply because the levels of testosterone (and estrogen) within the male and female populations are also variable.

  10. Steve Steve 23 September 2010

    calling rapists “anumals” and “monsters”, and thereby relegating them as apart from society, actually perpetuates our (societies) acceptance of rape and consequently allays our addressing of the cause of the behaviour of rape.

  11. dan dan 23 September 2010

    monsters – maybe not. animals, yes. are you implying your reader is supposed to sympathise with it because of it’s thwarted masculinity?

  12. Anke Anke 23 September 2010

    What you argue is true but not necessarily a fresh look at the issue,as the following works prove:

    N Shabalala & R Buikema. From Boys to Men. Social constructions of masculinity in contemporary society.(2007)

    Posel Deborah. Getting the Nation Talking about Sex: Reflections on the Politics of Sexuality and Nation-Building in Post-Apartheid South Africa.(2003)

    Robert Morrell. Changing Men in Southern Africa. 2001.

    The list is long, as you probably know.

    Challenging the general assumptions that rapists are monsters is important, and giving space to men to approach the problematics of masculinity in contemporary society is utmost important. How otherwise will they find a way out of the spiral? Approach instead of denial or condemning, only that way will they understand that rape is no way out of their problem, and a serious crime. And I agree with hilly: the same act of violence is committed by all sexes, so it is not a “man” problem, even if it may appear to be the preferred method of men to combat their assumed failing of masculinity.

  13. Alexis Alexis 23 September 2010

    I agree that labels disempower solutions and or awareness around social pathologies. Rape can be part of sex addiction which is not inherently related to gender socialisation, although the consequences of this can lead to the insecurities and pain which drives the addiction. Also poverty is not necessarily a factor which should trigger rape. I went to a lecture at UCT a while ago where the speaker looked at whether poverty was the cause of violence. The answer was inconclusive as Calcutta – one of the world’s poorest cities was the least crime riddled, whereas others were. I think we need to move past poverty and look at gender equity issues, the impact of the psychological terrorism from Apartheid and a general condoning of sexist, misogynist attitudinal behaviour towards women in SA.

  14. Mark Mark 23 September 2010

    Important piece Mike, this is something that needs to be shared more widely. By portraying rapists as the abhorrent other we are tacitly refusing to take responsibility for acting against rape, and violence more generally.

    I’m not sure Judith Butlers work is the most accessible though

  15. Yam Yam 23 September 2010

    Two points of correction – One, rape has nothing to do with sex or sexual prowess, virility, etc. It is an act of VIOLENCE used to control a partner, or inflict pain and suffering on an enemy or someone who is taking the blame for the rapist’s feelings of inadequacy. And secondly, they are NOT men – REAL MEN DON’T RAPE!! The mark of a man is someone who exercises control over his actions, who acknowledges his feelings and considers the consequences of his actions. The rise in child rape in this country is particularly worrying. Are young men becoming so alienated from other people, so starved of affection and strong father figures that they no longer see even small children as human, as something to be protected?

  16. MLH MLH 23 September 2010

    Are men considered providers in all societies? Ican think of times when waging war was man’s business and women kept the crops rotating.

  17. haiwa tigere haiwa tigere 23 September 2010

    I dont buy into this rubbish.All the 9/11 hijackers were men maybe blame men for that as well.I am as a man responsible for rapists no sir.There are monsters in society misfits ASBOS kids who will tear a bird apart for no reason at all a blogger on this site said he used to do it.Bullies are a big problem in australia. I am not responsible for those either.

    20 kids brought up in the same village at the same time one of them turns out to be a murderer-bad apple not the whole village. Punish the offender hell castrate the bastard re introduce death penalty for “Rape Rape” and murder but please leave us alone. stop trying to make us feel guilty.

    if A prostitute who cries rape because she has not been paid i wont blame MEN I would blame the man in as much as I blame a man for not paying for petrol

  18. Mark Mark 23 September 2010

    @ Yam,

    That real men don’t rape discourse is problematic and all it seeks to do is reposition patriarchy without addressing the problematic. The real men argument, as I alluded to before, simply allows us to deny our complicity in perpetuating the underlying causes of rape which at its core is about oppresion and maintaining the status quo which is patriarchy.

  19. X Cepting X Cepting 23 September 2010

    @Siobhan – “No one can be ‘dis-empowered’ without his or her co-operation.”
    Yes, you are right but in South Africa with its history of unquestioning respect for elders in most African races and authoritarian parents in most of the Afrikaner culture, the co-operation might be given out of fear or awe, which could even be at the root of the feelings of helplessnes. Then, I would like to watch you explain your statement to a street kid. Children really do not have that much defense against grown-ups. The damage is often done very early in life when they are helpless.

    “the awareness that our lives are in our hands and it is for us to make something of them.”

    This is taught in healthy normal families, but not often in families where it all goes wrong. Some people think they won’t ever be able to do anything right since this myth is preached at home. It is often not spotted by outsiders either. “He was such a quiet, good boy, I can’t imagine why…” has become a cliche for a reason.

    The truth is, broken families, for whatever reason, are not healthy breeding grounds for normal people and we have a surfeit of those in South Africa. I do not excuse rape, it is an act of violence and should be punished, but it cannot hurt to try and improve the lot of children in broken families either, surely?

  20. anton kleinschmidt anton kleinschmidt 23 September 2010

    Thoughtleader is really plumbing the depths and this is unadulterated bullshit. Any man who forces his sexual attentions on women deserves whatever opprobrium AND punishment society sees fit to inflict on him. In my book rape is right up there with murder.

    No matter how I read this article I keep coming back to the same conclusion. You are trying to justify an abominable act using juvenile new age psycho babble.

    Let us all hope that some potential rapists do not read this crap and find validation for their urges.

  21. chris chris 23 September 2010

    I hear some of your points but am not sure I completely agree. Masculinity is not about picking on those weaker than you, and for me there is nothing masculine about rape other than the biological aspect. Its an act of weakness where a “man” is so inadequate he uses his inherent physical strength to force sex.

    However I am sure in many cases it can be seen as a violent manifestation of masculinity, as it often surfaces in times of war but I see it as just a means of exercising power.

    I think many things have contributed towards rape, unemployment as you stated, our lack of respect towards each other, and a government who have set a less than perfect example for the youth of south africa, along with a corrupt police force, a pathetic conviction rate leading to no accountability, and a patriarchal society where polygamy is still fine even for our president.

  22. david david 23 September 2010

    Next we’ll feel sorry for them?
    No, like a murderer, they were once ordinary people, but they have willingly crossed the line to monster, they will NEVER be “innocent” again, and they can never be treated as innocent again.
    You make some good points, but once they commit THAT crime, they can no loinger be accepted in society as anything other than diseased.

  23. ae ae 23 September 2010

    Having read your article the fist thought that came to mind is oh if rapists are not monsters but men experiencing some difficulties then it appears to “white wash” this heinous crime which 20 years ago would get you the death penalty. No number of coats of white wash can ever justify one rape. Not even animals’ rape! So a human who commits this crime should placed on a scale lower than that of a dog! Please explain to me how a man’s need to “reassert their masculinity when it is called into question” after he has beaten a 80 year old woman and repeatedly raped her? Surly there is more to this than “Reassertment of masculinity”

  24. Mike Baillie Mike Baillie 23 September 2010

    @ Anton kleinschmidt and others like him

    I am certainly not saying rapists are not to blame – or condoning their actions in the slightest. If you actually read my blog instead of jumping to conclusions you’ll see that I clearly say those who rape make a choice to do so, and are wholly accountable.


    It’s really not as simple as hormone levels. If it was simply about testosterone which all men have, surely we could expect the same levels of violence from men across cultures, societies, and over time. But this is not the case: despite testosterone, levels of violence vary hugely across different societies. Which means that we have to look beyond hormone levels if we are to account for the violence. And my answer is that we have to look at masculinity in order to do that.

  25. anton kleinschmidt anton kleinschmidt 23 September 2010

    @ Mike. I have now “actually read” your blog three times and I am still jumping to the same conclusions.

  26. Siobhan Siobhan 23 September 2010

    Society does not set rapists apart even by calling them ‘monsters’ although I agree it is a silly label and obviously can feed the rapists delusion of power.

    Rapists set themselves apart from society by choosing to rape. There are no ’causes’ for rape other than a psychopathic belief in the RIGHT and ENTITLEMENT to force oneself of another human–or animal for that matter.

    Rape is using the penis as a weapon and there is no excuse for it and no ’cause’ mitigates the offense.

  27. Robard Robard 23 September 2010


    Sure, if all men across all cultures did have the same levels of testosterone it wouldn’t be as simple. Fact is that there are differences. In the US differential incarceration rates reflect the fact that, for instance, East Asian men have the lowest levels of testosterone, with whites somewhat higher etc.

    While testosterone is directly related to levels of aggression, I did not suggest that it has a one on one relationship to actual violent behaviour. There are intervening factors like religio-cultural norms (cf the Christian ideal of chivalry that parlayed male aggression into excessive deference for the female) as well as the individual’s impulse control, the latter a function of intelligence. It is an established fact that the vast majority of those incarcerated for violent crimes test below average for IQ. However, it can easily be the case that an individual with very high levels of testosterone is nonetheless at low risk of falling into violent beviour because he is cognitively superior. Conversely someone with rather low levels of testoterone might pose a risk to society because of inferior mental functioning. Unfortunately, in the aggregate, it so happens that testosterone and IQ levels seem to be inversely correlated.

  28. Richard Richard 24 September 2010

    Anton: read Mike’s last paragraph again, mate.

    Mike: why is it so important that people don’t see rapists as aberrations?

    Suppose we have one person who thinks ‘no’ means ‘yes’, and that women who dress provocatively are ‘asking for it’, etc. And suppose we have another person who feels that anybody who thinks like that is a disgusting monster. I’d say these two people ALREADY HAVE different understandings of masculinity. Getting everyone to see rape as a monstrous act actually is one way of encouraging ‘other forms of masculinity’, which is what you’re advocating we do. It looks to me like a pretty effective way too. People seem to know all too well how to spread homophobia, xenophobia and misogyny through society. I have no problem with adopting a similar tactic to spread a kind of ‘rapisto-phobia’. On the other hand, changing South Africa’s understanding of masculinity by getting the population to engage in complicated debates about abstract notions like masculinity looks like it would take a very, very long time.

  29. La Quebecoise La Quebecoise 24 September 2010

    Although highly annecdotal, it is instructive to read some of the posts to M&G articles. I refer specifically to the ones dealing with Zimbabwe. There are a couple of posters known to all, who are so intense and vitriolic that I wonder why the posts are not removed.

    The comments very, very often contain remarks of strongly sexual nature when disagreeing. People are called “hoors” (sic), reference is made to “the good times we had”, men are called “men of balls and steel”, and this is a simple disagreement on on paper. Listen to the hatred in JuJu’s remarks. Generally the impression is not only must one disagree but one must crush the person with whom one is disagreeing.

    One can draw the conclusion from hateful remarks which are retained in dialogue, from sexual innuendo in disagreement, and from general lack of respect, that these are “values” which are considered alright in society..need we be surprised when hatred, dominance, crushing anyone who resists or opposes you, then turns into rape.

    Please read any of the articles dealing with Zimbabwe for examples.

  30. anton kleinschmidt anton kleinschmidt 24 September 2010

    @ Richard…I have again read the final (penultimate presumably) paragraph and it does nothing to deflect my conclusions. At best it is a lame attempt to add gloss to drek. I seldom allow myself to use strong language in my posts but this blog has really annoyed me.

    Siobhan hits the nail on the head with…..”Rape is using the penis as a weapon and there is no excuse for it and no ’cause’ mitigates the offense.” I would like to see Mike defend his viewpoint in a room full of rape survivors.

  31. Siobhan Siobhan 24 September 2010

    @ La Quebecoise: Excellent comments. Well said.

    @ Richard Good examples and useful distinctions re: redefining masculinity.

  32. Shambhala Shambhala 25 September 2010

    Uh or is it duh….Are you actually saying then that all men are monsters?

  33. Adam Adam 25 September 2010

    I am a clinical psychologist working with sex offenders in a country other than South Africa. I do agree with some of what the author is saying regarding masculinity but think it is an over simplistic understanding of both masculinity and people who rape. There are many more complex reasons, motivators and aspects related to and influencing why some people rape.

    The main objection I have is the very serious generalisation that all “rapists” are men. That is not accurate. It is simply true that society wishes not to think of women as sex offender but a search of even popular press articles will reveal at least some evidence of female sex offenders. This generalisation is sexist.

    Further, the author states that perpetrators are necessarily male and victims female. This is not the case as there is much evidence about men who have been the victims of rape where both men and women were the perpetrators.

    As much as I think its important for any society to consider what makes for criminals, including people who rape, and as much as I think an investigation into constructs of masculinity is necessary for any society, I don’t think an over-simplistic generalised possibly sexists understanding of such a complex matter is useful.

  34. Mark Kerruish Mark Kerruish 25 September 2010

    Thanks for this blog. I’ve been thinking about this issue for some time in the broader context of crime and the violence that is so abnormally high here in SA. I agree with Siobhan – there is a psychopathic sense of entitlement here.

    I think there is a very common misunderstanding of the nature of freedom. In SA, freedom is often seen as an absolute. No limitations to individual freedom are accepted – to limit freedom is ‘reactionary’. Reactionaries are tied to the bad old days and so any legal sanction may be dismissed as a product of apartheid.

    All criminals, rapists included, see the very necessary social/legal sanctions against any chosen harmful action as morally invalid. They probably do this without thought but ultimately it’s what they feel. They have not learned that freedom in human society cannot and should not be absolute.

    This extends from activities such as ignoring a pedestrian crossing to murder and rape to corruption.

  35. Siobhan Siobhan 26 September 2010

    @ anton kleinschmidt Thank you. I find your comments thought-provoking and on target.

    @Mark Kerruish Thank you for comment. I agree that there are a lot of misconceptions in SA about what Freedom means and how it is exercised in a democratic society. Every freedom in a democracy derives in one way or another from the right to freedom of speech.

    Freedom of speech is about the power relations between individuals, groups, and the state. It is the pivot on which a balanced society rests. The right to say NO is the right not to be co-erced.

    Persuasion, compromise, and consensus are democratic methods; co-ercion is authoritarian and, in the case of rape, illegal. The fact that rape is a crime in (most) human societies means there is a basic recognition that physical co-ercion is a violation of another person’s most essential right :to say No.

  36. Bill Rogers Bill Rogers 27 September 2010

    Men who are rapists are monsters.

  37. X Cepting X Cepting 27 September 2010

    Psychopathic people (male or female) are ill. To describe a rapist as somenone who rapes out of a psychopathic belief in entitlement is to say they are mentally ill and need help. I read Mike’s post to say that rapists are criminals that should be punished but that the rest of us should re-evalue our roles in society that might not be conducive to mental well-being. I find the whole holier-than-thou attitude of those who call rapists monsters and animals (insulting animals) very unhelpful in actually doing something about a really bad situation that is getting worse daily. It does not help those who might be raped in the future to not realise that no man is an island and that our criminals are the products of our society, people even if they are bad people who crossed a line somewhere are a part of our society. I just wish to reiterate that far from asking for lenience, I merely propose we all give our society a cold hard look and gauge its mental health by the amount of criminals it contains.

  38. Dianne Dianne 3 April 2016

    Some great points here.

Leave a Reply