Friday, January 29, 2010

What I mean when I say "every man is a potential rapist" and why you being offended is actually offensive.

This is the second time a blog about rape has turned into an argument of semantics and I wanted to post my position on the situation here since I feel like I keep saying the same things over and over. While I highly recommend starting here to get an understanding of what I’m talking about, it’s not necessary in order to follow along. I also want to point out that I am not the spokesperson for women and not all women will agree with me. I also am focusing on the rape of women in this post, but that does not mean I do not recognize that men are raped as well. It just makes sense for me to focus on the rape of women since I’m a woman who has been raped and 9 out of ten rape victims are women.

It's easy to understand why some men might be annoyed or uncomfortable when they hear the phrase “all men are potential rapists.” Even I find the phrase too exclusive and do not prefer using it. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever used it personally (though I have obviously defended its use), but that doesn’t mean I think there’s anything inherently wrong with the statement. I guess I would rather bring more men into the fold then exclude them and this phrase, not matter how correct it may be, definitely doesn’t say welcome.

That being said, I want to explain why “all men are potential rapists” is sometimes used and what it means. I also want to explain why its pretty freggin offensive to have to cater around a person’s delicate sensibilities when we are trying to talk about the horrific experiences one out of six women experience.

The most common objections I’ve heard about the phrase “all men are potential rapists” is:

a) Its offensive to men
b) Its not true since I know I’m not capable of ever raping someone
c) It makes no more sense then saying “all people are potential murderers”

First off, I want to clarify that the statement "every man is a potential rapist" or “all men are potential rapists” is not the same thing as "every man is a rapist." It doesn’t mean that every man would rape if given the chance nor that every man wants to rape. What the phrase means is that since rapists don’t wear easy to identify signs to show they’re rapists, it is in a woman’s best interest to be cautious. Maybe if rapists always acted like evil fucks women wouldn’t need to think along these lines, but as long as a woman is more likely to be raped by the people she knows (lovers, brothers, fathers, neighbors, pastors, teachers, etc) the need to be cautious of the people the very people one would never really expect to rape a person remains. It means that even those people a woman has accepted into her circle of trust can be the very person who rapes her. That is the tragedy here.

Still don’t like it? Well neither do rape victims. Try for just a moment to think about how hard it is for a woman to come to grips with the fact that 73% of women know their rapists. No one wants to have to think this way and I get no comfort from saying something like "every man is a potential rapist." But what is the flip side? Let’s say that out of the realization that not all men are really potential rapist’s women stop being cautious of men who don’t fit the accepted idea of what a rapists acts like or looks like. What would happen then? Do you think women would be safer for not being “paranoid?” Do you think more women would avoid being raped?

I don’t. And if you truly do think women would be safer then why do women buy pepper spray? Because that man walking down the street may be a rapist. Why are women taught to never let someone else make their drink? Because a rapist might be trying to drug them. Why are women taught to walk with their keys out on the way to the car if it’s late? Because a rapist could be waiting to ambush them. Why are women repeatedly told to use the buddy system? Because that hot guy at the bar might be a rapist. Why would women be expected to take these precautions (and if they don’t then they deserved to be raped right?) if it was not assumed that any man might rape us at any place?

In regards to the issue of whether or not every man is capable of rape, obviously women don’t actually think that every single man is a raving rapist just waiting for the right opportunity. I believe there are many men that would rather suffer a painful death then commit such a horrific act. The problem is I'm not a mind reader so I can't know that with any sort of certainty though. When a man says, “I know I would never rape a person,” I have no idea if that’s true. It’s not like rapists go around shouting “hell yes I want to rape someone.” How am I supposed to know if the person making the claim has truly thought about the different ways a person can consent or whether it’s just a thoughtless “I’ll never rape” being thrown out there? The answer is I can’t. So a person can claim they would never rape a person till they’re blue in the face, but it’s still incredibly selfish of them to assume that women should be less cautious around them because of it.

I also don’t believe that if the person claiming they would never rape doesn’t accept that, like all people, they have the potential (because they possibility exists) to be a rapist then they haven’t really thought about it sufficiently.

Finally, on to the last part and why I get so angry when men talk about being offended by this sort of self-preservation tactic. For one, to be offended by this sort of thinking is to also be offended by the behaviors of self-defense women take, some of which I talked about above, since they stem from this very sort of thinking (that since you can’t know who the rapist is be cautious of every one). I hope I do not have to explain how terribly selfish this is.

All I can say to the person offended is this is not about you. It is incredibly insulting for you to tell me, a person belonging to a subordinate group you don’t share, how I am supposed to see the world. The threat will not go way if I change semantics to make you feel more comfortable. Don’t like it? Blame rape culture. Blame the people who blame the victims. Blame the rapists.

But do not blame women who are just trying to avoid the danger of rape the best way they know how.

Understand that unfortunately most rapes are committed by men and therefore “rapist” is a subset of “men” for the most part. I will not pretend that being suspicious of the dominate group in our society, especially one that has committed an insane amount of atrocities throughout history, is some horrible burden for men to carry. While I’m sorry it makes you uncomfortable, you need to realize that your feelings are not the most important aspect in this situation. And if all it takes for you to not feel offended is for me to stop using the phrase "every man is a potential rapist" or “all men are potential rapists,” then I would argue that you do not really care about women and rape at all. Instead your ego is at the forefront and I find that horribly heartbreaking.

Finally I think it’s worth pointing out that while women are looked at as man-hating banshees for thinking along these lines, women are also blamed if they don’t. Otherwise why would we ask about how short a woman’s dress was, how many drinks she had, whether or not she was flirting, or any other of the thousand other questions we ask to take blame away from the rapists.

Don’t want the phrase "every man is a potential rapist" to be used anymore? Then do something about changing rape culture. I promise you’ll see much more of a difference then you would if you focus on lecturing rape victims.

Some links:

Rape Statistics
Who are the Victims?
Rape Culture 101

From the male perspective:

No Cookies for Me
Hugo Schwyzer (via Britni)


  1. I agree that it is possible for every man to be a rapist, but to say a man is selfish for being offended by it is a little harsh. I mean, what if someone said "all women are sluts" just because they have boobs and a vagina? Its like blaming the entire sex for having a penus. I actually showed my guy friend this post and he was a little pissed (mostly cuz he's gay, but I digress). His exact words: "I'm pissed, and I ain't selfish fer it!"

    Just my two cents. Then again, I've never been really raped so I don't know if I have much say in the matter.

  2. I can understand what you are saying, but I think it’s selfish to tell a person who has a one in six chance of being raped by a man that they should put a man’s ego before their own safety. As I said before, “rapist” is a subset of “men” since most women are raped by men. Therefore even though women obviously don’t believe that every man has a willingness to rape them, there is no way for a woman to differentiate between the men that won’t and the men that do.

    I recognize that people can’t control their first inclinations to be angry or offended by something (though they can control their reaction obviously), but I think it’s selfish to insist that I change my tone or wording even though it will only decrease the likelihood of me protecting myself. I also find it selfish for men to tell women how they should feel about rape or how they should go about protecting their selves.

    Did that make sense? I’m not trying to be snarky but I don’t know how clearer I can say it. I would ask your friend what warrants more anger, women using the statement “every man is a potential rapist” in order to be aware that 73% of women are raped by people they know or the statement itself.

    1. I believe it is okay for a guy to feel angry, or offended by that remark, however I also think they should respect the intention and meaning of the phrase. People can not change the way they feel based on your opinions, they can only change the way they act.

      For instance, I am offended by that phrase, however I also see the reason and wisdom in it. So I will feel offended, but I will grudgingly accept that its better for a woman to be careful and look out for her own safety, than to appease my feelings on it. I can deal with being a little offended a great deal easier than someone can deal with being raped.

  3. And I don’t agree with the slut analogy at all. A better example is that all women are potential abortionists.

  4. AMEN to everything you wrote here, Alana. A-Fucking-Men.

  5. I do agree with everything your saying, but I'm just saying its a little harsh to get mad at someones REACTION to that kind of statement. I'm not suggesting you change your tone at all, just don't expect every man in the world to be ok with it (and that doesn't really make them selfish pigheads, just guys who dont like being called "potential rapists")

  6. I think you misunderstood what I meant. I’m not upset by the way someone reacts to the statement. I’m bothered by the presumption that being upset is a valid reason for changing the statement or ignoring the legitimacy of it. I don’t think being offended is selfish in and of itself. What I think is selfish is for men to tell women how to deal with the threat of being raped or to imply that their hurt ego is what is most important in these discussions. That’s what got me so upset. It seems like we can never have a real conversation about rape or sexism without having to backpedal in order to make men more comfortable. And it sucks.

    That being said, you’re right. Of course some men aren’t gonna like. Like I said in my opening paragraph it’s not a sentiment I myself express (but this was a time I couldn’t back down). No matter how much I try to explain it isn’t personal or that no one is saying all men are monsters some men will still be pissed. But at the end of the day I just don’t care. I’d rather focus my energy on rape culture and rape victims then make the dominate group comfortable.

    Thanks for expressing yourself though. Sorry my answers are so long but I want to make sure anyone who stumbles across this and feels the same way hears what I have to say (even if they still don’t agree).

  7. Bravo, Alana.

    Dannie, the thing is, a man being offended by it and making a big deal about it turns it back onto him. As Hugo Schwyzer put it, it becomes about the man's ego instead of the woman's safety. It's one more way for the man, technically the oppressor, since they are a member of the dominant group, to turn the tables and make it about them, which further serves to oppress women, and contributes to the rape culture which keeps them subordinate.

  8. My 2 cents - "Every man is a potential rapist" is simply an inadequately worded statement.

    If "Every man is a potential rapist" doesn't actually MEAN that 'EVERY man is a potential rapist' that it SHOULDN'T BLOODY SAY IT.

    There's a perfectly valid alternative: "To a woman, every man could potentially be a rapist."

    I have no problem with that and think it concurs 100% with the point that you and Brit are trying to make. Why can't you use this wording instead?

    If you INSIST on using the phrase 'Every man is a potential rapist' even though legions of men find it offensive and it's actual meaning is not clear, than you're the one getting worked up about semantics and not seeing the bigger picture.

    So many women have been raped or sexually abused that they instinctively view ANY man as a potential threat. THAT I don't have any problem with and DON'T find offensive. It's a FACT.

    Hopefully, if the feminist movement can stop clinging to dogma and use phrases that are actually clear about what they mean, maybe more men will start being open to listening, won't get defensive because they feel they're being accused of being a rapist and ADJUST THEIR BEHAVIOR and start calling out other men on their behavior so women DON'T HAVE TO FEEL LIKE THEY DO.

    You can try to win a wordplay argument or you can make a constructive conciliation to help end the problem, but you can't do both.

  9. I understand everything you're saying C&B. The problem is I don't think this should be about how men feel. That's the point we keep trying to make.

    "You can try to win a wordplay argument or you can make a constructive conciliation to help end the problem, but you can't do both." That's totally victim blaming. You're basically saying one of the reason rape is so prolific is because women refuse to make constructive conciliation in order to end the problem. I know that's not how you meant it but that's what it is.

  10. It's always how it makes men feel. Always. And we wimminz should never forget that. *eyeroll*

  11. you must read Susan Brownmiller's 'Against our Will'



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