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Oct 29 2011

Is there a rape proclivity bubble on a multi-axis quadrant? (A repost.)

In 2009, during the Silence is the Enemy campaign raising awareness about rape and the rape culture that leads to drastic underreporting by victims of all genders, Greg Laden made a particularly bold claim in a post wherein he postulated a “rape switch” where people exposed for long durations to rape cultures like that of wartorn Congo might have a switch flipped making them suddenly capable of rape. I thought it was a little more complicated than that, something more like probability bubbles on a multidimensional matrix, making one more or less likely capable of rape. I wrote out my modification of his hypothesis in my post Is There a Rape Proclivity Bubble on a Multi-axis Quadrant? I had intended the post to be floated for the purposes of collecting dissenting opinions and refining the argument thereafter, but save for our good friend DuWayne Brayton, I didn’t have any serious takers.

Well, save for one. A guy by the name of Rystefn, a self-proclaimed “performance artist” (read: long-con troll) who’d once faked his own death on Skepchick’s comment areas. His objections could be summarized as being the same tired MRA arguments you’ve heard a dozen times now regarding how evil and horrible and delusional it is for a person to attempt to protect themselves by considering every stranger a sort of “Schrodinger’s Rapist” — though more specifically, how terribly misandrist it was when women braced themselves thus against strange men. The fight raged on and on in multiple places: at Almost Diamonds and Greg’s blog primarily, but near the end of that particular blog debacle, on my own blog. He privately attempted to claim another instance of performance art, that he was simply trolling for the purposes of raising awareness and building up hits on our various blogs, thus increasing the amount of money we could contribute to the Silence campaign. My blog and Almost Diamonds did not make any ad revenue at the time, however. The fact that we had no ads leads me to believe his trolling was a form of metatrolling, where his “admission” to me in private was merely an attempt to bait me into some sort of trap, which backfired spectacularly when I outed him publicly for his mendacity almost immediately.

Anyway, after making some changes to reflect some ways I’d had my mind changed on a number of border subjects, I reposted the argument here to see if anyone would seriously like to poke holes in the post, but nobody made any such attempt. In honor of Stephanie’s recent work on the topic of rape, and Greg’s laudable attempt to resurrect the Silence campaign, I’m reposting this again here at FtB, where it’ll hopefully get a larger audience and better discussion. Some of my understanding of psychology has since improved, and my thoughts on the subject of rape and privilege have been significantly fleshed out in the interim. So, take your best shot, please and thanks!


Greg Laden, as you may already know, recently postulated a hypothesis regarding the possibility of a “rape switch” — a set of circumstances in which soldiers are significantly more likely to rape members of the local population — that rang true with him. The idea originally came from one of his students’ term paper written in 1993. Discussion of the topic has been heated, to say the least, and I’ve been throwing more than my fair share of wild punches in the fray. This is just an attempt to put together a number of them into something more cohesive (and coherent) now that a lot of the rage has subsided. I will attempt to avoid or ameliorate those sticking points that drew so much of everyone’s off-topic ire, and I’ll even try to make up for a number of misconceptions I myself had in coming into the argument to begin with.

Now, fair warning, I’m a computer geek, and I have a tendency to think in computer terms rather than organic squishy ones. Also, I am the furthest thing from a psychologist imaginable, so I am neither qualified nor trained to try to tie everything together. There’s a lot of preamble to get out of the way before I can get to my actual postulate, so here goes.

To start off, the major point of contention throughout the argument was Greg’s assertion that anyone for whom this potential “switch” is turned on is automatically a rapist, whether they’ve raped or not. Everyone who argued against this usage seem to be coming at it from the angle that the word itself already has a defined meaning – being, someone who has, or has attempted to rape. I’m still trying to fight off a linguistic prescriptivist image, but words mean what they mean because we all agree that’s what they mean, and if the majority of your audience disagrees with your use of a word, then it’s up to you to prove that the definition needs stretching, or use a different term. This may be ceding too much ground to people who want to derail the conversation off the useful ideas presented in the original hypothesis, but my goal here is to avoid such derailment. As such, I will only refer to such people for whom the act is capable, as “potential rapists”. I say this knowing full well that every single human being on the planet is a potential everything, so when referring to a person as being a “potential rapist” I mean that most or all of the barriers present normally in any member of a “normal” society have been removed and thus the abhorrent act in question is much more possible for this person. The word “potential”, because of that shared capacity for evil omnipresent in humankind, is useless without first qualifying the argument as such.

Another problem with the argument as originally presented is that there is necessarily only one switch, that it affects only the ability to rape someone, and that it only has two positions, off or on. This kind of binary thinking is something we humans are good at, but it abstracts the argument to the point of absurdity. The human mind is much more squishy than that — as with my belief that no one single gene is responsible for the genetic components of, say, autism, or homosexuality, I suspect that no one single aspect of your personality is responsible for your ability to commit a rape. There are a number of factors that change fluidly from situation to situation.

There are two side arguments worth mentioning here regarding semantics and whether Greg’s “heavy-handed” use of the word “rapist” is justified. They are tangents and are not to be discussed here, but the links are here and here.

This brings me to my argument proper. In order to counter a particular misconception I had regarding BDSM, Becca provided a verbal illustration that started tying it all together for me, which I will quote:

I need a visual model; let’s try a quadrant.
Put “consent” on the X axis and “violence” on the Y axis.

(upper right = both violence and consent, e.g. some BDSM; lower right = no violence but with consent, e.g. positive stuff; upper left = violence without consent, e.g. war rape; lower left = no violence or consent, e.g. necrophilia? roofies?)

Any given person can be represented by both a single dot (representing some average or their primary proclivity), and a “bubble of probability” around that space (which need not be regular in shape but could be thought of a little like an electron cloud- where the probability of occupying a given space fades to practically nothing at some point). It is probably possible to have multiple noncontiguous bubbles.

For an average person, war zones tend to increase the sample size of that bubble of probability toward more violent and less consent. They can also move the primary-proclivity dot (which may be related to why it’s difficult to “turn off the switch”).

(I get that being a Dom doesn’t necessarily mean you’re willing to forego consent, and I get that Doms consider themselves to be subservient in the relationships, DuWayne kindly took me aside and gave me lots of reasons to open my mind a bit on the topic, most of them involving the fact that I was being really closed-minded about it in the first place, so let’s drop that tangent for now.)

Out of context of whether it’s possible for a Dom to rape someone who isn’t consenting, let’s apply that quadrant to the issue at large.

There is definitely some intangible difference between those that are capable of raping someone in a given situation and those that are not. What that intangible difference is, what Greg refers to as a switch, is whether this particular situation falls inside one of those proclivity bubbles or not. With regard to the original postulate, I’d contend that there are more axes than just this — some of which factor into whether or not you’d be willing to ignore a lack of consent. And not only that, but each person could have a different set of axes that factor into this diagram.

Let’s say in the average person they include: a) social acclimation, b) your perception of the victim’s humanity, c) general inhibition, d) stress factors (e.g. the more stressed you are, the more likely you’d act otherwise out of character).

So you take a group of people. Train them to be killing machines, and strip them of their inhibitions against killing. Teach them to impose their will on others with force, deadly force if necessary. Then let them congregate with and rely upon only one another, with very little contact with their pre-war home life. Let them get shot at, lose a number of friends senselessly. Repeat until they’re just about totally crazy. If a culture emerges where rape doesn’t seem as repugnant as all the death that’s around you, then social acclimation is diminished — the morals imposed on you by “civilization” are reduced or depleted. Also, if you’ve been taught that the population you’re at war with, is sub-human, then your perception of your victim’s humanity is decreased, stretching the proclivity bubble further on that axis. Throw in a desire for revenge for your fallen bretheren and you might as well just double the size of the bubble on every axis.

Likewise, as we know rapists can spring up naturally in the populace without a war going on, whatever conditions that need to be met in the particular person might be met by other means (e.g. psychological or chemical problems in the person’s brain, sexist upbringing, being taught some group of humans or even just women are not human, etc). So it’s not like only soldiers are rapists — just that all the events in wartime are likely to drag your proclivity bubble larger and larger on a number of fronts until the likelihood of a situation coming up landing even at random on all those behavioural axes where one member of that large group of soldiers has the opportunity to rape, and where a rape actually occurs, approaches 1.

So after all these conditions are met, and the particular situation and confluence of all the proclivity bubbles on all the axes lands this particular situation on this multi-dimensional array within one of these bubbles, then this person is a potential rapist. Now, because the human mind is not a binary state, giving a man a shotgun does not make him a murderer until he points and shoots. Just because a potential victim is well off assuming the man with the shotgun could very well shoot him or her, does not mean that person is de facto a murderer ahead of time — but the victim is well advised to get the hell out of Dodge as though he was aiming right for his brainpan.

So, it could very well be a matter of young kids, hormones raging, getting their aggression sliders cranked up to 11 by basic training (if not by the training then at least by the aggressiveness of the other recruits), finding themselves expected to be “adults” and able to restrain this newfound “power” when this is the first time they’ve been out on their own, like, ever. Put them overseas, where the social inhibitions, and inhibition in general, are negated or culled, and they’ll do some really sick things, like throwing puppies off cliffs, shooting up intersections, dehumanizing and torturing and killing otherwise innocent people they’ve been trained to see as non-humans, raping 12-year-old girls then killing the families and burning the houses down. In the case of these soldiers, it’s honestly like they get that “no killing” part of their moral centres turned off in order to make them capable of killing, and that has a cascade effect through the rest of their psyche, only it’s a whole bunch of different factors all adding up and, in aggregate, turns your sweet teenage boy into a slavering rapist.

So is Greg right that there’s a “rape switch”? In my opinion, yes and no. Yes, there is a confluence of behaviours and conditions that have to be just right to do something that you would otherwise think repugnant. No because it’s not a binary switch that you could, say, hard-wire off, or justifiably kill everyone with it set to on. It’s, as Becca rightly pointed out, more like a fluid, organic set of proclivity bubbles on a number of axes that might correspond with each of the “factors” that one can identify as contributing to a rapist mindset.

Seems like a bit of a cop-out ultimately, doesn’t it?

2 comments

1 ping

  1. 1
    aspidoscelis

    Well, since no one else is posting…

    Is there a rape proclivity bubble on a multi-axis quadrant?

    So far as I can tell, this can be rephrased as: “Are there aspects of personality and environment that influence whether or not someone becomes a rapist?” And the answer is “Yes.” It’s not simply a random event.

    I assume Laden’s “rape switch” was intentionally simplistic and provocative. I get the impression that he trolls his own blog on occasion. When you remove the absurd aspects of that particular model (which seems to be a subset of the broader description you’re giving) you’re left saying, basically, that it’s rather complicated…

  2. 2
    Pteryxx

    *shrug* I don’t have much to add, because the premise seems trivially obvious to me. Similar situational pressures affect the incidence of problems as diverse as torture, bullying, and stealing from one’s workplace.

    I’d only add that your analysis doesn’t mention the influence of peer pressure. It seems to me that most rape with situational influence (such as wartime rape, military rape, and school and college gang-rapes) has a strong performance component. The rapists have their peers witness and cheer them on; some of the bystanders participate and become rapists themselves, but almost all go along with the rapes rather than dissent and risk being ostracized or victimized in turn. This seems less of a consideration for predatory rapists, except as they use rape culture narratives for cover.

  1. 3
    “Too ugly to be raped”? Whatever! Let’s talk about MY feels! | Lousy Canuck

    [...] did what I usually do, taking Greg Laden’s educational oversimplification of the question and put a shit-ton of nuance back into the example (by making the analogy well over-complicated just to try to beat down some of the common troll [...]

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