Rape is not a random act of desire gone wrong. It's violent power.
BY JOANNA C. VALENTE
We know why men rape. Men rape for power. Men rape because they are born and grow up feeling entitled to other people’s bodies. For the most part, men aren’t questioned. Men rape women and other men and non-binary people and queer people all the time. Men rape because they think they can, and because they can, and because they get away with it.
Men rape. There are endless reasons why, but it is mostly for power—hardly ever about real desire. Desire and power are like twins; you can have one without the other—and desire, like power, has different faces. Not all desire is good. Not all power is good.
I don’t have to tell you this. Survivors, the people in your life who have been harassed and assaulted and abused, shouldn’t have to tell you this. But over and over and over again, survivors are forced to, because they want to be believed. They want to be seen. Isn’t that what everyone wants?
It doesn’t matter what someone wears. Rape survivors are not responsible for being raped. It doesn’t matter what you do or don’t do, what you look like, how you find meaning in your life, what music you listen to, what perfume you wear, what you eat for breakfast, how old you are. It isn’t a choice. Rapists choose to rape. Some survivors are able to get away, some aren’t. Either way, the decision to rape was made.
What’s just as bad as the rapist who makes the choice to rape: the people who let it happen, the people who turn a blind eye, the people who victim blame and shame, the people who try to rationalize and justify why it happened (because this in itself puts blame on the victim, as if the rapist isn’t fully responsible).
We know why it happens. We could, and do, talk about why rape happens until we’re blue in the face—but that conversation perpetually misses the point. The point is that we need to talk about how to stop rape, how survivors can get justice. How to rehabilitate both rapists and survivors.
Because guess what? If we don’t, the cycle is forever.
As a femme, I spend a lot of time making myself disappear when I'm outside. All of that energy is wasted, because I shouldn't have to do that. No one should have to make themselves disappear. When I'm by myself, I usually pretend not to hear or see men who catcall me, looking pointedly straight ahead as I walk to and from the subway, to various places I'm going alone. Because I don't need a chaperone.
Like many, the catcalling began before I was even aware of my own sexuality, before I even got my period (and I got mine young, at age 11). I was a child in some cases. When you’re that young, your sexuality is often so far from your reality, your mind, that you don’t even register what happens to you until long after, until years after. It doesn’t matter what your body looks like, men want to exert power—and it starts young on all sides.
What you look like has nothing to do with rape (or to imply that people dress for the attention of men, instead of, say, themselves)—if that was the case, why would adult men catcall a child? That is the prime example of men's desire for power and dominance, something they are structured to want as children themselves. In a study released by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers state:
"When children are seen by their parents as being more special and more entitled than other children, they may internalize the view that they are superior individuals, a view that is at the core of narcissism. But when children are treated by their parents with affection and appreciation, they may internalize the view that they are valuable individuals, a view that is at the core of self-esteem."
Except, you know, none of that matters. Even if someone is wearing "provocative" clothing, it doesn’t matter. The point is, of course, to highlight the fact that it doesn’t matter. You can be 11 or 45 or 18 or 21 and the outcome is the same, regardless of clothes or body or anything. The point is, you can be flirtatious, it doesn't mean you owe anyone sex. Blaming the victim misses the point.
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Male friends have noticed this. They notice the intense, emotional and physical labor I do just to make myself safe, just to feel unseen. The fact is, however, I shouldn’t have to make myself feel unseen to feel safe—to purposefully find ways to disappear. The fact is, other men notice when other men behave badly. Everyone notices. The silence still persists. This isn’t OK. If you see something, say something. Isn’t that what the speaker on the subways say? When something happens to a woman or a queer person or a person of color, the world is silent.
Usually, rape, harassment, and coercion happen at the hands of someone who says they love us, who says we can trust them. Many of my abusers were boyfriends or men I dated. It is not often random. Random violence is hardly truly random, even when it is a stranger. It is always a choice, not something that happens spontaneously in nature, like a rainstorm. An ex-boyfriend almost raped me. Made me feel like my body wasn’t mine, but his to do with what he wanted. Yes, I "got away" that time, but the decision to rape was already made.
This was not a random act of violence. This was not because of something I did or said or wore. We were together for almost two years; this was someone I loved, trusted, who was a part of my family. This was not random. This was something ugly. Overpowering someone is about power. Rape is about power. Rape is about entitlement. Rape is about disconnect, a kind of sociopathy that ignores and discards the emotions and wellbeing of another. This was about all of those things.
Rape is not a random act of desire gone wrong. It's violent power in a web of patriarchy.
The next morning, my ex apologized for trying to coerce me. A few months later, I finally broke up with him. It took courage. It took courage and bravery to break up with a man who I trusted, who I dated for almost two years before he tried to make me have sex with him, because I "owed" him.
There was another man who wanted to have sex and I said I didn’t want to but he put a condom on anyway, saying, "it wouldn’t go in that far." I froze, didn’t know what to do. He did it anyway. He eventually came. I soon left the apartment and never saw him again. There was another man, my former professor, who harassed me for years, during and after me being his student.
These examples don't include other assaults and harassments. They don't include the rapes I've routinely written about, the one where I became pregnant, the one where I was hit, the one where I was asleep, the times I was grabbed over and over and over again. We shouldn't have to be violated or touched to prove abuse either. We shouldn't have to suffer until we are shells of ourselves, just to be believed.
These are only a fraction of the times.
I’m not the only one, either.
Some rapists are much nicer people than Weinstein or Trump. Some rapists are your friends and brothers and coworkers and idols. That doesn’t mean they aren’t rapists. That doesn’t mean "nice people" can’t be abusers. This is why, for instance, so many people didn’t want to believe Johnny Depp is an abuser, because he didn’t abuse every single woman in his life (or wasn’t believed to). Some rapists, like mine, are boyfriends, people you dated, people you are friends with.
If you are raised to believe you deserve everything you get, like many men are constructed to believe, and don’t have to work as hard to get it (ie: because you aren’t coerced into having sex or be an object all the time, or aren’t fired because you’re trans or a POC), it’s not so hard to see why this happens.
It’s common knowledge that abusers were often abused themselves. This makes sense—you are abused, so you find ways to find control elsewhere in your life—perpetuating bad behavior and emulating what you know. For instance, one study found that "one in 10 male victims of child sex abuse in the U.K. went on to abuse children as adults."
No one wants to admit to being complicit in perpetuating this imbalanced power dynamic, one where femmes and women and queer people are expendable, where their emotions don't exist. Men are allowed to be sociopaths. For instance, I’ll never forget the man I saw at a literary event try to take pictures of his drunk intern, try to take her home. Where’s the consent in that? This is a man who "should know better." This is a man many people are friends with and see as a lit citizen. This is a man much like Weinstein and so many other abusers. This is a man who many view as being creepy and opportunistic, but no one says anything, like Weinstein and countless other high profile men.
For the survivors, denial is easy, especially when it's in everyone else's favor. Because why create a scandal if you don't have to? Especially when no one will believe you anyway. It works like this: You convince yourself it was a mistake, that he didn’t mean it, it was the heat of the moment—or worse, that it was your fault because you froze, didn’t say no enough (something my abuser told me), or seemed to consent (and yet, silence is never consent).
Your silence isn’t consent. Remember that.
We cannot create a better world, we cannot believe in the dream of equality (or any dream) without these stories and these people who come forward. I wish we didn’t have to be brave, but we do. I wish survivors didn't feel like they have to write "me too" as a social media status to make men believe them, to make men finally see their own actions, take accountability, as if the onus is still on us to prove something.
For some, like myself, coming out is a form of taking power back. For others, coming out isn't powerful or helpful or possible. That's OK. Taking power back is not easy, and not something that can be done in one leap. It's not something that looks the same for everyone.
There is no one right way, which is important for survivors and non-survivors alike to remember. We have been shamed enough by others who choose to turn a blind eye, who choose to remain uneducated about sexual trauma, who choose to blame us for being raped in the first place. Healing is a process and a process we need to allow ourselves to go through in our own way.
As with every movement, it's complicated. There is no perfect solution. If I could have one wish, one dream come true, it would be this: I want us to stop being murdered, to stop bleeding, to stop being violated, to truly own our bodies, to take our power back. I want men's hands to stop their own violence before it starts.
Joanna C. Valente is a human who lives in Brooklyn, New York. They are the author of Sirs & Madams (Aldrich Press, 2014), The Gods Are Dead (Deadly Chaps Press, 2015), Marys of the Sea (Operating System, 2017), Sexting the Dead (Unknown Press, 2018), Xenos (Agape Editions, 2016), and is the editor of A Shadow Map: Writing by Survivors of Sexual Assault (CCM, 2017). They received their MFA in writing at Sarah Lawrence College. Joanna is the founder of Yes, Poetry and the managing editor for Civil Coping Mechanisms and Luna Luna Magazine. Some of their writing has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Brooklyn Magazine, Prelude, BUST, Spork Press, and elsewhere. Joanna also leads workshops at Brooklyn Poets. Website: joannavalente.com / Twitter: @joannasaid / IG: joannacvalente