I found myself thinking lately about a paper that was circulating ages ago, that stated that an astounding 1 in 5 men in a recent American study admitted to committing rape or sexual assault when it wasn’t framed in hostile or threatening language. I tried to look for that paper, because when I talked about it more recently, I was asked to cite my source. I suggested at the time that men in the conversation just stop momentarily and think about what it’s like for someone like me, who has seen the headline of that elusive paper floating around, the next time they are in a room with around 40 men — that it suggested a statistical average of 8 rapists would be in that room. That’s exactly 8 too many, and how do I know which ones they are? How does anyone know who they are? I guarantee you either way, they are always lying about it even when they do talk “honestly” about rape. And if we take typical statistics about the prevalence of rape itself (e.g., typical stats offer claims like “1 in 4 women will experience sexual assault or rape in their lifetime” — erasing an often much more complex set of risk factors such as attributable race/ethnicity within interdependent systems of racism), we owe a moment’s thought for all the women we know, and to think about the likely prevalence of rapists — it seems fair and reasonable to posit (simply for the sake of perspective on male privilege) that if 1 in 4 women are raped, then it’s up to 1 in 4 men who are raping. Now that’s an average of 10 rapists in that room with 40 men, where even a single rapist is one too many.
Well, surprise: After all that (which did cause some contentious debate and what came across as rebuttals on the basis of perceived insult to the whole of the male gender), I couldn’t find that paper when I went looking for it. Instead, the entire first page of results in my search was about a study from South Africa, conducted by researchers from the United States, that claimed an absolutely Earth-shattering 37% of men interviewed admitted to committing rape. It wasn’t enough just to read this, though. When I posted on my own Facebook that I couldn’t find the study I had quoted in which 20% of participants admitted to rape when words like “rape” and “sexual assault” were avoided in the questions (and that quite possibly, this is due to someone with bad maths having made a wildly inaccurate quote of a study that came out with completely different numbers), two different things happened. First, more than one person responded by saying something to the effect of “Yeah, I get fractions and percentages mixed up too”. OK, that makes me feel better about failing calculus. And second, more than one person responded by posting links to studies — one of which was conducted in South Africa, while another (which reported a markedly lower prevalence of rape) was conducted in the United States. Alright, cool. Time for me to read up. Yet somehow or other, the argument came out that because South Africa is a half a world away and the U.S. is right next door, the South African data just isn’t as relevant (the “cure HIV by raping a virgin” stereotype came out as a part of this claim, too). Well I’m not so quick to jump on the “Look at everything that’s wrong with the entire continent of Africa!” bandwagon (especially on issues that exclusively effect racialized women). Nor am I so quick to conclude that when something is happening a half a world away, it’s mysteriously irrelevant to my culture here.
Oppression A Half A World Away Is Still Oppression
I always find myself wondering what motivates anyone to instantly reject the possibility of sameness with a culture half-way across the globe, and I suspect I will never hear the answer from the people who most need to vocalize it so that they have the opportunity to hear and begin interrogating their own biases. Occasionally, blog hits from Europe and African countries, as well as South Asian and East Asian countries, various parts of Polynesia, and Australia and New Zealand, will come up among my daily site stats. I take this to mean that somehow, even though I’m a half a world away, something I’ve said resonates with someone out there. And why not? I write a lot about gender; sexuality; sexism; misogyny; sexual harassment and rape culture; anarchist street demonstrations against rape culture, sexual harassment, and misogyny; and even about race/ethnicity (from an anti-racist “white person” perspective). If I can take what’s in my heart to a 24-hour protest at the desecrated burial site of a local First Nations band, and it’s as relevant there as it is among my predominantly white friends, why would it be irrelevant to someone else, simply by virtue of their geographic location? Whether a woman is raped somewhere in the United States or in Zimbabwe, she is suffering the same kind of oppression. Any woman who has been in her shoes anywhere in the world will know her struggle by virtue of her own experience. I suggested that a study about how frequent rape is (and why it is happening) in South Africa is equally as relevant as a study that was conducted in the United States. That no matter where these studies come from, they can help us understand the often fluid, abstract, and adaptable rape culture that permeates across many forms of systemic oppression. And I stand by that sentiment.
Rapists Aren’t Limited To Any Particular Demographic
There is no magical formula for determining one’s risk of being raped based on analysis of a potential perpetrator’s race/ethnicity, relative affluence or poverty, body type, relative attractiveness, or relative skill in socializing either with individuals or in groups. No matter where in the world a study is conducted on the prevalence and risk factors of rape from the perspective of the perpetrator, we see this insight revealed over and over again. Just take the following statement from a South African study of 1,737 subjects (already linked once above) for example of how prevalence is not necessarily relative to location:
“This study of rape perpetration was conducted with a representative sample of men from the community, and it is notable for the large sample size. The prevalence of rape perpetration disclosed in the survey was very high, with more than one in four men disclosing having raped a woman and 15% of men had raped on more than one occasion. However, it was not very different from the finding of Abbey et al  in their small community-based study of American men and is well within the range of victimisation experiences reported by women across the globe. The prevalence was comparable with that reported by South African men aged 15–26 who were participating in the Stepping Stones Trial (21%)  and was lower than the prevalence found in a representative random sample of men living in Gauteng Province in South Africa (37.4%) . The past year rape perpetration prevalence in the latter study was 4.7%, which is the same as that reported here .”
This study determined that just slightly more than 1 in 4 of their subjects admitted to having raped a woman, with 15% of subjects admitting to rape having perpetrated multiple rapes against women and 10% having perpetrated against a man. Once again, it is only reasonable for someone in my position (assigned female at birth and socially read as female most of the time) to suspect that if 1 in 4 women experience a sexual assault or rape at some point in their lifetime, then it is up to 1 in 4 men who are perpetrating those attacks. That’s just perspective on male privilege — not “bad math”, as was asserted when it seemed I had offended the whole of the male gender by making this suggestion.
The study (which framed questions for its subjects without using the word rape) determined that compared to men who had perpetrated rape, men who had not raped frequently had more positive subjective reports about their relationships to their parents during childhood, had more positive experiences among their peers during childhood, held more positive attitudes towards women overall, were nearly three times less often themselves a victim of rape at some time earlier in their life, and yet, also had less education and were more often raised by mothers with less education. Men who had not raped frequently showed higher levels of empathy, more equitable beliefs about gender, were less frequently involved at any time in their life with a gang or criminal activity, and held a more stable (less hierarchical) sense of masculinity (i.e., not dependent on specific achievements or success, which seems to be at the root of masculinity as experienced by men who have raped, who identify themselves as victims of being systematically short-changed).
The study suggested a strong correlation between race and rape perpetration, but 85% of the subjects interviewed in this study were described as Black African (as compared to only 2% who were described as White). It would be absolutely absurd to form generalizations about race with this data. The point I’m driving at here is that this study revealed the factors that are most likely to shape the minds of young men into the minds of rapists — and none of those factors are things one can determine just by looking at a man or thinking about where one encountered him (i.e., is it a run-down pub or an upscale bar? It doesn’t matter one way or another). Rather, they are all things that one might hear in his words, if one is paying close enough attention to the content of what he is saying, or if one knows the right questions to ask him. He’s not going to wear a t-shirt or some other blatant indicator that declares his proclivity to rape, and he’s not going to tell you point-blank that he rapes. The results from this South African study are, in many ways, are no different than results from similar studies conducted anywhere else in the world. We can protect ourselves and each other from rape and sexual assault by learning about how to recognize and challenge the red flags, and by continuing to challenge structures of inequality within the dominant culture — starting with looking for sameness, even if it scares us to do so. It’s called horizontal solidarity.