This post – which includes frank discussion of rape and sexual assault, fyi – has been swirling round in my head for a while. I almost wrote it a few weeks ago, when student George Lawlor feigned horror at being asked to go to consent classes and held up a sign saying ‘this is not what a rapist looks like.’ Then I almost wrote it again after watching the BBC3 programme ‘Is this rape?’ Now a number of porn performers have come forward about James Deen and – because I think it’s important to support people who speak out – I figured now’s as good a time as any. I believe them, obviously. Please read their stories:
I don’t want to put words into their mouths or make any assumptions about their experience, which is why I’ve put all these links at the beginning of the post so you can read, and offer your own support however you like.
From now on the rest of this post is not specifically about any individual – just our response to hearing someone’s personal story of rape or assault. Specifically, it’s about this phrase:
“But I thought he was a nice guy?!”
It comes back to the George Lawlor thing: ‘This is not what a rapist looks like.’ Let me tell you about some nice guys I have known.
Some nice guys
The BBC3 documentary called ‘Is this rape?’ showed a group of young people a few dramatised scenes of a student party, and asked them at various points as the story unfolded whether what the protagonist had done was rape (it was). They had some often pretty frank and sometimes deeply uncomfortable discussions about it. I was particularly struck by one girl’s insistence that (to paraphrase):
‘everyone’s had this, haven’t they? Like, you know how you’re at a party and there’s a guy who wants to get it on, and you keep saying ‘no’ but eventually you get bored of saying ‘no’ so you just let him get on with it.’
There were a fair few nods around the room, and if you’d said the same to me ten years ago I’d have nodded too. I may have told you about one particular bloke: let’s call him X. We all knew about X – bloody great guy, really fun at a party, always brought loads of booze and cracked the best jokes. I didn’t know him that well, but I saw him at almost every event. We were on drunk-hugging terms, and occasionally shared a bong or whatever was being passed around. However, alongside all the other stuff I knew about what a ‘great guy’ X was, I also knew that at the end of the evening, when people were grabbing sleeping bags and fighting for crash space on the floor, you needed to try never end up next to X. At a different party a while ago someone had fallen asleep next to him and woken to find her trousers round her knees. At another party someone else had woken to find his hands busy up her top.
This was (very notably now that I’m older and I understand this stuff) not really a ‘thing’ for us at the time. It just was. A fact. Immutable. That’s X – it’s what he does. Try not to fall asleep next to him.
Later in life – and I’m keeping this very vague because if I’m ever outed I don’t want these guys to sue me – I had a friend who I massively fancied. He was hot and funny and all the things that made me melt at the time. He flirted with me when we were pissed, and we’d shared a couple of drunken snogs at the end of a couple of fun evenings.
One night, after a super-late party, I went to sleep on the sofa. Almost everyone else had gone either home or upstairs, and it was just me, this friend, and his mate left in the lounge. They chatted shit for a while, passed a bottle of cheap flavoured vodka back and forth, and I drifted off to the comforting sound of their voices.
I woke up a while later with one of them grabbing my tits, and the other fumbling to remove my top.
“Wha…?” I mumbled. “What’re you doing?”
See, up until that very moment I’d thought he was a nice guy. Him and his friend. I thought they were great. Even as I woke up and found them groping me I thought ‘this is weird. Maybe I told them they could do this? Maybe in my sleep I gave some encouragement?’
I still wanted to believe that they were good. And I continued to convince myself they were, right up until my mate put his hand on my forehead and pushed me back down onto the sofa, saying:
“Ssssh. Go back to sleep.”
Not, in fact, a nice fucking guy then.
Here’s the thing about that phrase: most people seem nice, and most people think they are too. Very few people actually think they’re the baddies.
But thinking you’re nice isn’t a defence against doing appalling things. Thinking someone else is nice is no guarantee that they’ll never do something awful. In general, we all think that our choices are the right ones. That terrible things like rape are done by other people: the Big Bad Wolf. Hence I – and I suspect many other people – struggle with using words like ‘rape’ and ‘sexual assault’ where they apply to personal situations. When you say ‘I was sexually assaulted’ the words carry a huge amount of weight. They also often come with a nagging feeling that what happened wasn’t – couldn’t be – assault, because the person doing it to you did not, in George Lawler’s words, look like a rapist.
This is why people repeatedly hammer home the fact that most abusers are known to those they abuse. Why rape does not always happen in dark alleys with strangers. Why it’s possible to rape or assault someone who loves and cares for you. Or in some cases is an actual colleague who works with you in an environment where sexual consent should be sacrosanct. Those facts are important – for the people assaulted as well as those who rape and assault. Because it can make it so much harder to fully understand what’s happening when we’re desperately trying to persuade ourselves that this person is one of the good ones. That is why it is so fucking harmful when people like George Lawlor try and imply that there’s a certain ‘look’ to a rapist, or that people who are nice just don’t do this stuff. It makes it far harder for people to put a name to the awful things that are happening, and it also means that people who rape and assault can often kid themselves that they’re doing anything but.
Even while raping and assaulting, rapists may well still think they’re one of the good ones.
Whenever I write blog posts about rape or sexual assault, or even just posts about consent, I get people in the comments asking: how can I make sure I’m never accused of rape? They talk about rape accusations and consent ‘tick-boxes’ and ask me what they could possibly do to guarantee that they’re never accused of being a baddie.
What they’re asking for is a guarantee that they’re ‘one of the good ones’ that they can show to potential partners or hold up and wave in a conversation to prove beyond doubt to everyone that they’re on the right side. Well, sorry, but none of us has that guarantee: there is no such thing. We need to work to earn trust, prove we’re worthy of that trust, and never try to excuse a breach of that trust by saying: ‘hey! I thought I was one of the good ones!’
Here’s a link to the Rape Crisis website, which has a lot of information on rape and sexual assault as well as advice on where to seek help and support. There are also organisations that provide dedicated help to men and boys who have experienced rape and sexual assault.