“All men are potential rapists”

What’s your reaction to this statement? It came into my life a few days ago and has since sparked intense push back, discussion, and reflection.

Before we begin I’d like to reiterate: all men are potential rapists. Obviously, this is not saying and should not be interpreted to mean that 100% of men rape. Potential is a very important word here. Got that? I’m saying “all men have the potential to rape”, which seems like a less confrontational way of saying the same thing. Men (and anyone who viscerally disagrees with the first statement): is this second one qualitatively different than “all men are potential rapists”? If so, how?

It’s important to be clear about the definition of rape. The FBI defines rape as: “Penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.”

Often in this discussion I’m thinking not just about rape but sexual assault, a broader concept defined by the US Department of Justice as: “Sexual assault is any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient. Falling under the definition of sexual assault are sexual activities as forced sexual intercourse, forcible sodomy, child molestation, incest, fondling, and attempted rape.”

Is a legal definition adequate for all situations and circumstances, especially considering that so few incidents are actually reported in order to become legal cases? A feminist definition of rape is: “a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear.”

My hypothesis is that many feminists (of any gender) will hear the statement, “all men are potential rapists”, shrug and nod. Others, mostly (but not exclusively) men, react with shock and disgust, and immediately push back. “Are you calling ME a rapist?” “No we’re not!” “Well if men are, then women are potential rapists too!” Let’s break these reactions down.

“Are you calling ME a rapist?”

First of all, no. How, (or perhaps more pointedly: why?) did you make the rhetorical leap from “all men” to you as an individual? It’s fascinating to me to see so many men immediately take this statement very personally. That probable needs to be explored. Why do you assume that your experience is the typical one?

“No we’re not!”

Actually, men, yes you are. Men do most of the raping. “For female rape survivors, 98.1% of the time a man was the perpetrator; for male rape survivors, 93% of the time, a man was the perpetrator.”

You (men in general, again: not you personally) rape. It’s an uncomfortable truth to acknowledge. That’s worth repeating.

It’s uncomfortable.

It’s true.

So please acknowledge it.

Unfortunately for all you fathers of daughters (or just friends of women) out there, there are no magical rape-free zones in this world. Rape, and more broadly, gender-based violence, is pervasive in all countries, all cultures, everywhere. Rape is used as a weapon of war. Rape or the threat of rape is the reality for all women. To deny that is to deny our experiences and our right to speak our truth.

Closing our eyes and wishing rape away, pretending rape doesn’t happen in our countries, our towns, our families doesn’t help prevent rape and doesn’t help survivors.

The fact is, 1 in 3 women worldwide “have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or sexual violence by a non-partner at some point in their lives.”

Do you know 3 or more women? Then, sadly, you know someone who has experienced some unwanted and unwelcome physical abuse or sexual comments, advances, touches, or penetration.

In researching this piece, I’ve come to understand that men are also victims of rape, at a larger incidence than I would have thought. At least in the US, more and more sexual assault committed against men is being reported. But the US is a unique and special place where gay people can legally wed (hell, legally exist), and pornography is fairly legal and readily available. I point this out because as far as sexual relations are concerned, we’re a pretty liberal country.

However bad America has it as far as gender-based violence goes, Africa appears to have it worse. “Based on available data, reported prevalence of physical violence was highest in Africa, with almost half of countries reporting lifetime prevalence of over 40 per cent…64 per cent in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (2007).” The same report detailed that Africa also has the highest prevalence of sexual violence: “For sexual violence experienced in the 12 months prior to the survey, prevalence ranged from less than 1 per cent in Comoros (2012) to 16 per cent in Uganda (2011).”

Rape is real. Rather than denying reality (just because it’s not your individual personal reality, doesn’t mean it’s not someone else’s), it would be more helpful for you to use your energy to be proactively anti-rape, rather than reactively offended.

“Well if men are potential rapists, then women are potential rapists too.”

No they’re not. Women don’t rape nearly as much as men do.

Saying that women rape too in response to the statement “all men are potential rapists” is akin to countering #blacklivesmatter with #alllivesmatter. You’re ignoring the crux of the issue, minimizing the very real issues of racialized police brutality and gender-based violence, and effectively telling people of color and women that our viewpoints, voices, experiences, bodies, and lives DON’T matter.

The opposite of “all men are potential rapists” is not “all women are potential rapists too.” The opposite statement is that “all women are potential victims.” Does anybody disagree with this statement? I suspect not. But why? Why is the statement that puts the onus, responsibility and fault squarely onto men so unacceptable when this statement is so much easier to swallow?

Context: This idea, that all men are potential rapists, is used in Uganda to teach adolescent girls about the very real risks they and their friends will likely face as they grow up.

It’s not a new idea. “As public discourse on sexual violence continued, it became increasingly evident that rapists were not only strangers behind bushes, but also might be dates, acquaintances, neighbors, husbands, friends, and relatives. Feminists made the case that every man is a potential rapist and all women are potential victims.”

I acknowledge that to say that all men are potential rapists is not ideal. Hell, in a perfect world, there’d be NO RAPE AT ALL! Every sexual encounter would be 100% consensual. Imagine that!

Unfortunately, it’s only a dream. That’s not the world we live in. And it’s certainly not the reality for adolescent girls in Uganda. To teach them that all men are potential rapists is practical, if pessimistic, advice.

Because rape happens. By strangers, by teachers, by fathers, by grandfathers, by uncles, by cousins, by neighbors. My coworkers and I hear the stories all the time and they’re grisly.

I would argue that making this blanket statement that all men are potential rapists is an age appropriate tactic for adolescent girls. As girls grow, we hope they gain social survival skills, (and that is exactly what my organization aims to do: equip girls with the knowledge and skills they need to survive and thrive). These skills will enable girls to assess risk in different situations. As they get older, hopefully girls will hone these skills and become good at recognizing and avoiding dangerous places, situations, and people.

To be clear, I 100% believe that the onus is on men NOT TO RAPE, but when rape is reality, I want girls to be as prepared as possible to mitigate as much risk in their daily lives as they can.

Just as African Americans raise their children not to run in front of police because they’ll automatically be assumed to be in the wrong, mothers teach their daughters to be on our guard. Maybe we should be teaching boys not to rape. But first we’d have to actually talk about rape!

What can we do? Maybe you were already angry about violence against women and girls, or maybe you weren’t. I hope if nothing else this discussion irks you enough to make you want to do SOMETHING. Research, if nothing else. Also this:

1. Consent: get it. Make 100% certain you’ve got consent to do whatever you do with others. Need clarification on what consent looks like? Here’s a start.

2. Don’t shut down, open up. Throwing up your hands and saying “But I’m not a rapist!” Is like saying “But I’m not a racist!” It doesn’t solve the problem. First of all, if you’re not a rapist, THANK YOU!! Secondly, I liken it to this video about being an anti-racist. It’s not enough to not rape. We should all be advocates for consent and respect. So educate yourself, educate each other, and talk about it.

I am entrenched in feminism and girl activism and so I really struggle with seeing the other side. I live this, breathe this, and don’t even question this. I am curious to hear people’s different reactions to and thoughts on this topic, and I welcome your comments!

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